Tomasz Zarycki


It is a common phenomenon that we discover the real importance of things or people only after they are gone. The most famous Polish poem written by Adam Mizckiewicz starts with the words every pupil in Poland knows by heart: "O Lithuania, my fatherland, you are as health, that only one, who has lost you, will know how much he should treasure you".

Is seems that the same could be observed in many other cases, including the state borders. Their real significance may be, as I will show below, fully understood only after they disappear from the political maps.

It is, of course, obvious that erasing the lines of political borders from the maps will never result in an automatic removal of all differences in territories that in the past belonged to different states. But how long can such "life after death" of the former state border last? It would seem not very long, especially in case of ethnically and religiously homogenous territories that have been once artificially divided by the state boundary marked in quite arbitrary manner.

Such question, concerning the lifetime of the historical border, could seem highly abstract. However, one can prove how interesting this question could be from the perspective of the political and economic problems of today. As we all know, contemporary Europe is a continent of rapidly changing borders. We observe the processes of both their disappearance and appearance. In both cases the question about the long-term consequences of their existence seems to be very important. The study of the long-term border effects can help in understanding the economic and social processes, induced by the existence of the borders.

In the context of border removing, as in the case, for example, with reunification of Germany, one can ask the question about how long the process of vanishing of the border will last. Those Germans, who expected the fast convergence of Western and Eastern parts of their country, had already experienced their first disappointments.

On the other hand, in the countries of the former Soviet Union, where new political borders emerge and old ones are recreated, the discussion about the importance of the historical borders can help in answering the question about how new political divisions will influence the differentiation of the social and economic space on the two sides of the new political division and to what extent the on-going processes will have an irreversible character.

Poland seems an ideal place to study the long-term effects of the political divisions of the ethnically homogenous territory. The present day territory of the country has been divided between three empires during the whole XIX century.

Although Poland has already ceased to exist in 1795, after the third partition of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the stable borders between Prussia, Russia and Austrian (later Austro-Hungarian) Empire on the former Polish territory were determined only at the Congress of Vienna in 1815. The 1815 borders lasted almost exactly 100 years, until the beginning of the First World War.

More than three generations have passed from the time of the regaining of independence and reunification of Polish territories in 1918... Is there anything left from the XIX-century borders?

It had always been obvious that considerable differences existed between the three parts of Poland that belonged to the three XIX-century Empires. However, it was never quite clear to what extent the XIX-century partitions had influenced the differences between the four regions of Poland, and what influence was caused by other factors. Regional differences in social and economic spheres exist in all countries, and it would be strange not to find such patterns on the relatively large territory of Poland.

In this context, the analysis of the maps on the level of communes (gminas), the smallest administrative units of Poland, seems to be very useful for distinguishing the spatial differentiation of the partitions period from other patterns. There are about 2400 communes in Poland, and the maps containing data on such level allow to study spatial structures with considerable accuracy.

Let me now shortly discuss the instances of reappearance of the XIX century borders on the maps representing the contemporary data.

The first real surprise related to the persistence of the old borders in the post-war era was in 1989 with the first (almost) democratic parliamentary elections. At that time, analysts had noticed the shapes of the old historical regions on the electoral maps. The results of the 1990 presidential elections provided much more detailed and reliable data on the Polish electoral geography. At this point it became obvious that the XIX-century borders were still present and in many cases their lines were as sharp as 80 years ago. Most of these patterns had had permanent character and could have been observed on the maps of the following elections until the last parliamentary elections in 1997.

Since the structure of the Polish electoral geography has a stable two-dimensional form, it is possible to present it using two synthetic maps. They represent the two dimensions of the Polish political scene.

The first dimension is the symbolic "left-right" conflict, known also as the "axis of values". Here the main controversy concerns the attitudes towards the communist system. On one side of the axis we find post-communist parties and their candidates, as for example Alexander Kwasniewski. On the other side of the axis are the right wing, religious, traditionalist anti-Communist groups and their candidates, such as Lech Walensa.

The second dimension, representing the so-called "axis of interests", relates to the differences in views on the economic system of the country. On one side we have supporters of the liberal, free-market option and on the other side - the supporters of the socialist option, redistributive policies of state etc. This cleavage, in the context of post-communist Europe, has, to the large extent, the form of an opposition between the winners and the losers of economic transformation. In the context of Polish politics this cleavage has the form of opposition between the liberal, well-educated urban electorate and the rural electorate of the Polish Peasant Party.

