Territorial Changes Shaped Polish Society

A century after it regained its independence, Poland is still divided between east and west.

1916 map of areas populated by Poles
1916 map of areas populated by Poles (Wikimedia Commons)

Poland’s historical changeability on the map of Europe has had a profound impact on its political and social composition. A century after it regained its independence, differences still exists between those parts of Poland that were annexed by Germans and those that were once part of Austria and Russia.

In the last few parliamentary and presidential elections, the political map of Poland could be drawn almost perfectly along the former borders of its occupiers. The liberal Civic Platform party won pluralities in almost all counties that were part of the German Empire until 1914. The conservative Law and Justice, by contrast, won most counties in the east.

Poland’s partition was not a straightforward process. Austria, Prussia (which went on to dominate the German Empire when it was formed in 1871) and Russia progressively dismantled it between 1772 and 1795. Napoleon briefly brought it back as a French puppet state, the Duchy of Warsaw. Poland was restored at the end of World War I but divided up between Germany and Russia again in 1939. It emerged from World War II without its Eastern Borderlands, which were granted to Russian-controlled Belarus, Lithuania and Ukraine, and with new territories in the west, taken from a defeated Germany.

These territorial shifts affected Poland’s economy and society. The German lands that would end up in modern Poland were ethnically and religious more diverse. A Protestant minority ruled over a Catholic majority, rationalized the country’s agriculture (if to the benefit of Prussian estate owners rather than Polish workers) and built railways as well as schools in an effort to Germanize the territories.

Poles were disenfranchised and discriminated against but their second-class treatment at the hands of the Germans at least helped prevent their sense of identity from being diluted.

The west is still the most urbanized part of Poland with its higher average GDP per capita than the east.

Russia, by contrast, largely neglected its Polish provinces except when the people rebelled. Russification was little more than a policy of repression. Uprisings in 1794, 1830–31 and 1863-64 were brutally put down. Dissidents were exiled to Siberia. Bribery and poverty were rampant.

The east remained underdeveloped until the postwar communist government embarked on an ambitious economic reconstruction program between 1947 and 1949. This first Three-Year Plan managed to revive the economy and shift it away from an overreliance on agriculture. Subsequent attempts at central planning were less successful. Coal and steel industries still exist in Silesia, once part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. But Poland didn’t see an expansion in services until after it regained its freedom in 1989.

Under communism, and especially during the stagnation of the 1970s, hundreds of thousands of Poles left the country and fled to the West, leaving the rural east even poorer.

However, the east is also more homogenous with family and local ties stretching back generations. As a result, it is socially more conservative than the west which has been uprooted by large population transfers.

1945 map of a potential post-World War II partition of Polan
1945 map of a potential post-World War II partition of Poland (Time/Robert M. Chapin Jr.)

After the Second World War, millions of ethnic Germans were expelled from their colonies in Eastern Europe. Areas like East Prussia, Farther Pomerania and Silesia were given to Poland and resettled by refugees from the Eastern Borderlands. Around one million ethnic Poles were removed from those areas by the Soviets.

These population changes, as well as an historical connectivity with the rest of the Baltic Sea region, made western Poland more cosmopolitan. Hence the popularity of the liberal Civic Platform party there. The only parts of the east where it performs well are Łódź and Warsaw, two of Poland’s largest cities.

Civic Platform and its supporters also tend to look more favorably on relations with Germany and the rest of the European Union. Easterners and the Law and Justice party are warier of foreign influences, informing a Euroskepticism and anti-immigration sentiment. They also prefer to rely on the faraway United States for Poland’s security rather than pick sides between former rivals Germany and Russia.

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