Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Are Poles today victims of their history?

Just as we are told that some black men are errant fathers because ‘of the slave trade’, did the ‘Partitions’ result in a Varsovian's lack of civil pride?

It may seem a daft question (and when has the beatroot ever asked one of those?) but the recent commemorations of the 200 years since the abolition of the international slave trade has raised the issue of how - or if - we are affected today by events that happened many centuries ago.

This is black British hip-hop singer Ms Dynamite – whose father left her when she was 11 years old - on the legacy of the slave trade on black men today.

'There's stuff in the family and home which is…a result of slavery. Men were not allowed to be fathers but were used to breed to create more slaves. It's something that - not with everyone - is common in the black community, especially in our generation: the fathers are not always there. We're not that far away from slavery and that way of living, where a man is literally just a tool to reproduce.'

Slavery – which the British were celebrating ‘abolishing’ last week, but were, of course, one of the main engines of the trade in the first place – was indeed one of the most disgusting episodes in human history. But can it have an effect on the way people behave today? Surly we are not passive victims of something that happened over two centuries ago?

And isn’t it slightly illogical of Ms Dynamite to claim that the younger generation of black British men are more influence by their slave history than their parents and grandparents (who, believe me, because I know many of the older generation of Jamaicans etc, are almost Victorian in their moral outlook) are less affected by a history that they are chronologically closer too?

This view, however, is common among people today, and not just the younger black British. The idea that something other than our own free will is to blame for our failings is a neat piece of self deceit. It fits in with our very contemporary celebration of the victim.

It's all Russia's fault

And you can see it here in Poland. Many from Warsaw will tell you that the capital is messier, that the people get drunk more often, that nothing works quite as well as in some of the other cities in the country because, in effect, of the consequences of Imperialism.

Warsaw is messy, in other words, because of the Partitions (which began in 1772 and ended in 1918) when the Prussian, Russian and Austrian empires carved up Poland (see map above). This has left a cultural legacy in different parts of Poland according to which empire it fell under.

Warsaw was in the Russian part, and ‘Russian traits’ can be seen in the behavior of capital dwellers even to this very day.

Poznań was in the Prussian sector. If you ask someone from Warsaw why everything seems more efficient and cleaner in Poznań they will tell you it is because Poznańians were influenced by the Prussian culture.

Krakovians are culturally snobbish because of the Austrians. And so on…

Is this just historical determinism – the believe that our actions are caused by things beyond our control? Are we prisoners of our history? Are irresponsible black guys who father babies and then leave the home mere victims of slavery? Are the streets a mess in Warsaw because of the Russians?

And just as some of the Black community in the UK and US are claiming compensation for slavery over two centuries ago, should Warsaw send Moscow its street cleaning bill?


Anonymous said...

I have heard this observation before; many people suggest that different cultural influences can be observed according to partition boundaries. What may be more visible is the level of infrastructure, which differs greatly. As to the argument that it’s a cultural difference than if Warsaw is effected by the Russians this should also be observable in the western areas of Poland where the population was transplanted from Poland most eastern areas.

The biggest changes are yet to come as Poland is exposed to western influences for a longer period time, western media and culture will have a profound effect on the status-quo more so then any residue from the partitions of Poland.

BEING HAD said...

Well first of all making excuses is a national pastime. But I have often thought of this myself. In businesses, the manner in which executives carry themselves is often followed by the people under them. If the Polish aristocracy saw fit to bargain away the entire country, why shouldn't the Poles have been affected by this? I know that across the border these days Belarusians are feeling a bit odd about their current status. But then again, regardless of WHY the Poles are the way they are, they still ARE that way. I am going to stand my ground on this one and say that THIS is the more important part of the argument.

Anonymous said...

With respect to Black men and slavery there are certainly noticeable cultural differences between American Blacks and Blacks from Africa or even the Caribbean. From personal observations Blacks from Africa and the Caribbean didn’t seem to carry the same cultural baggage as a group they did better in every respect than American Blacks by this I mean more successful in society and family life. The two groups did not share the same level of confidence and expectations.

Anonymous said...

