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The priest forgets that he was a clerk

The post-war history of West Berlin (and later unified Berlin) is above all the history of migration. Today, Berlin is the dreamed-of destination for refugees from the Middle East, but only thirty years ago it was Poles who submitted the majority of asylum claims in West Germany. Unfortunately, despite having had similar experiences to Middle Easterners, Berlin-based Poles do not show much empathy towards the newcomers.

July 5, 2016 - Kaja Puto - Articles and Commentary


Image by Alex Berger

At first, Berlin became a home for Turks, Yugoslavs, Greeks, Italians and Portuguese. Although they were sometimes told that “no one invited them here”, the opposite was true: the invitation to West Germany, which at the time was enjoying its economic miracle, came from Chancellor Konrad Adenauer. West Germany’s rapidly growing economy needed people. But when the recession began, it turned out that no one was planning to leave.

Xenophobia, which facilitated the Holocaust, continued to be very much present within German society after the Second World War ended and it was only the generation of 1968 which explicitly condemned the crimes committed by their parents’ generation. Their postulates, spoken out during student protests, shaped the largely anti-nationalistic character of contemporary German society.

Poor but sexy

In this context, West Berlin was a special place: a leftist paradise and hideout for young pacifists from the rest of the Federal Republic of German (FRG), as it was understood that once there, they did not have to serve in the army. The legacy of the 1968 protests at Berlin’s Freie Universität were particularly strong. The counterculture was in its heyday and the city was run by anarchists, punks, artists and homosexuals alike. They were meeting in the squats and half-legal clubs, towards which the city turned a blind eye. Today’s Berlin – an open, multicultural city, which laughs off the German “Ordnung”, was shaped right at the Berlin Wall.

When the Wall collapsed and Berlin became the capital of unified Germany, its authorities realistically looked into the future and knew that the city would never become a cute town with a pretty square. Tourists will keep on stumbling across its difficult history: the traces of war and its pathological historical division. The emphasis was thus put on Berlin’s unique ugliness and Eastern European wildness. Berlin was “poor but sexy”, as its mayor, Klaus Wowereit, used to say. Those fascinated in what the Iron Curtain unexpectedly unveiled, but who did not have the guts to move to Moscow or Warsaw, would come to Berlin. 

Today, the city has lost much of its freshness; the squats have been turned into expensive ”Berlin-style” lofts, the underground bars into havens of world techno-tourism and the weed dealers from Görlitzer Park advertise their services in tourist brochures. It does not mean, however, that Berlin has abandoned its chosen path; it is still open and proud of its multicultural heritage, attracting people from all over the world. And it still does not have a pretty square.

Poles are one of the biggest parts of this jigsaw puzzle. According to a map published some time ago by Berliner Morgenpost they make up approximately five per cent of the city’s inhabitants, which constitutes about 120 thousand people. It is the second largest minority group in Berlin after the Turks. However, the exact number is difficult to estimate; some Poles live in Berlin unofficially and others have been naturalised and thus are not included in the BAMF immigration department’s statistics.

A large part of Polish Berliners belong to the “Solidarity emigration” group – people who fled Poland during the 1980s for political reasons; but many also arrived due to the poverty which was particularly burdensome towards the end of the Polish People’s Republic (PPR). The emigrants mostly chose West Berlin, or at least it was the first step on a longer journey; apart from Austria, it was the only place the PPR’s citizens could enter without a visa. Many of them stayed in Berlin, although the city’s character hardly resembled the orderly, bourgeois West.

Polish solidarity?

I always had a feeling that Berlin Poles differ from other Polish communities dispersed around the world – maybe because of their close proximity to Poland, which does not leave much room for nostalgia, idealisation and the often related nationalism. Even two years ago, when I performed research for my feature story on Poles in Berlin, the people I met were proud of being a part of that city. Today, a large chunk of them, though there are praiseworthy exceptions, find themselves closed within tight-knit, refugee-paranoid communities.

In the streets, in the metro and at Polish bars one can hear racist comments towards new immigrants. Such aggression is motivated by the fear of “Islamisation”, losing jobs or social benefits and cultural differences with other groups. People’s main sources of information on migrants are social media and the Polish press, as they believe the German Lügenpresse lies. The paranoia has not spared even those who were formerly sympathetic towards the “colourful” multicultural Berlin.

The owner of a Polish kitsch bar named “Warschau” some time ago told  me with excitement about a Turkish man who saved her from Polish thieves. Today, she yells that she must now put paper her bar’s windows so that “Arabs don’t look inside”. When asked if she has had any bad experiences with them, she answers “yes, because they look in”. She adds a couple of cants about “no-go zones” – immigrant areas which the police are afraid to enter. When I asked her for more details, she changed the subject.  

The problems related to this new Polish xenophobia have also entered schools. On one internet forum, a teacher complained about a Polish first grader who refused to sit next to a Muslim. A motivation other than racism can be ruled out; it happened on the first day of school when the children did not know each other. And there is no doubt it is not the kind of prejudice a child could learn in a Berlin school.

