The countries of Central Europe have a long history of relying on the kindness of others during their darkest hours. So why are they so heartless when it comes to today’s refugees?
- By Paul HockenosPaul Hockenos is a Berlin-based journalist. His recent book is Berlin Calling: A Story of Anarchy, Music, the Wall and the Birth of the New Berlin (The New Press).
In Central Europe, historical memory is conveniently short when it wants to be — when tales of grand kingdoms past and the achievements of national forefathers aren’t being trumpeted at flag-festooned campaign rallies. Few of the 28 countries in the European Union have been as affected over the course of their histories by emigration as have the Central European ones: Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Poland have all seen their citizens pack their bags and flee abroad in their darkest hours. But you wouldn’t know it by their calls to fortify the EU against refugees as if they were criminals and by their stubborn refusal to accept those fleeing war, destitution, and discrimination — much like so many Mitteleuropäer have in the not-so-distant past.
This handful of nations on the EU’s eastern periphery aren’t the only ones that view the union as a white Christian fortress against the world’s have-nots or that have conveniently brushed aside their own histories of migration, as well as the spirit and values that make the EU more than just a glorified trading zone. Their tone is just an octave or two shriller than that of some of their western neighbors; the United Kingdom’s grudging compromise of accepting a paltry number of Syrians — just 20,000 — over five years stands out as particularly pathetic.
Yet the Central Europeans have been among the loudest and most unequivocal about rejecting the kind of mandatory quota system that would allocate refugees to all of the EU’s 28 nations based on population size, GDP, and unemployment rate. (The EU and Germany belatedly added the last criterion, which the Central Europeans and other poorer-than-average countries have every right to demand.) And their explanations for these rejections are deliberately disingenuous, relying on the claim that the bulk of the influx is made up of economic migrants, not genuinely persecuted refugees.
Slovakia and Hungary have explicitly stated that Muslim refugees are not welcome and do not belong in a Europe that they claim is white and Christian. In August, Slovakia’s Interior Ministry gave the preposterously weak justification that Muslims wouldn’t feel comfortable in a country without mosques.
In the Czech Republic, a new poll found that 94 percent of Czechs believe the EU should return refugees to their home countries. A third of those polled said this should happen at once, without providing any aid or refuge at all. More than three-fourths said they would like to abandon the EU’s Schengen Agreement, which allows passport-free movement within the EU. Another sign of the Czechs’ insensitivity: They had been detaining asylum-seekers in prison-like facilities until they filed for political asylum, as well as writing identification numbers in indelible marker on their forearms, a practice so reminiscent of Nazi concentration camps — in which many Czechs suffered — that Prague has since abandoned it.
Poland, a country of 38 million whose economy has fared comparatively well of late, has used softer language — perhaps because a Pole, Donald Tusk, is currently the European Council’s president. Warsaw says it will take in 2,000 migrants, though it too rejects a quota system. But two-thirds of Poles share unvarnished hostility toward immigrants, who they say don’t belong in (very white, very Catholic) Poland, and a 2013 study found that nearly 70 percent of citizens say nonwhites are not welcome in the country.
Meanwhile, in Hungary, the chaotic and brutal scenes at Budapest’s Keleti train station reflect Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s heavy-handed, jingoistic modus operandi, which is nothing new. Hungary is a front-line EU state bordering Serbia and thus bears a disproportionate burden in registering asylum applicants. But Orban’s laying the blame on Germany for the crisis and his statements to the effect that fiercer, higher borders are what the EU really needs have forfeited Hungary any sympathy it might deserve. Moreover, the right-wing, populist Orban has exploited the crisis to rush new legislation through parliament that dismantles what’s left of the Hungarian Constitution and gives the government free rein to declare a state of emergency, use the military to seal the borders, and empower police to enter private flats without a warrant.
This racism and xenophobia are atrocious on their own — refugee crisis or not — and speak volumes about the state of democratic culture in these countries a full quarter-century after communism’s demise. In the early 1990s, one might have forgiven illiberal attitudes that formed under dictatorships. Democratic political culture isn’t something that became reality the day the walls fell: There was violence against Roma and students from the developing world, and even saber rattling between Hungary and Romania. But after more than a decade with Hungary in the EU, we might have expected that some of these communist-era hangovers should have mellowed and disappeared.
Indeed, why such hardheartedness, especially when the numbers involved don’t seem to warrant it? The Czech Republic has received fewer than 1,000 asylum requests this year; Slovakia has agreed to take only a few hundred. According to Jan Culik, senior lecturer in Czech studies at the University of Glasgow, “[B]oth countries are still in the grip of anti-refugee hysteria, which is irresponsibly fed by the media and politicians.” “Refugees,” he wrote in a recent article, “are depicted as a dangerous, threatening, foreign force that will destroy central European countries.”
It might be worth reminding the Poles that the waves of their compatriots who fled Prussian, Russian, and Habsburg rule in the 19th and early 20th centuries (most heading to the United States) included both those fleeing persecution and others looking for a better life. Post-World War II emigration, when Poland’s borders were shifted to the west, resulted in the mass displacement and forced resettlement of approximately 8 million people of Polish, Ukrainian, Belarusian, and German origin. During communist rule, many tens of thousands more found sanctuary in foreign countries under asylum laws. And in 2004, the country’s EU accession triggered one of the largest emigration flows in Poland’s postwar history; Poland became among the EU’s largest exporters of labor — mostly to the United Kingdom and Ireland. The Poles boast that their diaspora includes several million people from Melbourne to Texas. So why shouldn’t Poland now return some of the kindness shown to it?
The Hungarians, Slovaks, and Czechs also have benefited enormously over the years from countries welcoming them when they were at their lowest. In the aftermath of the Soviet-suppressed 1956 uprising, 200,000 Hungarian enemies of the regime found new homes abroad. Some 50,000 Czechoslovakians left the country after the communist coup in 1948, while more than 40,000 fled after the Prague Spring was crushed in 1968.
Counterintuitive as it may be, the periods of emigration and the tragedies that triggered them may be part of the reason that the Central Europeans feel entitled to refuse refugees from elsewhere. There is a prevailing attitude in the region that these countries have suffered enough at the hands of history — that they are small, poor nations that have gotten the short end of the stick so many times that they’re still entitled to think of themselves as victims. Now, just when they’re getting back on their feet, they feel they should be able to look out for themselves.
Given the fraught atmosphere in Central Europe at the moment, it would in fact be a grave mistake for the EU to force these countries to accept unwanted refugees. This would put the newcomers themselves in danger. If reluctant governments, as outspoken as they’ve been, are muscled into it, there’d be a green light for right-wingers and populists to abuse the new arrivals. There’d be shelters burned down within a week, just as happened in eastern Germany in the early 1990s. (Refugee shelters still burn in Germany today, but anti-foreigner sentiment remains on the margins of public opinion, not smack in the center.)
But there could be voluntary quotas for all of the EU’s 28 countries: higher than those currently proposed, with provisions for EU aid for countries with lower-than-average GDPs that take in refugees. The money would enable the leaderships of these countries to put a positive spin on accommodating those in need. There shouldn’t be penalties attached to noncompliance — but the lack of empathy shouldn’t be forgotten when it comes time that these nay-sayers are in need, either.
And so, unexpectedly, the EU has yet another task on its long list: preparing the post-communist European nations for the responsibility of providing safe refuge for political refugees in desperate straits. It seems tolerance and civic values in these countries are less advanced than we assumed. Illiberal values, it seems, have been passed from one generation to the next, and it will take more than the arrival of tens of thousands in need of compassion and succor to change this sad state of affairs.