Images of Poles in the minds of Germans

Caricature in the journal Kladderadatsch, 1919
Caricature in the journal Kladderadatsch, 1919


We are all familiar with images in our minds, traces that persistently appear when we think of something. France has baguettes, red wine and the Eiffel Tower, the Netherlands has canals, gouda and blond plaits – all positive aspects that have less to do with personal experience than with stereotypes reinforced by hearsay and constant repetition. Poland has left totally different, much more negative traces in German minds: given the fact that Germany and Poland have been so closely interwoven in the past and present, it is hardly surprising that there are so many.

If you were to randomly ask Germans what comes to mind when they hear the word "Poland", the following "indiscriminate collection" of stereotypes and associations might emerge. Poles steal, cannot park, are lazy and chaotic, very emotional, individualistic, ultra-Catholic, anti-Semitic and dishonest. They have inferiority complexes and feelings of superiority, work illegally and cheaply in Germany, as well as having dangerously seductively beautiful women. Plus, they always lose at football. "The Pole" is first and foremost a handyman or building worker – and in the past he was an aristocratic spendthrift. A "Polish woman" is a charwoman or care worker. All in all, they are poor migrants who are a threat to German jobs and are extremely hard-working and have a "golden hand". In the old days, when people spoke of the "Polish economy", they used it as a synonym for shabby conditions. But today the term is used positively to praise their modest aspirations. Polish food is fatty, heavy and boring, but also hearty and tasty, Poles like to look deep into their vodka glass. The beer they brew is getting better all the time. They kow-tow to Germans and kick Ukrainians, they are nationalistic, constantly distinguish between " us " (the good ones) and " others " (the bad ones), are incredibly hospitable, warm, flexible, spontaneous, humorous and not particularly fussy. Their language might be difficult, and their names unpronounceable for Germans, but they do have Solidarność, Lech Wałęsa, "Kuba" Błaszczykowski, Robert Lewandowski, Pope John Paul II and a piano composer with a beautifully simple name: Chopin ...

Obviously many of these traces and images in people's minds are connected with social and material differences. This gap spurs migration; because why should people choose to migrate when things are better at home than elsewhere? When all's said and done, very few Poles have moved to Germany out of cultural interest, but for material reasons in order to work for low wages. This require little knowledge of the country and language, two hands and often two legs. Migrant workers in the industrial centres during the German Empire, especially in the Ruhr region (Ruhr Poland), seasonal agricultural workers East of the River Elb, forced labourers in the First and especially in the Second World War: and later on the clandestine workers on  building sites, the armies of Polish cleaning women and the harvest helpers on asparagus and strawberry fields, not forgetting the hundreds of thousands of Polish carers working in the homes of German pensioners – they all brought a sense of alienation into isolated German settings, had a disturbing effect and triggered off instinctive defensive and discriminatory reactions ("the Polacks"). Over time, however, they have also contributed to a change in the way people think. For many years they were regarded as unwelcome competitors on the labour market, as representatives of a high-birth nation in the East, which dumped its demographic surplus in the West; even as "social parasites". But in Germany (not least due to Poland's accession to the EU and the concomitant legal equality), hundreds and thousands of Poles have become irreplaceable helpers in households and gardens, on fields and in factories. "Laziness" has turned into "diligence", "dirt" into "elegance", "foreignness" into "familiarity", above all because, of all the immigrants to Germany, Poles are certainly some of the fewest to stand out from the majority society. In this respect the enormous social interdependence of Germans and Poles has led to a massive change in such "prejudices". The old lady in Odenwald (or the Black Forest, Sachsenwald or wherever ...), who never had much regard for Poles and, whose knowledge of Poland consisted of a few unreflected fragments of Nazi propaganda from her parents' generation and the hostility of her neighbours who had been expelled from Silesia, this old lady – whose only son lives in London – is now completely dependent on a live-in Polish carer. And lo and behold, because her helper now speaks quite decent German, she can chat with her about gardening and the latest developments in European royal families, as well as taking a close interest in all the family happenings in faraway Poland. No history book in the world can do so much to break down stereotypes. 

