I have just returned from an enjoyable week in Wrocław, where I was advancing a research project on provincial cultural life in the Third Reich by examining records held in the state archives there. As always on such trips, I spent most of my time in the archive; however, in lunch breaks and in the evenings I was able to stroll the town, visiting a couple of museums and churches, taking in a trip to the theatre, and generally getting a feel for the place.
I greatly enjoyed the mix of medieval and Renaissance, Baroque, historicist and Communist-era architecture; I loved the ways in which an indeterminate variety of German, Polish, Silesian, and central European traditions and identities echoed not only through the material fabric of the city but also through the food I ate, merging with a more contemporary, globalising aspect as they did; I was charmed by the Christmas market, through which I ambled on my way to work each day. Much as I kept reminding myself that this is a deeply conservative political culture characterised by much that I dislike intensely - its homophobia, its hostility to immigration - I also had to admit that I saw nothing of that during my time there. The plaques on historically significant buildings commemorating the rich Jewish traditions of the town before 1945 seemed, rather, a sign that things are moving in the right direction: while acknowledging the historic presence of a Jewish community is less implicitly self-critical than it first appears (Wrocław was a German town before 1945, and its Jewish citizens were murdered by the Germans, not Poles) it still felt noteworthy that a country notorious for its own deeply anti-Semitic traditions was now actively marking the multi-cultural historical traditions of this part of the world.
I was therefore not only shocked, but thoroughly disorientated to read on my return a piece that a good friend had sent me describing how, on the very market place I describe, and during the week that I was there, a far-right wing demonstration had theatrically staged the burning of the effigy of an orthodox Jew - linking the figure of the Jew to the role of the European Union, the (imagined) influx of refugees into Polish society, and the erosion of Poland's cultural homogeneity as it did. The police, apparently, had kept their distance; there are no reports of passers-by remonstrating with the demonstrators. I was shocked, obviously, because such stunts are horrifying to read about at any time, but, much more than that, on this occasion, the sense of disorientation engendered by the fact that I had been so charmed in and by a space in which such awful things had been happening simultaneously was very hard to overcome.
On the one hand, it is easy to critique such events from a position of imagined superiority that one feels entitled to occupy simply by virtue of the fact that one is commenting in western Europe. It is far too easy to overstate the differences in political culture between the older European Union members and the post-Cold War accession states. Great Britain is, after all, a society in which forms of racism one thought were in swift retreat have returned as part of the speakable 'common sense' of much of society. A dull, atavistic nationalism has established a solid position in the mainstream of British politics - there is little in the ideologies that govern UKIP to distinguish it from PEGIDA. The Prime Minister thinks it acceptable to refer to would-be immigrants seeking a better life here as a 'swarm'. And while we may recoil at the thought of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán's decision to respond to the refugee crisis by erecting massive fences along Hungary's borders, the response of the British state - think Calais - has basically been the same. We are too willing to allow those whose behaviour we would recognise, in other contexts, as drawing on the political repertoire of the far right, to get away here with the claim that they are just talking 'common sense'.
It is, conversely, easy to draw simplistic conclusions about Poland from the presence of a demonstration of a hundred people on a market square. Such acts of symbolic occupation are provocative precisely because they disrupt a space otherwise governed by codes of easy civility: it is on just this that their theatrical effect depends. Yet one is still left with a sense that there is something different about some of the far right political theatre that we have been witnessing in central Europe recently. The gallows aesthetic that supporters of PEGIDA have openly embraced in recent demonstrations, or the sight of demonstrators burning effigies in Wrocław, carry a palpable threat of political violence that is impossible to miss.
While in Germany such gestures are clearly outwith the bounds of the permissible, what is particularly worrying in places such as Poland and Hungary is that such far right populist sentiment is mobilising in an environment which is far more permissive - indeed tacitly supportive, through its own silence - of such behaviour. Not the least worrying aspect of the events on Wrocław's market square last week is the absence of meaningful condemnation by the new conservative nationalist government in Warsaw, a government that seems to want to appeal to the most reactionary instincts in Polish society.
It is clearly wrong to hold a nation in its entirety at fault for the proclivities of its far-right milieu: it bears underlining that far-right politics, just like conservative, liberal and leftist positions, cut across national boundaries, and that there are liberal forces in Poland too, the support of which should be the priority. These forces have made considerable progress in recent years, and they are as dismayed as outside observers by the shifts that are currently taking place. But there are moments when signals need to be sent, and when symbolic gestures matter. Placing Wrocław's status as European Capital of Culture in 2016 back on the table for discussion, even at this very late stage, might send the Polish government an appropriate message that it needs to state very clearly where it stands on issues of pluralism, democratic civility and human rights, and to speak and act accordingly.