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Racism in Poland

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Racism in Poland in the 20th and 21st century has been the subject of significant inquiry. While ethnic minorities made up a more significant proportion of the country's population from the founding of the Polish state through the Second Polish Republic, 21st century government statistics have shown 94% or more of the population self-reports as ethnically Polish.[1][2] During the 16th century, many Jews lived in Poland, so much that it was called the center of the Jewish world. Jewish expulsions and pogroms punctuated the time period: from Krakow in 1494, to Warsaw in 1527 to Silesia in 1559 and 1582. 30,000 Jews were killed in the Chmielnicki Uprising.[3] After the second partition of Poland, Frederick the Great, considering the territory a new colony and its people like the Iroquois of North America, began a Prussian colonisation campaign which sought to replace the Polish language and culture with German.[4][5]

During World War II Poland was the main scene of the Holocaust, the Porajmos, and the Nazi atrocities against the Polish nation. These genocides varied in how, when and where they were applied; Jews and Romani were targeted for immediate extermination and suffered the greatest casualties, while the Poles were targeted for destruction and enslavement within 15–20 years.[6] Robert Gellately has called the Nazi racial policy of cultural eradication and mass extermination of people based on ethnicity a serial genocide, since in its broader formulation it targeted multiple ethnic groups who the Nazis deemed "sub-human", including Ukrainians, Belorusians, Poles and Jews.[7]:253, 256

In 2017, a far-right march gathered 60,000 participants chanting phrases including "We want God," "Poland for Poles," and anti-semitic slogans.[8] Poland also has a major problem with racist football hooligans.[9] The ruling Polish Law and Justice party has been described as far-right,[10] and in Poland today the number of racist incidents is increasing.[11] In 2013 there were more than 800 racially motivated crimes and in 2016 it had increased to over 1600.[12] Poland tops the list of countries with the most attacks on Indian students, with 9 of 21 worldwide incidents in 2017 occurring in Poland.[13]


Antisemitic graffiti in Lublin depicting a Star of David hanging from gallows, c. 2012
Antisemitic propaganda poster dating to the Polish-Soviet War of 1919-1921

King Casimir III the Great brought Jews to Poland during the Black Death at a time when Jewish communities were being persecuted and expelled from all over Europe. As a result of better living conditions, 80% of the world's Jews lived in Poland by the mid-16th century.[14][15]

During the 15th century in the royal capital of Kraków, extremist clergymen advocated violence towards the Jews, who gradually lost their positions. In 1469 Jews were expelled from their old settlement and forced to move to Spiglarska Street. In 1485 Jewish elders were forced to renounce trade in Kraków, which led many Jews to leave for Kazimierz which did not fall under the restrictions due to its status as a royal town. Following the 1494 fire in Kraków, a wave of anti-Jewish attacks occurred. King John I Albert forced the remaining Jews of Kraków to move to Kazimierz.[16] Starting in 1527, Jews were no longer admitted into the city walls of Warsaw (generally speaking, temporary stays were possible in the royal palace). Only the Praga suburb was open to them.[3]:334 They were likewise barred from all of Silesia by Ferdinand I in 1559 and by Rudolph II in 1582.[3]:339[17]

The Council of Four Lands created in 1581 was a Jewish diet presided over by community elders from each major part of Poland, another governing body was established in Lithuania in 1623. Jewish communities were usually protected by the szlachta (nobles) in exchange for their work administering the nobles' domains.[3]:358 As such, they were often on the front line in revolts against the lords of the land, as was the case during the Cossack revolts in 1630, 1637 and 1639. It is estimated, in particular, that 30,000 Jews perished from 1648–9 as a result of the Chmielnicki Uprising.[3]:342

In Congress Poland, Jews gained civic rights with the ukase (edict) of 5 June 1862, two years before serfdom was abolished and the peasantry was freed. 35 years later, in 1897, the 1.4 million Jews represented 14% of the population of the Russian-administered partition, which included Warsaw and Lodz.[18]:478-480

In the Second Polish Republic, from the 1920s the Polish government excluded Jews: from receiving government bank credits, from public sector employment (in 1931, only 599 of 87,640 public servants were Jewish—in the domains of telephony, railroads, administration and justice[18]:483), and from obtaining business licenses in the government-controlled sphere of the economy. From the 1930s, limits were placed on Jewish enrollment in university education, Jewish shops, Jewish export firms, Shechita, Jewish admission to the medical and legal professions, Jews in business associations, etc. While in 1921-22 25% of students were Jews, by 1938-9 the proportion went down to 8%. The far-right National Democracy (Endeks) organized anti-Jewish boycotts. Following the death of Poland's ruler Józef Piłsudski in 1935, the Endeks intensified its efforts and in 1937 it declared that its "main aim and duty must be to remove the Jews from all spheres of social, economic, and cultural life in Poland", which lead to violence in a few cases (pogroms in smaller towns). In response the government organized the Camp of National Unity (OZON), which took control of the Polish parliament in 1938. The Polish parliament then drafted anti-Jewish legislation which was similar to anti-Jewish laws which existed in Germany, Hungary, and Romania. OZON advocated the mass emigration of Jews from Poland, boycotts of Jews, numerus clausus (see also Ghetto benches), and other limitations on Jewish rights.[19]

