Senior figures in the European Union are growing impatient with its Eastern members over their refusal to accept refugees. Emmanuel Macron, the new president of France, has threatened sanctions if Poland and Hungary remain stubborn.
Why is this? I hope to avoid unduly extending generalisations. The countries of Central and Eastern Europe are all different. All contain multitudes. In Poland, where I am fortunate enough to live, I have met progressives, liberals, libertarians, conservatives, traditionalists and, perversely, given recent history, adherents of communism and national socialists; as well, of course, as many people who hate politics. Nonetheless, it is a matter of undeniable fact that nations of the CEE tend to be less receptive to mass immigration—and, especially, Islamic immigration—than their Western cousins, on the level of elites and on the level of the masses.
A simple explanation is that they are more homogenous. Western Europe has been rich enough, and liberal enough, to attract migrants for decades. The British are about 5% Muslim. Germans are about 5% Muslim. The French are probably more. People have Muslim friends, colleagues and acquaintances, or at least accept them as part of the national fabric. Poles, Hungarians and Slovaks, on the other hand, are perhaps 0.1% Muslim. It seems more abnormal and unnatural to people who maintain their belief in a unifying culture.
Another simple explanation is that they watch the news. Apart from through the imposing Poland-based MMA champion Mamed Khalidov, most Central and Eastern European citizens encounter Muslims only through footage of terrorism in Paris, Nice, Brussels, Stockholm, Berlin, London and now, horrifyingly, Manchester. Some of these attacks have been personal. Anis Amri killed twelve people at a Berlin Christmas market with a truck he had taken from a Pole who he had murdered. A Polish couple were killed at the Manchester Arena. While jihadists are a small minority of Muslims, few Poles, Hungarians, Czechs or Slovaks want to take the risk of having bombings or beheadings in their countries, however unlikely.
But I think there is more to this phenomenon, and something deeper than modernity versus tradition, or cosmopolitanism versus parochialism. There are broad psychocultural differences between the Western and Eastern European peoples of the European Union (hereon, for convenience though not exactitude, called Western Europeans and Eastern Europeans). One, I believe, is a difference between people descended from imperialists and people descended from victims of imperialism.
Britain, France, Belgium, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Germany and the Netherlands all had empires. Several of them—as well as the Swedes—were involved in the slave trade. To the East, meanwhile, nations, though sometimes fiercely and bloodily competitive, spent centuries being shared by the Habsburgs, the Prussians and the tsars. Peoples won and lost their independence time and time again, as well as traditions, languages and men, women and children.
An entertaining illustration of the European divide can be found in one of the world’s oddest ethnic minorities. Polish Haitians are descended from legionnaires Napoleon recruited to fight the slave rebellion. Some of these soldiers empathised with the slaves and promptly switched sides. Dessalines, the leader of the Haitians, called the Poles “the white negroes of Europe”. Some have lived there ever since.
This oppression reached its hideous apotheosis in the 20th Century, as Eastern Europe was split between Stalin and Hitler. Some, through different levels of choice and compulsion, aligned themselves with the Soviets and others with the Nazis. Some resisted both. Millions died in a nightmare of murder, torture, rape and deprivation. After the war, the Soviets inserted communist dictators. Dissidents were jailed, history was suppressed and subversive influences were ruthlessly expunged.
I have no wish to present Poles, Czechs, Slovakians, Hungarians, Slovenians, Estonians, Romanians and Latvians as saintly victims. They were oppressed because they were unfortunate enough to have been sandwiched between superpowers, and did a lot of killing themselves when they had the chance. So did everyone. For all of the billions of innocent people I have never heard of an innocent people.
Nations of Central and Eastern Europe, it should also be acknowledged, are not hostages to their pasts. Since 1989 and the fall of communism they have had all kinds of triumphs and all the kinds of problems. They still do, of course. But I think it relevant, despite these qualifications, that Western Europe spent a lot of time occupying and Eastern Europe spent a lot time being occupied.
Imperialism helped to make us cosmopolitan. Most obviously, it exposed us to different cultures. We absorbed them into our cuisine, our literature, our cinema and, above all, our history. Our shared experiences with Commonwealth troops in World War II is the most prominent example of our experiences being stitched together with those of other peoples. Countries to the East have fewer such memories.
Yet as those troops were fighting, the Bengal famine was killing millions, and the British, at best, were too distracted to respond. Postcolonial studies have emphasised and publicised the faults of imperialism, and Western Europeans, especially among their cultural elites, feel ashamed of wrongs done to other people and obliged to compensate as best as they can. Eastern Europeans are likelier to think of wrongs done to them. A term like “white privilege” would seem downright comical in countries ravaged by the Nazis and the Soviets.
While this progressivism is a guilty response to our colonial past, paternalistic instincts are a product of those times. Western European imperialists tried to shape the world. They were evangelical about their religious and social institutions and ideas. Strains of these desires influence Western political and charitable interventions into distant conflicts such as the Syrian civil war. Europeans to the East can be as invested in international events but it is less common. They have enough problems of their own. I watched the BBC World News with a Pole who found it so depressing that we turned it off.
This is not a local peculiarity. We are the peculiar ones, taking an unusual interest in other people’s affairs. It is one of the odd things about our political culture that we kid ourselves into believing that more tribal and reactionary attitudes are the weird ones.
Yet we would think that because things have been going well for us. For all the blood we spilled at Waterloo and the Somme, and for all the men, women and children who have been impoverished, Western nations have long been enjoying levels of peace and wealth that most people, alive and dead, would be startled to experience. We take our institutions for granted. Many, indeed, deconstruct them. Yet the cultural complacence Douglas Murray writes of in his recent bestselling book is less pronounced in Central and Eastern European countries, where, unable to take peace, wealth and independence for granted, people can be more defensive. They know how bitterly people had to wait and fight for them.
One can understand Western Europeans, and some Eastern Europeans, who think it is absurd that Poles, Hungarians, Czechs and Slovaks are so unwilling to accept a few hundred refugees. It is absurd how wildly they overstate the numbers of Muslims living in their countries. Yet one cannot understand it except as a statement. These people know well that numbers of prospective migrants are going to increase. Last year, a liberal academic at the University of Wrocław said it is “inevitable” that Poland will have to take more immigrants, and that there is “just a question of the time in which this will take place”. This stance is a clear attempt to arrest that trend.
Moreover, it is a sign of Central and Eastern European wariness not merely towards Muslims but towards superpowers. The EU, needless to say, is not the Soviet Union. It is far more generous and far less prohibitive, and membership, as the U.K. has proved, remains optional. As the Eurozone rocked with crises, however, and Merkel welcome millions of migrants into Europe, her Eastern neighbours began to question the judgement of EU authorities.
As they hear threats of sanctions—and read themselves described in unpleasantly condescending terms as the EU’s “problem children”—such people become more concerned about Western overbearingness. Poland and Hungary have deep political divisions, with ferocious arguments about political, economic and constitutional affairs, but the issue of migration unites most citizens. Their leaders were flooded with messages of thanks and support in the aftermath of this week’s attack in Manchester. Should the EU press them on this matter they should bear in mind that they are doing a lot to empower their governments. At the very least, they should remember that they, the historic occupiers, are pressuring the historically occupied.
I should acknowledge a debt in writing this article. Its thesis is not original to me. The day of the Charlie Hebdo shootings, when twelve employees of a satirical magazine were gunned down in their offices, an old Polish man of my acquaintance was heard to mumble, “Thank God we never had an empire.”