Rise of anti-migrant rhetoric in Poland (EMMIR Final Paper)

This was a paper for my Multiculturalism class in the EMMIR program. For a PDF copy of this with footnotes and citations, please download it here: Mikiewicz MM22.5 Final Paper.

What came first: the nationalism or the othering?

Exploring the relationship between the rise of nationalism
and anti-immigrant sentiment in Poland.

By Gabriella Mikiewicz
MM22.5 – Controversies over Multiculturalism
Marina Lukšič-Hacin
May 23rd 2017
EMMIR, University of Stavanger

Word Count: 4,047

1. Introduction

“The policy of multiculturalism in Western Europe is bringing about a bloody harvest in the form of terrorist attacks,” said Poland’s Interior Minister Mariusz Błaszczak in 2017. After 8 years of liberal rule in Poland, October of 2015 ushered in a new era of conservative law with the election of the ‘Law and Justice’ party (in Polish: Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, from henceforth referred to as PiS). Since then, the resulting changes in domestic policy have been “enormous, including a dramatic growth of economic interventionism and central planning, serious constraints on the constitutional freedom and independence of the judicial sector, as well as state control over the public media, among many others”. Among these changes, there have also been radical changes to Poland’s foreign policy when it comes to migrants and refugees that reflect PiS’s “essentially negative attitude to the issue of immigration”. Significantly, the European Union has launched legal proceedings against Poland, as well as Hungary and the Czech Republic, for “refusing to take in asylum seekers” since the 2015 relocation plan. Poland has taken in zero asylum seekers.

“Polish marchers protest against immigrants” SOURCE: TheNews.pl

While there is a clear anti-immigrant sentiment within the elected government, and a clear rise of nationalistic tendencies, the question arises of the effect that these two trends have on each other.

1.1 Research Question

The aim of this paper is to explore the relationship between the rise of nationalism in Poland and anti-immigrant sentiment. The research question is “Is there a connection between Poland’s anti-immigrant sentiment and the nationalistic tendencies of the government and people?” In order to answer this question, several sub-questions need to be answered, as well: what came first, the nationalism or the anti-immigrant policies? Why is Poland experiences these trends?

In an attempt to answer these questions, this paper will analyze the rise of anti-immigrant sentiment and discourse found in the public sphere, which has been argued as a direct reflection of the Polish government’s anti-immigrant discourse and management of the ‘refugee crisis’. This will be analyzed within the conceptual lenses of ‘nationalism’ and ‘othering’. I will contextualize and give background to the Polish right-wing populist government’s anti-immigration rhetoric and how it is demonstrated around the country. In order to answer my research question, I will conduct a review of academic literature and news sources. In view of the fact that this research paper has such a small scope, the paper will condense a lot of research and background knowledge and synthesize the findings in order to answer the research question(s). This paper also uses an exploratory approach as a frame: because this topic has not been clearly explored by research, this paper will also lay out suggestions for future areas of investigation.

1.2 State of the Art

Because of the recent nature of this topic and research project, and because things have been developing within the past few months and years in Poland, there is a clear lack of research by scholars and academics on the topic. While some studies do explore the rise of nationalism in Poland, there has not been much attempt to explore the connection between nationalism and migration/refugee policy and attitudes. Because of this fact, this research paper is based on varying academic sources as well as recent newspaper articles and editorials about the topic. The theories of ‘nationalism’ and ‘othering’ are then used as the framework, as the structure upholding the analysis.

The most recent and relevant text that discusses this topic is the book Migration, Refugee Policy, and State Building in Postcommunist Europe by Oxana Shevel, published in 2011. Shevel tries to answer the question “why do similar postcommunist states respond differently to refugees, with some being more receptive than others?” In an attempt to answer that question, the author theorizes that nation-building in postcommunist states has an effect on refugee policy, as well as the role of the UNHCR in the early 1990s. This text serves as the primary source for the historical background section.

