Poland & the Postcolonial

Poland has, for hundreds of years, been surrounded and conquered by its neighbours. Recent history up until the very late 20th century has been no better, with Soviet-imposed massacres and brutal repression. Colonialism has evidently been a great part of Polish history, being a land between great powers, yet there is a reluctance in postcolonial literature to include colonial presence in Eastern Europe.

Yet some have recognised Ireland as a postcolonial country, with Eastern Europe as an unknown:

only one European country has thus far been exempted from the binary ‘First World-Third World’ model now governing post-colonial studies. This is Ireland which is, as Seamus Deane remarks, ‘the only Western European country that has both an early and a late colonial experience’ [...] Deane is careful to distinguish here between East and West; [which] remains terra incognita in recent theory. [Cavanagh 2003, 63-64].

The ‘ terra incognita ‘ of Eastern Europe (and Poland, which Cavanagh references), is often referred to in both Western and Eastern discourse as ‘borderlands’, reducing the culture there and its people as merely a place between the East and West. Whilst at times this discourse has been reclaimed by ideas of the Rus as a ‘two-headed eagle’, strong and facing all sides, in modern times this can be seen as a view that sees Eastern Europe as neither the ‘Other’ or the West. Talk of Russia, the Baltics, Balkans, and Eastern Europe in general is often talked of as peripheral to Europe. Indeed, there have been casual attempts to define Russia as an Asian country.

Colonialism, as well as cultural and geopolitical dominance, have played large roles in Eastern Europe. Numerous states have attempted (and at times succeeded in) exercising full or partial control over other countries, others have even occupied with settlers, and it is certainly not rare for there to be a system of economic exploitation. It is not that this has been confined to the history books either, Soviet presence being the greatest example, but also the aims of different groups during periods of ethnic conflict in the Balkans.

‘Outside’ influences such as that of the Turks in South-Eastern Europe, or that of the Austro-Hungarian empire, are underreported in postcolonial studies. German cultural dominance imposed in Poland, for example, still holds sway over local elections even (see below).

Polish voting patterns, with former German territory overlay.

Polish voting patterns, with former German territory overlay.

Polish railway infrastructure.

Polish railway infrastructure.

However, this is not to say that Poland was always the oppressed. The Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth was a force to be reckoned with, and whilst it didn’t quite have the same level of brute as other European powers it still made efforts to assimilate other cultures and civilisations. This is also not to say, that colonisation of Poland, and colonisation outside of Europe are in any way equal. The point of this post is to highlight how postcolonial studies can overlook colonial discourse and events purely because of current affairs.

To further confuse those who delve deeper, there are also efforts to rehabilitate Eastern Europe away from the “Other”. The Economist states that the term has “connotations of “poverty, marginalisation, and weirdness” which is for most states there, “anything but.”  Membership in Schengen, the EU, NATO, and the reemergence of Russia in world politics as an ally of the West all play to the narrative that Europe is no longer divided. A video that plays with the concept of Eastern Europe, and attempts to think up new terms,

Cavanagh , C., 2003, Postkolonialna Polska. Bia ł a plama na mapie współ czesnej teorii, ”Teksty Drugie”, No. 64; 18-19. Quotations taken from other sites, which in turn quoted Cavanagh’s English version.
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  1. Oh, and if anybody has anything to say about Hybridity in E. Europe, here’s your platform.

  2. Firstly, Hi Callum, hope uni is going well and you are ok. This is the first time i have found this website and am glad I have found it.

    I really like how you express colonialism as a phenomenon that isn’t only limited to the carving up and domination of Africa by western superpowers in the nineteenth and twentieth century, instead suggesting that colonialism exists more covertly and far closer to home.

    I also like the point you raise about Ireland being a post-colonial nation, but do you feel Ireland, particularly Northern Ireland, is truly post-colonial or is British colonialism still rife? I ask you this as I know you are based in Belfast and I haven’t had the opportunity to experience Belfast myself.

