Is Eastern Europe Any More Xenophobic Than Western Europe?

Investigating a stereotype of the refugee crisis

An anti-immigration protest in Dresden, Germany (Hannibal Hanschke / Reuters)

Angela Merkel has arrived fashionably late to the chicest global party of the fall: the bash-Eastern-Europe bash.

In a closed-door meeting last week, the German chancellor became the latest figure to criticize Eastern European governments for their isolationist response to Europe’s refugee crisis. Eastern European hostility to refugees from the wars in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan has been a favorite subject of politicians, columnists, and public intellectuals for months, particularly after the viral video in September of a Hungarian camerawoman tripping a fleeing refugee parent and his child.

In the pages of The New York Times, the former U.S. ambassador to Hungary, Eleni Kounalakis, blamed Hungary’s decision to leave migrants stranded at various train stations on the “xenophobic platform” that swept Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to power. In an interview with Der Spiegel, Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann compared an incident in Hungary on September 3—when refugees in Budapest boarded a train thinking they were headed to Austria, but instead wound up in a refugee camp in Bicske—to the Holocaust: “To put refugees in trains with the belief that they will go somewhere else brings up memories of our continent’s darkest period.”

“In Western Europe,” wrote Die Zeit columnist Martin Klingst, “everyone’s picking the Land of the Magyars to pieces.” (He declined to join in.) Perhaps the strongest condemnation has come from the Polish-born Princeton historian Jan Gross, author of a book, Neighbors, detailing the horrors perpetrated against Jews in the town of Jedwabne by their Polish neighbors. In the German newspaper Die Welt, Gross asserted that the European Union’s eastern states had “proven to be intolerant, narrow-minded, and xenophobic.”

“Have the Eastern Europeans no sense of shame?” he wrote. “For centuries their forbears emigrated en masse to escape from material misery and political persecution.” He argued that Eastern Europe’s xenophobia, in contrast to Germany’s more welcoming attitude toward migrants and refugees, is connected to its reluctance to confront its populations’ active and even enthusiastic participation in the extermination of Europe’s Jews and other ethnic minorities. “German society, which has become conscious of its historical crimes, has learned through them how to approach moral and political challenges like the current influx of refugees,” he concluded. “Eastern Europe, on the other hand, has yet to come to terms with its murderous past.” Only when it does so will it start to treat refugees better, he wrote.

These kinds of accusations have triggered defensive reactions—from Romanian President Klaus Iohannis’s tonally awkward statement, following an East-West split in a vote on an EU refugee-relocation scheme, that Romania is not “xenophobic, autistic, or separatist,” to a series of reader letters published in The New York Times in response to Kounalakis’s op-ed. “I dare say that very similar xenophobic voices would be heard across the political spectrum in the United States if Americans were confronted with a wave of refugees from Syria,” read one such letter. In Die Welt, Pawel Ukielski of the Institutes für Nationales Gedenken defended Poland from Gross’s attack by pointing out that the country was destroyed by Nazi and Soviet invasions in a way Western countries never experienced.

But is xenophobia really more rampant in Eastern Europe than in Western Europe—or than in the United States, for that matter? Social science turns out to be of limited value here. Few comprehensive or comparative studies on this topic have been carried out, perhaps in part because the very concept of xenophobia differs around the world, according to the University of San Francisco political-philosophy professor Ronald Sundstrom, who with David Haekown Kim authored a 2014 paper on the need for specificity with such terms: In discussing in-groups and out-groups, Europeans tend to talk about “xenophobia” while Americans tend to talk about “racism.”

“Racism is a quick thing that [Americans] can turn to because of our own particular history,” said Sundstrom. Europeans have less experience with the charged black-white dynamic and anti-racism activism that Americans know well, and are thus less inclined to frame immigrant debates in these terms. Additionally, “The Europeans, particularly the Germans, are allergic to the word ‘racism’ because of the Holocaust, so they more quickly go to discussions of xenophobia.”

