View from Warsaw: Feeding Poland’s culture wars

Events in Cologne have prompted a speedy reaction from Poland's embattled Law and Justice government

The huge resonance that the Cologne events found in Poland may, at the first glance, seem surprising. In the midst of a constitutional conflict and facing criticism in Europe for assualts against liberal values and institutions, even dramatic news has found it hard to break through to the public attention. That Cologne did so and sparked such fierce political reactions, was no accident, though. The sexual abuses on New Year‘s Eve and the following debate in Germany have become important reference points in the heated Polish discussions about the democratic standards, German-Polish relations and refugees.

For all those who had criticised Merkel for her open door policy the events in Cologne came as proof of the righteousness of their argument. That Cologne marks a failure of Merkel‘s policy (seen as the main source of the refugee crisis) and the end of the German naivety, has been the common denominator of the bulk of media reactions. They echoed some intra-German criticism (Horst Seehofer and conservative media) and did not hide a certain Schadenfreude that this mistaken policy course would have now to be corrected. As I argued in an essay for Gazeta Wyborcza last weekend, this Schadenfeude is misplaced: Merkel’s political collapse might be a good news for those in Germany who to close the German borders but the end of Schengen would not stop the flow of refugees into Europe and the repercussions would be felt on the whole continent, including in Poland. However, the mainstream opinion in Poland blames Merkel for provoking the crisis and thus destroying Schengen. 

More importantly, Cologne has also become a symbol of a disastrous political correctness, or even censorship in Germany. According to numerous press reports in the Polish media, the German press was largely prevented from quickly and adequately reporting about the scandalous events and most notably about the Muslim origins of the perpetrators. As these reports were published in the middle of the discussions about the new Polish media law which has raised doubts about the independence of the public radio and television, Cologne served as a useful example of the Western hypocrisy. While the press is being strangled in Germany, understood in Poland as the main orchestrator of the “attacks” against the new Polish government, Poland is still, the argument goes, a country where the standards of freedom of expression are being respected.

The question of security in Germany was also raised by high-level Polish officials. The Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski send a formal inquiry to his German counterpart to find out if there were any Polish women among the victims. The Minister of Justice Zbigniew Ziobro pointed to the Cologne events in his letter to the EU Commissioner Oettinger and argued that they are more appalling than the alleged rule of law abuses in Poland. And in a joint statement, Law and Justice members of the ECR group in the European parliament wrote: “Poland today is a safe country. There are no acts of collective assault on sexual, racial or any other grounds. New year festivities and other popular events taking place in Poland are enjoyed in peace, without hindrance, disturbance or acts of aggression.”

The Cologne events and the reactions in Poland should be also seen against the larger background of the ongoing criticism of the Western model of society and political culture by Law and Justice and the national-conservative media. The often invoked and highlighted “end of multi-kulti“ is detected in these brutal assaults. And they also seem for some to validate the opposition to the left-liberal European mainstream by Law and Justice.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Head, ECFR Warsaw
Senior Policy Fellow

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