Ever heard of Situationism? No, not the funky cultural kind, the boring scientific kind. Try here. We don't always live and learn.

Anonymous said...

Each partition also engendered different experiences expressed in different class structures and attendant political party development that paralleled (that's a tuff sucker to spell) e.o. from partition to partition. And these all differentially developed over time. Trying to figure out which trend cut throught where and wound up where can make you nuts. Me being a case in point. Still suffering from it 20 years later. Don't think I'll ever recover.

In which partition and vis-a-vis which social groupings was Pilsudski strongest? Dmowski? Rosa, comrade K and the SDKPiL? The leaders of populist peasant movements? And so forth?

And how does all this stack up today? Does it? How much?

Blah. I'm done. I agree with jannovak57. Residue. What's on TV?

Anonymous said...

BTW, Beat and damo, re. cultural throwbacks/lingerings, you really should check out the Black Donnellys -- They have all the episodes in streaming video on line. Google it and watch how some of your Irish American cousins are assimilating in NYC deze daze.

Actually, here's the url:

Anonymous said...

It isn't really about the Russians. Well, not all of it.

I've seen some research on this -- indeed, there are some indicators that correlate shockingly well with partitions borders. Some others don't.

What it is about is that contemporary nations were shaped in the 19th century. And at that era all 3 occupying countries had different political systems and policies with respect to Polish people. I.e.: under the Austrian regime Poles had a wide autonomy, while Russian and Prussian governments were trying to dissolve Poles in their nations. Russia had an absolutist government while Prussia and Austria were more democratic. The economical priorities were different. And so on, and on... (Yeah, quite a big part of our school curriculum is dedicated to this stuff. Telling, eh?)

Of course, the fact that the railway network in this country almost 100 years later still mirrors the partitions has more to do with our inherent inability to sort things out than it has to do with the partitions themselves...

Topcat said...

Nice map Beatroot, and an interesting topic to me. I thought alot about it too and I was thinking that so much of the land in Poland today was Prussian and that must have had the greater impact. Not saying I'm right...these Poles know better (I'm Polish American), but I say Jon is correct saying that in the future it will still be revealed. I still would say infrastructure, architecture built by the Germans in the past would influence the current inhabitants.
As for Warsaw, it was so greatly changed by the uprising. But it does not have the same character as Pomerania or Silesia, etc.

beatroot said...

our inherent inability to sort things out

I hear this as an excuse for all sorts of things...

But what does it mean?

I see lots of commentators know more about this than me – so I will go back to my original point.

Where does the influence of culture end and free will – ‘agency’ – begin?

About blacks and slavery. The idea – peddled by many liberals in UK/US that behavioral problems amongst black men, for instance, have roots in slavery experience is a totally patronizing thing to think. It reduces black men to passive victims of their history. Very reactionary position, but typical these days of ‘progressive liberals’.

It ignores how slaves fought for their freedom (a long time before the Brits ever got around to abolishing it) and it ignores how Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and civil rights movement actively fought racism and tried to change their circumstance by political engagement. Those guys were not sitting around thinking they were incapable of change because of their historical baggage.

And I think Poles have a habit of doing this too. ‘Oh, well, you see, it’s our history..’


Topcat said...

You can't put a map of the partitions up and ask about slavery. Slavery goes on in different forms. You know this is true.

varus said...

Ref the situation of the modern black man. If we look at Britian we can see that in a country with no history of enslavement of its population, with a current GDP being the 4/5th largest in the world we should expect a well balanced society. Yet Britain has the highest rate of teenage pregnacies and single parenthood in Europe. Peoples attitudes to themselves and their repsonisbilities as adults and parents have more to do with their current education levels, economic prospects and general living standards rather than some historical predisposition.

michael farris said...

"Where does the influence of culture end and free will – ‘agency’ – begin?"

That's the crucial question.

I'm no cultural determinist, but I am a cultural ... influentialist?

That is, within any given culture you'll get the entire spectrum of human behavior. But when you look at numbers, the percentages differ.

That is, within a given culture, some reactions to particular stimuli will be easier than others. History is a definite contributing factor to this.

