After the deep freeze: ethnicity, minorities and tolerance in the new Eastand Central Europe

05 December 2000

Konstanty Gebert1

when World War II ended in Europe, it seemed that the horrors it had produced would definitively put an end to anti-Semitism and other forms of ethnic intolerance. The Nazi genocide of the Jews and Roma, mass murder of homosexuals, and wholesale extermination of other entire populations deemed to be racially inferior, was a crime unparalleled in human history. And yet today, two generations later, it is obvious that xenophobia, anti-Semitism and other forms of intolerance are again part of the public scene in East and Central Europe. The wars in former Yugoslavia, fuelled by a particularly vicious form of xenophobia among part of the Serb population, demonstrate that the consequences of intolerance remain no different today from what they were in the first half of the century. Intolerance, if tolerated, leads to murder. For this reason alone it is crucial to study contemporary forms of intolerance.

First, however, one must attempt an analysis of why was it possible for xenophobia to survive and even flourish after the devastating experience of World War II. For that one needs to appreciate the fact that different people seem to have drawn different conclusions from wartime experience. While liberal intellectuals denounced with horror the evils of Nazi genocide, others had profited from the slaughter, and seem to have reached the conclusion that the fact that it had been carried out with seeming impunity indicates it can be continued. The immediate post-war period brought murder of Jewish survivors all over the region, but especially in Poland. Their killers were motivated by greed for the Jews' meagre possessions, or the fear that property looted earlier would have to be restituted - but also by the belief that killing Jews is a good thing. One needs to bear in mind that in many cases the murders did not stand to gain immediately anything from their crimes. Furthermore, discriminatory and repressive policies were adopted all over the region against the Roma, with the clearly stated goal of forcing them to abandon their traditional ways and become someone else. Homosexuality remained repressed, and sometimes penalised. Having been a victim of Hitler's genocide did not, in post-Hitler East and Central Europe, guarantee you even the most elementary rights and freedoms, not to mention compensation and respect.

Nor did all those who vanquished Hitler reel with horror at the idea of the continuation of some Nazi policies. On the contrary: the victorious Red Army did in fact liberate millions from Nazi tyranny, but it was the army of a regime whose policies were not, in many respects, very different from that of the former occupier. While preaching vintage Enlightenment ideals of tolerance, the Soviet regime and its local puppets deported, jailed or murdered hundreds of thousands of real or suspected opponents all over the region and installed regimes which were dictatorial, oppressive and brutal. This of course did not help in establishing the credibility of Enlightenment rhetoric. An unbiased observer would be justified in saying that the Nazis by comparison were at least honest in declaring that they intended to murder anybody who did not fit in their world plan.

Finally, while World War II did put an end to German attempts to dominate the continent, it did not extinguish, but only at best froze, dozens of lesser regional inter-ethnic conflicts which had been festering for decades, and had often been exacerbated by wartime developments. In those conflicts - such as those setting Poles and Ukrainians, or Croats and Serbs - one of the parties had often at least in part aligned itself with the Germans, in the hope of finding an invincible ally. These dreams had since been dashed, and the conflict seemingly solved by new arbitration imposed by the newly victorious Soviets or, in the case of Yugoslavia, by Tito's partisans. But in fact nothing had been solved, and the conflict often only lingered on, to reappear later with a vengeance.

None of those developments was specific to East and Central Europe. Also in the western part of the continent surviving minorities were often at risk, victorious powers often guided more by expedience than by principle - as when they enrolled the support of former Nazis in the Cold War - and old conflicts died hard. But the fact that by-and-large democracy and rule of law were observed in Western Europe (the Iberian and later Greek dictatorships being the obvious exceptions) prevented these nefarious phenomena from assuming the proportions they took on the eastern side of the continental divide. What is probably even more important, the culture of liberal debate made it possible to identify these problems, engage in their analysis and finally overcome or at least circumscribe them. This mechanism too was lacking in the East, with dire consequences. The comparative evolution of West and East Germany is an instructive case in point here. While in the West the struggle with the Nazi legacy was declared a basic element of political life and civic education, even if at times observed more in the breach, in the East, Nazism was declared a Capitalist phenomenon, and therefore of no concern of the citizens of the Socialist state. As a result, citizens of former Eastern Germany were much less capable than their Western counterparts to cope with the legacy of totalitarianism (in their case, both Nazi and Communist) when, in the 1990s, a rash of racist attacks developed all over the reunited Germany.