The divide tends to impoverish both discourses. “The danger is that when we encounter xenophobia that doesn’t look racist we have a hard time understanding it as a problem,” Sundstrom said. On the other side of the Atlantic, “it might actually be important for activists to point out how the exclusion of these refugees and migrants may have racial connotations. They don’t want to dig into that issue because it’s too sensitive to them.”

In 2011, a team of researchers from the VU University Amsterdam, the University of Oslo, and the Pacifica Graduate Institute in California tried to jumpstart xenophobia studies by devising a “cross-national measure of fear-based xenophobia.” They concluded that reliably measuring just the fear-based component of xenophobia (as opposed to the equally important components of “hate or contempt”) across countries requires asking many questions.

The reason, explained Kees van der Veer, the lead author of the resulting paper, via email, is that individuals can harbor multiple fears about foreigners: personal fear (feeling personally threatened by the arrival of new people), fear of cultural change, fear of identity loss, fear of foreigners’ disloyalty, fear of losing control of the political system. As a result, it’s helpful to ask people whether they agree with a series of statements about the cultural, economic, political, and religious aspects of migration—statements such as “practicing Islam doesn’t fit within our Christian-Jewish tradition,” or the more indirect “asylum-seekers are only coming to our country to try to make a fortune.”

Furthermore, it’s worth according different weights to different questions. A statement like “‘Immigration in this country is out of control’ … is a comparatively ‘easy’ one,” the authors argued: “people can respond positively to that item when they possess only a small amount of [xenophobia].” By contrast, a relatively high level of xenophobia might be needed for an individual to agree with a statement like “Interacting with immigrants makes me uneasy.”

For the paper, the team only administered its survey to undergraduate students in the United States, Norway, and the Netherlands. “Systematic research on xenophobia has only just begun,” acknowledged van der Veer. He and a co-author said they weren’t aware of any study using their questionnaire across Europe.

The data comparing Eastern and Western Europe that is available—mostly based on single questions rather than a rigorous survey, and not intended to measure xenophobia specifically—paints a complicated portrait.

As Max Fisher demonstrated at The Washington Post in 2013, it’s possible to roughly compare levels of racial tolerance by focusing on one question in the multinational World Values Survey that asks respondents which sorts of people they wouldn’t want to have as neighbors, and offers “people of another race” as an option. By this metric, intolerance appears more widespread in Hungary and Romania than in Spain, Germany, the United Kingdom, and much of Scandinavia, but levels of intolerance are higher in France than in Hungary or Romania. Tolerance levels seem to be about the same in Poland, Ukraine, and the Czech Republic as in Italy or Finland.

Percent of Respondents in Europe Who Wouldn’t Want Immigrants or Foreign Workers as Neighbors, 2005-2009

Data for Belarus, Estonia, Ireland, Iceland, Belgium, Luxembourg, Austria, Denmark, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Greece, Latvia, Lithuania, Croatia, Albania, Montenegro, Bulgaria, Portugal, and Macedonia is from the European Values Survey (2008).

This data doesn’t directly address xenophobia, but another possible response to the same question got closer: Some respondents identified “immigrants/foreign workers” as individuals they wouldn’t want to have as neighbors. In the 2005-2009 edition of the survey— the most recent one to include a wide range of Eastern and Western European countries—France still comes across as more xenophobic than many Eastern European countries. While a greater percentage of Hungarian respondents (24 percent) said they wouldn’t want to live near immigrants or foreign workers compared with German respondents (13 percent), French respondents proved the most hostile among European respondents to sharing their neighborhood with foreigners, at just over 36 percent.

Percent of Respondents Who Wouldn’t Want Immigrants or Foreign Workers as Neighbors, 2005-2009

In the most recent survey, which ran from 2010 to 2014 and didn’t include France or Hungary, the percentage of German respondents saying they wouldn’t want foreign workers or immigrants for neighbors climbed from 13 percent to 21 percent—higher than the percentage of respondents saying the same in the supposedly xenophobic Eastern European countries of Poland (7 percent) and Ukraine (19 percent), and around the same percentage as in Romania.

