Throughout history, due to political and economic reasons, the Polish population got dispersed around the globe. Polonia is a term that can be understood in different ways, from the entirety of Polish people, and people of Polish origins living outside Poland’s borders, to only the people born outside the country, whose ancestors were Polish. For this article, the former, broad understanding will be used. The paper will aim to describe the Polish community abroad and explain how it came to be, in order to argue that Polonia should be seen as a diaspora under Grossman’s definition. To prove that the paper will begin with a discussion about the understanding of the term. Subsequently, the history of Polish emigration will be outlined starting from the significant outflow in the late 19th century. That will be followed by a description of the Polonia at the moment, and the explanation of why it should be considered as a diaspora when using Grossman’s definition. It should be highlighted that the paper will assess primarily the current state of the community but in some places, the diasporic characteristics from the past might also be included.
To assess whether a given group can be considered as a diaspora, it is necessary to first define what is a diaspora. This clarification is indispensable because of the general confusion around the precise meaning of this term. Originally, it comes ‘from the Greek word’ meaning the ‘scattering of seeds’ (Grossman 2019: 1264) and until the late 20th century it has been exclusively used to refer to the Jewish population scattered around the globe. Starting from the 1970s the understanding became broader and referred to ‘any ethnic collectivity which lacks a territorial base within a given polity’ (Armstrong 1976: 393). This new meaning resulted in the expansion of the usage of the term diaspora, which would now include multiple groups not residing in their nation-state, from immigrants to guest workers. This expansion caused confusion and made diaspora a contested concept since the new definition could now include groups of all kind.
The main dispute emerged between scholars claiming that diaspora should be seen as a social construction, a discourse that cannot be precisely measured and those who argue that it includes ‘discrete entities or groups - something that is “out there”’ (Grossman 2019: 1264-1265). Also, the scope of the definition varies, for instance from Connor’s claiming it is a ‘segment of a people living outside the homeland’ to Safran’s that requires from the group the possession of specific characteristic for it to be classified as a diaspora. In his work, Grossman, basing on the highly-cited articles on the matter, attempted to provide a ‘more structured and systematic conceptualization of diaspora that synthesizes contesting views rather than pitting them against one another’ (Grossman 2019: 1276). For this article, his definition will be used as it reconciles the dispersed conceptualisation of the term within academia. The basic hybrid definition is as follows:
‘diaspora is a transnational community whose members (or their ancestors) emigrated or were dispersed from their original homeland but remain oriented to it and preserve a group identity’ (Grossman 2019: 1267)
It combines the most common attributes of diaspora appearing in the collection of 74 articles crucial for the conceptualisation of this notion. This analytical approach has been chosen to achieve as objective as possible, view on the Polish communities abroad. The basic definition is extended by a description of each attribute constituting the definition: transnationalism, community, dispersal and immigration, outside the homeland, homeland orientation and group identity.
Firstly, the transnationalism of a diaspora means that the migrants alongside their descendants are connected with and ‘socially embedded in both their sending and receiving countries, as well as with’ other members of the diaspora in another location. They should be also ‘involved and invested in’ the country’s of origin, socio-economic and political sphere (Grossman 2019: 1269). This coexists with the overarching “sense of community”, the members feel emotionally attached to the group and with its other members. It can be expressed in a broader sense as an “imagined” community of all members of diaspora around the world. But also in a more concrete way as an ‘organisational framework’ in the forms of ‘political lobbies and advocacy groups, religious associations, cultural and educational programmes, social clubs, self-defence organizations, hometown societies, fundraising bodies, and youth movements’. These institutions are usually ‘sustained or supported’ by various actors from the home country, including the state authorities (Grossman 2019: 1270-1271).
Regarding dispersal, in the context of diaspora, it should be understood as ‘any movement across state borders, including voluntary migration’. Furthermore, the definition does not exclude the descendants, as long as they are still committed to other diasporic characteristics, like the ‘identity and practices’. Also, the people left “outside” their homeland due to border changes should be considered as a ‘contiguous diaspora’. Nevertheless, people staying in their own country that is at the moment under the occupation of another state should not be included (Grossman 2019: 1271). The reason for that is the next attribute. The members of the diaspora have to reside outside their homeland, the place ‘they collectively regard and remember as’ such, therefore it does not need to ‘match the borders of an existing state’ (Grossman 2019: 1271-1272). Nonetheless, solely living outside the country is not sufficient for a diaspora classification. The group must also voluntarily maintain ‘material and symbolic ties with’ it, therefore it must have a homeland orientation. That can be expressed in various ways like sending remittances, being active in religious activities in the homeland or visiting relatives based in the country (Grossman 2019: 1272-1274). Lastly, the group identity ‘may refer to a particular notion through which individuals or groups define themselves and are defined by others’. Sources of these identities may be found in multiple places from ‘common cultural, religious, or linguistic traits’, through ‘contacts with the homeland’ to even experience of ‘discrimination and marginalization by the host society’. This ‘diasporic consciousness’ can be strengthened by for instance ‘independence struggles’ (Grossman 2019: 1274-1275).