The Communist "deep freeze" lasted almost half a century. Interestingly enough, and to a degree in contradiction with the mechanism described above, its effects were not solely and uniformly negative. In the immediate post-war period, several million Poles were forced to relocate from the country's eastern half, seized by the USSR and eventually inherited by Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine. At the same time, a comparable number of Germans was expelled by Poles from German territories which had been awarded Poland in compensation by the Allies. The expellees created in Germany a powerful lobby which for years blocked the possibility of German-Polish normalisation, and contributed to the creation of a negative stereotype of Poles in Germany. By contrast, the Poles from the country's former eastern marches were forbidden by the pro-Soviet Communist authorities even to mention their experience, let alone organise. As a result an expellee lobby never materialised in Poland, greatly assisting Poland's normalisation of relations with Ukraine and Lithuania (Belarus being, for unrelated reasons, in a different category). One might therefore argue that some repression might actually have a long-term beneficial effect on the resolution of conflicts from the past.

Such reasoning, however, seems fallacious. The German expellees have lost most of their influence in united Germany, and public opinion seems indifferent to their occasional strident cries. In Poland, however, deep pockets of anti-Ukrainian resentment remain, and periodically generate crises. Even more pertinent, however, is the post-war fate of the Serb-Croat conflict in former Yugoslavia. Since the dominant Titoist ideology of "brotherhood and unity" made it impossible for credible national spokesmen to emerge, no one could in fact speak in the name of the Croat nation. This being the case, no one could in that name take responsibility for wartime crimes of Croats against Serbs, and ask for forgiveness. In Titoist Yugoslavia, a Croat Willy Brandt was simply not possible. A new Serb generation grew up, believing that the Croats, not having made amends, would be ready to butcher them again. A new Croat generation grew up disbelieving the version of wartime history taught in state schools, as it was not backed by credible national spokesmen, and often not aware that there was something for which to apologise. The results of this double cognitive deficit are there for all to see.

This analysis of the role of nationalism, though falling outside the immediate scope of this paper, is necessary in order to situate the context in which anti-Semitism, xenophobia and racism occur in contemporary East and Central Europe. The societies of our part of the continent continue essentially to define themselves, in no small degree due to history's unfinished business, in ethnic terms. This implies a biological, and not contractual, basis for relationship with others. In other terms, members of the same nation are assumed to share a fundamental bond, even if divided by politics, while people putatively "not of our blood" are seen as foreigners, even if we share with them citizenship and common history. This was dramatically illustrated in Poland during the period of transition from Communism. During the 1980 negotiations which led to the creation of  "Solidarnosc" (Solidarity), both the worker leader Lech Walesa and the Communist apparatchik Mieczyslaw Jagielski triumphantly said that they had talked "as Pole to Pole". This seemingly implied that Poles, by virtue of ethnic community, share some kind of positive bond which is unavailable to others. The same Lech Walesa, barely eleven years later, running for the country's presidency against his former adviser Tadeusz Mazowiecki, stated, alluding to his rival's putative Jewish origins, that he himself was "100% Polish, which is more than others can show for themselves." Mazowiecki was roundly defeated.

This perception that ethnicity constitutes collective identity is of course an old European one, and its influence started to wane in the west only after World War II. More interestingly, and deplorably, it constitutes the backbone of the Western-produced peace agreement in Bosnia. In the institutions produced by that treaty, ethnicity overrides citizenship, and Bosnia remains the only country in Europe in which membership in political bodies such as the presidency is determined through ethnic affiliation. Such manifestations of ethnic thinking give the West's exhortations for more ethnic tolerance in the East a hollow ring. Having said that, in the eastern part of the continent the principle of ethnicity still is quite in evidence. In countries such as Poland, Czech Republic and Hungary, which by dint of ethnic cleansings and territorial changes have become ethnically almost homogeneous, its pernicious influence is less directly felt, as the ethnic body almost coincides in practice with civil society. Those, however, who do not fit - say, the non-Catholics in Poland, Roma in the Czech Republic, Jews in Hungary - become, in their status as aliens, targets of marginalisation at best, if not of outright exclusion. The results are clearly seen in different aspects of public life: from the 45% of Poles who state in a public opinion poll that the existence of national minorities is nefarious for the country, to the good burghers of Usti nad Labem who built a wall to separate them from their Romani neighbours and those Hungarian voters who sent 14 MPs from Istvan Csurka's Hungarian Truth and Life Party to Parliament, there to defend the endangered "Hungarianness" of their country.