In the mid-20th century, notable incidents of antisemitism in Poland included the Jedwabne pogrom of 1941 in the presence of German Ordnungspolizei (police officers)[20] and Anti-Jewish violence in Poland, 1944–46, attributed to postwar lawlessness as well as an anti-communist insurrection against the new pro-Soviet government immediately after the end of World War II in Europe,[21] and the "Żydokomuna" (Jewish communism) stereotype.[22] Another major event took place during the 1968 Polish political crisis.

The Jewish community in Poland made up about 10% of the country's total population in 1939, but was all but eradicated during the Holocaust.[23] In the Polish census of 2011, only 7,353 people declared either their primary or secondary ethnicity as Jewish.[citation needed]

In 2017, the University of Warsaw’s Center for Research on Prejudice found an increase in antisemitic views in Poland, possibly due to growing Islamophobia and anti-migrant sentiment.[24] Later that year, the European Jewish Congress accused the Polish government of "normalizing" the phenomenon in the country.[25]

Despite the fact that Poland's Jewish population is currently scant, antisemitism persists and fulfills various important roles in Polish society. It is an informal tenet of Polish religiosity, enables Poles to view themselves as the main victims of the Nazis, enables them to deny their historic responsibility for anti-Jewish crimes, and provides a scapegoat for problems in the post-communist transition. Unlike other European societies, contemporary Polish antisemitism is not related to attitudes towards Israel. Furthermore, political representation of those employing antisemitic rhetoric is very limited.[26] One contemporary motif that is claimed to be antisemitic is the Jew with a coin picture, displayed in 18% Polish homes to bring luck.


In June 1991 the Mława riot occurred, which was a series of violent incidents against Polska Roma that broke out after one Polish man was killed and another Polish man was permanently harmed when a Romani teenager drove into three ethnic Poles in a crosswalk, killing one, then left the scene of the accident.[27] After the accident a rioting mob attacked wealthy Romani settlements in the Polish town of Mława. Both the Mława police chief[28] and University of Warsaw sociology researchers[27] said that the pogrom was primarily due to class envy (some Romani have grown wealthy in the gold and automobile trades). At the time, the mayor of the town, as well as the Romani involved and other residents, said the incident was primarily racially motivated. [28]

During the coverage of the riot, a change in ethnic stereotypes about Roma in Poland was mentioned: A Roma is no longer poor, dirty, or cheerful. They also do not beg or pretend to be lowly. Nowadays a Roma drives a high status car, lives in a fancy mansion, flaunts his wealth, brags that the local authorities and the police are on his pay and thus he is not afraid of anybody. At the same time he is, as before, a swindler, a thief, a hustler, a dodger of military service and a holder of a legal, decent job.[29] Negative "metastereotypes" – or the Romas' own perceptions regarding the stereotypes that members of the dominant groups hold about their own group – were described by the Polish Roma Society in an attempt to intensify the dialogue about exclusionism.[30]


During the second half of the last millennium, Poland experienced significant periods of time where its feudal economy was dominated by serfdom. Many serfs were treated in condescending fashion by the nobility (szlachta), and had few rights. While many serfs were ethnic, Catholic Poles, many others were Orthodox Ruthenians, later self-identifying as Ukrainians. Some scholars described the attitudes of the (mostly Polish) nobility towards serfs as a form of racism.[31] In modern Poland, where Ukrainians form a significant minority of migrant workers, they are subject to occasional racism in everyday life.[32][33]

Sub-Saharan Africans

The most common word in Polish for a black person is "murzyn". It is generally regarded as a neutral word which was used to describe a person of black (Sub-Saharan African) ancestry for centuries, but nowadays some black Africans consider it pejorative, though the majority of people in Poland still consider it a neutral term.[34]

One high-profile event with regard to blacks in Poland was the death of Maxwell Itoya in 2010, a Nigerian street vendor from a mixed marriage who was selling counterfeit goods.[35] He was shot in the upper leg by a policeman during a street brawl that followed a screening check at a market in Warsaw and died of a severed artery.[36] The event led to a media debate regarding policing and racism.[37]

There have been other cases of violence against blacks in recent years. In Strzelce Opolskie, Black soccer players from LZS Piotrówka club were attacked in a bar by fans of the opposing team Odra Opole in 2015 and two young men were arrested.[38] At least six men were sentenced. [39] In a Łódź dance-club, a black student was attacked in a men's washroom.[40][41]