Apart from, providing a clear definition of the term diaspora, it is also crucial to outline the historical background that explains the dispersion of the population. In the case of Polonia, the first main factor that caused the Polish dispersal was the loss of independence. The country has been ‘partitioned between 1772 and 1795 among Russia, Prussia, and Austria’, and it regained the full. political sovereignty only in 1918. The western parts were now under the Prussian rule (since 1870/71 German), central/eastern under Russian and southern under Austrian (Austro-Hungarian since 1870/71). Due to its length and political as well as economic repressions associated with it this period is central to the creation of Polish communities abroad. The largest outflow of the population started in the late 19th century (the 1870s/1880s) until the start of the First World War in 1914. Depending on estimation the total number of emigrants during this period ranges from 2 million to 3,5 million.
This efflux was motivated primarily by economic processes taking place on the previously Polish territory. The emancipation of peasantry, land reforms and demographic boom created a new ‘landless, wage-dependent’ peasant segment of the rural population – the ‘agrarian proletariat’ (Morawska 1989: 242). It was still an agricultural society but with the transition to more modern capitalism, the rise in industrial employment could be observed. By 1914, 18% of the population had been ‘occupied in industrial production’. Nevertheless, in this capitalist transition Polish territories were treated as peripheral (in a colonial way), in turn limiting the development. Also, the lack of political sovereignty and the partitioner-states’ policies aiming to suppress the Poles both economically and politically caused popular dissatisfaction that resulted in two unsuccessful national uprisings in 1830 and 1861 (Morawska 1989: 242).
In each “segment” the situation was different. In Prussia/Germany ‘economic peripheralization of Polish territories, were aimed at Germanization of the conquered land’. Also in the institutional sphere, the “Polishness” was suppressed (Morawska 1989: 243). In Russia, the Polish part had been superior in the case of industry, nevertheless, Tsarist economic policies were aimed at the protection of truly Russian industries. The annexed Polish part had been treated as a buffer zone from possible Western invasion. Lastly, the Austrian case is most closely similar to the typical colonial relationship, marked by the exploitation of resources and dumping of surplus products onto a really poor, agrarian society. All these factors put together, resulted in proletarianization and large scale problems in providing livelihood, which forced people to emigrate.
The main destinations were the Western European countries (predominantly Germany) and the United States, but also Canada and South American states. It was a ‘collective movement’ of the population and was not aimed at permanent settlement (Morawska 1989: 254 & 260). Regarding, the transnational networks there are traces of extended communication between the homeland and the Polonia in the United States for instance via letters or sending remittances. They also brought the class relations that were apparent in the homeland society. They did not participate in the American system of “upward mobility”, instead they opted to contribute towards their community. Only the status within the Polonia mattered. Furthermore, the cause of regaining independence was not irrelevant to this migrant community. The majority of them planned to come back once the sovereignty is reinstated. These characteristics would fall under the aforementioned definition of diaspora.
Only after the First World War, and the retrieval of independence (1918) the emigration from Poland became solely economically driven, even though before the living situation forced the departure, the repressions also played a part. During the two decades of the existence of the II RP (II Rzeczpospolita – traditional and official name of the Polish state), the peasants emigrated mainly to the United States (796 000) but also to Canada, Brazil and Argentina. Whereas, the factory workers predominantly to France. According to the state statistics during the 1918-1939 period, over 2 million people left the country and 1,25 million emigrated to European countries. Nonetheless, the situation of Polonia in the 1930s in the USSR began to deteriorate, when NKVD started the repressions against the Polish minority. That involved deporting them to the Far East of Russia and Siberia. The so-called ‘Polish operation’ began in 1937. As a result, 111 000 Poles were executed (Musial 2013: 98-99). This aspect of Polonia history may be seen as the source of a group identity fostered by host country oppression. To this day Związek Sybiraków exists, it is an association of people deported by the Soviet Union to Siberia.
By the end of the 1930s Polish diaspora included 8-9 million people. During the Second World War due to Nazi Germany’s actions 2,5 million Poles were displaced. After the war, many citizens repatriated but 500 000 remained in Western Europe. The majority of them were soldiers or state officials, their presence within the community gave the old Polonia a new intellectual, cultural and political impulse. It has been estimated that in 1950 there were 7 million Polish people abroad. The subsequent communist regime made any cross-border movement nearly impossible. Thousands were also unable to go back to the homeland for political reasons. Only since the 1970s, due to the slight relaxation of communist authorities’ policies, emigration became possible to some extent. The new substantial outflow took place in the 1980s for both economic (main motivation) and political reasons. The living situation worsened and repression of people actively opposing the government rose. Also, the establishment of martial law played a part in incentivising people to leave. Until 1989 around 1 300 000 people emigrated. In contrast to previous migrations, in this case, the predominant part was highly qualified. The main destinations were West Germany (42%) and United States (10%). After the fall of communism and subsequent accession to the EU in 2004 began the latest and still ongoing trend of emigration from Poland. According to the Polish State statistical agency, in 2016, 2 515 000 citizens were residing abroad. The vast majority within the EU where the two main destinations were UK (788 000) and Germany (687 000).