If such are the attitudes to citizens who in some way do not conform to the dominant ethnic mode, it seems reasonable to expect that, as the degree of nonconformity increases, so will the degree of rejection. This indeed seems to be the case: there is a general feeling of ill-will towards non-citizens arriving into a country, with the perceived intention of either robbing its citizens of their jobs, or just robbing them - period. This attitude is ill-founded in fact: in Poland the percentage of crimes committed by non-citizens is lower than their percentage in the total national population, while their competitiveness on the (illegal) labour market is due to the fact that they accept wages and jobs that Polish citizens, even unemployed, are often unwilling to. What makes this situation even more grotesque is the fact that Poles, while entertaining this stereotypical image of migrants from beyond the eastern border, are outraged at the identical stereotype of the Pole which exists in Germany.

Interestingly enough, campaigns periodically undertaken by right-wing parties to reintroduce visas for Poland's eastern neighbours (which Poland will have to do eventually when/if it joins the EU) do not seem to be popular. This is to an extent due to the appreciation of the eastern migrant's positive impact on the economy (black labour market, trade), and to an extent to the unwillingness to see ethnic Poles residing beyond the eastern borders affected by such measures. But more interestingly, Poles tend to remember that they themselves were - and often still are - such economic migrants in the West, and still feel residual solidarity with those even more unfortunate than they. This solidarity was also seen in respect to waves of refugees fleeing the wars of former Yugoslavia, who were met in Poland with sympathy and support. Had they, however, numbered not in the low thousands, but higher, this attitude would in all probability have been reversed. The same can also be said in respect to the generally positive attitude of Poles toward the still minute numbers of asylum-seekers from Third World countries. This attitude, it should be added, is clearly not shared by Polish immigration authorities, who do their utmost to make obtaining asylum in Poland an almost impossible goal.

The situation is different, and much more dramatic, in countries which remain multi-ethnic, as the entire region used to be until the horrors of the last world war. The massive murders and genocide committed in Yugoslavia show the dangers of building an ethnic political identity in a multi-ethnic society, but because of their magnitude cannot be properly addressed here. The fate of the Roma in Romania, and of the Romanian Roma abroad, also can illustrate this point. Discrimination against Roma obviously exists all over this part of the continent, and Romania, because of the size of its Romani population and the meagreness of the resources in can allocate to alleviate its lot, faces an objectively greater problem than most. This having been said, the routine presentation of Roma as criminals in Romanian media, and the practice - reportedly now discontinued - of identifying criminals by ethnicity in police press releases, if that ethnicity happens to be Roma, are indicative of an exclusionary intent. The same is true of the lack of police protection given them when violence threatens, and in fact in not uncommon cases of violence perpetrated against them by the police. This is also clearly seen in the marked lack of interest by Romanian authorities abroad in the fate of Romanian Romani citizens. At times it seems that making the distinction between Roma and Romanian is more important to these authorities, than the situation of their citizens. The Roma do not fit, any more than the Hungarians, into the vision of Romania as an ethnic state, still endorsed by a substantial part of the Romanian public, and tolerated by most of the rest. And though the Isarescu government has done a great deal to try and change this state of affairs, and Romanian nationalist parties do not seem to gain more popularity, the fundamental issue of Romanian-Romani relations remains.

The issue is complicated by the manifest lack of censure of racism, more evident towards the Roma than to any other Central and East European minority. Some countries, like the Czech Republic, have adopted laws to make the racist motivation of a crime an aggravating circumstance. In reaction to that, a judge who was to rule over a case of Czech skinheads beating a Rom in a train excluded the possibility of their racist motivation, since - he ruled - Czechs and Roma all belong to the Indo-European race. Continuing in this vein, one should applaud, however, a recent verdict by another Czech judge, who sentenced a group of Roma for the beating of a white youth. Being a member of a community targeted by racism does not make one immune to the disease. Nor, on the other hand, does the disease have to be permanent. In the 1980s, Bulgaria was the scene of the greatest ethnic cleansing campaign of the latter part of the century in Europe outside of Yugoslavia. It is interesting to note, however, that thousands of the Turks expelled or forced to free have since returned and recovered part or all of their property and rights. This seems to be a rare instance of partially reversed ethnic cleansing and deserves more study.

