The West Has Made Mistakes: Knowing the Immigrant Threat in Kaczyński’s Poland

From the Series: Lessons for Liberalism from the “Illiberal East”

Photo by Ines Zgonc, licensed under CC BY.

“Poland slams door on refugees,” declared a Politico headline on March 23, 2016. In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in Brussels on March 22, the story explained, Poland abandoned the promise reluctantly issued by the previous center-right government to accept up to 7,200 refugees as part of the emergency relocation scheme approved by European Union member states. The scheme dates back to 2015, when the number of people who arrived to seek international protection in Europe reached one million. EU relocation was framed as a “solidarity mechanism” to lessen the burden on Italy and Greece, where most of the migrants were arriving. At least 120,000 asylum applicants were to be moved to other EU member states, proportionately to the size of the country’s population and Gross Domestic Product. In Poland (population: 38 million) the process was due to begin in 2016 with the initial admission of four hundred people. However, before a single refugee set foot on Polish soil, the plan was unilaterally scrapped.

In their coverage of the fraught European efforts to respond to the crisis, liberal Western media outlets noted the apparent callousness of the Polish position. Reporting on the refusal to accept refugees, in September 2015 the Economist observed that Poland seems “to have repressed the memories of Western countries offering [its] citizens asylum in 1956, 1968 and 1981.” According to other stories in this vein, instead of taking the opportunity to repay that generosity in kind, Poland rendered itself openly hostile to the outside world. Xenophobia went mainstream as the country geared up for the 2015 election, which ended the eight-year rule of the center-right Civic Platform and brought into power the nationalist right-wing party Law and Justice, led by Jarosław Kaczyński.

Some Western accounts have attempted to explain the Polish closed-door policy in terms of the persistent cultural divide between the prosperous West and postsocialist East. But what liberal media were slow to pick up on is the fact that Kaczyński and his acolytes are not afraid, as their Civic Platform predecessors might have been, of negative international coverage. Accusations of betraying European values act to mobilize instead of discipline them. Far from consenting to being portrayed as an antimodern party, Law and Justice frames itself—for the benefit of domestic and international audiences—as the avant-garde of a “rational” and “realistic” approach to the so-called refugee problem. Seeking alliances with their right-wing counterparts elsewhere (most notably in Hungary), its politicians argue that the West is in crisis because for years it has been naively promoting the failed ideology of multiculturalism, which must now be replaced with hardheaded reason.

According to Kaczyński and his supporters, the threats posed by refugees play out daily in immigrant ghettos in France, in the supposed sharia zones in Sweden, and in public spaces all over Western Europe where native citizens increasingly fear immigrant crime, rape, and terrorist attacks. In contrast, Poland will preempt such dangers by not admitting culturally different strangers in the first place. It will not open up its borders to fleeing Middle Easterners and North Africans because that would jeopardize the security and cultural integrity of the nation, not to mention straining the national welfare system. Law and Justice embraces a discriminatory model of welfare where foreigners are not considered worthy recipients of benefits. Such rights are reserved for native citizens, who are seen as victims of the predatory capitalism ushered into Poland by EU-aligned liberal elites who presided over the postsocialist transition.

Today the West has ceased to be a source of readymade models for the organization of public life. Not only has it lost its aspirational status, but also the roles have been reversed: old democracies are now presented as those in need of advice.

The current rulers of Poland are, of course, not alone in combining popular postulates of economic justice with a defense of national identity and an opposition to cultural pluralism. Their antirefugee warnings rely on the same tropes that have animated other ascendant European illiberal movements and their cheerleading media, from Russia-backed RT to British tabloids to Breitbart. Douglas Holmes (2016, 1) does not hesitate to call this political phenomenon “fascism 2,” noting that it is “a fascism that has distinctive contemporary features that are not fully or necessarily congruent with its historical manifestations.” Law and Justice harnesses the social-media echo chamber of this movement, merging internationally resonant themes with a specifically Polish disillusionment with the previously idealized and idolized West. Today the West has ceased to be a source of readymade models for the organization of public life. Not only has it lost its aspirational status, but also the roles have been reversed: old democracies are now presented as those in need of advice. The former Polish prime minister Beata Szydło was keen to offer just that in her speech following the May 2017 attack in Manchester: “Rise from your knees!” she demanded of European leaders, or “you will be crying over your children every day.” Here, again, she linked the “folly” of admitting refugees to terrorism.

Such claims of inevitable catastrophe appear to be made entirely on the basis of a skewed westward gaze, given the absence of any recent firsthand experience of accommodating culturally different communities. Whereas Poland was once a diverse society of many minorities—including the largest Jewish community in Europe—postwar Poland is now the paragon of homogeneity, with 97 percent of the population declaring Polish nationality and 88 percent Roman Catholicism. Migration figures have remained net negative since 1989 and the official educational policy promotes an exclusionary patriotism rooted in Polish martyrology (see Cervinkova 2016). Meanwhile the Church frames Islam, a competing monotheistic religion, as inherently threatening.

In this context, Kaczyński and his allies argue that a peaceful coexistence of different communities, such as that envisioned in multicultural liberal utopias, is a fanciful dream unhinged from any reliable perception of how the world really works. Such warnings gain traction because they rely on a form of apocalyptic authority that appears thoroughly legitimate to domestic audiences. But this type of authority now resonates beyond Poland and enjoys broad credibility, bolstered by the online interconnectedness of East–West right-wing constituencies. In apocalyptic tones, postsocialist subjects repudiate their former liberal-democratic mentors in the European Union; fascism 2 thrives on the ensuing accounts of multiculturalism that will ostensibly doom us all.


Cervinkova, Hana. 2016. “Producing Homogeneity as a Historical Tradition: Neo-Conservatism, Precarity, and Citizenship Education in Poland.” Journal for Critical Education Policy Studies 14, no. 3: 43–55.

Holmes, Douglas R. 2016. “Fascism 2.” Anthropology Today 32, no. 2: 1–3.