Polish world views
Poland shed a sigh of relief when Spain beat Russia in the Euro 2008 semifinals. A final of Germany against Russia would leave the Poles unable to decide which side to support, because neither country is particularly popular in Poland. Curious to find out how Poles think other countries, I am asking them today what they think of their many neighbours: Russians, Lithuanians, Belorussians, Ukranians, Slovaks, Czechs and Germans.
History explains why Poles tend not to be big fans of Germans and Russians. For a start, those nations were always bigger and more powerful than Poland, which became clear once again in 1939. The Ribbentrop ? Molotov Non-Aggression Pact that was signed by Hitler and Stalin split Poland in two and divided it among themselves. The pact aimed to guarantee peace between the two powers, but couldn`t prevent the start of World War II very soon after.
`At the end of WWII, all of Poland was moved 300 kilometres to the West`
After World War II, the entire territory of Poland was shifted 300 kilometres to the West. Big Western-Polish cities like Szczecin (German: Stettin), Wroclaw (Breslau) and Poznan (Posen) were allocated to Poland. The Eastern strip of the former territory was seized to the Soviet Union. Former Poland extends in the current-day republics of Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine.
`Almost every single Polish family has at least one member from these areas`, says Piotr (25, photo). `At the time, my grandfather was in charge of relocating people from the former Polish territories in the East to the new Polish territories in the West. Most of the Germans had fled away and the remaining ones quite quickly understood that they were no longer welcome either. My grandfather was in charge of convincing East Poles to move to the new territories. He transported them in small vans ? a process which was quite hard to organise after the mass deportations to Auschwitz. Still, most of the relocation process was completed within five years after the end of the war.`
`The time Poland spent under German occupation obviously didn`t improve the image of Germany`, Piotr says. `Even today, many people think of German as a language that is only suitable for instructing others what to do. I personally don`t have much of an opinion about Germans, because I don`t have a lot of exposure to them. I hardly speak any German. I remember my first days in secondary school when my class unanimously told the teacher that we did not wish to be taught German. I regret that decision now, as I would have been much better at German if our class hadn`t been so fanatic about not learning German. Today`s discontent with Germans is explained by the fear of them buying up Polish property. Apart from that, many Germans are successfully claiming back the premises they left in Western Poland after World War II. The Polish government never managed to legally expropriate the property.`
Piotr explains that Polish never really had incentives to travel to Eastern Germany: `Under communism, Poles though of Eastern Germany as more of the same. Only getting to West-Berlin or Western Germany made any sense. Nowadays, some people work across the border, but compared to the number of Poles working in the UK and Ireland, it`s nothing. A handful of specialised workers who speak German, which is not common even in this part of Poland. We are geographically near Germany, but the linguistic distance is already a lot bigger. The restrictions that Germany has put on the influx of Polish workers is not very helpful for further integration either. Young Poles are more likely to go to Berlin for cheap flights or cultural events, than for finding jobs.`
Ada (23) thinks that many Poles see Germany as an example. `When it comes to everything related to work, we have a very high esteem of the Germans. They are always in time and they work hard. We don`t see them as particularly creative and we certainly do not like when they think of Poles as car thieves or drunk and lazy workers.` Nevertheless, it`s not only Germans who spend negative thoughts on Poles. The reverse is equally true and the main target group is formed by Eastern German girls referred to as `Turistka z NRD`, (female) tourist from the German Democratic Republic. Polish have very strong judgments about these Turistka`s and their appearance: fat, huge and with very ugly legs.
Ada thinks that the way Poles think about Russia are slowly changing. `Many young Poles are starting to feel like they know enough about Western Europe, while Russia is still mysterious to them. Russia is actually becoming quite a popular holiday destination for the more curious people. I think Russia is culturally closer to Poland than Germany is. We are both Slavic nations, we are equally happy when drinking and we both like the same way of celebrating and partying. We have to overcome the difficult times we had in history, and it may also be of help if Poles stopped having the stereotypes that all Russian women are prostitutes who operate in some kind of mafia environment.`
Ada can understand the overall negative feelings Poles have about Russians. They are based on 40 years of communism. Russians were seen as synonymous with the abolition of personal freedom and the compulsory Russian education. Some people still fear the sound of Russian because they had very bad experiences with people speaking Russian. Apart from that, Russia is, still today, seen as an empire: a powerful unity that could easily crack Poland if it wished to. Ada argues that Russia does no longer pose the same military threat, but they still influence Poland through economical measures like blocking the importation of Polish meat, or suspending gas supplies.`
Since the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the border with Russia is reduced to a small line separating the Kaliningrad area from Poland. Most Poles have never dared to take a look in this small Russian enclave that is sometimes is thought of as the European headquarters of Russian mafia activity. In reality, Kaliningrad (K?nigsberg) used to fall under Germany authority for a long time, which has given the area stronger cultural and historical ties with Germany than with Poland, Lithuania, or even Russia to which the province officially belongs.