The Roma clearly are the most discriminated against and most persecuted minority in the region. Their situation demands constant national and international vigilance, monitoring and support. It has to be admitted, however, that the roots of the problem are not solely in the racism displayed towards them, but in their long-standing historical and sociological isolation, in part hitherto of their own choosing. Like any other minority, the Roma have often preferred not to integrate too deeply in society at large, even when the opportunity was there (as it often was not), out of fear of assimilation.The integration process will also have to last a long time, and cannot be expected to be problem-free. Another regional minority, the Jews, occupy a position that doubtlessly the Roma would be happy to achieve, and yet remain the target of persistent anti-Semitism. It has even recently appeared in countries historically free of it, such as Serbia. Though in their case, as opposed to that of the Roma, there is no widespread discrimination in access to education, housing, jobs or career, Jews are often seen in most countries of the region as fundamentally alien in certain respects and therefore threatening. They tend to be associated in the public's mind with supra-national forces such as Communism, capitalism, cosmopolitanism or globalisation, and as such are sometimes seen as posing a threat to the very core of national identity. This is often strengthened by the more than residual religious anti-Semitism of Christian churches. It does not seem realistic to expect that this issue will disappear very soon.

In general, the ethnic identification of the political collective, a consistent phenomenon across the region, tends to exacerbate nationalism and, as a result, favours the development of anti-Semitism, racism and xenophobia. This is a side effect of what is essentially an anachronistic defensive mechanism, geared at preserving a perceived, and never really implemented, state of ethnic purity. The downfall of Communism facilitated the re-emergence of nationalism, in its different variants, as the main political ideology. Not only because nationalism had been repressed so long, but also because of a perverse similarity between the two opposing ideologies. To use a metaphor: if one wants to translate from the language of Communism into that of democracy, one needs both to change the vocabulary and the grammar. But if one intends to translate from Communism into nationalism, all that needs to be changed is the vocabulary; the grammar, as it were, remains the same. And thus nationalism, not democracy, often took the relay from Communism, in the minds of many.

And yet - again with the dramatic Yugoslav exception - this did not have devastating effects. On the contrary, the progress of the countries of the region towards stable democracy, rule of law and a liberal culture is impressive, though different countries had different starting points, routes and speeds. And since democracy, the rule of law and a liberal culture are factors which have in the past substantially contributed to the fight against racism, anti-Semitism and xenophobia in the western part of the continent, it is reasonable to expect they will do so also in the East. In fact, they seem to be already at work: after all, again with the exception of the situation in Yugoslavia and that of the Russians in the Baltic states, no minority in Central and Eastern Europe - with the possible exception of the Roma - can claim that its situation has worsened over the decade - though improvement, if and any, is often unacceptably slow.

There are of course no quick fixes, but several tested methods exist to accelerate the process. Firstly, the development of a civic culture which produces solidarity with minorities as a matter of enlightened self-interest, rather than moral impulse. Secondly, a consistent policy of hindering intolerance in everyday life and especially in the media is required. In this respect, the judiciary in most of the region is simply not doing its job. Thirdly, self-policing by the media to avoid the propagation of stereotyping and intolerance is necessary. It probably would help if even just one of our putative colleagues from the countries of the former Yugoslavia, who share responsibility for murder through the hatred they spread, would end up in the Hague. Finally, mutually agreed revisions of school textbooks, especially in what regards the history of conflict, to present also some of the other side's perspective - or at least to admit that such a perspective exists.

These measures demand committed involvement by governments, institutions and civil society. They will not be undertaken, or not strongly enough, unless all those interested, including the international community, maintain consistent pressure to that effect.


  1. Konstanty Gebert is Editor-in-Chief of the journal Midrasz in Warsaw, Poland. A version of this paper was prepared for the UNHCHR Seminar of Experts for Central and Eastern European States on “The Protection of Minorities and Other Vulnerable Groups and Strengthening Human Rights Capacity”, Warsaw, July 5–7, 2000.


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