It is hard not to be sickened by the reports of anti-Polish hate crimes in recent weeks across the UK. The latest such incidents have been a succession of violent, unprovoked attacks against Poles – including a murder – but even the non-violent ones have been abhorrent: leaflets distributed demanding ‘no more Polish vermin’, for instance.
This in the week that, 77 years ago, Nazi Germany invaded Poland and Britain honoured its treaty commitment to protect Poland’s independence by declaring war on Germany. Polish servicemen and citizens went on to be some of the most heroic and brave combatants in the Second World War. How did they become now the target of such hatred?
The Polish territory was the subject of one of history’s grubbiest international treaties: the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, which divided Poland up between Germany and the Soviet Union. Both regimes were virulently Polonophobic, with over 100,000 ethnic Poles murdered by the USSR in the late 1930s. The Nazi administration of Poland following the invasion was probably more severe than in any other part of occupied Europe. Whilst other parts of the continent, Vichy France for example, were allowed degrees of autonomy and peacefulness, Poland was the victim of repeated ethnic cleansing, genocide and rule by Nazi diktat.
Despite, or perhaps because of this, the Polish people proved invaluable partners to the Allies during the war. Approximately 400,000 Poles served in the Polish resistance force, the AK, which carried out sabotage, diversionary and intelligence-gathering missions in cooperation with the exiled government based in London, and by extension with the British government. Intelligence recovered by Polish spies was vital in the cracking of the Enigma code. Needless to say, many thousands were tortured and executed by the Nazis for their seditious activity.
Of those Poles who escaped the German offensive and ended up in Allied territory, more than 200,000 fought in some capacity. Polish fighter pilots were particularly successful. Polish 303 Fighter Squadron claimed more Luftwaffe kills than any other Allied squadron. Its pilots were among the bravest and most skilful defending Britain during the Battle of Britain. There can be no doubt as to the sacrifice so many Poles made, nor as to their contribution to the Allied war effort.
How shameful it now is, then, that Polish people living in the UK should be described as ‘vermin’ to be deported, or worse. Of course, one would hope that it is only a very small minority of unpleasant individuals who use such language or carry out violent racist attacks. But, as has become so clear lately, rhetoric has consequences, and it is the use of casual bigotry against Poles as ‘job-thieving migrants’ which has gone a long way to legitimising the more repulsive behaviour.
The likes of Nigel Farage, the former Ukip leader, surely bear some responsibility for the rise of anti-Polish racism. Evidently, Mr Farage has not committed violence against Poles, but his and others’ successive insinuations that Polish immigrants were undesirable, did not contribute and degraded the quality of life for native Brits helped to create the atmosphere of discrimination. Other Ukip candidates and far-right xenophobes have suggested that Poles (among other EU migrant workers) should be deported when Britain leaves the EU, and that Polish ‘culture’ is less compatible with British values.
Of course, many retort that they are not racist against Polish people, simply concerned by large-scale immigration. Since very many immigrants in Britain are Polish, they say, it is inevitable that their stances will be misinterpreted as anti-Polonism. The decision by the Blair government in 2004 to forego transitional immigration controls as Poland entered the EU and therefore the freedom of movement system was, to be sure, questionable at best.
The economic reality, however, does not fit with this narrative. According to research conducted by UCL, migrants in Britain from the nations which joined the bloc in 2004, of which most are Polish, have contributed £5bn more to the UK economy than they have taken out in benefits and public services. The reply to this economic picture from anti-immigration politicians is that there is ‘more to life than money’. Sure. But the logical continuation of this position is that, even if they contribute economically, foreign people worsen quality of life. This seems to ignore the fact that areas with large immigrant populations actually saw reduced crime rates, according to LSE. One can only surmise that people dislike the very idea of a foreigner living near them. Difference and diversity have become vices.
Brexit and those who campaigned for it are not to be blamed for the rise in racist incidents since the referendum – those who carry out the attacks should be held responsible. But the Brexiters must recognise that many people have taken the result of 23rd June as a signal that their racist beliefs are shared by a majority.
There are only really two things which can be done to stem this flare-up of racism. In the short term, police and judges should take a very harsh line against the perpetrators of racially aggravated crimes as a deterrent to others. In the long term, politicians, journalists and activists have to face up to the fact that the narratives which they create have consequences. As long as immigrants are treated, homogenously, as economic leeches and cultural invaders in the political discourse (even implicitly), racists nationwide will feel legitimated.
Indubitably, many other minorities as well as Poles face discrimination. But the relatively sudden outburst of Polonophobia in recent months has been particularly shocking. A people who gave so much alongside Britain for the cause of freedom from despotism deserve to be welcomed, not hounded.