Prejudices are best counteracted by personal experience, especially when the great national master narratives - such as the anti-Polish fantasies of the Wilhelmine Empire - have lost their importance. A man like Gustav Freytag, whose novel "Soll und Haben" promised to give the fledgling German nation stability and self-confidence, and who was equally loud in his antipathy to Poles and Jews, has now largely been forgotten outside German seminars. Nonetheless this novel can explain a lot. It describes a world in which a German "master class" tries to assert itself in a Polish environment, and reminds us that German migration to the East, into mostly Polish-speaking areas, have also shaped people's minds. Since the majority of Germans arrived as modernizers, even as colonizers, stereotypes about the peoples they encountered – Poles, Jews and others – arose almost "naturally", so to speak. Furthermore it was basically impossible to even communicate with them at first. And when administrative matters came into play in the form of officials who were reluctantly transferred to Eastern Prussia and hence saw their careers threatened, stereotypes became almost official: "Poles are once again causing problems." Finally, during the Second World War it became clear where this often thoughtless treatment of the (supposed) foreigner might lead  to a desire for an unlimited uniformity.

Which brings us back to history and gives us an opportunity to look at a few examples of how much the ideas of "Poles" in German minds have changed and overlapped over the years. These ideas were by no means solely determined by experiences of migration, but by many events in the history of their interrelations. Older "negative traces" are therefore still present, precisely because they have been handed down over several generations through families and circles of friends. 

For many years German opinions of Poles were influenced by occasional encounters with Polish aristocratic culture. The oriental-looking gentlemen in their long robes and strange hairstyles were unwelcome to an absolutist ruler like Frederick II. His anti-Polish utterances are legion and his notion of the "Polish economy" as a synonym for racketeering influenced German opinions for two centuries. In the 19th century the founder of the Reich, Otto von Bismarck, matched Friedrich all the way. As he wrote to his sister in 1861: "Skin the Poles so that they despair of life ... I have all the compassion in the world for their situation, but it's not our fault if the wolf was created by God as it is, and when for this reason people shoot him dead if they can".[1] Thus, personalities who have played a major role in Prussian-German history have an anti-Polish side that is often ignored in Germany today. 

When German soldiers invaded Russian areas of Poland during the First World War, they certainly had the statements of these two "great heroes" of German history in mind from school lessons and connected them with what they saw locally: the often appallingly poverty-stricken living conditions in small towns, especially in late autumn when the roads were muddy and people frostbitten. Germans could hardly know that these were often closed Jewish milieus, Yiddish-speaking "Schtetl" – nor were they able to distinguish between Ruthenians and Poles, or Poles and Lithuanians. They were all lumped together and this resulted in an image of "Poles" that was established for generations, consciously or unconsciously, and fed the strong anti-Polish rhetoric of Prussian-German state leaders backed up by their own impressions (or assumptions). 


[1] Otto von Bismarck, Die gesammelten Werke, Band XIV/1: Briefe 1822-1861, edited by Wolfgang Windelband and Werner Frauendienst, Berlin 1933, p. 567.

The post-1918 borders which resurrected the Polish state only added to these traces because all the political parties in Germany perceived them as the result of an "ignominious peace" that favoured "the Poles" of all people. Although the neighbouring Republic was often disparagingly dismissed as a "seasonal state" by German politicians, it survived a whole series of seasons before being overrun by German and Soviet troops once again in 1939. The monstrosity of the German crimes that now began defies all descriptions: indeed these crimes have left deep scars in the minds of those involved, both victims, perpetrators and witnesses. Paradoxically, the numerous Polish forced labourers who were to be found in almost all the villages and towns in the Reich, led to more direct contacts between Germans and Poles than ever before. Emotionally, these ranged from hatred to love and left their own traces, of which Germans no longer wanted to be reminded in the years after 1945. 

The story of the people and their associations who were expelled from the eastern regions of Germany in favour of the new Polish state was now more decisive in shaping German's ideas. For decades they complained of anti-Polish hardships, portrayed themselves as innocent victims and thus defined West German/Polish debates for many years. The Poles were the "expellees", i.e. the perpetrators, while there existed a "loud" silence about the causes of the expulsion. But it must also be said that it was often spontaneous, smaller, committed groups of expellees who sought contact with Poland. They were among the first to have personal exchanges with their neighbours after the war, often on many occasions. This undoubtedly applies even more to many of the 2,000,000 Polish immigrants who were able to communicate in both languages and travelled a lot "between the two worlds". 