Percent of Respondents Who Wouldn’t Want Immigrants or Foreign Workers as Neighbors, 2010-2014

What does all this mean? It’s almost impossible to say. As the Carleton University political scientist Stephen Saideman has pointed out, levels of racial, cultural, or religious intolerance can look radically different depending on which question you ask (that was the point behind the fear-based xenophobia study mentioned above). A 2009 Pew Global Attitudes report on Europe, for example, at first blush suggested that intolerance was greater in Eastern Europe than in Western Europe: Asking whether those surveyed agreed or disagreed that it is “good to have different races, religions, and cultures” in society, Pew found that a higher percentage of respondents said no in Eastern Europe than in countries such as France, Britain, Spain, and Germany.

But when Pew’s researchers drilled down to perceptions of specific groups, they encountered different results. Only 15 percent of Czech respondents, 13 percent of Ukrainian respondents, and 29 percent of Hungarian respondents held unfavorable views of Jews (the most controversial minority group in that region). Meanwhile, 27 percent of British respondents and 46 of Spanish respondents copped to unfavorable views of Muslims, whereas 26 percent of French respondents said they had unfavorable views of North Africans. In other words, Western European respondents looked more tolerant in theory, but when pressed on the groups they were most sensitive about, they appeared just as prejudiced, if not more prejudiced, than Eastern Europeans. The broader question may have failed to bring to mind the particular group to which they felt most hostile.

None of this is to say that the idea of greater xenophobia in Eastern Europe isn’t plausible: In addition to the abundance of historical and anecdotal evidence, some of the causes of xenophobia that social scientists have identified point to the problem being more pronounced in Eastern Europe.

“One of the factors is the history of migration in a country,” wrote van der Veer, suggesting that more experience with open borders tends to produce greater ease about migration. Between their empires and their wealth, Western European countries have been immigration targets for centuries—and experienced high immigration rates for much of the 20th century. Eastern European countries have rarely been magnets for migrants, and spent much of the second half of the 20th century with their borders closed thanks to the Cold War.

But each of the scholars I spoke with suggested, in one way or another, that any discussion of xenophobia taking place in the United States or Western Europe at Eastern Europe’s expense might not be very self-aware.

“The Netherlands has an immigration tradition going back to the 16th and 17th century,” wrote van der Veer. “However, I need to add immediately that at this moment there is a movement (like in other European countries) which finds [the] Netherlands ‘too small’ for an influx of more immigrants.”

Oksana Yakushko, a Ukrainian-born psychologist who worked on the fear-based xenophobia study, pointed out that jabs at Eastern Europeans’ short memory for the charity they received at the hands of others—charity, so the argument goes, that they are now denying Syrians—could also be turned on its head: “When the [Berlin] Wall came down, the wealthy countries, especially Germany, began to absorb all these people from Eastern Europe,” she said, leaving Eastern Europeans no strangers to xenophobia—directed toward them.

Perhaps it’s fitting, then, that some of the most prominent anti-Eastern European broadsides in the U.S. and Western European media have come not from Western Europeans, but rather from Eastern Europeans themselves. Jan Gross, for example, is Polish-born. Zuzana Števulová, a Slovakian human-rights activist, was the one to criticize Slovakia’s response to the refugee crisis in an interview with Deutsche Welle, saying that “xenophobia and racism are deeply rooted in people’s minds here.” A recent op-ed on “Hungary’s Politics of Hate” in The New York Times comes courtesy of Istvan Rev, a Hungarian historian. And Angela Merkel said she was “counting [herself] as an Eastern European”—the chancellor grew up in East Germany during the Cold War—when she accused the region of failing to learn from history.

What little can be gleaned from the muddled research on xenophobia suggests that it’s worth distinguishing between government policies that are hostile to refugees—of which countries like Hungary certainly have their share—and the sentiments of the governed population. The two are connected, but the precise mechanism is not always easy to measure. Merkel should know that better than anyone right now. If the latest poll by the German public television network ARD is accurate, her open-door immigration policy has produced a notable result: In a significant shift from September, the majority of Germans now “fear” the wave of incoming refugees.