Xenophobic Attitudes in France, Sweden, Germany, and Poland

Painting Source: The Third-Class Carriage (c. 1862 –64) by Honoré Daumier

Perhaps ever since the Romans appeared in German woods, stroppy Germans from the hinterland have had a xenophobic streak. Feasibly, the Thirty Years’ War of 1618 to 1648 and its senseless mass killings did not help either. Of course, Germany’s 19th and 20th century’s right-wing elites never shied away from conjuring up xenophobia supporting two senseless wars in the 20th century.

As so often in our culture, the concept of Xenophobia pre-dates those dim Germans sitting in their equally dim forests when Romans appeared. Xenophobia originates in Greek ξένος or xénos. It indicates strange, foreign, and alien and is combined with phóbos or fear.

It is the fear and hatred of that which is perceived to be foreign and strange. Right-wing xenophobia thrives on setting the in-group against the out-group. In that, xenophobia is highly suitable when conjuring up a fear of losing national and racial identity. German Neo-Nazis will never stop engineering xenophobia because it supports the ideology of pure race found in their hallucination of an antisemitic Volksgemeinschaft.

German xenophobia, including the Nazi ideology of a Volksgemeinschaft, made a recent showing in the wake of refugee intakes during 2015. Yet, xenophobia is not unique to Germany. A recent study asked 5,000 people in France, Poland, Sweden, and Germany. And, it defined two opposing groups: the explorer and the defender:

Explorers: these are liberal-democratic people favouring human rights, They are supportive of the intake of refugees saying that these refugees will enrich society;

Defenders: they are on the other side. Defenders believe that society needs to be defended against refugees and foreigners often following xenophobic ideologies.

In Germany, for example, there are about 14% who can be identified as explorers while about 20% belong to the defenders. Among the explorers for example, 93% are satisfied with the workings of democracy. This can be found in Sweden, Germany, and France. The out-layer among the four countries is Poland, where 57% trust democracy while just 32% of Poles trust the European Union.

When it comes to trust in their illiberal and semi-authoritarian government, 72% of Poles say they do so. However, society in Poland is also a deeply divided society. In Poland, the aforementioned pro-refugee group called explorers faces a hostile group of defenders who believe they need to defend Polish society against refugees.

They make up the core of Poland. Together, defenders and explorers constitute 70% of Poland’s population – in Germany, by comparison, it is less then half. In other words, Poland is more polarised than Germany.

Much of this is reflected in a relatively high preference for right-wing populism and a quest for a strong leader. A preference for right-wing populism is often spiced up with a strong belief in conspiracy fantasies.

In the defender camp, 26% of Germans would vote for a right-wing populist party, 16% would do so in France, a whopping 57% in Poland, and still a surprising 34% would do so in Sweden. Encompassing more than half of Poland’s population (57%), the group of the defenders build not only the majority of Poles, it also uses its power against others. As a result, Polish explorers have been made to feel marginalised by the defender group. Whereby, 30% of explorers believing they are marginalised and 49% believing they are politically isolated.

While Poland is the strongest Catholic country among the four, still 60% of Germans and the same number of Swedish people see religion as the defining element of national belonging. In all four countries, the idea of religious belonging as a defining element is stronger among people who live in the country-side compared to those living in cities.

Religious belonging is also linked to national pride. Nationalistic pride is the strongest in Poland (75%), followed by Sweden (61%), and Germany and France where about half of all people support the idea of national pride.

Not surprisingly, support for religious fundamentalism is about twice as strong in Poland compared to France, Germany, and Sweden. This might also indicates a belief in a need to defend their country against refugees.

Defenders with xenophobic attitudes believe in the fantasy that there is an urgent requirement to defend jobs and social welfare against refugees. This is particularly strong when it comes to Muslims. On a scale from 1 to 6 (1 = I do not agree; and 6 = I agree very much), the strongest fear of Muslims is found not in Poland (2.70), but in Sweden (2.77). Germany and France both rank at 2.57.

Overall, 20% of Germans feel threatened by Muslims and refugees; in France it is, 27% for Muslims and 30% for refugees; in Poland it is 29% for Muslims and 32% for refugees; while in Sweden it is 31% for Muslims and 34% for refugees.

Still, between 72% and 64% of the population in these four countries do not feel threatened by Muslims and refugees. Again, defenders see refugees and Muslims as threats to their religion. Meanwhile, explorers view their appearance as a more positive encounter and a culture to be explored.