Other important sources for this research paper include several articles by Piotr Cap, a Professor of Linguistics at University of Lódź in Poland. He writes about anti-migration discourses in the UK and Poland, as well as the manufacturing of anti-immigrant rhetoric after the election of PiS. These articles are very relevant and timely, since they are all published within the last two years.

2. Analytical Framework

For the conceptual portion of this paper, I will use the theories of nationalism and othering. In order to understand the theory of right-wing nationalism, we must first build on the theories of nationalism, national identity, and right wing nationalism. I will then illustrate the connection between nationalism and the concept of ‘othering’, and demonstrate how these work hand-in-hand in practice to create an unwelcoming situation for migrants.

2.1 The Nation as an Imagined Community

In order to use the theories of nationalism and national identity as a framework for this paper, we must first define the ‘nation’ — a broad and widely theorized concept. In his book Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson believes that notion of the ‘imagined community’ is key to theorizing the nation, and thus nationalism. According to Anderson’s definition, a ‘nation’ is defined as “an imagined political community — and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign”. Expounding on this definition, the author wrote that nations are 1) imagined because “the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members […] yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion”, 2) imagined as limited because even the largest nations have “finite, if elastic, boundaries, beyond which lie other nations”, 3) imagined as sovereign because the concept of the nation was “born in an age in which Enlightenment and Revolution were destroying the legitimacy of the divinely-ordained, hierarchical dynastic realm”, and 4) imagined as a community because “regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship”. This can be summarized as the understanding that nationalism is not something material or physical, but it exists in the imaginations of people part of a community.

With that understanding of the nation, ‘nationalism’ can then be understood as having a loyalty for the nation. According to Marina Lukšič Hacin in the paper Multicultural Citizenship and Multiethnic Patriotism, while patriotism is a “positive attitidude toward community, identification with it, loyalty towards it and the willingness to defend it”, nationalism has more of a “negative, ethnocentric component”. While patriotism is not exclusionary, nationalism is.

2.1.1 National Identity

Once the concept of nationalism is understood, it is then important to define the term national identity. Following the theorization of Wodak, national identity “is constructed and conveyed in discourse, predominantly in narratives of national culture. National identity is thus the product of discourse”. This means that depending on the type of discourse, how people view themselves can change over time, and that national identity is socially constructed and reproduced. Identity formation is important to consider when speaking of othering, which will be discussed in section 2.2.  

2.1.2 Right Wing Nationalism

According to Minkenberg, right-wing nationalism is

“defined as a political ideology, whose core element is a myth of a homogeneous nation, a romantic and populist ultranationalism directed against the concept of liberal and pluralistic democracy and its underlying principles of individualism and universalism […] The nationalistic myth is characterized by the effort to construct an idea of nation and national belonging by radicalizing ethnic, religious, cultural, and political criteria of exclusion and to condense the idea of nation into an image of extreme collective homogeneity.”

This definition of right-wing nationalism has similarities to nationalism that are echoed by many scholars, who also assert the ‘exclusiveness’ of these ideologies. According to Smith, as cited in Postelnicescu, “nationalism is a crisis of identity”. Nussbaum also referred to the exclusivity in her book, The New Religious Intolerance, where she wrote:

“Ever since the rise of the modern nation state, European nations have understood the root of nationhood to lie first and foremost in characteristics that are difficult if not impossible for new immigrants to share. Strongly influenced by romanticism, these nations have seen blood, soil, ethnolinguistic peoplehood, and religion as necessary or at least central elements of a national identity. Thus people who have a different geographical origin, or a different holy land, or a different mother tongue, or a different appearance and way of dressing, never quite seem to belong, however long they have resided in a country”

While patriotism, as mentioned above, can have a positive connotation of love for a homeland or country, nationalism has the more negative connotations that serve to exclude ‘foreigners’ and those who could not possibly share the ethnic, religious, cultural, or political criteria of belonging to a nation. As one can see, this feeling of exclusivity can greatly have an impact on how nationalistic people view immigrants. This also connects to the next concept, othering, which further distances nationalistic people from immigrants.