Bonds with Lithuania are a lot stronger. Poland`s national hero and poet Adam Mickiewicz lived in the area that now belongs to Lithuania. His most-cited poem, even in Poland, starts off with the line: `Lithuania, my fatherland`, while the poem is written in the author`s native language: Polish. Most Poles have sympathetic views about Lithuania, but the reverse is not necessarily true.
Belarus, like Kaliningrad, is a bit of a black hole in many Polish people`s perception of Europe. Belarussians still live under a system of dictatorship, which only faces challenges from the Polish minority living in the area of Vitebsk. Most Poles are unaware of how clean and safe, but strictly isolated Belarus is. It is not possible for Poles to travel to Belarus without first applying for a visa. Klara (19) once traveled to Belarus to meet up with Polish family members who still live there. `I expected it to be poor. From the looks, I`d still say it`s poorer than Poland, it doesn`t look like life is particularly uncomfortable over there. Belorussians are generally very nice to Poles. My mum speaks Russian and she once asked whether she could go to the toilet in a restaurant. They refused to give her the key, but when she asked again in Polish, she was invited to use the private toilet of the owner.`
Ukraine is generally thought of as similar to Poland but with a much lower standard of living. Ewa (29) compares the Ukrainians living in Poland to the Poles living in the UK and Ireland. `Although I think that the Irish are nicer to the Poles than the Poles to the Ukranians who live in Poland.`
Beside the standard of living, Ewa thinks that Poland and Ukraine are very similar. `We are also similar to other former Eastern European countries. Most of the differences reside in whether each country is developing quicker or slower than the others. But with Ukraine, the bond is even closer than with the other states. We will co-host the European Football Championships in 2012, so there will be even more of an exchange between our countries.`
Slovakians and Czechs are generally put on a same pile, although some differences are apparent. Slovakia is the only country where Poles are understood when they speak their own language. Czechs are quickly associated with the many films they produce and the different sense of humour they portray ? both in the movies and in real life. Some Poles think of Czechs as similar to themselves, but the more exposure they have to Czechs, the more likely they are to point out differences instead of similarities.
Ewelina (23) thinks that the Poles care a lot about productions coming from the United States. `Although Americans are generally thought of a dumb, most of that related to politicians and their ideas. I spent some time in the USA and noticed that people in highschool can almost freely choose what they want to learn. But learning about one subjects almost automatically excludes learning about something else. If you learn about European history, you probably don`t know a thing about geography, while if you learn about American history, you probably know nothing about European history. Schools in Poland have more of a fixed program that force you to learn about everything.`
`American films, TV programs and the whole MTV-culture are very popular in Poland`, Ewelina continues. `They show the American ideal of being able to achieve whatever you want. Polish emigrants believed in that ideal and almost everybody did in the early 1990s. I think it`s not so much trusted anymore. Fewer people leave for the United States. The Work and Travel project is nice, but the dollars you earn are not worth a lot anymore. It`s nice for the traveling experience, but moneywise, it`s barely still worth the effort`, Ewelina says.
Elsewhere in Europe
`Polish people also usually have opinions about Spain, France and The Netherlands. Spain is generally liked as a country, probably because of the sociable people and the good weather. French are admired for the cooking and some shared history. The opinion about Dutch people is dependent on who you ask. Anybody strictly religious will refer to The Netherlands as the perfect example that too much personal freedom is disastrous. Most young people are quite fond of the ideas of personal freedom, although they too may have problems with subjects like euthanasia and abortion. It`s good to have liberal ideas about those subjects, but adjusting legislation is a sure way of allowing abuse. Which is quite bad if it has to do with serious matters like life and death.`
Ewelina has also been to Sweden, where she was impressed by all the pretty guys but disappointed by the way girls looked. `I spent three days in Stockholm and during those days I only saw one pretty girl. It seems like they don`t know how to take care of their appearance. But they are having similar problems with buildings. The Royal Palace looked nothing special either: no decorations, nothing.
Earlier on my trip, I learnt about the Hungarian-Polish friendship, which I have also come across during this day of research. The phrase `Poles and Hungarians are brothers, we fight together and we drink together` is as much known in Poland as I found it to be in Hungary a couple of months ago.
Reputation of Poland abroad
Many Poles live abroad, but their contribution to Poland`s image has only been marginal compared to the effect of diplomatic blunders of Polish politicians during the last decade. Ania (24) says that many foreigners think of Poles as thieves and cucumber eaters. `But that is nothing compared to the damage done to our country by the politicians. The Kaczynski twins, until recently serving as president and prime minister, presented Poland to the world as much more conservative than we actually are. Yes, the two of them, they are very conservative. One of them, we barely ever know who of them is who, doesn`t even have a bank account, which he is actually proud of. The guy lives with his mother and a cat and he one time wanted to sue a beggar for calling him names. If people like those are representing our country abroad, I can understand why many people have negative ideas about Poland.`
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