Ethnic Poles

Through Poles generally have formed a majority in Poland, particularly during the times of partitions of Poland (mid-18th century to 1918) most of the Polish territories were under control of other nations, and Poles, effectively minorities in nationalistic German Empire and Russian Empire, were subject to discrimination and racism.[42][43]

German Empire

Racist publications about Poles appeared as early as the 18th century, and they were imbued with Medieval ethnic stereotypes and racist overtones in order to justify German rule over Polish territories.[44] Authors such as Georg Forster wrote about Poles that they are "cattle in human form".[45]

When part of Poland was under the rule of the German Empire, the Polish population was discriminated against by racist policies. These policies gained popularity among German nationalists, some of whom were members of the Völkisch movement, leading to the expulsion of Poles by Germany. This was fueled by Anti-Polish sentiment, especially during the age of partitions in the 18th century.[46][47][48] The Kulturkampf campaign led by Otto von Bismarck resulted in legacy of anti-Polish racism; in turn Polish population experienced oppression and exploitation at hands of Germans.[49] The racist ideas of Prussian state directed against Polish people were taken on by German social scientists, in part led by Max Weber.[50]

Nazi Germany

German warning in Nazi-occupied Poland 1939 - "No entrance for Poles!"
Concentration camp badge with the letter "P" to identify people of Polish ethnicity, which Polish slave laborers and inmates were required to wear in occupied Poland during World War II

During World War II Poland was occupied by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union and Polish people were harshly discriminated against in their own country. In directive No. 1306, issued by Reich Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda on 24 October 1939, the concept of untermenschen (subhuman) is cited in reference to Polish ethnicity and culture:

It must become clear to everybody in Germany, even to the last milkmaid, that Polishness is equal to subhumanity. Poles, Jews and Gypsies are on the same inferior level. This must be clearly outlined [...] until every citizen of Germany has it encoded in his subconsciousness that every Pole, whether a farm worker or intellectual, should be treated like vermin".[51][52]

Most Nazis considered the Poles, like the majority of other Slavs, to be non-Aryan and non-European "masses from the East" which should be either totally annihilated along with the Jews and Gypsies, or entirely expelled from the European continent.[53] Poles were the victims of Nazi crimes against humanity and some of the main non-Jewish victims of the Holocaust. Approximately 2.7 million ethnic Poles were murdered or killed during World War II.[54]

Nazi policy towards ethnically Polish people was eventually the genocide and destruction of the whole Polish nation, as well as cultural genocide[55][56] which involved Germanisation, as well as the suppression or murder of religious, cultural, intellectual, and political leadership.

On March 15, 1940, Heinrich Himmler stated “All Polish specialists will be exploited in our military-industrial complex. Later, all Poles will disappear from this world. It is imperative that the great German nation considers the elimination of all Polish people as its chief task.”[57] The goal of the policy was to prevent effective Polish resistance and to exploit Polish people as slave laborers[58] and foresaw the extermination of Poles as a nation.[59] Polish slaves in Nazi Germany were forced to wear identifying red tags with the letter P that were sewn to their clothing. Sexual relations with Germans (rassenschande or "racial defilement") were punishable by death. During the war many Polish men were executed for their relations with German women.[60][61]

Maintain the purity of German blood! That applies to both men and women! Just as it is considered the greatest disgrace to become involved with a Jew, any German engaging in intimate relations with a Polish male or female is guilty of sinful behavior. Despise the bestial urges of this race! Be racially conscious and protect your children. Otherwise you will forfeit your greatest asset: your honor![62]

In 1942, racial discrimination became Nazi policy with the Decree on Penal Law for Poles and Jews.[63]:3[64]

During post-war Trials of Nazis it was stated during Trial of Ulrich Freifelt that: "The methods applied by the Nazis in Poland and other occupied territories, including once more Alsace and Lorraine, were of a similar nature with the sole difference that they were more ruthless and wider in scope than in 1914-1918. In this connection the policy of “ Germanizing ” the populations concerned, as shown by the evidence in the trial under review, consisted partly in forcibly denationalising given classes or groups of the local population, such as Poles, Alsace-Lorrainers, Slovenes and others eligible for Germanization under the German People’s List. As a result in these cases the programme of genocide was being achieved through acts which, in themselves, constitute war crimes"[65]

Likewise, during World War II around 120,000 Polish people, mostly women and children, became the primary victims of an ethnicity-based genocide by the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, which was then operating in the territory of occupied Poland.[66]

