Bartosz Stopel • “’Might Makes Right’ Was the Only Thing They Understood”: A Viral Migrant Crisis Story From Poland

About the blog: The Instrumental Narratives blog aims to popularize the insights and methods of narrative scholarship and features analyses of instrumental storytelling by high-profile narrative scholars. The analyzed cases deal with uses or abuses of the narrative form, storytelling practices or narrative sense-making in many areas of life: politics, journalism, business, identity work, artistic or literary sphere, activism, and forms of social participation. The blog texts evaluate possible societal risks or benefits of contemporary storytelling, for example through cases from the author’s own national, linguistic, or cultural sphere.


Towards the end of summer 2015, Polish politics was taking an unexpected turn. After eight years of relatively stable and economically prosperous period in power, the pro-European center-right government found itself surprisingly losing the presidential election and was well on its way to lose the parliamentary election later that year to a more decisively right-wing Eurosceptic coalition. As things were still hanging in the balance that summer, the drama of the migrant crisis swept across the EU, greatly affecting the political climate on the whole continent.

At the time, Poland had no direct experience of the crisis. There were no significant numbers of refugees at or within its borders. All information, thus, came from other countries and was mediated by two opposing ideological camps and their preferred media outlets. The more liberal and pro-EU policies perspective was generally espoused by traditional media: most mainstream TV channels (including the state-owned broadcaster) and the most widely-read Polish newspaper.

For some, this indicated that mainstream media were involved in a form of “manufacturing consent” in a liberal fashion and prone to deceptive misrepresentation of the supposedly ugly truth about the migrant crisis. The more right-wing, anti-EU discourse was less visible in traditional media, but throve on the internet and in social media, propagating claims of it being a much needed alternative and an anti-system outlook, and taking full advantage of the myth of internet content as direct, authentic, and of grassroots origin. This reflected a more global trend where right-wing movements would thrive on the internet while denouncing mainstream media as biased and corrupt (e.g. Trump campaign, Brexit campaign, and many others).

During the migrant crisis, the Polish internet was flooded with videos, photos and reports of dubious quality and credibility, allegedly taken at various places along EU borders or in places deeper within the EU, representing horrifying and violent images of alleged migrants with little context, with hardly any confirmed sources and without any possibility of verifying them. They were frequently accompanied with anti-EU and anti-migrant messages suggesting EU officials want to relocate violent migrants to Poland or claiming that suffering violent attacks at the hands of refugees was the daily bread of living in the western EU countries.

***

Within the flurry of anti-migrant and anti-EU materials which began to fuel mass hysteria, one story stood out as a particularly telling example of the power and of the allure of narratives of personal experience that circulate in social media. On September 4th, 2015, Kamil Bulonis, a Polish blogger, posted a chilling first-hand account of how he was attacked by refugees on the Austrian-Italian border while travelling with tourists. Very soon, the Facebook post was shared by almost thirty thousand people, as reported by the press [1]. It was relentlessly copied and pasted across message boards, comments sections, blogs and other websites. By the following day, the story was already widely quoted in leading right-wing media [2] [3] associated with the opposition which was gaining political momentum. Apart from his testimony, there was nothing to back the story that presented the refugees as a violent, primitive mob. Soon, his Facebook account was suspended, though the reasons for this were never made public, and then brought back after a few days. For the right-wing media, this was proof of censoring the inconvenient truth about the crisis that he laid bare. [4]. In a matter of days, his post was translated to a number of languages and gained coverage from foreign websites linked to the far-right and to the neo-nazi white genocide conspiracy theory [5]. Even now, searching the Polish internet gives around two thousand results, mostly from right-wing websites.

***

Here’s my translation of the post in its entirety [6]:

Less than two hours ago at an Italian-Austrian border crossing I saw enormous hosts of migrants with my own eyes ….despite all my solidarity with people in dire straits, I must admit that what I saw was bloodcurdling…

This great mass of people-sorry for writing this- but they are absolute savages-cursing, hurling bottles, loud screams “We want to go to Germany!” Is Germany some kind of paradise now?

I saw how they surrounded a car with an elderly Italian woman inside, they pulled her out by the hair and wanted to drive away. They tried to jolt our coach while we were inside. They hurled shit at us and banged at the door to let them in. They spat at the windows.

Why, I ask? How would such savages assimilate in Germany? For a moment I felt I was in the middle of a war…I really feel pity for these people, but if they got to Poland, I don’t think we would have any understanding for them

We spent three hours at the border which eventually we were unable to cross. We were escorted by a column of police vehicles back to Italy. The coach is massacred, smeared with feces, scratched, windows smashed. Is this the solution to demographic crises? These huge, enormous hosts of savages? There were almost no women or children there- young, violent males were the overwhelming majority.

