Soldiers putting up miles of razor wire fencing to keep out refugees. A mother and child stuck in a field of mud. A truck parked on the highway between Budapest and Vienna containing the decomposing bodies of 71 refugees.
The scenes over recent weeks from the eastern borders of Europe have generated horror and revulsion. “Have Eastern Europeans no sense of shame?” asked the Polish-American historian Jan Gross. Another historian, the German-born Jan-Werner Müller, demanded that the European Union “ostracize” Hungary, “a country no longer observing its values,” by cutting off funding and suspending its voting rights.
For many, Eastern Europeans’ lack of generosity toward refugees reflects, in the words of one Guardian columnist, a fundamental “political and cultural gap” that divides the Continent. Eastern European nations threw off the Soviet yoke only a quarter-century ago and are new to the values of liberal democracy. Ethnically homogeneous, they are unused to immigration. Hence, many suggest, this insularity and prejudice.
Recent history has certainly shaped the character of Eastern European societies. But are they really more xenophobic or hostile to migrants than those of the West?
Judging by the newspapers lately, one might be forgiven for thinking that until Hungary started putting up fences, the European Union had open borders and welcomed migrants with kindness and gentleness. In fact, over the past 25 years, the union has constructed what many justly call “Fortress Europe,” keeping out migrants not with fences but with warships, helicopters and surveillance drones. One of the reasons that migrants are now coming through the Balkans is because patrols have blocked off other southern routes, particularly from Libya into Italy.
Hungary’s treatment of migrants has been brutal, but are its policies that different from those adopted by Britain or France?
Some 3,000 migrants currently live in what is, in effect, Europe’s largest shantytown, on the outskirts of Calais, in northern France. A report last month by the University of Birmingham and Doctors of the World described conditions as “diabolical” in what is known as the Jungle, with tents overrun by rats, water contaminated by feces and inhabitants suffering from tuberculosis.
“I lived like this in Darfur,” one resident told a journalist. “I could not believe a place like this existed in Europe.”
The migrants are confined to the Jungle because Britain refuses to let what Prime Minister David Cameron called “a swarm” cross the English Channel. Were the Jungle in Hungary or Poland, there would no doubt be an outcry. Yet few historians or journalists have bothered to write furious condemnations of the xenophobia exposed by this abomination on Britain’s doorstep.
It is true that Western European nations have had greater exposure to immigration than countries of the East. But how has that affected social attitudes?
The Atlantic’s Heather Horn surveyed some of the data recently. According to the 2005-09 World Values Survey, 14 percent of Poles and 24 percent of Hungarians would not want an immigrant or foreign worker as a neighbor. In France, however, the figure stands at an extraordinary 36.5 percent. The most recent World Values Survey, conducted between 2010 and 2014, did not poll Hungary or France. But it showed that the proportion of Germans objecting to a foreign neighbor (21 percent) matched that in Romania (21 percent) — and was three times higher than in Poland (7 percent).
The 2009 Pew Global Attitudes Survey looked at differences between Eastern and Western Europe. It found that Eastern Europeans were less likely to think that it was “a good thing for any society to be made up of people from different races, religions and cultures.” Thirty percent of Hungarians and 22 percent of Poles disagreed that diversity was a good thing, compared with just one in 10 of the French population and 13 percent of Britons and Germans.
But when asked about specific groups, the picture changed. In Eastern Europe, anti-Semitism is prevalent, while in Western Europe people tend to be more hostile to Muslims. The Pew survey found that 29 percent of Poles and Hungarians had an unfavorable view of Jews. Twenty-seven percent of Britons and a full 69 percent of Italians had a negative view of Muslims, while 30 percent of Germans disliked Turks.
Western Europeans, in other words, may appear more tolerant when talking in the abstract, but are as intolerant as Eastern Europeans when it comes to attitudes toward specific groups. The “cultural gap” may just be that Western Europeans are more polished in the language of tolerance, while in reality being equally intolerant.
The largest far-right party in Europe is not in Poland or Hungary, but in France. Ninety percent of the French may say they are at ease with a society comprising different races, religions and cultures, but almost one in five voted for the leader of the anti-immigrant National Front party, Marine Le Pen, in the 2012 presidential election.
In the Netherlands, the populist politician Geert Wilders recently told the Dutch Parliament that the refugee crisis amounted to an “Islamic invasion,” echoing the views of Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orban. Mr. Wilders has called for the Quran to be banned and for an end to the building of mosques. His Party for Freedom leads in opinion polls. It is not inconceivable that Mr. Wilders and Ms. Le Pen could end up as leaders of their countries before the end of 2017. Where then would be Europe’s great cultural divide between East and West?
The treatment of migrants by Eastern European nations is reprehensible and needs challenging. But there is something nasty, too, in the chorus of condemnation that Eastern Europe has faced. Portraying Eastern Europeans as lacking “our” values, and as particularly xenophobic, serves only to disguise the role that Western European nations have played in fostering intolerance.
Demonizing Eastern Europeans is no answer to the way that political leaders throughout Europe have helped to demonize migrants.
Kenan Malik is the author, most recently, of The Quest for a Moral Compass: A Global History of Ethics and a contributing opinion writer.