Polenbilder in den deutschen Lebenswelten

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

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.