Just yesterday when reading the news all over the internet [about the migrant crisis in Europe], I thoughtlessly felt pity and compassion for their plight, but today after what I saw I’m simply afraid, but also relieved that they don’t choose our fatherland as their destination. We Poles are not ready to accept these people – neither culturally, nor financially. I’m not sure if anybody is.

Some riff-raff we have never seen before is marching towards the European Union, and forgive me If I offended anyone…I will also add that vehicles with humanitarian aid arrived-mostly food and water and they simply overturned these cars. Through loudspeakers, the Austrians said they were allowed to cross the border, they only wanted to register them and let them through, but they didn’t understand these messages. They understood nothing. And that was the greatest horror. Of the few thousand people, nobody understood Italian, English, German, Russian, or Spanish.  ‘Might makes right’ was the only thing they understood.  [7]

They were fighting for the right to cross the border, but they didn’t understand they already had it! They opened the luggage compartment of a French coach and within seconds stole everything or threw it on the ground. I have never seen anything like that in my short life and I feel it’s only the beginning. To conclude, I will only add that it’s worth helping others, but not at any price.

***

Undeniably, narratives like this along with other storytelling practices were central to representing the migrant crisis and shaping ways of responding to it.  One could perhaps introduce two levels of a broader context which heightened their sense of reliability.

On a micro level, narratives of unclear origin in the form of fragmentary verbal reports or video footage circulating on the internet, often with clear political charge, played a pivotal role in shaping the public opinion of what was going on. They were presented as offering direct, almost unmediated access to the reality at EU borders, as opposed to mainstream media, while in fact they were obviously constructing a particular vision of it. 

On a macro level, the success of these stories at engaging people cognitively and affectively, and potentially compelling them to clarify their own ethical attitudes, and to take political action in line with the anti-EU sentiments, was partly due to these stories inscribing themselves within the masterplot of the nationalist historical discourse in Poland. Specifically, the deeply-entrenched metaphor of Poland as a fortified outpost, historically protecting Western Europe from foreign barbarian invasion was the glue that bound those fragmentary narratives in a blend of heroic and sacrificial narrative prototypes (Hogan 2009) and into an overarching modern rendition of the nationalist masterplot. By tapping into this narrative framework, stories like Bulonis’ gained credibility by reaffirming deep-seated beliefs. This masterplot eventually cast its shadow over the parliamentary election that the pro-EU government lost in the wake of the migrant crisis.

Bulonis’ story continued to circulate in spite of the growing concerns that there was nothing to confirm it. In less than a week, Bulonis’ story was deemed completely made-up by the leading Polish liberal newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza [1]. There was no evidence or witnesses to corroborate it. Both the Italian police and local authorities strongly denied any incidents of that sort taking place. Bulonis didn’t retract his claims. On the contrary, he was grateful for all the messages of support and for the attention he got from the right-wing media (many of which have never debunked the story and have kept it posted on their websites) and praised the freedom of speech.

Pointing out problems with the story by a pro-EU newspaper didn’t prove to be a turning point of any sort. Nor did it cause an outrage that would correspond with the outrage at what allegedly had happened at the border. The story’s sense of righteousness and the power to reaffirm some pre-existing “affective consensus” (Mäkelä et al. 2021) would for many override its referential status. Thus, the story conforms to the patterns of a viral prototype which is immune to fact-checking. Even debunked or challenged, it still had the power to establish or reinforce moral norms and circulate as representative of some more general type of relatable experience.

***

Overall, the story seems to tick all the boxes of David Herman’s narrative prototype (Herman 2009) and of a viral exemplum (Mäkelä et al. 2021), being an unverifiable account of personal experience that was supposed to be representative of interactions with migrants and which has clear normative conclusions prompting specific political action. It depicts disruption of a storyworld and an account of going through this disruption. It is full of “immersive storyworld details” (Mäkelä 2018) with respect to the allegedly violent behaviour of the migrants and the attempts to alleviate the crisis by border guards and the humanitarian aid. However, they don’t seem entirely realistic and some are outright contradictory. For example, the border guards only make announcements via loudspeakers and don’t seem to be involved in doing anything else to address the problem. Of the thousands of migrants, nobody is able to understand a single word in European languages: clearly, an attempt to make a point how no communication whatsoever is possible under “the law of the jungle.” It is bizarre how the migrants can clearly communicate their intention to go to Germany, but there is absolutely no way for them to understand they’re allowed to go.

