The Convoluted case of Poland and its place within postcolonial theory
Marta Wojtowicz, Durham University
While the ‘Western’ scholars have been preoccupied with the concept of postcolonialism for a long time now, Eastern Europeans, including Poles, have only just recently started to undertake this intellectual challenge of positioning themselves within the postcolonial framework. And, that has proved itself not to be an easy task. But what is postcolonialism anyway and why should we even care?
Postcolonialism can be defined as an academic discipline or a method of sociological analysis of culture focusing on the results of colonisation. Importantly, those results manifest themselves in cultures of both, the colonised societies, as well as those who were colonising. The basic premise of postcolonial studies is that the experience of colonisation significantly impacts, and even shapes, the discourse around the countries who participated in it. Besides methodological reasons behind postcolonial research, there is also an existential, perhaps ethical one. Firstly, the theory teaches us to be more conscious and sensitive to the experiences of ‘the Other,’ and, secondly, it gives us the tools necessary for self-reflection which then allow us to question ‘the way things are.’
Why is Poland an interesting case?
The first question that we should ask ourselves, is whether Poland should even be considered a postcolonial country. At first glance, Poland does not have much to do with colonialism, and therefore, the postcolonial theory is incompatible with Polish history and culture. It had been, however, under the influence of foreign powers on more than one occasion. Most notably following the partitions of Poland by Imperial Russia, Prussia and Austria towards the end of the 18th century, and after World War II when Poland became one of the ‘Soviet bloc’ countries, politically and economically dependent on the USSR. Processes such as Russification and Germanisation during the Partitions, which aimed to denationalise Poles through the enforcement of a foreign culture upon them (often in a forceful manner), had its expression in Polish art and literature.
Poles have developed an inferiority complex, typical for societies suffering from postcolonial trauma. At the same time, Poles (as well as other Eastern European nations) often glorify ‘the West,’ meaning Western Europe and the US, seeking their approval and measuring themselves against ‘western standards.’ Interestingly, a similar apotheosis directed at Russia cannot be found among Poles, since even back in the 18th century. Although under the influence of Russia, they still saw themselves as more civilised and advanced than Russians. This was partly due to Polish Catholicism which gave Poles the grounds to have stronger ties with the rest of the European ‘Latin civilisation.’
Tomasz Zarycki from the Institute for Social Studies at the University of Warsaw has described this strange amalgam of feeling like you belong to the centre (meaning that you belong to the wider ‘European family’), while simultaneously experiencing the need to prove yourself to the rest of that family as ‘peripheral identity’ characteristic to Poles and other Eastern European nations. It cannot be omitted that besides being the victim of European imperialism, Poland has its own history of imperial aspirations and can be analysed within the postcolonial theory framework as the colonising power.
The point is that the relationship Poland had with Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine positions itself as the coloniser because it had political and cultural hegemony over those regions (the two latter ones were not even separate countries, but parts of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth). As such, the Polish case demonstrates that being a victim does not exclude being a perpetrator. Quite the contrary, one could even engender the other, which becomes particularly visible when we think about Polish paternalistic approaches towards Ukraine and Belarus.
Why is Polish postcolonialism an under-researched field?
There are a few reasons as to why - in Clare Cavanagh’s words - Poland remains ‘a white spot in the map of the current [postcolonial] theory.’ Cavanagh, who is an expert on Polish poetry, points to the necessity of criticising Marxism (which is almost inseparable from postcolonialism) when thinking about the Soviet colonial domination. Most scholars writing about the issues of postcolonialism have a strong affinity to the political Left, therefore are more hesitant about seeing the Soviet Union in the light that is similar to French or British capitalist imperialism. Moreover, the fact that race is often put at the very forefront of the postcolonial theory prevents many people from even considering Poland as well as other European countries in postcolonial terms. Race, however, does not have to be a deciding factor when thinking about postcolonialism - recognising Ireland a postcolonial country has proved to be true. If race should not be an issue here, why is Poland not widely analysed through a postcolonial lens within academia?
As Marta Grzechnik from University of Gdańsk has noticed, ‘(…) mental maps of most Western Europeans (and North Americans) do not include Eastern Europe at all.’ However, the task of applying postcolonial theory within the Eastern European context should be the responsibility that Eastern Europeans, including Poles, have to undertake themselves. Even when we look at the names of the most prominent scholars of postcolonialism, such Franz Fanon, Edward Said, Gayatri Spivak or Homi K. Bhabha, it is easy to determine that they did not necessarily belong to the group which exercised their colonial power over others.
It is difficult, however, for Poles to consider this postcolonial lens within their own context. Firstly, because of its strong connections to Marxism, and secondly, because they would have to admit to their colonial practices and attitudes towards ‘Kresy’ – the Eastern borderlands of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and the Second Polish Republic constituting parts of modern-day Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine. Thirdly, the infamous Polish megalomania (paradoxically existing simultaneously with the Polish inferiority complex), prevents the idea of positioning themselves within the same category as ‘Third World countries’ (upon which the postcolonial theory was established).
Why is this important?
Dariusz Skórczewski from the John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin, who has recently published a book entitled ‘Polish Literature and National Identity: A Postcolonial Landscape’ (2020), contends that the analysis of Polish literature, and therefore, Polish culture more broadly, using methodological methods developed within the postcolonial theory, would allow it to become more noticeable on a global scale. Currently, despite having such a rich literary history, Poland practically does not exist on the global cultural scene with few exceptions of modern poetry connoisseurs who might have come across Szymborska or Miłosz, and perhaps Tokarczuk (but only just very recently).
Being able to see ourselves and our cultural heritage through the lens of postcolonial theory in its unique variation of being both the colonised group and the colonisers opens up interesting possibilities of thinking about our history and identity. It could allow us to reconsider certain national myths as well as the way we portray ourselves and others in literature, film and political discourse. It is a task that may be controversial to some, but hopefully, results in a better sense of self-awareness among Poles. Something necessary for being able to engage in meaningful conversations happening in the international arena.