Talking, Not Bashing

Monica Kelly (CC BY-SA 2.0)"While Wroclaw was preparing to shine as Europe’s Capital of Culture 2016, I read about the downfall of Poland’s democracy in German media." Photo: Monica Kelly (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Is the politics of the new polish government nationalist and chauvinistic? Is Poland turning away from Europe? For Charlotte v. Knobloch Policy Lab it's time to Europeanize the “Polish debate”. Let us overcome our feelings of foreignness...

A post by Charlotte v. Knobloch Policy Lab (German version)

In Germany, we often look towards the West. We are deeply familiar with the US elections - as compared to the politics in our Eastern neighbor. Even travelling to the East is not nearly as common as are trips to Mallorca or to Tuscany. Last year, I had the wish to explore Europe’s East. Its societies, mentalities and ways of life, the food. That is why I decided to move from Hamburg to Wroclaw (Breslau) and to study there for five months.

Before leaving I had many questions, some of them deeper, others more practical. What kind of society will I find? Am I welcome at all - being a German? Will I end up in the kind of post-communist tristesse that we know from TV? All grey in grey? How does Poland smell? What does the food taste like?

Immediately after arriving, I was able to go through a reality check. Before I go on: I met extremely open, kind and lovable people and quickly felt welcome in this beautiful city.

With time, I got to know Poland as a country full of contradictions.

There is this incredible hospitality. One will not save on hospitality ever, especially with regard to food. There is this readiness to help others and a strong connection between the generations. When older people board a bus, other people will immediately make space. Parents don’t even need to ask for others to help them lift the trolley onto the tram. Collectivism - that is what I felt this coexistence to be.

But one also feels that this society is somehow closed. “Poland to the Poles” is written on a banner held up during a demonstration in Wroclaw. People set fire to a straw man - it is supposed to depict a Jew. Fellow students from Turkey or Northern Africa tell me how they are often met with suspicion.

There is this pride in Polish independence, in unity, after all the suppression, after hundreds of years of foreign rule. But there are also the young Polish students for whom an open Europe is the most natural thing in the world.

There is this materialism with its status symbols, the perceived rush to catch up to the West, the wish to try one’s own luck. And still, modesty seems to be everywhere, less of an expectation of entitlement than we are used to in Germany. It is nothing but normal to work hard in order to finance one’s own studies, to scale back on one’s own desires. All in all, Germany seems more spoiled than Poland in this regard.

"The German media are hysterical"

Of course, I lived in Poland during unsteady times. Ever since the national conservative PiS-Party won the elections, Poland is back in the news. Just as I was enjoying the freedoms granted by a Europe without borders as an Erasmus student, Poland’s Prime Minister banned the EU flag from the hall in which she receives the press - as one of her first official acts in office. German online media took to chastise poland (“Polen-Bashing”), and I probably would not have paid much attention to, let alone critizised this kind of media coverage in Germany at all. But under the circumstances, I could not help it: I had to contrast the image of Poland portraied in German media with Polish reality. Is Poland’s democracy in danger? I began to talk to Poles about this.

I asked a professor whether Poland were in the midst of turning away from Europe. “How on earth do you get that idea?” he asked me provocatively. Banning an EU flag from a press hall did not make Poland “anti-European”. The new government was just a bit louder and decisive. The German media were hysterical. And why should Poland take in refugees just because Germany were breaking EU Law and inviting all of them to Europe? That same evening, I heard a totally different perspective. My Polish-teacher was stunned regarding the political developments: “It’s a tragedy.”

It is always easy to break a verdict over others

My impressions would remain this contradictory throughout my stay. I saw protest marches and riots in Warsaw on TV, and met farmers in the countryside who were perfectly happy with the direction the government was taking. While Wroclaw was preparing to shine as Europe’s Capital of Culture 2016, I read about the downfall of Poland’s democracy in German media.

Whilst so many commentators are certain in their assessments, my inability to truly understand the current developments in Poland persists to this day. Is the politics of the PiS-party really anti-European and chauvinistic? Or, on the other hand, rather harmless? Did the Poles vote them into office out of conviction or due to a lack of political alternatives? I cannot answer these questions without reservations - even when I am often asked these things since I am back. I certainly do not want to pass judgement on the Polish people. It is always easy to break a verdict over others when they are not there. But in direct exchange with the people, our pictures and perceptions turn from black and white to grey. This is how I feel, at least, whenever I think of the Poles whom I met during my time there.

This is the experience and feeling I took back to Hamburg, Germany. Poland continues to be on my mind. I keep reading the news, think about Wroclaw (which I have come to love) and continue to feel how unsatisfactory it is to simply keep reading about each other, about the “strange” other land. Could we not talk to one another regradless of where we live? From citizen to citizen? The ties across borders already exist. It is astounding how many people in Germany know Poles, for instance, personally or through a friend. All you need to do is ask.

Moreover, we theoretically have the digital means to enter into a real conversation cross borders, as Poles, Germans, Europeans. That is what I want to call for. Let us overcome our feelings of foreignness; feelings I had myself before going to live there. Warsaw is closer to Berlin than Brussels. We can discuss the current developments in Europe - and Polands change of course is part of this - with each other and try to understand each other better.

Let's talk and get connected

In an attempt to do so, I initiate the debate “Poland on my mind” here on Publixphere.net. As a group of Publixphere-coordinators, friends and acquaintances, we want to enable a European exchange around developments in Poland, with discussion texts here on Publixphere.net and a meeting in Berlin (more information to follow). You are welcome to participate. Just register to comment this and the upcoming articels or send us your ideas, questions and impressions via mail: community[at]publixphere.net.

We will keep you up to date here on Publixphere.net, on Facebook & Twitter. Hashtag: #pxpoland.

What do you think?

If you want to contribute your own article on the issue, please send it to us (community@publixphere.net) or comment below....



  • Dear Charlotte, thank you for this personal account of your experiences in Poland. I'm looking forward to the debate here on Publixphere.