The plot is definitely stereotypical in at least two ways. It is composed of rather unimaginative cliches of a scenario in which people travelling on a bus are confronted by a violent mob. What is striking here is the exaggerated contrast of agency and passivity. The migrants are hyperactive in how they affect story development. They trigger all the events. Bulonis, the tourists, the coach drivers, border guards, police, the humanitarian aid all seem passive and almost non-responsive to what is going on, probably suggesting that this passivity, fear and indolence are emblematic of the general European liberal stance towards migrants. In a way, thus, the story becomes a mythical narrative which happened somewhere and sometime. Even if it didn’t take place at that border crossing, it is supposed to symbolically represent the fate of Europe and, as a timeless myth, will keep recurring.

The plot is also stereotypical insofar as it is  a classic tale of radical change with a clearly stated lesson towards the end. It is a change of the ethical and political stance, almost a coming-of-age story where naïve idealism is overcome by confronting objective reality. Ideologically, the story clearly defines the scope of the possible rational discourse about migrant crisis and severely reduces it to forms of resisting the influx of migrants. In Bulonis’ story, the only logical conclusion is to vehemently oppose what he sees as the inherent primordial blind violence of the migrants.

It’s worth noting that throughout the story Bulonis attempts to establish himself as a reliable, impartial, unbiased teller and mitigate his spiteful comments with apologies and assurances of his empathetic response to the migrants. He strives to present himself as a victim betrayed by his initial reaction marked by sympathy and care, yet he emphasizes he retains his feelings of pity for the migrants. He apologizes if his post offends anyone, though this produces an eerie contrast with the story’s overall racist tone and is surely a form of psychological manipulation. Finally, he opens with a time marker which is supposed to create a sense of immediacy and temporal proximity of the events.

***

One peculiar and disturbing quality of the story is that it is reminiscent of the ordeal of the Freedom Riders in the summer of 1961 in the USA. During that time, civil rights activists fought for desegregation of interstate public buses and transportation facilities. They rode buses through the American south and challenged the entrenched local customs and laws involving racial segregation in seating and in the use of facilities at bus stations. They were routinely confronted by violent racist mobs who forced them out of the buses, beat them with baseball bats and pipes, smashed windows, threw bombs at them and set the buses on fire with the passengers on board. It is impossible to tell whether Bulonis was inspired by these events and at any rate, most Poles would be unfamiliar with them, but with his insistence on the European values of liberty and freedom of speech under threat, the viral story takes up a form of a racist parody of the dramatic anti-racist campaign for equal human rights.

***

It is hard to assess when exactly Bulonis’ story fell out of favour and the viral hype fizzled out, but there are hardly any mentions of him or his story dated after September 2015. Thus, it is safe to assume that after a few weeks, the story’s circulation was quietly put to a halt by the mounting evidence against its factuality. The author’s Facebook timeline is not public and his overall internet presence is non-existent.

As of 2022, the right-wing nationalist coalition that won the parliamentary election in 2015, has remained in power, but the migrant crisis took unexpected turns in the Polish context. In 2021, Poland and the Baltic states had for the first time seen thousands of migrants at their borders trying to enter the EU. Their arrival was orchestrated by the Lukashenko regime, which prompted governments to secure the borders and set-up walls, a move definitely symbolically resonating with the central metaphor of Polish nationalism. The migrants were gradually allowed in, but at a slow rate, often pushed back across the border and forced to wander through forests and bogs, with several deaths reported. The government’s actions were condemned by the opposition, human rights activists and many ordinary citizens, but they were generally backed by the EU.

A more dramatic turn took place in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24th 2022 when in less than two weeks, more refugees crossed the Polish border than had entered all EU countries during the entire migrant crisis in 2015. These events will surely greatly impact the discourse involving migrants and the stance towards the EU in Poland, but their precise effects are yet to be seen. Political actions tied to the war, reports, videos or images of the combat and of the plight of displaced Ukrainians along with various micronarratives involving organized and spontaneous acts of aid all have produced viral stories and memes in the Polish-speaking internet, but none have come close to the stunning and meteoric career of the fictional violence at the Austrian-Italian border.