Nevertheless, in the West German 'economic miracle' years, the central and eastern parts of Europe remained a generally misunderstood part of the continent, situated beyond the "Iron Curtain" and marked by poverty, while people themselves were only too keen to forget the period before 1945. Since Germans also wanted to forget what they had done in and with Poland, this fostered the preservation of old "mental scars". At the same time the SED in East Germany (the GDR) blustered about the "Oder-Neisse peace border" and their "Polish brothers". Occasionally they permitted visa-free travel, which also allowed some of their citizens an insight into a country which enjoyed greater cultural and political freedoms than those back home. Apart from the tireless work of individual translators like Karl Dedecius, who tried to bring literary "traces" from Poland to the educated classes in Germans, it was above all mass media highlights that broke through the gaps in this continent of ignorance and half-knowledge. First and foremost was the US television series "Holocaust", which was broadcast on German television in the 1970s. Here, and in many other films, Poland was primarily seen as a place where Jews were exterminated in ghettos and camps (for which "Auschwitz" has become a symbol), while the fate of non-Jewish Poles under German occupation barely played a role. This is made clear, for example, by the "Warsaw Uprising": for a long time Germans automatically thought of it in terms of the 1943 ghetto uprising, while the non-Jewish uprising of 1944, which led to the complete destruction of the city by the Germans and the death of over 200,000 people, was barely known at all. In view of this partial or total ignorance it is hardly surprising that sloppy journalists in Germany and elsewhere refer to "Polish concentration camps", which regularly and rightly provokes outrage in Poland. They were, of course "German concentration camps", albeit set up on stolen Polish soil. This outrage in turn has repercussions in the minds of Germans, who now believe that their Polish neighbours are not only hypersensitive but also mega nationalistic – which creates new traces and new images.

Here, the three-part ZDF television film "Our Mothers, Our Fathers" (2013) seems almost symptomatic. It is the fictional story of the fate of young Germans during the war. While the German crimes against the Jews in the East are discussed in detail, the Polish resistance against the German occupying forces is simply sketched over as well as being presented as anti-Semitic. Apart from the fact that the overall script seems quite absurd, the high viewer ratings clearly show how the memory of German crimes in the eastern part of Europe has been prioritized in the media in recent decades and which of the competing ideas of "victims" has emerged in people's minds: fixed images in the mind can often be misleading when people are looking for evidence. 

But if we consider the various historical layers of Polish traces in German minds, we also come across some positive examples. For example, the enthusiasm for Poland in 1832, when liberal circles in Germany acclaimed the passing "heroes" who had been beaten in their struggles against the Russian Czar (the so-called "Polish passage"). This is always brought out of the history books when there is something to celebrate, be it Communist brotherhood in spirit and in conflict, or reconciliation and common goals in Europe and the world. Years ago the political scientist Klaus Bachmann called the mantra-like return to such undoubtedly praiseworthy and outstanding commemorative rituals, "reconciliation kitsch". Of course this kitsch also has something to do with the fact that there is only a limited repertoire of positive images in German-Polish history and these have been superimposed by images of confrontation, hostility and horror. Pictorial imagery plays a major role here. While there is no authentic pictorial representation of the Hambach Festival, the great liberal rally at the end of May 1832 in which Polish participation was evident, there is no shortage of battle paintings and war photographs of German-Polish conflicts throughout history. Thus, when the GDR wanted to highlight common progressive traditions in the German and Polish past, a painter was summarily commissioned to produce a Hambach painting based on contemporary engravings, on which the Polish flag was proudly displayed in white and red next to the German flag. This image was later used on a German postage stamp ...

This ambivalence shapes many memories in Germany and Poland. Take John Paul II, for example. From a German perspective he is not only seen as the "Polish Pope" and the Keeper of the Seal of Catholic traditions, but also as a representative of the Polish traditionalism which seems to shape essential parts of political and cultural attitudes of the neighbours on the other side of the Oder and Neisse rivers. Despite everything he succeeded in arousing sympathy for a country surrounded by so much unintentional and deliberate partial and total ignorance. Solidarność, Poland's great freedom movement, caused a wave of admiration and solidarity to roll through German-speaking countries. But at the same time it caused uncertainty – a trades union movement led by a moustached electrician and hollowed out from within the Eastern bloc – could that ever work out well?  

