Poland a colony? The new face of an old dispute

Colonialism is not often associated with central Europe, but it has been a key component of Poland’s history and a crucial, though largely unacknowledged, motif in the current public debate.

Photo: Piotr Drabik

Throughout Poland’s history, colonialism’s brutal reality and legacy has often been present. But in the linguistic area, the term has not been accepted without controversy. American literary historian, Ewa Thompson, claims that average Poles eschew the term’s application to a European country, associating it with more distant places, like Africa. However, she claims those associations are misleading, pointing out that, “Poland has not been a colony for a shorter time than the African countries.” 1

Nowadays, long since the colonization projects of absolutist Prussia and Russia, and those of the Third Reich and the Soviet Union collapsed, the term is typically amended with prefixes; and in the 2015 super-election year, neo was the most common. During one of last debates before the May’s presidential elections, candidate Paweł Kukiz called neocolonialism, by way of global banks and corporations, “the biggest enemy of Poland right now.” 2

While one of the program experts of Poland’s national conservative Law and Justice party (PiS), Piotr Gliński, said, “we fall deeper and deeper into neocolonial dependence.” Gliński, who became Poland’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Culture, added, “the Germans are in charge of the sugar industry and its prices, the price of gas is controlled by . . . you know who. We are not a green island – we are a new colony.” 3

Just after autumn elections, the most viewed article on the influential website, jagiellonski24.pl, was entitled “How Foreign Discounts Colonize Us.” The text, published by one of the major analytical hubs of the Polish right, argues that global corporations have been liquidating private entrepreneurship and hampering the development of the country by neocolonial practices. 4

The validity of these claims regarding Poland’s economic dependence on the European center are difficult to ignore. This can be seen both in this periphery country’s record capital outflow (Poland is a world champion in this) as two million predominantly young voters have moved to Europe’s major city centers, many working in London or Amsterdam, and in global corporations’ tax preferences. These discussions will have consequences after elections, when the new government taxes big sales departments or banking transactions.

But economic neocolonialism is only a part of the broader context of the Polish public debate. The terminology, borrowed from post-colonial theorists, like Edward Said or Homi Bhabha, also fits perfectly into this context.

The Sarmatians fight the modernizers

The politics over Vistula 5 loves sharp dichotomies: the Poland of solidarity vs. the Poland of liberalism; the Poland of rationality vs. the Poland of radicalism. The nation’s political-cultural polarization has even satirically been branded as a “mafia vs. sect” conflict; and the electorate said to be divided and pulled between, “thieves and madmen” (PO and PiS).  6

All this naturally based on how the two main oppositional parties, PiS and the more liberal, Civic Platform (PO), perceive each other. But their tendency toward a polarized, Manichean perception of the world is much older than the war between these two groups, or the catastrophe in Smolensk in 2010, for that matter.

During the Communist Era Czesław Miłosz 7 wrote: “The division between the reformers and Sarmatians was established at the end of 18th century and still lasts in various forms today.” 8 And after the 2005 elections the leader of PO, Jan Rokita, pointed to this again saying that, “the conflict between the Sarmatians and the reformers has been recurring in Polish politics for centuries.” “It is almost always the same,” he said, “the first want solidarity, identity and people´s Catholicism; the second want modernity and a cure for the nation’s defects.” 9

Who were the Sarmatians? A legend about the ethnic difference between the “nobles,” and the “lowly” inhabitants of the country originated within the milieu of Polish noblemen sometime during the late Middle Ages (similar myths were developed in other European countries as well). The noblemen considered themselves to be the offspring of a combative tribe of Sarmatians, who had subjugated the Slavic peasants.

In the 18th century, the term Sarmatism gained a pejorative connotation, becoming synonymous with the dull and stubborn defense of the Rzeczpospolita’s republican system, 10 despite clear symptoms of a terminal disease inflicting the whole state. However, the Sarmatians perceived themselves as the only defenders of tradition and the sacred “golden freedom.” Their strongly anti-authoritarian tendencies, and their strong belief in Polish uniqueness is reflected in the song lyrics:

   “We’ll never submit to be allies of kings;
we’ll never bend our necks to powers and might,
for only from Christ do we take our commands;
we are servants of the Virgin.” 11

As J.J. Rousseau pointed out in his Reflections on the Government of Poland, the essence of Sarmatians´ politics can be seen in their concept of “confederation,” a temporary ad hoc alliance of citizens meant to deal with actual crisis situations. The idea of confederation weaves through other Sarmatian histories, and can be found in other Polish uprisings and moments of national recovery.