In Germany, those living in rural areas (38%) and are over 65 years of age (44%) feel most threatened. In France, one might add those with low educational achievement (65%) to that group. Meanwhile, in Poland and in Sweden, the defining factor seems to be the location. In both countries, those living in rural areas (37%) feel threatened.

On the other hand, young people with high educational achievements are the least likely to feel threatened. In short, there is a link between low educational achievement and the perception that refugees and Muslims are a threat.

Interestingly, those who feel threatened are also those who show a relatively low trust in human beings in general. The same can be said about those who depict what German philosopher Theodor W. Adorno once identified as the authoritarian personality. Low trust in human beings is most marked in Poland (49%) and France (48%).

It plays less a role in Sweden (31%) and in Germany (26%). Yet, Adorno’s authoritarian personality is still found in Germany (33%), in Poland (31%), less in France (26%), and finally in Sweden (25%).

Not surprisingly, the belief in Christianity and the even stronger Christian fundamentalism is also linked to a high perception of a feeling of being threatened by Muslims and refugees. In Germany, 60% of people with religious attitudes feel threatened. In France and Sweden it is 64% and 65% respectively, while in Poland, the number is a staggering 97%. In other words, virtually all Poles with a strong religious attitude see Muslims and refugees as a threat.

These numbers are supported when people were asked about a strong and authoritarian leader. On the aforementioned 1-6 scale, in the defender group, Poles show 4.1, French: 3.6: Germans; 2.5; and Swedes: 2.1. In other words, Poles prefer an authoritarian leader while Swedes do not.

The reverse is the case when asked about democracy. Here, democracy is defined by three elements: a) media that have the right to critique the government; b) the rights of minorities are legally protected; and c) the judiciary and courts can prevent the government to misuse its power.

Again on the 1-6 scale, Poles show the lowest support for democracy (4.7), followed by Swedes (5.1) and French (5.2), and Germans (5.4). If “6” means strong support for democracy, Germans appear to be the most democratic people among the four countries while Poles are the least democratic.

This is somewhat mirrored by the support given to right-wing populism which is the highest – not in Poland (4.5) – but in France (5.2). This is good news for LePen or perhaps even worse: Eric Zemmour! It is also high in Germany (4.8) but it is the lowest in Sweden (4.0).

The likelihood that people vote for such a right-wing populist political parties is the highest in Poland where, 57% of defenders say they are likely to vote for a right-wing populist party. In a distant place are, surprisingly, Sweden where still 34% of defenders say they vote for a right-wing populist party.

This is followed by Germany (26%) and France (16%). Strangely, French people support right-wing populism but do not vote for a right-wing political party. There is still a difference between a “willingness to support” and a “willingness to act”.

This picture is somewhat mirrored by those defenders who believe in conspiracy fantasies. On the 1-6 scale, the most supporters for conspiracy fantasies are not found among Polish defenders but among French defenders (5.1). This is followed by Germans (4.9), and by Poles and Swedish (4.4 and 4.3). Here one might see two groups: French and Germans (non-conspiracy fantasies believers) vs. Poles and Swedes (conspiracy fantasies believers).

In the end, the survey produced some surprising results. For example, there appears to be strong support in Sweden for an ideology that the country needs to be defended against Muslims and refugees. Secondly, the concept of democracy has been anchored in German society.

This might not be unconnected from the experience of the world’s most anti-democratic and inhuman institution ever seen: Auschwitz. Today, only a very tiny minority of Germans rejects democracy. Surprisingly, the country of the French Revolution is today marred by a low trust in human beings.

Finally, there is Poland which is the true exception among the four European countries. In Poland, as it appears, those who believe there is a need to defend the country against Muslims and refugees are the strongest. Yet, they also strongly linked this to Catholicism.

Worse, Poland also remains a country where European values like democracy are strongly rejected. Polish society is also stronger in favour of right-wing populism.

Thomas Klikauer (MAs, Boston and Bremen University and PhD Warwick University, UK) teaches MBAs and supervises PhDs at the Sydney Graduate School of Management, Western Sydney University, Australia. He has over 700 publications and writes regularly for BraveNewEurope (Western Europe), the Barricades (Eastern Europe), Buzzflash (USA), Counterpunch (USA), Countercurrents (India), Tikkun (USA), and ZNet (USA). His next book is on Media Capitalism (Palgrave).

Meg Young (GCA and GCPA, University of New England at Armidale) is a Sydney Financial Accountant & HR Manager who likes good literature and proof reading.