23 June 2018

When Poles Pined for Colonies, 1930s

From The Great Departure: Mass Migration from Eastern Europe and the Making of the Free World, by Tara Zahra (Norton, 2016), Kindle Loc. 1766-90:
By 1930, the Polish Bandera had become the Maritime and Colonial League, a pressure group that raised funds for the navy and lobbied the government to pursue colonial interests. The league boasted 1,200 branches and 250,000 members as of 1934, and directly linked colonial demands to emigration, as well as to Poland’s perceived crisis of overpopulation. Colonial advocates argued that emigration had been the primary “solution” to Poland’s overpopulation crisis before World War I. But with the closing of international borders in the 1920s and 1930s, “another solution has arisen again . . . attaining our own colonial territories.”

In the wake of Mussolini’s 1935 invasion of Ethiopia, Polish colonial advocates felt increasingly entitled to a place in the sun. “We Poles, like the Italians, are facing a great problem of accommodating and employing a large population increase,” insisted the Maritime and Colonial League. “We Poles, like the Italians, have the right to demand that export markets as well as areas for settlement be opened to us, so that we may obtain raw materials necessary to the national economy under conditions similar to those enjoyed by the colonial states.” In September 1936, Foreign Minister J√≥zef Beck even formally appealed to the League of Nations for colonies—preferably those taken from Germany after World War I (he was unsuccessful). Popular pressure for Polish colonies culminated in the Maritime and Colonial League’s “Colonial Days” festivities in April 1938, a series of nationwide parades and celebrations attended by around ten million Poles.

Poland continued to lobby the League of Nations for colonies right up until the outbreak of World War II. A memo submitted in 1939 proposed that the League’s colonial mandate system, which governed former Ottoman territories, be extended to Africa. The new African mandates would then be parceled out to European states according to “their capacity for colonization and their real economic and demographic needs.” Of course, the Polish delegation insisted that Poland be placed at the top of the list. Poles had already “provided the proof” of their skill as colonizers, “by transforming the virgin forests and uncultivated plains of Brazil, Argentina, Canada, and Siberia into arable land,” the memo asserted. “In particular the tenacity of labor, love of the land and pioneering spirit of the Polish peasant has rendered him invaluable.” In response to British and French objections that redistributing African colonies would harm the “interests of indigenous populations,” the Polish delegation invoked the brotherhood of white men. “There exist rural populations in Europe whose economic standard of living are particularly painful, and whose interests are worth at least as much as those of the black population in Africa. By closing off access to colonial territories to overpopulated nations, the great powers betray the interests of the white race. This treason endangers the solidarity and entente among peoples.” Not surprisingly, nations situated on Europe’s imagined margins seemed to have the most invested in maintaining the privileges of white Europeans—and in asserting their membership in the club.

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