The past in the Polish present

Irena Grosfeld, Ekaterina Zhuravskaya 23 March 2013



History is vividly present in today’s political debates in Poland. There is a near-consensus among politicians and political commentators that the spatial pattern in voting is determined, to a large extent, by the Partitions of Poland (1772-1918) and the change of boundaries in 1945 that triggered mass migration of the population.

Figure 1 highlights these changes: the northwest of the country, which roughly resembles the former Prussian territories, largely supports Civic Platform (PO), the main liberal party, while the southwest, which formerly belonged to the Russian and Habsburg empires, votes for the more religious conservative party, Law and Justice (PiS).

Figure 1. Results of Polish parliamentary elections in 2007 and various historical borders

New research

Whether history is what drives the differences in voting between the northwest and southeast or whether there are other factors behind this spatial pattern is impossible to tell without careful empirical analysis that accounts for these factors. If we agree that history matters, we need to understand why and in what way it does.

Economic literatures have documented the effects of many distant historical events on contemporary development (see a survey by Nunn 2009). The channels vary from technological shocks (Comin et al. 2010) to a persistence of formal institutions – such as legal origins or constraints on executive power (La Porta et al. 1998, Acemoglu et al. 2001) to a persistence of informal institutions, such as cultural norms, transmitted from generation to generation (Bisin and Verdier 2000). 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.

Empires and Poland

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).

We focus on two of the three empire borders:

  • Between Russia and Prussia.
  • Between Russia and Austria.

Both are lengthy enough to enable us to estimate discontinuities at the border. As we restrict analysis to territories in immediate proximity to the empire borders, we abstract from the effects of mass migration that took place after the second world war – our focus is on areas where population was relatively stable throughout history.

We find that the main claim of political analysts about the empire legacies for Polish political outcomes is driven by omitted variables – and not, in fact, by empire legacies themselves. Contrary to the common view that the Prussian empire’s political legacy manifests itself in the higher number of votes for liberals, we find no discontinuity in voting for liberals at the Russia-Prussia border, as illustrated in Figure 2. This means that one cannot attribute the northwest/southeast divide to the influence of empires. Other factors, such as proximity to the West, which is often associated with higher familiarity with liberal ideas, and proximity to the northern seaports, which can affect political support for liberalism through its effect on trade, must be at play. Regression discontinuity analysis allows accounting for these factors, as they change smoothly at the empire borders.

Figure 2. No discontinuity at the Russia-Prussia border in voting for liberals (PO) vs. religious conservatives (PiS)

Note: The horizontal axis portrays distance to the empire border.

However, empires do have a significant causal effect. 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).

Figure 3. Examples of discontinuities in political outcomes at the empire borders

Note: The horizontal axis portrays distance to the borders of respective empires.

Because empires differed in many ways, it is important to understand exactly why empires matter for politics in Poland almost a century after reunification. In order to show the ‘channels’ of these political legacies, we first study which of the social, economic, and cultural factors exhibit discontinuities at the borders of empires. Then, we test whether the factors that do exhibit the jump help explain differences in political outcomes. 

Consistent with historical narratives about the empires, we find evidence of a long-term effect of the following characteristics:

  • 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.

Figure 4 illustrates the main cultural and economic legacies of empires.

Figure 4. Cultural and economic legacies of empires.

Russia-Prussia border:

Russia-Austria border:

Note: The horizontal axis portrays distance to the borders of respective empires.

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.


Overall, the partition of Poland by three European superpowers of the 18th and 19th centuries continues to exert an influence on contemporary Poland – despite ending almost a century ago – through its lasting effects on infrastructure and on culture.


Acemoglu, Daron, Simon Johnson, James A Robinson (2001), “The colonial origins of comparative development: an empirical investigation”, The American Economic Review, 91(5),1369-1401.

Bisin, Alberto, Thierry Verdier (2000), “Beyond the melting pot: cultural transmission, marriage, and the evolution of ethnic and religious traits”, Quarterly Journal of Economics, 115(3), 955-988.

Comin, Diego, William Easterly, Erick Gong (2010), "Was the wealth of nations determined in 1000 BC?”, American Economic Journal: Macroeconomics, 2(3), 65-97.

Grosfeld, Irena and Ekaterina Zhuravskaya (2013), “Persistent effects of empires: Evidence from the partitions of Poland”, CEPR Discussion Paper 9371.

La Porta, Rafael, Florencio Lopez de Silanes, Andrei Shleifer, Robert W Vishny. (1998), “Law and finance”, Journal of Political Economy, 106(6), 1113-1155.

Nunn, Nathan (2009), “The importance of history for economic development”, Annual Review of Economics, Annual reviews, 1(1), 65-92.



Topics:  Economic history Frontiers of economic research

Tags:  Russia, Poland, Prussia, Habsburg, Catholic

Research Director at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Paris

Professor of Economics, Paris School of Economics (EHESS); CEPR Research Fellow

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