How similar are the scenes! When a large number of refugees crossed the Austrian-German border in autumn 2015, they were met with a wave of sympathy in Germany. You were welcome. The police and state authorities did not show bureaucratic resistance, but friendly helpfulness.
Many Germans set out spontaneously to greet those who had arrived and to help them as best they could. Almost the same thing happened this spring, when more and more Ukrainian refugees crossed the border into Poland after the Russian attack on February 24. Poland opened up to the refugees as a matter of course.
In 2015 and in the years that followed, things looked very different in Poland. Clinging to the ideal of a Catholic-ethnic nation, the conservative PiS government did everything in its power to ward off refugees. She brusquely rejected all calls from other EU countries to help distribute refugees. And this with arguments that could also have come from the German AfD: Muslims have no business in Poland.
Thanks to the PiS majority, this attitude was official in the government at the time – but the approval of this policy among the population went far beyond the electoral potential of the large governing party. Over the course of the following years, Western Europe gradually began to resign itself to the fact that Poland – like Hungary – is a country hostile to migration. And it would remain so for the time being.
And now, in the spring of 2022, this: When the first Ukrainian refugees arrived at the border with Poland, many private individuals rushed over, provided the refugees with food and clothing, took them home unbureaucratically and helped them with the authorities or the school and job search.
Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, a total of 3.8 million Ukrainians have fled to Poland, mostly women and children. That makes up a tenth of the Polish population – converted to Germany, that would mean more than eight million refugees. Even though many Ukrainians have now returned to their homeland, the number of those admitted remains exceptionally high.
And the willingness to help in Poland has been unbroken ever since. The majority of the refugees find accommodation with private individuals and are supported by them (as well as by the state). According to surveys, around 70 percent of Poles take a very practical part in helping Ukrainian refugees. 86 percent of Poles are now of the opinion that the refugees could stay in Poland either as long as necessary (53 percent) or at least until they continue their journey to another EU country (33 percent).
As always with migration, there is also friction and conflict. But the mood has not changed so far. The far-right is struggling to make political capital out of the bottlenecks and strife that are an inevitable consequence of any rapid and massive population increase.
Against the background of the refugee phobia that has so far been widespread in Poland, this is a small to medium miracle. Many a relentless person may not recognize this. And downplays the sudden refugee friendship of the Poles by saying that hostility towards Russia now connects both countries.
And that Ukrainians are not strangers to Poles, but neighbors. So: charity, but not distant love. Apart from the fact that friendliness towards the neighbor also counts – the argument that the Poles have a certain affection for the Ukrainians because of regional ties must be in their blood completely misjudges the historically extremely difficult and strained relationship between Poles and Ukrainians.
That goes back a long way historically. After the end of the First World War, a Polish-Ukrainian civil war broke out in eastern Galicia, especially in Lemberg, between the young Polish Republic and the newly founded West Ukrainian People’s Republic. The ethnic Poles living there wanted to be annexed to Poland, the majority of Ukrainians wanted a Poland-free Ukraine.
The civil war was bloody. And there were also massacres of the Jewish population, which mostly tried to remain neutral in this alien conflict. While many Galician Poles wished to join Poland, many Ukrainians saw the Poles as aliens.
And later, many Poles in turn became victims of the young Ukrainian nationalism. Around the time Ukraine was occupied by the German Wehrmacht in World War II. Not insignificant parts of the national Ukrainian liberation movement OUN sided with the Germans in their fight for an ethnically pure Ukraine and took action partly with them, partly with their toleration against Jews, but also against Poles.
In 1943/44, in numerous massacres, they killed 60,000 to 100,000 Poles living in Volhynia, which is now part of the Ukraine, almost a third of the Polish civilian population. They often acted in bestial ways – villages were attacked and burned down, residents, including women and children, were killed or tortured to death, Catholic priests were axed or literally crucified by their Orthodox assassins. People in Poland have never forgotten that.
Poland is undoubtedly one of the countries in Eastern Europe that suffered the most during the Second World War. The memory is long here, injustice suffered was powerfully present over the decades. Therefore, not so long ago, Ukraine was among the most unpopular nations for the population of Poland – in the penultimate place between Belarus and Russia.
The fact that this has changed slowly over the past decade and recently so rapidly can probably be explained by the fact that the terrible current war experience of their Ukrainian neighbors has touched and alarmed the Poles. Suddenly, past suffering lost its consciousness-shaping power. Suddenly, empathy for refugees from the formerly hostile country was possible, even mandatory.
Perhaps the hope is not in vain that this experience will bring Poland, which has been so stubborn up to now, a step closer to the west of the EU. And a little bit of insight that migration is not a devil thing. And it is wise and humane not to close oneself off completely.
Of course, the Polish state continues to use drastic means to fend off refugees who Lukashenko tries to smuggle across the Polish border. But even then, the realization emerges that the categorical insistence on Catholic national “purity” cannot be the last word. That, too, could be an unexpected and pleasant side effect of the cruel war that Putin has unleashed.