As for Polish cities, please get over the outdated (yet touching) misconception that Poznan is any cleaner or well run than Warsaw (maybe ten years ago, not now).

AFAICT _all_ Polish cities are choking with casual litter and defaced by grafitti because most Polish people don't much care about ideas like civil responsibility and civic pride.

Topcat said...

I didn't notice a litter problem when I was there. All big cities have this problem on the poorer side of town, right?

Anonymous said...

Pity people do not clean up after their dogs here in Poznan-maybe that is a Polish wide thing that could be sorted out nationally and not along partitions?

Anonymous said...

Michael farris said “I'm no cultural determinist, but I am a cultural ... influentialist?

Yes it’s merely an influencing factor.

Beatroot said: “Very reactionary position”

If history plays no part as a cultural influence on society then how do you explain the noticeable difference in performance between groups of Blacks i.e. Africans, Black Caribbeans and American Blacks? What accounts for the difference?

john,Poznan said... “people do not clean up after their dogs”

Yes this is annoying but watch where you step if you’re walking around Paris.

beatroot said...

how do you explain the noticeable difference in performance between groups of Blacks i.e. Africans, Black Caribbeans and American Blacks? What accounts for the difference?

I am not sure what you mean by ‘performance’…educational performance?

First of all what I said was that claiming that young black males in the UK and US are slaves of ‘history’ because of their slave past is a very reactionary position. It ignores how blacks have struggled to transcend their discriminated position.

So I was not claiming that ‘culture’ has no influence on how we behave. That would be nonsense.

As far as the different educational performances of say Asian groups is concerned. Complicated subject. Pakistanis in Britain do less well than Indian immigrants from Uganda.

That has as much to do with social class as ‘culture’. Ugandan Asians come from middle class, civil servants backgrounds – much of Pakistani, Bengali immigrants come from poor farming communities.

So it is very hard to untie ethnic, class, gender etc factors when discussing educational performance or anything else.

And I have noticed in debates about educational achievement these days that social class doesn’t get a look in. That’s because ‘multi-culturalism’ has put ‘culture’ at the top of the heap – where it doesn’t belong.

Anonymous said...

“If history plays no part as a cultural influence on society then how do you explain the noticeable difference in performance between groups of Blacks i.e. Africans, Black Caribbeans and American Blacks? What accounts for the difference?”

What do you mean by history in this case? Only slavery? If we agree that lack of freedom generations ago may have shaped our behavior today then what followed should have even stronger impact on our lives. What I mean in this case is that the affirmative action and other forms of preferential treatment for American blacks may have demotivational effect.

And why are black immigrants from Jamaica often more successful that people born in Harlem? Maybe because they are immigrants and immigrants know that they can’t count on anybody’s mercy but have to roll up their sleeves and show at least minimum efforts to make it in America.

beatroot said...

I agree about affirmative action. Awful, patronizing, nonsense.

My point is that by harking back to ‘our’ pasts we take our eyes of the present. Warasaw’s lack of civic pride is something to do with what is happening now. Black young men buggering off leaving the woman with the baby is about forces at work today. Not two, three hundred years ago.

Agnes said...

Beat, while I tend to agree - it takes at least a generation or two for mentalities to change. Till then, trapped in history. The transition after the war was often from a semi feudal system, and the often fascistic past(literally) between the two wars glorified. The nationalistic character of the education (this survived the regime changes) still has a huge impact. No need for any further explanation when it comes to how nationalism (on the rise as you can well notice) and historical determinism
fill the vacuum of the political will. This kind of nationalism IS historical determinism and this has been going on for decades. On the other hand, as long as
some countries still have border treaties to sign and discuss (Moldova, Baltic states etc), the gold and other treasures still in Russia: many will whine about the clean streets and blame Moscow for it. While for the many (especially the young, of child bearing age) the present lies elsewhere, in the UK for Spain for example. Among other things, the streets are clean indeed over there.

beatroot said...

This kind of nationalism IS historical determinism and this has been going on for decades.

I don’t think the nationalism that is going on in Poland and the rest of east/central Europe is historically determined. History, in the form of a 1930s nationalism, wasn’t allowed a natural death and got bottled up by communism, which buried older conflicts.