    • Hey Nick, cheers for commenting :), genuinely appreciate it.

      I guess I just stumbled across something coherent in the dark, postcolonialism is still a bit confusing for me and I was trying to relate it to countries familiar to me.

      I think Northern Ireland is a postcolonial country, mainly because for years the identity of it as “Ulster” and as a protestant Ulster-Scots state was loaded with colonialist discourse and a British narrative of what Northern Ireland is. You also had a group of rich protestants, that basically kept in place a colonial hierarchy from what I know. I’m sure other people could say this a lot better than me though, especially as I didn’t grow up there or belong to either community.

      Postcolonialism in my mind (and I could be wrong) is based around situations of inequality and political outcomes of colonialism, and if Northern Ireland now isn’t part of that then it definitely is historically. Most postcolonial writers though come from places like Africa/Asia that have seen Irish and Scottish complicity in imperialism, and that could make it pretty hard for them to come to terms with a postcolonial reading of Ireland.

      Apologies if this is a bit of a ramble. Did you hear about postcolonialism at uni? I remember you went to Cardiff I think, but I forgot what you were studying.

      • I am studying Geography and Planning at Cardiff, so i certainly lack the political fine points to really discuss this subject in detail. My course, when it does look at such subjects, looks at them from a more spatial dimension, so, in the case of Northern Ireland, would look at how post-colonialism is manifested in the built enviornment in the form of residential segregation and is enforced through peace walls and non-material divides.

        Thanks for the reply Callum, will certainly keep up to date with your blog.

        • Sounds pretty interesting though, I like looking on here http://www.theatlanticcities.com/

          Good to hear something from a different perspective too. I don’t even realise that I place my location in Belfast by sectarian/non-sectarian neighbourhoods. Tell me if you start a blog too, it’s a good way for organising thoughts and things like that

  3. Mark Allen

    / April 12, 2013

    I doubt that the colonial/post-colonial framework is that useful in the Central and East European context. The nation states of the region virtually all have a narrative that includes the struggle against neighbouring countries as a key element of national self-identification. This includes the Polish view on the partition of Poland between Russia, Prussia and Austria as an injustice and an obstacle to be overcome in the achievement of national destiny. And there are similar views in Lithuania and Belarus on the impact on those nations of Poland’s domination of the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth. But these processes were generally very different from the overseas colonialism of the European great powers, and are better understood in the frameworks of class and dynastic structures in the region, combined with the conflicts inherent when nationalism becomes a dominant driver in a region where different “peoples” are living in close proximity.

    • Thanks for the comment, it was genuinely interesting.

      It would be great to hear your views of this in greater detail, as you sound pretty knowledgeable about it. Would you mind doing a post immediately following this one expanding on what you’ve said?

      I’m sure it will generate a lot of interest.

  4. Robert LeChef

    / June 18, 2013

    Well, when Poland is describes as post-colonial, it doesn’t mean the brutality that was enacted against Poles was of the same nature as that of natives in European colonies overseas. It has to do with the relation Poles have towards other countries in foreign policy and the sociological patterns relevant in that context. That is, Poles often assume a position that is not on par with neighbors, which they should. Also, the current party is highly influenced by Brussels, Berlin, and Moscow, as well as post-communists. You don’t see this kind of thinking in Berlin, Moscow, Paris, London, etc, where foreign policy is concerned. Germany, despite rhetoric, is highly concerned with its own interests for example despite the official EU rhetoric which is a mere political plot to disarm post-colonial countries and place them in a position of complacency and a false sense of security while these larger powers realize their politics. This is what the problem is.

    • I think Poland often does assume a position on par with its neighbours, for instance by resisting the euro. Do you have any examples?

      I would agree with you on most of your other points, which are well reasoned. What do you mean by ‘realise their politics’ though?

      Thanks for commenting by the way, I appreciate it!

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