Examples of the hysteria to which Berlin’s Poles have fallen victims are more than easy to find if one checks the biggest Polish diaspora’s communication platform, the Facebook group “Poles in Berlin” (“Polacy w Berlinie”). Hate speech in the comment sections is common, even under seemingly neutral articles. A question of “where to find a cheap locksmith” ends up with sending Arabs to gas chambers (one can imagine for such reasons as taking Polish locksmiths’ jobs). Poles who cannot stand such comments have set up an alternative Facebook group called “Poles in Berlin Without Hate.”

Xenophobia exists in every society, in both mono-ethnic and multicultural ones. Even in Germany, where, as it seemed. a consensus was reached when it comes to tolerance towards other nations and religions some time ago, anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiments have been on the rise (although it is mostly true in former East Germany, which did not experience West Berlin’s 1968 events and which has not hosted too many refugees). However, the hate towards migrants coming from other migrants seems particularly abject. Especially since the arguments used against newcomers mirror those used against Poles back in the 1980s.

Because we had the right

When those who oppose Poland accepting migrants are reminded about former Polish escapees to the West, they say it is not the same, as Europe is being invaded by terrorists in burqas with daggers under their arms. In the 1980s, they argue, Polish migration to Western Europe comprised of Solidarity activists in loose jumpers, who had their pockets stuffed with The Captive Mind, a collection of essays written by Czesław Miłosz, cult in the oppositional circles.  There was no cultural clash, they say.

But when one scrutinizes the analogy more closely and listens to those who witnessed those escapes, it turns out the accounts are far from true. On the contrary, the cultural differences were enormous and integration proved to be very difficult. Karl Radek, the director of the main Austrian refugee camp in Traiskirchen, told the New York Times in 1981:

“They must get used to the rules of the game in democracy, adding that neither jobs nor housing are guaranteed in the West. Bear in mind that they lived 20 or 30 years in an authoritarian system. They come somewhere where it is free, and they must get used to it.”

But the problems with integration and cultural differences are not the only visible analogy to the  current newcomers’ situation. Numbers? Up until the introduction of martial law in Poland in 1981, altogether several thousand Poles fled to Germany and Austria. An arbitrary choice of country? The escapees were mostly fleeing to West Berlin and Austria, as only these places could be entered without a visa. Overusing transit countries? Only one-fourth of the former refugees applied for asylum in Germany and Austria, the rest wanted to go to the United States, and, what is more, requested that local authorities organise the journey. Forging passports? Tens of thousands of Poles found German grandfathers in the Volksliste and received German passports without knowing the language. Sex and age? Military-aged males.

Regardless of the legal status of Poles who came to Berlin, they were housed in camps, boarding houses and hotels; they received food, clothing and pocket money. Asylum seekers were also subject to integration programmes. Ironically, Berlin refugees are still accommodated in the same centres which are often operated by same people that ran them back in the 1980s.

The majority of the “Solidarity” emigrants were not granted refugee status. They received the “Duldung” – a deportation suspension. They were eligible for state support, but did not have permission to work. As a result, Poles soon entered a grey zone and began topping the Beriln police’s criminal statistics. “Polenmarkt”, a Polish market set up in the area of today’s Potsdamer Platz, made history. It was a unique “no-go zone” and the police were powerless in handling the flood of illegal, often stolen goods.

The situation was not helped by the attitude of certain Poles regarding the crimes committed on German territory. “To steal something from a German is like not stealing at all. It is the execution of war reparations and historical justice”, was a statement made by one trader active at that time. In other words, Poles often worked hard to deserve the stereotype which is still alive in Germany, one of benefit-claiming car thieves.

No lessons learned

The dark pages in the history of “Solidarity’s” migration can teach us at least two things. Firstly, that stereotypes about certain nationalities or ethnic groups are formed on the basis of actions committed by a minority of a given population which can harm the innocent majority. Secondly, it is often unrealistic legal solutions which are responsible for failures in immigrant integration (in this case, it was the lack of permission to work and the belief that Poles would leave straight after martial law ended).

It would seem these conclusions should be clear for Berlin’s Poles, as they went through similar experiences not long ago. But unfortunately, radical right-wing populism, which in the past year entered Poland’s mainstream debate, turned out to be a stronger attitude-shaping tool.

Kaja Puto is a journalist, translator and editor focusing on topics related to migration as well as politics and society of Central and Eastern Europe and Southern Caucasus. She is the deputy director of Ha!art publishing house and the stipendist of The Foundation for Polish-German Cooperation.

*This article has been written with the support of the Foundation for Polish-German Cooperation. It has been published as a part of a series marking the 25th anniversary of the Polish-German Treaty of Good Neighbourship, within the framework of “Neighbourhood with a view to the future” project. 

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