Contrarily to the Sarmatian’s views, the reformers sought salvation by applying European state standards to Rzeczpospolita’s “bizarre” republican system. Both the Sarmatians and the reformers’ core theses and values produced an irresolvable conflict about what was considered essentially Polish: individual freedom bordering on anarchy, anchored in national history, tradition and Catholic morality vs. the idea that the modernization and rationalization of the state according to Western templates was necessary.

In the 18th century, these Western templates were exemplified in a centralized state, based on enlightened absolutism. 12 Later the same language of “historical necessity,” and a missionary enthusiasm for enlightening savage aborigines fortified other ideologies, including Stalinist Communism. “This nation must be modernized, even if we have to achieve it via the gunstocks of the Soviet machine-guns,” said one intellectual after WW2.

We entered the democratic order without the political culture, inherent to the democratic order. Like putting a savage in front of a computer

Another incarnation of the modernization theme within the Polish debate was Poland’s version of liberalism after 1989, which was accepted by the majority when the new state was established. The new template Poland sought to implement was based on the requirements of EU legislative bodies and allegedly changeless principles of Rechtsstaat­. 13

Again, a specific idea that traditional Polish views on politics and society was a “burden,” that must be thrown aside in order for the modernization process to begin, came to the fore. This is illustrated by the 1990s philosopher, Janusz Majcherek, who wrote: “The affirmation of Polishness will stop being a problem, only when it ceases to be an obstacle to the desire for well-being and all the cultural and technological achievements of the Western world.” 14

This idea of Polishness somehow blocking progress forms the paradoxical core of Polish liberalism. While classical liberalism originates from a mistrust of power, Polish liberalism is built upon the elite´s mistrust of society, and its missionary tendencies aimed at re-educating society in accordance with “imported” templates.

Similarities just random?

To better understand the conflict between the Sarmatians and the “modernizers,” we can glean inspiration from leading post-colonial thinkers, such as Edward Said, Homi Bhabha or Ashis Nandy. Their names have begun appearing in the Polish debate more often over the last few years. The well-known Said´s concept of orientalism, 15 originates not only through acts of intellectual imperialism but also through acts of acceptance – when the colonized intellectual elite internalized a negative self-image.

Similarly Homi Bhabha argues that “the colonized mind” always localizes “the center of civilization” outside his or her own country. Thus those who are colonized develop a complex that forces them to denigrate everything that is a product of their “home,” including their government, while glorifying everything that allegedly comes from the center. According to Apollo Amok, the key feature of the colonized self is the belief that the ascribed “backwardness” of one’s colony is the result of a deficient cultural heritage, which should be marginalized through ardently copying the cultural trends of the “metropole.” 16

As Ashis Nandy wrote:

“In the political culture of Asian and African societies, where colonialism created a binary position between tradition and modernity […] tradition is perceived as the opposite of modernity. The position considers the features of tradition – numbness, lack of flexibility and protestation to the progress of science – as inimical to the reason and spirit of democracy. This perception of tradition was accompanied with emotional appeals to the aborigines to give up the prejudices and mutual conflicts inherited from their bygone rulers, and learn the virtues of rationality, flexibility and tolerance from a new modern elite. The authors of these appeals, pronounced with missionary passion, are at the same time applicants, witnesses, judges and members of a jury.”  17

Several years ago, Jaroslaw Gowin, now the PiS government’s Minister for Science and Higher Education, similarly described how the Polish intellectual establishment’s principles, often voiced in the daily, Gazeta Wyborcza, developed:

“The intellectual circles around the daily, Gazeta Wyborcza, were convinced that Poland must be modernized principally by a confrontation with local tradition. Modernization, they thought, should proceed based on the models authenticated and applied in other countries. But imitation is seldom successful. […] GW assumed that Polish identity must be radically redefined because it is irrecusably burdened with nationalism – a pathological mentality of a Pole – Catholicism, anti-Semitism and a mistrust of the market and capitalism.”  18

In the 1990s, GW’s then editor-in-chief, Adam Michnik, himself, summarized Poland’s beginnings in the family of democratic nations in a wonderful “postcolonial” metaphor: “We entered the democratic order without the political culture, inherent to the democratic order. Like putting a savage in front of a computer.”  19

A way out?

