How history influences the past ..Case of Poland

Irena Grosfeld and Ekaterina Zhuravskaya  in a voxeu post show how history influences Poland of today.

History influences the politics of every nation. But how exactly can we measure it? This column presents new research that assesses the influence of empires on Poland’s current political makeup. In particular, the centuries-old partition of Poland continues to influence politics through its long-lasting effects on infrastructure and religion.

They show how earlier partition of Poland determines the infra of today:

In a recent CEPR Discussion Paper (Grosfeld and Zhuravskaya 2013), we empirically estimate the causal effect on contemporary political outcomes of the historical Partitions of Poland among three imperial powers – the Russian empire, the Kingdom of Prussia, and the Habsburg empire – which lead to the disappearance of Poland as a nation from Europe for 123 years. We also examine the mechanisms of the influence of empires and show which economic and cultural legacies explain the Polish political map today. In order to single out the effect of empires from other factors that may affect spatial patterns of voting, we use regression discontinuity analysis at the former empire borders.

These three empires differed in economic development, political institutions, culture, and, as a result, economic and social policies towards their Polish territories. Prussia, which was more developed economically, industrialised its Polish part more than Russia and Austria did.

The Habsburgs gave substantial administrative and cultural autonomy to their Polish territories: Catholics practised freely, Polish-language schools were common, and Poles were allowed to participate in local administration. Russia stood out in terms of its severe oppression of the Catholic church. Prussia and Russia applied nation-building policies to their Polish territories by forbidding Polish schools.

As these drastically differing economic and social policies were applied for over a century in areas that belonged initially to the same country, with a common ethnic mix, culture, and formal institutions, the partition of Poland could be considered a giant historical experiment. The partition borders were exogenously imposed on Polish lands and driven by the relative military strength of the three empires. Both before and after the ‘partition experiment’ the areas around the borders of the empires belonged to the unified sovereign Polish states (the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth before, and the Second Polish Republic after).


  • First, the once-Russian part of Poland today votes significantly more for post-communist parties and significantly less for post-Solidarity parties compared to the Prussian and Austrian areas;
  • second, voters on the Russian side are also significantly less liberal in their political preferences compared to those on the Austrian side (see Figure 3).
  • Higher economic development in the Prussian empire proved to be persistent. Railway infrastructure – in large part developed during industrialisation – is substantially denser today in the Prussian part compared with the Russian part;
  • The predominantly Orthodox Christian Russian empire, with its organised policy of oppression of Catholicism, left a legacy of distrust in the Catholic church on its territories, resulting in lower church attendance.
  • Important administrative and political autonomy given to the Polish territories (Galicia) by the Habsburg empire resulted in a persistent belief in democracy.

Apart from these differences:

These persistent legacies of empires help explaining the most important political effects at the two borders.

In particular, the effect of an extensive railroad network built by Prussia at the time of the Industrial Revolution turns out to have had a long-lasting impact not only on industrial production and economic development but also on political support for transition and, therefore, policies conducive to future development. Differences in infrastructure on the two sides of the former Russia-Prussia border explain fully the political effects of the Russia-Prussia border.

Cultural legacies of Russian and Austrian empires go a long way toward explaining the political effects of the Austria-Russia border. There are two effects going in the opposite direction. On the one hand, the difference in governance institutions in Austrian and Russian empires have a lasting effect on the belief in democracy on both sides of the border, which partly explains the stronger support for liberals on the Austrian side. This finding provides an illustration of how formal governance institutions and the experience of democracy can change local culture and, in particular, attitudes toward democracy, which in turn may have a persistent effect on political equilibrium, similar to the persistent effect of infrastructure. On the other hand, higher church attendance in the Austrian compared to the Russian part, a result of vastly different policies towards religion, yields higher vote for religious conservatives (PiS) and lower vote for the post-communist parties in areas formerly under Austrian domination.

Amazing stuff.

As Boettke et al point, econs are now trying to move on to the wider side of hourglass..


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