2.2 Othering

The term othering was first coined in the 1980s by Gayatri Spivak, an Indian theorist and scholar, in postcolonial theory. According to Spivak, othering is the “process by which imperial discourse creates its ‘others’” and excludes certain people. Because this theory was created in and for postcolonial studies, othering has a definition that is rooted in European imperialism: “a process by which the empire can define itself against those it colonizes, excludes and marginalizes. […] The business of creating the enemy…in order that the empire might define itself by its geographical and racial others”. Despite the colonial undertones to this theory, it is still very relevant today, and even in a country such as Poland. Recent scholars, such as Sune Jensen, have theorized about othering and defined it as a:

discursive processes by which powerful groups, who may or may not make up a numerical majority, define subordinate groups into existence in a reductionist way which ascribe problematic and/or inferior characteristics to these subordinate groups. Such discursive processes affirm the legitimacy and superiority of the powerful and condition identity formation among the subordinate.

This theory is relevant to nationalism because there is no identity if there is no other – someone who doesn’t fit into that nation or identity. Nationalism, as well as national identity, and othering go hand-in-hand to create an ‘in’ and an ‘out’ groups and a sense of exclusivity. Another term for these groups can be ‘us’ groups and ‘them’ groups. The act of creating an ‘other’ and then creating a cycle of fear surrounding the other – the common enemy – is a uniting move: “hate is a unifying factor in all mass movements” says Hoffer. Othering can lead to marginalization and social exclusion within a society, and can manifest into complete exclusion physically – such as in the case of Poland. In Poland, the ‘them’ group is culturally, politically, and physically different than the ‘us’ group. This is closely tied to othering as well, since “othering concerns the consequences of racism, sexism, class (or a combination hereof) in terms of symbolic degradation as well as the processes of identity formation related to this degradation.”

3. The Case of Poland: Findings and Analysis

Through a review of academic studies conducted and recent news reports on the subject, this section will give a contextual framework for analyzing the Polish situation of anti-immigrant attitudes and policies.

3.1 Postcommunism and Refugees

Firstly, it is important to understand how postcommunism affects Poland and situates the country’s policies within a wider picture. This is important, especially in a research paper designed around concepts of nationalism, to avoid ‘methodological nationalism’ – using the term ‘Polish’ (or any nationality, for that matter) as a unit in this research.

Because of the similar historical circumstances of postcommunist states that had to implement refugee policy during the democratisation process, it is best to analyze the Polish approach to migration and refugees in the framework of postcommunism and by comparing it to other European postcommunist states. According to Oxana Shevel in the book, Migration, Refugee Policy, and State Building in Postcommunist Europe, Eastern European countries had virtually no refugees before 1989, despite the fact that they were producing many political refugees fleeing to other countries. “Former communist countries thus entered the postcommunist era without any legislative legacy, domestic institutions, or expertise to deal with the refugee problem, and had to form refugee protection regimes literally from scratch”. In fact, when the Polish governmental agency for refugee policy opened in 1991, they were staffed by only five people, and thus not entitled to receiving an electric typewriter. Eastern European postcommunist countries relied on international bodies such as the UNHCR, which had efforts across the region since the 1980s. However, the successes and influence of UNHCR policies and efforts “varied greatly across the region, with some postcommunist states more willingly translating UNHCR-propagated international standards of practice into domestic legislation and practice than others”.

The fact that several politically and economically similar postcommunist states that were faced with similar refugee and immigration problems, that faced the exact same international legal standards for handling those refugees, all ended up responding to the problem so differently is quite an interesting question. In the comparison of Poland and the Czech Republic, two countries with very similar histories but different approaches to immigration, it is found that the Czech Republic was the first postcommunist state to initiate and implement a refugee policy. In contrast, Poland did not have a refugee law adopted until 1997. In the 1990s, the UNHCR criticized Poland for its lack of reception toward refugees and for “falling short of international standards in a number of aspects”. By the end of the 1990s, the differences lessened between Poland and the Czech Republic, possibly in tune with the two countries “harmonizing their legislation with European Union (EU) requirements in preparation for joining the EU”. However, refugee and immigration policy has not improved much since the last 1990s. According to a 2007 study of immigration policy-making in Poland, the country stands “in clear contrast to the European-level way of doing things, where decisions concerning immigration involve a broad spectrum of lobbyists, social groups, and interested politicians”.