Studies and surveys

2008 EVS survey

An analysis based on the European Values Survey (EVS), which took place in 2008, compares Poland to other European nations. Poland had very high levels of political tolerance (lack of extremist political attitudes), relatively high levels of ethnic tolerance (based on attitudes towards Muslims, immigrants, Romas, and Jews) and at the same time low levels of personal tolerance (based on attitudes towards people considered "deviant" or "threatening"). From 1998 to 2008, there was a marked increase in political and ethnic tolerance, but a decrease in personal tolerance.[67]

In 1990, due partly to the political euphoria accompanying the fall of communism, Poland was the most tolerant nation in Central Europe. However, over the course of the '90s, the level of tolerance decreased. By 1999, EVS recorded Poland as having one of the highest rates of xenophobia in Europe, while antisemitism also increased during this time. The factors behind these decreases in tolerance and the radicalization in attitudes towards other ethnic groups during this time likely included the country's economic problems associated with a costly transition from Communism (for example, high unemployment), ineffectual government and possibly an increase in immigration from outside.[67]

These attitudes began to change after 2000, possibly due to Poland's entry into the European Union, increased travel abroad and more frequent encounters with people of other races. By 2008, the EVS showed Poland as one of the least xenophobic countries in Central and Eastern Europe. The negative attitudes towards Jews have likewise returned to their lower 1990s level, although they do remain somewhat above the European average.[67] During the same time period, ethnic tolerance and political tolerance increased in Southern Europe (Spain, Greece) and decreased in other parts of Northern Europe (Netherlands).[67]

While the Roma group was listed as most rejected, the level of exclusion was still lower than elsewhere in Europe, most likely due the long history of Roma (see Polska Roma) and their relatively low numbers in the country.[67]

2012 CRP survey

In a 2012 survey conducted by the Center for Research on Prejudice at the University of Warsaw, it was found that 78.5% of participants disagreed with traditional antisemitic statements (eg. "Jews are responsible for the death of Jesus Christ"), but 52.9% agreed with secondary antisemitic statements (eg. "Jews spread the stereotype of Polish anti-Semitism"), and 64.6% believed in a "Jewish conspiracy" (eg. "Jews would like to rule the world").[68] The authors noted that "belief in [a] Jewish conspiracy proved to be the strongest significant predictor of discriminatory intentions towards Jews in all fields. Traditional anti-Semitism predicted social distance towards Jews, while it did not predict any of the other discriminatory intentions. Secondary anti-Semitism failed to predict any form of discriminatory intentions against Jews."[68]

2014 ADL Global 100 survey

In the ADL Global 100 survey conducted in 2013-2014, 57% of respondents said that "it is probably true" that "Jews have too much power in the business world"; 55% that "Jews have too much power in international financial markets"; 42% that "Jews have too much control over global affairs"; and 33% that "people hate Jews because of the way Jews behave".[69]

2018 FRA survey

In the FRA 2018 Experiences and perceptions of antisemitism/Second survey on discrimination and hate crime against Jews in the EU, antisemtism in Poland was identified as a "fairly big" or "very big" problem by 85% of respondants (placing Poland at the fourth place after France, Germany and Belgium); 61% reported that antisemitism had increased "a lot" in the past five years (second place after France, and before Belgium and Germany); 74% reported that intolerance towards Muslim had increased "a lot" (second place after Hungary, and before Austria and the UK); and 89% reported an increase in expressions of antisemitism online (second place after France, and before Italy and Belgium). The most commonly heard antisemitic statements were "Jews have too much power in Poland" (70%) and "Jews exploit Holocaust victimhood for their own purposes" (67%).[70]

Countering racism

Government action

In 2004, the government took some initiatives in order to tackle the problem of racism. It adopted the "National Programme to Prevent Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance 2004-2009" ("Krajowy Program Przeciwdziałania Dyskryminacji Rasowej, Ksenofobii i Związanej z Nimi Nietolerancji 2004 – 2009"[71]) and also established the Monitoring Team on Racism and Xenophobia within the Ministry of Interior and Administration. The Implementation Report (2010)[72] stated that the programme suffered from various obstacles, including lacking and unclear funding, and eventually some planned tasks were completed, while others were not.[73]

In 2013 Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk started The Council Against Racial Discrimination and Xenophobia, but it was shut down by the new Law and Justice government in May 2016.[74]

"Never Again" Association

The "Never Again" Association is an apolitical and anti-racist organization, based in Warsaw. The organization has its roots in an informal anti-Nazi youth group that has been active since 1992, and was formally founded in 1996 in Bydgoszcz by Marcin Kornak [pl]. As of 2010, the organization had several hundred members, of which some 80% were in Poland and 20% were in other European countries.[75][76] "Never Again" has published the "Never Again" magazine since 1994.[75] The magazine is focused on countering intolerance, fascism, racism and xenophobia.[77] "Never Again" publishes the Brown Book (Polish: „Brunatna Księga”),[78] which compiles xenophobic, racist, and anti-gay incidents.[79][80]


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Further reading

See also