If we look at the map of the "left-right" cleavage, or the "values axis", the visibility of the XIX-century borders is the most striking in the case of the former Austro-Hungarian partition zone, Galicja. The Russian-Hungarian border is sharply noticeable first of all in its part along the river Vistula. However, its is also visible in its Eastern part, where exists no natural reinforcement of any kind. Galicja is clearly a region of high and stable right wing, supported by anti-Communist parties. The former Prussian and German territories are much less conservative and more often support post-communist candidates.

Another place, where the XIX century border is still visible on the same map, is the Silesian region, more precisely, on the border between the formerly Prussian Upper Silesia and formerly Russian Zaglebie Dabrowskie (Dabrowskie Coal Basin). The Zaglebie Dabrowskie region was a center of activity of the socialist and communist parties in the period before the First World War. These traditions have survived until the present day and Zaglebie Dabrowskie is still one of the strongholds of the left-wing parties in Poland. On the other side of the XIX century border, the political profile of Upper Silesia is balanced, however, with slight advantage of the right-wing parties.

The XIX-century political borders are more visible in the second dimension of Polish political space, the liberal-socialist economic cleavage, or the interest's axis. Here, the borders of the Russian Empire are visible practically along the whole historical line. Generally, Western Poland is more urban and thus economically more liberal, while the Eastern part of the country is more rural and in effect supports rather the socially-oriented option with stronger involvement of the state in the economy. If we start examining the map from the North, we will see a clear difference along the former East Prussian border. Also in Central Poland the curve of the border between Prussia and Russia is clearly visible. It becomes even sharper in the South, near the region of Silesia, as in the case of the first dimension of the political space. The difference between the former Austrian and Russian zones is also visible.

Another insight into the political map of the country can be made through looking at the map of the turnout . Here, the first glance shows us the shape of the former Prussian sector. It is clearly the region of the highest turnout in Poland. Its borders in the East (with the former Russian zone) as well as in the West (with the former German territories) are clearly following the historical lines. The former Prussian zone is not restricted only to the Greater Poland (Wielkopolska) region. It is a long North-South belt from Kaszuby region on the Baltic coast to Silesia on the Czech border. The turnout map allows to recognize its shapes on the entire area.

As these examples show, the differences between the three historical regions of Poland are quite significant, and the borders between them are still visible. However, the interpretation of these differences is not at all clear.

The special character of each region has been widely discussed both in academic publications as well as in mass media. However, most of our knowledge about the importance of the historical past comes largely from the unverified stereotypes. We still lack adequate evidence of the formal character, which could confirm or refute the hypothesis relating the present day electoral behavior to the historical heritage.

Below I would like to review briefly the stereotypes of the three XIX-century historical regions of the country.

The former Austrian-Hungarian part, known also as Galicja, after the Austrian name of the province - "Galitzien", is widely viewed as the most "nationally developed" and "democratically mature" from the point of view of its historical experience. It has first participated in almost universal elections. On the turn of XIX and XX centuries the electoral laws were being constantly democratized and political liberties extended, thus allowing for the diffusion of Polish culture, Polish political organizations as well as for the strengthening of the nation awareness. Austrian zone was the only sector where Polish language was allowed at all levels of education from elementary schools to universities.

However, the Galicja stereotype includes also a negative economic aspect. The region used to be one of the poorest and most peripheral of the Habsburg Empire. It has inherited exceptionally bad farm structure and a widespread rural poverty, leading to mass emigration to America. The land reform has been conducted in a particularly ineffective way, leading to continuous tensions between the peasants and the landlords.

The former Prussian region enjoyed some democratic freedom, but here the state was much more active in repressing the manifestations of Polish national identity and pursued its brutal policy of Germanisation. The positive legacy of the Prussian influence on the present day electoral behavior is a high quality school system. This seems to be the main cause of the high electoral turnout in the former Prussian zone. However, some stereotypical theories relate the same fact to the legendary "Prussian discipline". Another merit of Prussian rule is the well-implemented land reform, preventing the emergence of the small, ineffective farms, which have dominated in the Russian and Austrian sectors until today. This also implied the reduction of the potential peasant-landlord conflicts, so common for the rest of the country until the nationalisation of the large estates in 1945.

The worst stereotype of all is usually ascribed to the Russian sector, known also as "Kongresowka" (named after the so-called Polish "Congress Kingdom", established at 1815 Vienna Congress). Russia left the legacy of a corrupt administration, authoritarism and civilizational backwardness that are often perceived as factors, hampering the development of the region. The Russian State left neither democratic traditions nor technical infrastructure. It did, however, generate the emergence of the left-liberal educated intelligentsia class with ambitions of preserving some of the values of nobility and a clear anti-system political orientation. Kongresowka gave Poland its most famous XIX century poets, writers and the majority of the national heroes of this period, but it also had the lowest level of education and the least developed national identity among its large peasant population.