Thus, we can see that there is a historical background explaining current refugee policies. However, according to Shevel, there is also a relationship between postcommunism and nationalism:

Despite an internationalist program for class revolution and antinationalist ideology, in the communist party states, “politics were deeply ethnicized,” and “communist states, paradoxically, became the most nationalist in Europe.” Rather than leading to the demise and obsolescence of national identities, communist rule shaped, reshaped, and often strengthened these identities, which (re)emerged across the region and manifested themselves in different ways once communist rule collapsed. In the postcommunist period, the weakness of institutions and class and functionally based interests fostered the rise of nationalist movement and social mobilization on ethno-cultural basis. Democratization did not eradicate nationalism either… because “democratization did not lead to the broad acceptance of liberal-individualist understanding of citizenship.”

This quote shows that “nationalism is recognized as a powerful force shaping political processes in the postcommust region”. In summary, both nationalism and refugee/immigration policies have traces back to Poland as a postcommunist state. This partly answers the research sub-question “why is Poland experiencing these trends of nationalism and othering?”.

3.2 Current Situation: the Post-2015 Era

While one can look at the situation in Poland historically, it may be most useful to separate the last three years into its own period: the Post-2015 Era. In October of 2015, PiS, a strongly conservative party, was elected in a “landslide victory”. The new government refuses to uphold the refugee distribution agreement made by the former cabinet, arguing that it goes against Poland’s national interests. Not only does this anti-immigration sentiment play out within government speeches, but it is also mirrored in the public’s attitudes toward migrants. In 2017, over 60,000 people participated in an Independence Day March in Poland, which turned into a nationalistic rally where racist banners read “Clean Blood” and “Europe Will Be White”. There were chants such as “f*** off with the refugees” and “God, Honor, and Homeland”. Speaking on stage at the event, Tomasz Dorosz of the National Radical Camp, said “Europe and the world is in decay: culturally, politically, economically… There will be a national Poland or none”. These examples are very interesting because they show both nationalism and othering. “Clean Blood” and a “white Europe” clearly display the exclusiveness of being ‘Polish’ — ethnically and culturally. This reinforces the theory of right-wing nationalism in Poland. Chanting about the “homeland” or “fatherland” (in Polish: “ojczyzna”), shows nationalism in more of a religious and political sense as well. Within the past few years, nationalistic discourse and anti-immigrant sentiment have manifested very publically and openly in Poland, often defended by being called ‘patriotism’. These examples from the march also display that othering and nationalism are very closely connected, as the nationalistic discourse and rhetoric very often tends to ‘otherize’ immigrants. This will be explored in the next section.

Why 60,000 people joined a nationalist march in Poland
Some 60,000 people attended Saturday’s ‘Independence March’ [CREDIT: Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska/Al Jazeera]

3.3 Constructing ‘Us’ and ‘Them’ in Poland

In a 2018 study of the PiS party’s discourse, it was found that there was a significant amount of othering relating to migrants. According to Cap, and as seen above, PiS’s policies find a lot of support among Poles, owing to their “skillful rhetoric campaign”. Within this rhetoric campaign, it was found that the government construes refugee groups as “a growing threat to Poland’s national security”. In a qualitative study of the Polish government’s discourse, Cap found that there are many cultural, ideological, and religious terms used to differentiate the ‘us’ versus ‘them.’