Notes:

[1] Romanowski, Rafał. Imigranci zaatakowali autokar? Włoska policja dementuje doniesienia polskiego blogera. [Immigrants attacked the bus? The Italian police denies the reports of the Polish blogger.]  September 12, 2015. Wyborcza.pl. https://wyborcza.pl/7,75398,18798864,imigranci-zaatakowali-autokar-wloska-policja-dementuje-doniesienia.html (Retrieved May 3, 2022.)

 [2] PCh24.pl Polonia Christiana. ”Wulgaryzmy, rzucanie butelkami, głośne okrzyki”. Polski podróżnik relacjonuje spotkanie z imigrantami. [”Cursing, hurling bottles, loud screams” A Polish traveller reports an encounter with migrants.] September 8, 2015. PCh24.pl. https://pch24.pl/wulgaryzmy-rzucanie-butelkami-glosne-okrzyki-polski-podroznik-relacjonuje-spotkanie-z-imigrantami/ (Retrieved May 3, 2022.)   

[3] wPolityce.pl. Wstrząsająca relacja blogera-podróżnika z granicy austriacko-włoskiej: Widziałem jak otoczyli samochód starszej Włoszki, wyciągnęli ją za włosy i chcieli odjechać jej autem. [A shocking story by a blogger-traveller from the Austrian-Italian border: I saw how they surrounded a car with an elderly Italian woman inside, they pulled her out by the hair and wanted to drive away.] September 5, 2015. wPolityce.pl. https://wpolityce.pl/swiat/264430-wstrzasajaca-relacja-blogera-podroznika-z-granicy-austriacko-wloskiej-widzialem-jak-otoczyli-samochod-starszej-wloszki-wyciagneli-ja-za-wlosy-i-chcieli-odjechac-jej-autem (Retrieved May 3, 2022.)   

[4] Niezależna.pl. Polak napisał prawdę o uchodźcach. Teraz dostaje pogróżki, a Facebook blokuje mu konto [A Polish citizen wrote the truth about immigrants. Now he is receiving threats and Facebook blocked his account] September 9, 2015. Niezależna.pl. https://niezalezna.pl/70727-polak-napisal-prawde-o-uchodzcach-teraz-dostaje-pogrozki-facebook-blokuje-mu-konto (Retrieved May 3, 2022.)   

[5] The article on whitegenocideproject.com is no longer available, but a screenshot can be seen in the article by Gazeta Wyborcza quoted above. It is also quoted and widely discussed on the infamous neo-nazi message board Stormfront.

[6] The post has been deleted, but its contents and screenshots are available on various websites: chnnews.pl. Wstrząsająca relacja Polaka z granicy włosko-austriackiej. To, co robili tam imigranci… [A shocking report from the Austrian-Italian border by a Polish citizen. What immigrants did there…] chnnews.pl https://chnnews.pl/europa/item/2791-wstrzasajaca-relacja-polaka-z-granicy-wlosko-austriackiej-to-co-robili-tam-imigranci.html A screenshot is available here: https://demotywatory.pl/4545436/Wstrzasajaca-relacja-pasazera-autobusu-zaatakowanego-przez-imigrantow-na-granicy-Wloch

[7] The literal translation of the Polish phrase would be “the law of the fist.”

[8] Roman, Frank. Gay Left-Wing Polish Blogger Has An Awakening to Illegal Immigrants | Western Voices World News. September 7, 2015. Western Voices World News. https://www.wvwnews.net/news/2015/09/07/gay-left-wing-polish-blogger-has-an-awakening-to-illegal-immigrants/ (Retrieved May 3, 2022.)


Bibliography:

Herman, David. 2009. Basic Elements of Narrative. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell.

Hogan, Patrick Colm. 2009. Understanding Nationalism. Columbus: The Ohio State University Press.

Mäkelä, Maria. 2018. ”Lessons from the Dangers of Narrative Project: Toward a Story-Critical Narratology”. Tekstualia 4: 175–186.

Mäkelä, Maria, Samuli Björninen, Laura Karttunen, Matias Nurminen, Juha Raipola, Tytti Rantanen. 2021. “Dangers of Narrative: A Critical Approach to Narratives of Personal Experience in Contemporary Story Economy” Narrative 29 (2): 139–159.


Bartosz Stopel is associate professor of literary studies at University of Silesia, Poland. His current research focuses on cognition and emotion in the experience of literary and cinematic narratives. His recent work was published in The Routledge Companion to Literature and Emotion (2022), as well as in Projections and in Journal of Literary Theory. Earlier, he published on literary theory and aesthetics. His first book, From Mind to Text (Routledge 2018), explores the affective underpinnings of aesthetic interpretation of literature.


bartosz.stopel@us.edu.pl

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