Another aspect of the partition heritage could be seen in the economic space of the country. Here the XIX century borders are visible on several maps as clearly as in the social and political sphere. Several examples could be adduced for this fact. First, let us take the case of the per capita revenues of Polish communes. The former Russian zone (except for the larger cities) was until today much poorer than the rest of the country, especially the Prussian sector. Different measures of infrastructure show a similar picture. 80 years after the outbreak of the 1st World War the railways network is still several times more dense on the former Prussian and German lands than in the Russian sector. These differences are seen in different living conditions such as the quality of housing, a share of apartments with water supply and sewage systems etc. What is also important, is that the Russian and Austrian sectors remain until our days much more rural than Western Poland. Moreover, the farms in Kongresowka and Galicja (Russian and Austrian sectors) are much smaller and less efficient.

In general, it could be noticed that, during the partitions period, Polish territories were peripheral in each of the three empires. From this perspective, all these countries would have been seen as equally restraining to the economic development of these provinces. However, it is also true that the occupying states were on quite different levels of economic development. From this perspective, as I have shown, the influence of the Prussian economic and administrative system has been much more positive than that of the Russian one. There is nonetheless another aspect of this situation. The Prussian Poland, especially the province of Grater Poland (Wielkopolska), acquired the role of the agricultural region of the Berlin metropolis. Thus, the development of the area was restricted to a large extent only to primary economy. Even if its level was high and general infrastructure had been developed in the same time, Greater Poland was, if compared with other Prussian regions, not developing on the level adequate to its potential capability. On the other side of the border, Russian Poland was the most Western province of the empire. This fact appeared to be an advantage for the development of the industrial centers in this region. Lodz is the best example of a large industrial city, an important center of the textile industry, famous for its products even in present-day Poland. Lodz has developed mainly because of its location near the Prussian border. This allowed the Prussian investors to build factories close to their native country and in the same time to have access to the Russian market.

As I have illustrated by the previous examples, the political borders that were invalidated at the beginning of the century, still exist in the Polish socio-economic space. It seems that their presence should not be explained directly in terms of the time of their formal existence before disintegration (in this case one century). One should rather pay attention to the importance of the social and economic processes occurring during the period of division of this territory. In case of the XIX century partitions of Poland, several important processes were taking place. Firstly, the period was marked by the consequences of the national revolution. In Europe this was the time of development of modern nations, national identities, modern states and their institutions (such as educational or legal systems). Secondly, this was the period of the industrial revolution, which was also changing the economic and social foundations of European societies. In all of the three countries occupying the Polish territories, all these processes took completely different forms and this seems to be the crucial factor for the strengthening of differentiation of the socio-economic space along the XIX century borders.

Assuming that the intensity of the social and economic processes was the main factor in predicting the scope of the reinforcement of the socio-economic effects of the political borders, we could speculate about the possible persistence of the new borders established in the XX century. Although the processes of the national and industrial revolution are practically over in Western Europe, it is not the case in most of the countries in the Eastern part of the continent. Besides, several new, not less crucial, social and economic transformations are taking place in modern Europe. The processes of globalisation, information revolution, the collapse of the communism, and several other processes seem to significantly influence societies and economies of all countries. What is even more important, the speed at which these processes are progressing today, seems to be much faster than in the XIX century. Such assumption will lead to hypothesis that in our days shorter period of time will be sufficient for the development of the enduring effects of political divisions in forms of differentiation of the socio-economic space. Of course, another proof of this reasoning is the existence of a considerable differentiation in forms of these processes on different sides of the political borders. However, if we look at what was and what is happening in different countries of the former Soviet block, there seems to be no doubt that the transformations are taking very special forms in most of the countries. Even the process of globalisation, which involves unification in many aspects, paradoxically may have completely different effects in different countries.

The final point of this article will concern the Polish nation as a whole. The experience of sustaining a country erased from the political maps for over a century allowed the Poles to learn how to survive without clearly defined political borders. In this way, Poland has joined the group of nations, which are able to exist without their own states and not only survive but even develop their high culture and be active in economics. The most prominent member of this group has always been the Jewish nation.

Here let me once again allude to Adam Mizckiewicz, who several times argued about the existence of important similarities between the Jewish and Polish destinies. For him the stateless Poland suffering under the partitions was like Israel, another "chosen nation", with its important role to be played in the world's history. But this is of course a part of a completely different story.