The ‘us’, as found in PiS’s anti-immigration discourse, refers to “Poland, Polish people and the current Polish government” as well as traditional Polish values and ways of life, such as ‘freedom’, ‘peace’, and ‘security’. On the other hand, the ‘them’ is culturally and socio-politically constructed: “immigrants are construed to possess sociocultural, religious and even biological characteristics which preclude their inclusion in Poland and Europe as a whole, thus generation frustration and anger”. In the study, it was found that the ‘them’ group is seen as cowardly, lazy, selfish, and scary, greedy, lawless, and even refusing to integrate. “Construed in these terms, immigrants make up a compact out-group, whose physical characteristics and ideological predispositions contribute some excellent conceptual premises for the construction of threat”. In summary of Cap’s findings, the Polish government creates a rhetoric that describes an ‘us’, a ‘them’, and portrays the ‘them’ as a threat to ‘us’. As one can infer from these findings, there is a strong tendency toward othering within the discourse of PiS, creating a very dichotomous understanding of ‘us’ and ‘them’ — a dichotomy that can be argued as being based on fear.

3.4 Answering the research questions

Through an analysis of academic literature and recent news sources, we can now attempt to answer our research questions.

3.3.1. What came first, the nationalism or the anti-immigrant sentiment?

In answering this question, one must look at the history of Poland. Because of the short experience as an autonomous nation, and an ethnically homogenous nation, since the fall of communism, one can almost understand why the Poles are clinging to their nationalistic ideologies. As for the anti-immigrant sentiment, it was found that Poland had no historical precedent for a refugee or immigration policy. It was always a sending-culture. However, I believe that one cannot compare today’s anti-immigrant sentiment and policy to the early 1990s when Poland was first building their own framework. Currently, there is an EU-supported and UNHCR-supported framework for accepting migrants and refugees, but the reasons for not doing so are more based on fear. Fear of religious, political, and cultural differences.

According to the Financial Times, the national sentiment toward refugees actually became more negative since the 2015 election of Pis. “Party representatives wasted no time raising real or imaginary failures of western multiculturalism and the rightwing media soon filled with anti-Muslim stories […] The public mood soon changed, and in just a few months Poles went from largely approving the call to take in refugees to overwhelmingly opposing migrants in general”.

Thus, it can be argued that both of the phenomenon existed separately, and more recently are working together to create the nationalistic and unwelcoming atmosphere seen in Poland today. This can also answer the next research sub-question.

3.3.2. Why is Poland experiencing these trends?

As mentioned above, one can argue that both the phenomena of nationalism and anti-immigrant sentiment exist because of historical reasons. However, they’ve evolved and merged into a new reality: where nationalism (often described by Poles as patriotism), is ‘otherizing’ immigrants and minorities in order to uphold the nationalistic ideologies, often based on ethnicity and color of skin. On the other hand, othering and fear, in turn, uphold principles of ethnic homogeneity, which in turn upholds the nationalistic ideologies. In order to fully answer this question, a lot more research would have to take place than just this small project.

3.3.3. Is there a connection between Poland’s anti-immigrant sentiment and the nationalistic tendencies of the government and people?

Yes. I believe, from the research conducted from this project, that there is a large connection between anti-immigrant sentiment and nationalism in Poland. This connection may come in the form of white-nationalism, which relies on ethnicity and skin color to exclude certain out-groups from the in-groups. White-nationalism also uses ‘othering’ to create fear within the public, and thus support for the nationalistic ideologies.

4. Conclusion

This research paper has explored the relationship between nationalism in Poland and anti-immigrant sentiment. Building on a theoretical framework of nationalism, white-nationalism, and othering, an analysis was then conducted on what the relationship between the two phenomena might be. It was found that there is a clear relationship: nationalistic discourse relies on exclusion and othering, and the Polish government employs tactics such as othering to instill fear in the public against immigrants. In fact, there seems to be a general fear amongst Poles to lose their homogeneity, possibly because for so long Poland was under the rule of other kingdoms. If this paper had a wider scope, it may have been useful to do more of a historical analysis on the ‘nation’ of Poland, and how that may influence current nationalistic interests. In answering the research question, “is there a connection between Poland’s anti-immigrant sentiment and the nationalistic tendencies of the government and people?”, I have found that the government and general public play a large role in both nationalistic and anti-immigrant sentiment in Poland, and these two phenomena have been working hand-in-hand to create the current situation in Poland.

