In his recent essay, After Europe, Ivan Krastev details the historical fault lines that will tear the EU asunder. In his judgement, Western Europe and Eastern Europe are too culturally divergent; different historical experiences shapes present understandings of the nation. For example, given the legacy of Soviet communism and the Habsburg Empire, Hungarians view cosmopolitan elites with scepticism; elites allegiances are often tied to foreign cities, Vienna or Moscow with damaging results. The EU and Brussels is the latest empire running Hungary from afar; Hungarians instincts come alive with similar suspicions. There are other differences between East and West. Reflecting further on the countries of central and Eastern Europe, there is a clear chasm between views on same sex marriage. Poland, Russia, the Baltic States, and Hungary, exhibit significant levels of homophobia. Why is this case and is it right for us to judge them given their country’s unique experiences?
The Protracted Birth of a Nation
Eastern Europe is the blood lands of history. Poland sits perfectly in central Europe and is a perfect candidate in explaining the issue of homophobia and how it relates to national experience. In the 18th century, continental Europe was home to four great empires, the French, Prussian, Habsburg, and Russian. At the beginning of the century Poland was in a political commonwealth with Lithuanian and was cornered on three sides by powerful neighbours. The Russian giant was expanding into Europe from the east; the Habsburgs were positioned in central Europe and the emerging German state of Prussia lay to the west. During the course of the century, Poland was partitioned three times between the powers and disappeared from the European map. Completely vanished from existence. This was a brutal world were empires swallowed their neighbours whole.
In the 20th century, Poland returned and disappeared in various forms. After the Great War, Poland was a nation again, but it border had moved 500 miles west and was home to a significant minorities, notably Germans. Independence lasted 20 years; Nazis swept across the border and began constructing the Third Reich. When Hitler’s racist empire was destroyed, central Europe became the playground of Soviet Communism, a reign of terror that would exist for half a century. In the last 200 years, the Polish people have experienced just 40 years of independence. Understandably, protecting Poland is a deeply motivating issue.
But what does it mean to be Polish? For centuries Eastern Europe was a rich cultural soup, Jews, Tartars, Poles, Ukranians, Christians and Muslims lived side by side peacefully. Harmonious relations ruptured into violence when it came to defining nations. In 1939, Poland consisted of the largest Jewish population in the world (3 million), Ukranians (3.2 million), Germans (750,000), Ruthenians (1.2 million). Out of a population of 31 million, Catholic Poles comprised of 20 million, roughly 60%. In 1950 Poland’s population fell to 25 million, 24.5 million of them being Polish catholic. The earlier minorities were ethnically cleansed, or in the case of the Jews, murdered. As the image demonstrates, Poland’s recovery and success over the next 50 years was rooted in demographic stability, or at least that is how it will appear to some. Poland’s journey into a nation is one with Catholicism at its heart with a strong attachment to family values and a strong birth rate. There is little interference from outsiders; in fact, success is imagined by their absence.
Poland is at a demographic juncture, however. Millions of its young citizens have immigrated and the population is aging. The model that sustained Polish success is imperilled. The citizens that are meant to continue this tradition have fled to pastures new, a decision that, in the minds of many, puts Poland in a vulnerable position. Should the population shrink it opens the door to exploitation by greater powers, history repeating itself.
As one can imagine, this anxious atmosphere cooks a strong aversion to homosexuality. Should you understand national health in terms of demographic numbers and existential peril, child rearing and family values will prevail in your thinking. Homosexuals are not known for producing children. It’s biologically impossible. Encouraging this behaviour is perceived as hammering another nail in the national coffin, an act of national suicide. Poland’s painful journey into statehood was not secured via rich diversity but with a strong core of Catholicism and Polishness. The unfolding demographic time-bomb serves to aggravate the problem. For the same reason, abortion rights are continually contested and migrants viewed with suspicion. This is not to say, we should agree with Poland’s conservative government but it is a window into understanding the politics of a country. We are blessed in Britain by, compared to our continental neighbours, peace. Peace brings tolerance.