And then communism fell and we got a weird mixture come tumbling out. And then we got the EU, which the nationalism that was still here could react against.

So again, what has given rise to nationalist thought is to do with CONTEMPORARY events, and is informed, but not determined by ‘history’.

Agnes said...

Of course not "determined", but perceived as such. Part of it is still the old and romantic 19th century type, part of it (very close to the 30's) - is not. And it won't deal with contemporary situations and problems. See Hungary for instance. I
wouldn't underestimate it. What you write about, the whole package comes with the bottled up glory.

beatroot said...

I can’t remember if it was Gramsci or another of those ‘cultural Marxists’ who wrote about three different modes of thought – ideologies.

Progressive (Marxist, of course) dominant, and ‘residual’.

Nationalism comes under ‘residual’. And of course in certain contemporary situations residual cultures, like Romania and Poland is full of, play a role. More so in our part of the world where these residues have not been allowed to be played out.

But it’s the same in Iraq. There the old pre-colonial Iraq constructions have come back. But only because of contemporary events – like moron British and American governments invading the place and then treating the people like three distinct, historical groups: Shia, Sunni and Kurd.

History is bunk.

Anonymous said...


our inherent inability to sort things out

I hear this as an excuse for all sorts of things...

But what does it mean?

Messed up priorities. We should be fixing the shit instead of debating which occupant should be blamed for it.

Anonymous said...

My experience: if you talk to a Pole, be sure it won't take long and s/he will begin to yammer. Sensibilized by similar experiences in Sicily, Sardinia and Virginia (US), I avoid, for heaven's sake, to join in yammering. (For a foreigner, it would be a faux pas.)

So I listen for a while and then try to convince my interlocutor that things, in reality, aren't such bad in Poland. "Well," I hear, "but look at that and that ..." So the next step of my strategy is to enthuse about the inherent possibilities of the country, her natural riches, wonderful people, and beautiful landscape. "Well, but we're not used to make use of it ... " (then, as a rule, the culprits are listed: the partition powers, the German occupation, and the Communist regime thereafter).

I further try to encourage. I remember my interlocutor that Polish immigrants built up the Ruhr industrial region in Germany, or how successful Poles were and are in the US, that Poles "can make it," if they want. "Well," I use to hear then, "if there is some strong hand that leads us ... but, y'know, we always revolted against every ruler, that's our tradition, our history ... ".

And I'm afraid that today's politics, in general and especially in education, which focus on looking back into history instead of "fixing the shit" of today (thanks, opamp!) and looking forwards, only foster these widespread attitudes, a mixture of self-pity and - oh, how convenient! - evasion of responsibility.

Anonymous said...

Although I do not believe that today’s Poland is that heavily influenced by the old partitions it remains a small component of influence in the culture. We may be looking at the problem from the wrong angle.

Opamp said: “has more to do with our inherent inability to sort things out”

We can’t blame others or past history for a societal problems that prevent effective governance. Perhaps we should be discussing why Polish society is so ineffective at forming consensus and moving forward in the simplest matters. The most successful democracies seem to have mastered the art of consensus. What are the factors in Polish society that make forming consensus so difficult?

It seems in a country that has the technical ability and resources to solve all sorts of problems we are missing something in our culture that’s needed to bring everything to-gether.

beatroot said...

Perhaps we should be discussing why Polish society is so ineffective at forming consensus and moving forward in the simplest matters.

Yup. That's exactly correct. And that has been a problem ever since 1918 and after the POlish 'state' didn't exsist for over a century.

That is where history informs the present. Poles relationship to the state and to each other is what we should be looking at...

Anonymous said...

Yup. That's exactly correct. And that has been a problem ever since 1918 and after the POlish 'state' didn't exsist for over a century.

It was a a problem much earlier. The partitions were the result of gross mismanagement during the last part of the First Republic era. This mismanagement stemmed from the lack of ability of forming the consensus.