There have not been any significant challenges to the research of this topic, apart from the fact that the direct relationship between nationalism and anti-immigrant sentiment in Poland has not been specifically researched. Despite that, there were a lot of resources describing each of the phenomenon distinctly. This research paper attempted to explore the relationship between the recent nationalistic events in Poland with the obvious anti-immigrant rhetoric visible in the governmental and public spheres. There is an obvious need for future research into this recent, but important, trend.

4.1 Future Research

From a methodological standpoint, there is a great need for research that includes interviews with Polish people. In general, I have observed from the research a certain dissonance in the minds of Polish people who are anti-immigration while still defending their own right to emigrate to Western European countries, such as the UK. I would be very interested in writing my master’s thesis about this topic, interviewing Polish people in Poland as well as migrants in the UK and Scandinavia, to see how people reconcile their conflicting views of migration. I would also be interested in studying whether nationalism and othering are inseparable phenomena that always occur with each other, or if you can have one without the other. With future research, one must also be wary of ‘methodological nationalism’. If choosing this topic for my thesis, I will have to be careful to stray away from stereotyping people by nationality, and look instead at the phenomena that are happening in the scope of a bigger picture.


• Anderson, Benedict R. O’G. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. Verso, 2006.

• Ashcroft, Bill, et al. Post-Colonial Studies: the Key Concepts. Routledge, 2006.

• Cap, Piotr. “‘We don’t want any immigrants or terrorists here’: The linguistic manufacturing of xenophobia in the post-2015 Poland”. Discourse and Society 2018. http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0957926518754416

• “EU to Sue Poland, Hungary and Czechs for Refusing Refugee Quotas.” BBC News, BBC, 7 Dec. 2017, www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-42270239.

• Jensen, Sune Qvortrup. “Othering, identity formation, and agency.” Qualitative Studies, 2011. Pg. 65. https://tidsskrift.dk/qual/article/view/5510/4825

• Lukšič-Hacin, Marina. “Multicultural Citizenship and Multiethnic Patriotism?” 2009. Za manj negotovosti (ed. Slavko Gaber).

• Minkenberg, Michael. “The Radical Right in Postsocialist Central and Eastern Europe: Comparitive Observations and Interpretations.” 2002. East European Politics and Societies, Vol. 16, No. 2.

• Pawlowski, Lukasz. “Poland’s Flirtation with Nationalism Will Backfire.” Financial Times, Financial Times, 6 Dec. 2017, www.ft.com/content/9d6f4924-daa8-11e7-a039-c64b1c09b482.

• Pikulicka-Wilczewska, Agnieszka. “Why 60,000 People Joined a Nationalist March in Poland.” Al Jazeera, 12 Nov. 2017, www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/11/60000-nationalists-fascists-joined-warsaw-march-171112140646393.html

• “Polish Gov’t ‘Will Not Allow’ Migrant Crisis like That in Western Europe: Minister.” Polskie Radio Dla Zagranicy, 18 Apr. 2017, thenews.pl/1/2/Artykul/303023,Polish-govt-will-not-allow-migrant-crisis-like-that-in-Western-Europe-minister

• Postelnicescu, Claudia. “Europe’s New Identity: The Refugee Crisis and the Rise of Nationalism.” Europe’s Journal of Psychology, 2016. Vol. 12(2), 203-209. https://ejop.psychopen.eu/article/view/1191

• Shevel, Oxana. Migration, Refugee Policy, and State Building in Postcommunist Europe. Cambridge University Press, 2011.

• Lukšič-Hacin, Marina. “Multicultural Citizenship and Multiethnic Patriotism?” 2009. Za manj negotovosti (ed. Slavko Gaber).

• Wodak, Ruth, et. al. “Discursive Construction of National Identity.” Edinburgh University Press, 2009.

Screen Shot 2018-10-06 at 15.08.13.png
The Mermaid of Warsaw – the city’s symbol


Published by gabriellamikiewicz

Gabriella Mikiewicz is a 20-something Polish-American student and writer whose interests are as eclectic as her apartment decorations.

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