The result of this is the reality of two antithetical worlds that perceive each other with contempt and fear. On the one hand modernization, not only a pragmatic choice, but a moral norm grounded in the faith that society must be “reeducated.” On the other hand, there is a belief that modernization is only a soulless imitation of foreign templates, and thus endangers the sovereignty of the nation.

The Dominican theologian and philosopher, Jacek Salij, points to a considerable, “level of auto-aggression in the Polish collective mind.” Linguistically, this is reflected in a vast and rich array of derogatory terms that don’t translate outside of the Polish context: “kołtuneria,” “zaścianek,” and “Ciemnogród,” point to the alleged parochialism, aggressive narrow-mindedness, backwardness and obscurantism of the Sarmatians.  20

On the other side, the inhabitants of the “castle of obscurantism,” similarly and conclusively define themselves against the “post-communist hydra” (in extreme versions it might even be against the “Jew-Bolsheviks and freemasons”), and more recently the very popular metaphor of the “lemmings,” who bluntly follow the trends of political correctness and proper “Europeanism,” dictated by established “Salons.”

In Polish politics all attempts to “sit astride on the barricade,” or “build bridges,” and not succumb to the lethal polarized logic, have so far failed. All the perceived liberal splitters from PiS or the conservatives pushed from PO can attest to this. Both the overall transformation of PiS into a popular party of national and Catholic revolt (who would accuse Jaroslaw Kaczyński of having a deeper relationship with “political Catholicism” before 2005?) and PO into an alliance of the post-communist establishment, with the parole, “modernization through imitation,” scrolled on its banners, are final proof of the postcolonial scheme’s strength.

The majority of conservative commentators think that Andrzej Duda´s presidential victory and PiS´ parliamentary one were due to their push to both, “re-build the common good,” and “bring dignity back to the Poles,” while injecting some subjectivity (podmiotowość) back into both society and foreign-policy priorities as well. This affirmation of Polishness naturally stands in contrast to the basic assumptions inherent in Poland’s imitative liberalism. However, instead of their traditionally defensive rhetoric, the “newer Sarmatian program” is now positively directed toward the future.

The new government’s rhetoric, by way of the distinctive Super-Minister of Development Mateusz Morawiecki, points out their attempts to turn the Sarmatian confederation into a program of economic modernization, but undertaken “on their own terms.”

As to the public debate, there has been hope in recent years with the ongoing generational change in both camps. It is symptomatic that younger successors of the liberal camp’s “rabid old men,” such as Adam Michnik or Jacek Żakowski, are less prone to hysterical fear mongering about the end of democracy when discussing the PiS victory.

Young left intellectuals might not accept the conservatives’ program, but they do not perceive the elections as an apocalyptic, “war of the worlds” – just a normal democratic procedure. Young liberals as well as right-wingers both lack the chronic contempt against their own society, so typical of key figures of the liberal camp over the last 25 years.

Nevertheless, it must be said that these positive signals for the future have recently been overshadowed by the totally polarized logic the Polish debate has driven since the elections. Edward Said´s ghost is still haunting Poland.

The original Czech version of this article was published by the webzine Demokratický střed (9.12. 2015).