What happened was that pre-partitions Poland gradually evolved from monarchy towards democracy (i.e. the king was democratically elected by the parliament, the parlliament had strong veto power over his decisions, and we even had the equivalent of habeas corpus. Of course all of that was limited only to the nobility, but then our nobility comprised 15% or so of inhabitants, compared o about 1% in Western countries). The democracized system however has turned out to be completely ineffective and has essentially voted (or argued) the coutry out of existence.

So the lack of consensus is not caused by the partitions; it has caused the partitions.

Anonymous said...

So how do you re-educate an entire society to overcome such a clearly identifiable flaw?

Unknown said...

This is really a very interesting discussion but I’m afraid it misses to recognize that Poles may be the way they are because of what they are (i.e. Polish) and not because of what they as a nation have been through. As un-PC as it may sound, there is a reason why national stereotypes exist. The Blacks do make great athletes, Irish do like their drink, Latinos can indeed dance, Italians are typically loud and overly dramatic, and Germans are generally anal and follow rules and Poles.. well, Poles tend to bitch, drink, complain about ‘hamstwo’, not being able to get along, and blame others for their national misfortunes. Spice it up with hubris and national megalomania and you have your explanation as to why Poland is (and has been…) the way it is. In case of more orderly and cleaner cities in the western part of Poland, they may be expression of certain amount of intermixing with non-Polish populations rather than the cultural influence of the former occupying powers.

Here is my solution: Poles should interbreed with other nations (which at the current rate of immigration will happen anyway…) to dilute the undesirable traits. Besides its practical effect it also happens to be quite pleasurable way of engineering social changes ;)

Caveat: Polish/Irish interbreeding may cause increase in violence and alcohol consumption as well as uncontrollable population explosion…

beatroot said...

That's not un-PC, that's just daft as a brush...

michael farris said...

"In case of more orderly and cleaner cities in the western part of Poland"

Poznan is in no way cleaner or more orderly than Warsaw (maybe once, but no more).
Wrocław IMO is at present cleaner and better run than Poznań and is ethnically one of the most eastern of all Polish cities as I believe the majority of the population traces their descent to what's now Ukraine.

In Poland, a lot depends on who's in charge. For most of the 90's the mayor of Poznań was a technocratic policy wonk who got a lot done (and set a good example followed by those lower in the power structure).

For the last 8 or so years, the mayor has been a career politician of no special skills besides winning elections (again setting a similar example down the power chain).

Unknown said...

beatroot, is it "daft" because it lacks merit or because it would take you outside of your comfort zone to consider an argument based in eugenics?
Consider this: It's a fact that you will find more blue-eyed blondes in Sweden than in Uganda. If it's ok to say that we may share some physical similarities due to interbreeding within certain population, why is it not ok to say that perhaps the genetics are also responsible for amplifying certain personality traits, talents, predispositions, etc.?

beatroot said...

beatroot, is it "daft" because it lacks merit or because it would take you outside of your comfort zone to consider an argument based in eugenics?

Eugenics? Oh, dear.

It would not take me out of my comfort zone at all. It's just that Eugenics brief flirt with the scientific limelight ended many decades ago.

So I don't even thinks worth debating.

Unknown said...

Oooh... that unmistaken glib condescension - how delightfully British of you! But seriously Beetroot, your patronizing tone was very disappointing indeed. Didn’t expect that kind of tone (..and no substance) from you - I thought your objective was to stimulate exchange of variety of ideas and viewpoints rather than dismissing the ones you don’t consider worthy.

beatroot said...

So, go on then. Let's resurect that old chestnut: Eugentics. How is this relevant to what we are talking about...

michael farris said...


use your theories of eugenics to explain why the most dynamic city in the country (by many metrics) is Wrocław whos current inhabitanta almost all trace their ancestory to around Lwów (now Lviv) in (now) Ukrained.

Damien Moran said...

Interesting discussion and good contributions.

Thanks for The Black Donnelly's reference Geez.

Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, as you may well know, has suggested his church should reflect on how to pay reparations for their role in the slave trade.
What form the compensation would take has not been suggested but surely investing some additional resources (albeit without strings attached) in deprived areas of England with ethnic minorities would be a welcome move. Or, maybe the focus should shift away from the descendants of slaves to the current victims of slavery and trafficking in Britain and elsewhere - women caught in prostitution, labourers forced to work in crap conditions, etc. Race and skin colour is not the issue here, but rather the violation of anybody's human rights.