The assessment of the concrete number of Polonia members is somewhat difficult for a few reasons. Firstly, various classification criteria are being used such as being born in Poland, multi-ethnic origin, ability to speak the Polish language and declared awareness of origin. Also, the precision of the demographic data is not the same in every country where Polonia members are situated. Nevertheless, in 2015 it was estimated that there is 18-20 million Polish people or people of Polish descent. Regarding the Americas, 9 660 000 people are living in the United States, 1 million in Canada and 1,5 million in Brazil. It is worth highlighting that in these countries Polish population largely lost the ability to speak the Polish language. In Western Europe, there are around 4 200 000 members. Within this number, the biggest groups live in Germany - 1 500 000 and 800 000, in both UK and France. There is also 200 000 in the Netherlands, and 150 000 in Ireland. Around a million reside in the post-Soviet area.
Coming back to Grossman’s definition of diaspora, Polonia can be considered as a group of that kind. The aforementioned 18-20 million people scattered throughout multiple countries are proof of the notion of dispersion. Only around 6-7 million are the Poles that grew up in the country, the rest are descendants. Nevertheless, being brought up in the homeland is not a necessary requirement. Regarding, the sense of community, the Polish diaspora established a range of institutions in the host countries promoting the homeland’s culture. For example, The American Institute of Polish Culture aims ‘to share with Americans the rich heritage of Poland’ and ‘to promote the scientific, educational and artistic contributions of Polish-Americans’. Their activities include awarding scholarships to students (the majority of them has Polish origins) and running art shows and exhibitions. The Institute also organises the International Polonaise Ball where they explore ‘the cultural ties between Poland and other countries’. Among previous guests, there was Lech Wałęsa – crucial activist of Solidarność and Poland’s ex-president (The American Institute of Polish Culture n.d.). Another organisation associated with the Polish minority in the United States is The Polish Institute of Arts & Sciences of America (PIASA) important primarily in the academic sphere. Other institutions with a similar, cultural mission can be found in other countries like the Polish Social & Cultural Association in the UK.
These organisations show how Polonia members are active in the framework of both societies. Also, the Polish state financially supports the development of diasporic structures. Under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the state aims to foster cooperation with the dispersed communities and strengthen the economic cooperation between them and Poland. Furthermore, they aim to facilitate the process of acquisition of citizenship and repatriation through legal means. An example of that is the Pole’s Card (Karta Polaka). It provides an opportunity for People of Polish origin to get the right of permanent residence, and subsequently citizenship. Another aspect of Polonia’s attachment to homeland identity and orientation is the religious and educational sphere. Poland is a country with a strong Catholic majority. 93% confirmed their adhesion to this faith what is also reflected amongst the diaspora communities. The salient example of it is the case of the UK where the Polish Catholic Mission set up 69 Polish parishes in England and Wales.
Similarly, in the sphere of education, the Polish Educational Society set up 121 Polish Saturday Schools. They are ‘based on a special curriculum published by the Polish Ministry of National Education for immigrants’. The children have an opportunity to study the language, history and culture (including the catechism) of Poland (Mąkosa 2015: 185-186 & 189-190). Activities of that kind create strong national consciousness that has been express in the PUNO’s (The Polish University Abroad in London) study from the UK where for instance, 80% of respondents said that cultivating the Polish traditions is important to them. Nevertheless, it should be highlighted that the majority of the emigration to the UK is fairly recent, therefore the results of corresponding surveys in other places might not be as high. Regarding, both the homeland orientation and the transnational character of Polonia the example of the Cinkciarz.pl company can be used. Its main services are associated with currency exchange and international transfers. They grew rapidly on the Polish market and now they entered the system of sending remittances from Polish diaspora in Western Europe and the United States. Polonia sends around 4 billion euro a year back to the country. It is a significant amount showing the connection between homeland and the host countries.
Polonia is not a classical example of diaspora that fits all the requirements perfectly. At the moment, in some places, its diasporic communities are shrinking. Nevertheless, it still can be seen as a community of that kind under Grossman’s definition. This paper attempted to prove that by first defining the term using past literature on the topic to then progress to the historical outline of how the Polonia has been formed and for what reasons. Subsequently, the work presented basic characteristics of the Polish community abroad to then lastly provide exact examples answering the question of why Polonia should be considered as a diaspora under Grossman’s definition. The essay should not be seen as an extensive study about the Polish communities abroad, it is a rather introductory work that could be followed by further research using statistics about the Polish diaspora as a whole that are not yet available. The data of that kind could, for instance, enable the researchers to analyse and compare the Polish diasporic communities in different states or examine the characteristics of the emigrants from each period and their descendants.
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