  1. Ewa Thompson, “Said and the Polish question / Said a sprawa polska,” Dziennik/Europa, 29.6. 2005.
  2. “Kukiz: the biggest enemy of Poland is neocolonialism / Kukiz: największym wrogiem Polski jest neokolonializm,” Prostzostu.net, 11.10. 2015, http://prostozmostu.net/kraj/kukiz-najwiekszym-wrogiem-polski-jest-neokolonializm.
  3. Mirosław Skowron, “Piotr Gliński: we descend into neocolonialism / Piotr Gliński: Staczamy się w neokolonializm,” Se.pl, 3.10. 2012, http://www.se.pl/wiadomosci/opinie/piotr-glinski-staczamy-sie-w-neokolonializm_282881.html.
  4. Marcin Kędzierski, “How we have been colonized by foreign discounts / Jak kolonizuja nas zagraniczne diskonty,” Jagiellonski24.pl, 14.8. 2015, http://jagiellonski24.pl/2015/08/14/jak-kolonizuja-nas-zagraniczne-dyskonty/.
  5. “The Vistula is the longest and largest river in Poland and passes several large Polish cities along its way, including Kraków, Warsaw, Płock, Toruń and Gdańsk,” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vistula.
  6. “Mafia vs. sect or PO vs. PiS / Mafia i sekta czyli PO i PiS,” 19.8. 2014, http://korwin-mikke.blog.onet.pl/2014/08/19/mafia-i-sekta-czyli-po-i-pis/.
  7. Czesław Miłosz (1911 – 2004) was a Polish poet, prose writer, translator and diplomat. In 1980 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.
  8. Marek Cichocki, “Solidarity as the Basis of Patriotism/ Solidarystyczne podstawy patriotyzmu,” http://www.omp.org.pl/artykul.php?artykul=143.
  9. Jan M. Rokita, “The Sarmatians against the Reformers / Sarmaci przeciw reformatorom,” Gazeta Wyborcza, 2.11. 2005.
  10. Rzeczpospolita is a traditional and official name of the Polish State. It comes from the words: rzecz (thing) and pospolita (common), literally, a ‘common thing,’ often rendered in English as the Commonwealth. It reflects a republican essence of the Polish-Lithuanian state from the end of 15th century, with a sovereign position of the ‘political nation’ of noblemen. In Poland the word Rzeczpospolita is used exclusively in relation to the Republic of Poland.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rzeczpospolita.
  11. Norman Davies, Heart of Europe: A Short History of Poland, Oxford University Press, 1986, p. 385.
  12. “Enlightened absolutism is a form of absolute monarchy or despotism inspired by the Enlightenment. Enlightened monarchs embrace rationality. Most enlightened monarchs fostered education and allowed religious tolerance, freedom of speech, and the right to hold private property.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Enlightened_absolutism.
  13. Rechtsstaat is a doctrine in continental European legal thinking, originally borrowed from German jurisprudence, that can be translated as ‘legal state’ or ‘state of law.’ The power of the state is limited in order to protect citizens from the arbitrary exercise of authority. In a Rechtsstaat the citizens share legally based civil liberties and can use the courts.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rechtsstaat.
  14. Antoni Dudek, “The struggle over memory / Bitwa o pamięć,” Rzeczpospolita, 16.11. 2006.
  15. “As a cultural critic, Said is known for the book, Orientalism (1978), a critical analysis of the culturally inaccurate representations that are the bases of Orientalism — the Western study of the Eastern world that presents how Westerners perceive and represent Orientals. (…) The thesis of Orientalism is the politics of discourse applied to the Middle East; the Orientalist discourse arises from a particular, political culture — defined by the presuppositions of the political culture — which, in turn, shape the political culture and the political culture of the subject area.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edward_Said.
  16. Thompson, “Said and the Polish question.”; Homi K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture, Routledge, London, 1994; Helena Duć-Fajfer, “The ethnicity and literature / Etniczność i literatura,” Kulturowa teoria literatury, Eds. M.P. Markowski, R. Nyvy, Kraków: Universitas 2006, 436-441.
  17. Ashis Nandy, “Modernity as a loss / Nowoczesność jako strata,” Dziennik/Europa, 18.11. 2006.
  18. Maciej Nowicki, “The Poles have learned by themselves. A conversation with Jaroslaw Gowin / Polacy nauczyli się samych siebie. Rozmowa z Jarosławem Gowinem,” Dziennik, 16.1. 2008.
  19. Zdzisław Krasnodębski, The democracy of a periphery / Demokracja peryferii, Gdańsk: Słowo, Obraz, Terytoria, 2003: 49, 51.
  20. Jacek Salij, Parochialism and obscurantism, Religion and conservatism: allies or enemies? / Zaściankowość i kołtuneria, Religia i konserwatyzm: sprzymierzeńcy czy wrogowie?, Ed. P. Mazurkiewicz, Wrocław: Ossolineum, 239-247.
Maciej Ruczaj

Maciej Ruczaj

is a Polish political commentator based in Prague. He is an editor of Jagellonské dědictví. Kapitoly z dějin středo-východní Evropy (The Heritage of the Jagellonians: Chapters from the history of Central and Eastern Europe), a study of the “Sarmatian” republican legacy in Polish history.