Poles in Germany: Roads to visibility
Integration or separation?
After the Second World War, the cultural patterns of behaviour of the Polish migrants in Germany continued. Such was already the case for many emigrants: Anyone who was more Pole than German tried to find a way into German affluent society as quickly as possible after moving from Poland so that as Poles they could become largely invisible. For large sections of the German post-war society, Poland was seen as an unattractive country, its culture regarded as “inferior”. This belief that there was a cultural gap also had an impact on the migrants from Poland. Only a few actively held on to their native culture, getting involved in Polish associations or clubs. But for the majority, integration, success in the labour market and their children’s future were the number one priority.
This was also the reason why the Poles who had migrated to Germany were hardly identifiable in public as a closed group, particularly because outwardly they did not differ from the “average German”. Even the religious practices of the Poles fitted into the confessional landscape of Germany. Various indicators are testimony to their comparatively good integration in Germany. Compared to migrants from other countries, they are characterised by their low at-risk-of-poverty rate and higher average incomes, by good educational qualifications and a relatively high employment rate.
And whilst some Polish organisations were indeed founded in 1945 immediately after the war, even today Polish migrants are reticent to set up associations and clubs. Even the various umbrella associations have only very minor significance; what works more is the network of the Polish Catholic missions. Some towns have Polish associations which are usually quite small and which are concerned with teaching Polish children the language or promoting cultural matters. They usually work within the Polish community, sometimes they also succeed in reaching a larger public, mostly in the Ruhr area and in Berlin. Berlin as a whole differs significantly from the rest of the Republic: This is where, only 80 kilometres from the Polish border, not just labour migrants but also thousands of Poles, who are culturally active or who simply want to enjoy alternative lifestyles, have been gathering since the 1980s. Today, this has made the town an important centre for Polish culture, or more accurately, a centre for the cultural activities of people from Poland. This is because those people who have migrated from Poland or cultural mavens and intellectuals who have one leg here and the other there no longer subscribe to one nation, but see themselves instead as part of transnational communities, as world citizens or Europeans.
This trend is countered by associations who, even in Germany, want the world to experience Poland’s conservative nature. In some large cities “Klubs der Gazeta Polska” have been established that cultivate a Catholic national conservative world view. Ultimately, there is a range of ideologically neutral associations, for instance a growing number of Polish sports clubs, such as the football club FC Polonia Berlin, FC Polonia Wuppertal, SV Polonia Monachium or KS Polonia Braunschweig.
Today, almost every large German town and many regions have Polish Facebook groups in which sometimes hundreds and sometimes tens of thousands of people catch up on the important things of everyday life. The Polish community can draw upon a now well established ethnic economy providing Polish-speaking services, from doctors to lawyers, from nail studios to wedding chapels. And the more extensive this infrastructure becomes, the more visible it becomes as well. The times in which Poles simply wanted to hide from the majority society are largely consigned to the past now.
This has also been helped by the slowly growing number of people in public life with a recognisably Polish background. And today it is by no means just a couple of footballers, like Miroslav Klose and Lukas Podolski, or a few personalities from the world of culture whose “foreign” way of speaking, like that of Marcel Reich-Ranicki, who reminded Germans for decades just how closely Germany was intertwined with eastern Europe.
Today things are a bit different: The General Secretary of the CDU, Paul Ziemiak, came to Germany as a child, as did the actress Patrycia Ziółkowska, who uses all the special Polish characters in her name, something the earlier migrant generations liked to refrain from doing, the tennis player Angelique Kerber is committed to her Polish heritage as is the singer Mark Forster, who was born in the Palatinate as the son of a Polish mother and who surprised German television viewers with a Christmas carol sung in Polish. Margarete Stokowski is shaping the feminist debate in the country; Henryk M. Broder is still stirring up a journalistic storm with his recalcitrant commentaries, and the “Zeit” journalist Alice Bota makes a significant contribution to the presence of Poles in Germany. In German universities and in symphony orchestras, in large IT companies and in the media industry – everywhere today there are people who feel a biographical association with Poland.