Writing a Contemporary History of Poland Beyond Totalitarianism: Some Remarks from a Postcolonial Perspective

The Polish sociologist Zdzisław Krasnodębski considers Poland a postcolonial country and often employs the postcolonial as a concept to argue for understanding Polish history in terms of oppression and resistance. Postcolonial studies have influenced historians studying the modern history of Central and Eastern Europe for years and yet, this transfer of a theoretical framework calls for some critical remarks. Postcolonial theory can inspire the study of post-war Poland, but it needs to move beyond an epistemology of totalitarianism.

Man standing in front of the Gdańsk shipyard. The former sign at the gate naming the shipyard after Lenin has been removed, the banner calls for supporting the 1980 workers’ 21 demands.

Krasnodębski and many other conservative Polish intellectuals tell the story of Communism and Soviet hegemony as a colonial experience, to be followed by a period of coming to terms with this experience after 1989. Here, Polish history revolves around the too easy antagonism of the Communist regime (or władza) and a society that resisted the Communist takeover and the re-making of Poland after the Second World War. To underpin this dichotomy, both research and popular discourse describe the Communist regime as totalitarian which goes along with a simplistic focus on a small elite of Communist officials. In recent years, such narratives often make uses of postcolonialism and present a heroic history of resisting society and essentially unstained national identity. Following various and complex political conflicts in today’s Polish society, these conservative intellectuals denounce many oppositional protagonists as de facto Communists or collaborators. Such patterns of interpretation are in fact rather anticolonial than postcolonial. Like it or not, this anticolonial effect is the point of reference for present day historical research on Poland.

There is no denying that these anticolonial narratives follow the dichotomy of “oni i my” (“Us and Them”), a catchphrase of describing Polish society under Communism. This strict dichotomy rests upon a long continuity from People’s Poland to these very days and obviously oversimplifies Polish Contemporary history. The Polish philosopher Agata Bielik-Robson described these ideas in a worthwhile pledge for a liberal postcolonial position[1], as the “pathology of tradition: [these ideas are] fearful, secretive, and condensed to an elusive, but therefore more and more sacral nothing.” In other words, such a postcolonial paradigm constructs an enclosed and essentialist notion of the political and imagines history in terms of a Schmittian differentiation of friends and foes.

Contrary to this, historical research has established that Communism in Poland was not simply a foreign social model but social change mobilised broad strata of Polish society. At the same time, political protest was frequent and often shared by the same people that participated in the Socialist project. The People’s Republic of Poland was far more complex than “oni i my” suggests and this complex ambiguity needs to be studied in more detail. For instance, when shipyard workers in Gdańsk went on strike in 1981 and eventually initiated the Solidarity movement they employed both Catholicism and Marxism in their protest. Such alleged contradictions are legion and mark off the specific hybridity of People’s Poland. Borrowing a metaphor from Jerzy Kochanowski, Polish Communism was not black and white nor grey, but colourful.

Studying this colourful hybridity calls for overcoming the binary framework of totalitarianism and deconstructing interpretations that stem from the historical experience itself. Postcolonial theory can help to do so, but this means more than simply referring to a post-colonial situation and making use of the moral empowerment such a situation provides. It means to approach contemporary Polish history from a new position that moves beyond the historical narratives and beyond the dominant actors of the time. In fact, a rather simple shift in focus may help illustrate such an “epistemic disobedience” (Walter Mignolo). Here again, we might look at ordinary shipyard workers founding the Solidarity movement instead of the intellectuals advising them or the many dignitaries of Party, State, or the Church involved in the process. Such a “subaltern” perspective on protest will open up the many contradictions of embracing Socialist modernisation, referring to the traditional and romantic nationalism with a high degree vernacular piety and eventually the claim for an individualist position within a mass society.

Gdańsk Shipyard’s gate during the strike of 1980 with strike leader Lech Wałęsa speaking. The assembly gathers under a banner stating “Workers of the world, unite” and the gate is decorated with Polish flags and religious symbols.

It is understood that such epistemic disobedience is in line with many inspirations of recent cultural and social history. In fact, we do not need to use postcolonial theory for writing a contemporary history of Poland beyond totalitarianism. For instance, the Czech historian Pavel Kolář demonstrated such an approach in his recent book on Poststalinism and hopefully many researchers will contribute to this line of argumentation. However, if the term post-colonial Poland is used – and it IS used – the category should be handled with care. Beyond the metaphoric and moral “colonisation” of the Polish experience, the postcolonial must be used as an analytical tool, as an epistemology that moves beyond the alleged colonial situation in order to develop a fresh picture. This need for an epistemic post-colonialism is not limited to Polish history but should inform Central and Eastern European history in general. Even more so, it should inform European history as such.


This contribution sums up my presentation on “Both centre and periphery” delivered at the German Congress for Polish Studies (Polenforschung) at Frankfurt an der Oder on March 25, 2017. I would like to thank Florian Peters, Katharina Kreuder-Sonnen, Magdalena Saryusz-Wolska, Magdalena Nowicka and Markus Krzoska for discussing these and others ideas with me.

[1] Polish text here, http://krytykapolityczna.pl/felietony/agata-bielik-robson/dzikosc-serca-i-polska-postkolonialna/

OpenEdition suggests that you cite this post as follows:
Gregor Feindt (March 30, 2017). Writing a Contemporary History of Poland Beyond Totalitarianism: Some Remarks from a Postcolonial Perspective. Europe Across Borders. Retrieved July 23, 2024 from https://doi.org/10.58079/olm1

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.