William;s statement comes after the Anglican church's divestment from stock in companies like Caterpillar, due to their role in constructing the Israeli Apartheid wall.

6 years ago I worked as a volunteer in Haiti, a country that has seriously suffered from the consequences of the Frencj colonisation and subsequent native dictators, coups, etc.
Aristide (still enjoys popular support)was partly ousted from Haiti for his demands that $21 billion in reparations be paid back by France for their colonisation and theft of Haiti's natural resources, etc.

The economic and human rights hangover from Haiti's independance struggle, which was the first free slave republic(1804), most certainly had an impact on it's ability to maintain independance from internal and external coups over the following two centuries and to build a sustainable and fair economy helping citizens escape the poverty they have ever since found themselves trapped in. But of course, more contemporary events, like the U.S. and France witholding U.N. aid in 2000, which amounted to $500 million, due to their disagreements with how the elections were run (or their results should I say) led to a deepening political crisis for Arisitide and a graver economic crisis for ordinary Haitians. The game is not an either/or, but rather a both/and - fuck ups and greed by leaders after independance ensured Haitians would not escape poverty.
But you would rarely come across a Haitian who would engage in the blame game - they were too focussed on securing food, water, work and other basic stuff to enter the mourning and blame game.

Sach's surprisingly had this to say on the eve Aristide was toppled:

Haiti is ablaze. President Jean-Bertrand Aristide is widely blamed, and he may be toppled soon. Almost nobody, however, understands that today's chaos was made in Washington-deliberately, cynically, and steadfastly. History will bear this out. In the meantime, political, social, and economic chaos will deepen, and Haiti's impoverished people will suffer.

Interestingly, I met the mulatto descendants of Poles and Haitians when I spent time volunteering there in 2001. The Poles had been brought by the French to quell the uprisings, but some changed sides (about 120 out of 5,200) and fought with the natives fighting for their freedom from oppression. Their role seems to be somewhat exaggerated though - instead of torturing prisoners like the French did, they would just kill them outright!

Ooops, I've strayed........

beatroot said...

But you would rarely come across a Haitian who would engage in the blame game

Because they were the first slaves to successfully free themselves through their own struggle. That's one aspect that has been lost in all this. That slaves struggled on their own behalf and were not passive victims in need of white support.

and that might be a lesson for those who feel a slave to their pasts today.

Anonymous said...

why don't you just have sex with your buddy simon mol get aids and die

michael farris said...

beat, I'm amazed at how you missed the forest for the trees (warning: sidewalk psychoanalysis ahead).

The unhappy woman you quoted was trying to rationalize away her father's rejection of her.

The obvious explanations for this rejection like a) he didn't care about her b) he cared about her but cared about being free of her more are horrifically painful for a child or adolescent and that pain isn't chased away by rational theories of self-actualization.

Of course she wants to shift blame away from herself (the defenseless abandoned child almost always blames themself) and away from her father (towards whom she still has a child's defensive urges) to a historical scapegoat.

That scenario says nothing about the turbulent nexus of culture/history/personal-choices.

beatroot said...

What woman?

michael farris said...

"What woman?"

"black British hip-hop singer Ms Dynamite – whose father left her when she was 11 years old"

beatroot said...

It’s more than Thanatos, Mike.

British culture and US culture, is now structured around the ‘victim’. We have competing victimization. That’s a very passive way to confront oppression or whatever. It’s about not taking control and trying to influence events. Malcomn X didn’t think of himself as a victim…

michael farris said...

I agree with your general point, I just think this is not a good example as other factors seem more important than victim culture, which is usually about relieving _oneself_ from responsibility.
Ms Dynamite seems to be searching for psychological protection against the fact that her father was a f*ckwad. Not the same thing at all.

beatroot said...

Mike: if Ms Dynamite had been making records in the 1960s then she would be singing Curtis Mayfield songs like "Get on up'....meaning 'change your situation'...instead she is signing: ' Get on your slave to history...'