When all's said and done the Pope and Solidarność have helped to reduce the ubiquitous images of war. But this could be dangerous if they also serve to portray German-Polish history only in the highest tones and to sweep under the carpet everything that separates, irritates and annoys. For not everything that glitters is gold, neither in Poland nor in Germany. Which brings us back to the present: instead of questioning faulty structures people prefer to talk about the difficulties in practical cooperation. This ignorance also applies to ideas about hidden or open poverty as a cross-border phenomenon. For example, do people like Brigitte Jäger-Dabek really have to write rapturous travel-guide prose for political education: "Warsaw has developed into a real boom city like you see in glossy magazines: it attracts investors and companies from all over the world, enjoys low unemployment and the price of property can vie with that in Western Europe. [...] It is astonishing to note that people in major Polish cities are now struggling with problems similar to those encountered in German cities: the search for affordable housing, finding well-paid jobs and infrastructure problems in the transport sector. In addition Poles are not, as we might expect, xenophobic but cosmopolitan hosts who – even in the middle of Warsaw – greeted German fans with open arms and a myriad of waving German flags".[2]


[2] Brigitte Jäger-Dabek: Die Bilder in unseren Köpfen. Deutsche Polenbilder – Polnische Deutschlandbilder, Stade 2013, p. 6 f. (e-book).

If we wanted to be unpleasant, we could ask the author whether she has ever talked to a poorly-paid Polish nurse or was the guest of a young family in the Warsaw district of Praga, where four people are forced to share a room? Seriously however, the question arises as to whether well-intentioned positive media coverage is counterproductive, because negative reports from migrants, commuters and seasonal workers in Germany about life in Poland stand in stark contrast to such overblown publicity, and undoubtedly raise questions among many readers and viewers about the truthfulness and balance of the media.

Critical observation and well-founded criticism of one's neighbours therefore often perform a greater service to friendship than saccharine compliments, even when this is still difficult for a country whose attitudes towards Poland have been traditionally arrogant or disparaging. Conversely, Poles often react to criticism from Germany with excessively sensitive, defensive reflexes that tend to betray a lack of self-confidence. This became apparent, for example, when the refugee crisis escalated in the summer of 2015. While Germany was prepared to accept hundreds of thousands of persecuted and uprooted people from the war zones of the world, Poland was blocking immigration. In Poland – and elsewhere – Germany was accused of moral imperialism and economically blackmailing the states of Eastern Central Europe, while the German public took note of the reactions beyond the Oder and Neisse with incomprehension and interpreted these as a sign of neonationalism, Catholic fundamentalism and provincial egotism. There the traces of a long forgotten past seemed to break out once again like ghosts lurking in the cellar of the common German-Polish house that are just waiting to be served and fed. 

What can we learn from all this? Despite many superimpositions, the perception of traces and the formation of ideas and images in the mind to a large extent depend on age groups, education and income. It makes a difference whether you are connected with your Polish friends via Facebook, Tumblr or Instagram and are thereby connected with people from the rest of the world, go to Polish rock festivals as a matter of course, prefer YouTube to national TV channels and when you have little or no interest in names like Otto von Bismarck or Gustav Freytag. Secondly, whether you regularly attend events on German-Polish history and culture, sit next to a lot of silver-haired gentlemen and murmur with approval when celebrating the latest translation of the novelist and Eastern European commentator, Andrzej Stasiuk, or discussing the latest educational trip to Galicia. Or thirdly, whether Poles are perceived as permanent "helpers" who clean "for us" for pocket money, and care for the aging population because their earnings can at least feed their families back home, something which is hardly possible to achieve from similar work in Poland, with the possible exception of Poles who work in local health resorts where they can pamper well-heeled German pensioners. Apparently three worlds, each with its own images, communication channels and reception rituals, yet connected with each other and suspended in a highly mobile cosmos of exchange, in which employment agencies, small craftsmen's companies, tourist offices, institutes, cultural forums, universities, committees and associations have been working for years as "stereotype breakers" – each in their own way. 

Without stereotypes, however, neighbourliness is unthinkable, especially in view of the current prosperity gap. The only question is how to deal with it, especially when you have been living "door to door" for so long and know each other's quirks and idiosyncrasies to the point of exhaustion. In order not to avoid being suffocated by phrases, it is vital to have open discussions at eye-to-eye level, where all topics can be addressed and expressed without prejudice and feelings of inferiority or superiority – utterly free of any phony political correctness and without being offended by every second sentence. This is the only way to avoid premature interpretations caused by mental traces, reduce ingrained perspectives and „update" images in the head. Experience has shown that face-to-face meetings, such as those that have increasingly taken place over the past two and a half decades, seem to be the best means of achieving this. It is to be hoped that – despite cultural and economic differences – the resultant positive images will one day completely replace the many negative images listed above. That this is possible was beautifully demonstrated by a German student on an exchange visit to a Polish host family when his mother phoned to ask him if everything was going okay and he irritated replied: "Hey, mum! They live better than us ...!“  


Matthias Barełkowski, Peter Oliver Loew