Those seeking to explain why the response to foreigners on the part of Eastern Europeans — in Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, and eastern Germany — has been so severe and contemptuous have to take a look back.
It must have been shortly before we left for Germany, in 1980 or 1981. My father had taken me — I was five or six at the time — for a walk at the edge of our apartment complex in Toruń, Poland. Along the way he pointed at a deserted construction site. It was supposed to be an indoor swimming pool, but the materials and willpower needed to complete the project were obviously lacking. The pool basin had been finished many years earlier; now there were as many weeds growing there as on the runway at Berlin Brandenburg International. Several months later we left the country resignedly. Officially, we were emigrating as people of ethnic German descent (on my mother’s side), but the primary reason was the lack of prospects — a lack one felt when looking at Poland’s half-finished swimming pools, dilapidated streets, and scarcity of supplies.
In the mid 1980s, we returned for a visit. I was with my parents at a newly opened restaurant in a small shopping center in Ostróda, a picturesque town in the Iława lake district. It was noon and we decided to order Polish food. This turned out to be a mistake, as each entrée was served with boiled potatoes. After an hour, the waitress — an eager, somewhat nervous woman — informed us that they were still waiting for the potato delivery. She said no one knew when the potatoes would arrive, or whether it would even be that day. At this point, an older patron from the neighboring table who had overheard the news clumsily stood up. Drunk, staggering, his gold fillings clearly visible, the man began to complain very loudly about socialism in general — and he did so using the vulgarities with which Polish is quite rich.
The same stories, more or less, were coming out of East Germany. From them, West Germans and others in the West concluded that people in the East needed three things to be happy: the West’s goods — clothing, currency, and food; the West’s freedom of movement; and the West’s free speech and democracy. People in the East had already tested out free speech in the 1980s, in their constant and unflinching rants about economic scarcity — which they continued right up until the moment socialism collapsed. The collapse came as a surprise to many in the West. But I still remember my parents’ faces when they realized that one could bad-mouth socialism in public with complete impunity in the mid 80s. To them, it was a sign that socialism’s end was nigh.
The East suffered deprivation — and an excess of rhetoric about human happiness
Out of the protests against party leaders in the East — which started small and ended in massive demonstrations — grew a Michael Kohlhaas-like conviction that there are some things one shouldn’t put up with. Authorities can walk all over you only until you put your foot down. Today’s xenophobia in Poland, Hungary, and eastern Germany is actually related to this spirit of anticommunist resistance, as its evil and warped extension. It was not only the shortage of Western consumer goods and the restrictions on travel and free speech that riled people in the East; it was also the obligatory rhetoric about human happiness, communist utopia, and antifascism that they encountered around the clock in schools, in factories, and in the media. One senses in today’s enthusiasm for international solidarity, for refugees, for vegan food, and for Conchita Wurst an echo of the elite language of the communist party cadre from which people in the East once freed themselves.
The East Germans were never convinced by internationalism. Nor were the Poles and the Hungarians. Their frames of reference were too small and parochial, and domestic trains traveled at a snail’s pace, besides. The petit-bourgeois and provincial nature of these decrepit and bled-to-death postwar countries simply did not mesh with the grand language of Marx and Lenin. People had difficulties reaching the next village, yet communism was supposed to liberate humanity. Homo sovieticus, which purported to make man’s narrow-minded, ethnic, and religious framework a thing of the past, seemed almost as decadent as the cliché of the capitalist’s cigar or Paris’s frivolous nightlife. With the exception of the kolkhoz and kommunalka experiments in the Soviet Union, socialism conserved the stale atmosphere and homey warmth of the impoverished prewar era: the large family collectives in the villages, and the provincial (and, in Poland, very religious) small-family idylls in the cities’ miniscule apartments and Schreber gardens. Everything cosmopolitan was frowned upon, and appeared, if at all, only at the margins of society — in the much ridiculed cadre festivities with sparkling wine from the Crimea, in Dresden’s well-educated niches (admittedly much overhyped after the fact), and in the state-favored art circles of East Berlin. The satellite states in the East (though not the Soviet Union) were, for the most part, ethnically homogenous and had no truck with internationalist ideas. Unfortunately, neither did they have much left of the aristocratic or haute-bourgeois values of the past, which had disappeared for various reasons.
It is true that the East’s opposition movements in and around 1989 espoused a variety of platforms. In the minds of communists well-versed in theory, however, the upheaval ultimately sprung from counterrevolutionary intent, and their assessment might not seem entirely wrong from today’s perspective. To the astonishment and shock of party leaders, this was no new antiracist and antifascist man, despite decades-long propaganda and upbringing. Instead, the Kleinbürger took to the streets, driven not by noble ideals but by greed with nationalist undertones. He cried out, “We are the people (or a people) and want the Deutschmark!” He most certainly did not cry out, “We want to be a multi-ethnic country and welcome immigrants.” It is no different today, even after twenty-five years of unity in many regions of the East. The reason: familial conditioning runs deeper than state doctrine.
Many people in Saxony feel closer to the Poles, the Czechs, and the Hungarians than the West Germans. What primarily separates those countries from Germany is the political outlet available for criticizing modern society and globalization. Whereas in Poland and Hungary, nationalist parties shape mainstream political discourse, in East Germany such views find extra-parliamentary expression in the form of Pegida. Since the established parties of West Germany remain — for now — strong enough to prevent the Alternative for Germany party from entering government, its supporters are taking to the streets.
In the East, internationalism had no correlate in reality — and some believe it ought to remain that way
After 1990, the former Eastern Bloc countries and the new federal German states all saw the departure of their most talented and ambitious citizens, just as they had during communism. It is perhaps useful to recall that West Germany absorbed a socialist country and the digestion process is far from finished. Internationalism did exist in the Eastern Bloc states (including the GDR) as well as in the West. In the case of the latter, internationalism became a reality due to the waves of immigration and the flow of goods and people in the market economy. But in the East, internationalism was a doctrine with no correlate in reality. And the xenophobes there today believe it should remain that way, regardless which media elite or political caste is propagating it, since they are all lying anyway. Hatred of communism has always had something in common with hatred of the free West. This is another legacy of the long 20th century, which is not yet over, not by a long shot.
Many of my parents’ Polish friends were some of the staunchest opponents of communist oppression. They are now ardent supporters of the nationalist and xenophobic policies of Jarosław Kaczyński.