Poland seems like a likely candidate for the short list of European countries not involved in colonialism and haunted by a past of imperial domination abroad. After all, during the peak years of European colonialism, there was no Polish state: the region was partitioned amongst the Austrian, German, and Russian empires.
Yet, with the resurrection of a Polish state in the aftermath of World War I, Poland seriously flirted with colonialism. Politicians in the new state proposed taking over former German colonies, in particular Cameroon, under League of Nations mandates. This proposal came to naught, historian Piotr Puchalski writes, because “political instability and economic turmoil prevented a true colonial lobby from materializing before 1926” and that year’s coup by Marshall Jozef Pilsudski.
Though it lacked great power status, Poland took a leaf from its European neighbors who used colonies to focus nationalism and patriotism. Colonialism and great power status went together in many European minds. The new multiethnic Polish state needed a defining mission aboard as well as and markets.
A late-1920s effort to persuade Portugal to allow large-scale Polish settlement in Portugal’s African colonies was unsuccessful. In the early 1930s, a small settlement in Brazil was established, part of a “long-term desire to provide agriculture and professional support to the existing diaspora.”
Although the practice was spotty, the theory was strong. Poland’s would be a different kind of colonialism, the colonial theorists insisted, especially in comparison with the conquests of another late-starter in colonial endeavors, Italy, which during the mid-1930s was engaged in a brutal colonial war in Abyssinia/Ethiopia. As Puchalski describes, the Polish advocates of colonialism believed that
Poland’s own past as a victim of imperialism would prevent it from asserting too much control in Africa. By imagining their emerging colonialism as exceptional, the Polish colonial lobby actually hindered their more pragmatic objectives to generate commercial and political relationships with Liberia and other African partners.
Liberia, settled by former American slaves, had declared itself an independent state in 1847. Along with Ethiopia, Liberia managed to maintain sovereignty during the voracious “Scramble for Africa” by Belgium, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Portugal, and Spain. (Ethiopia lasted until it was conquered by Mussolini’s Italian Empire in 1937.)
Liberians solicited Polish help in the League of Nations to avoid the imposition of mandate rule due to of political instability. The country was divided between coastal elites, the descendants of American settlers, and Indigenous tribes of the interior. The elites collaborated with American banking and rubber interests, right down to, in a bitter irony, enslaving Indigenous peoples of the interior to work the Firestone Company’s rubber plantations.
The Poles were supposed to be impartial observers, acting as the League of Nation’s rapporteur. At the same time, Poles were looking for a market for their agricultural and industrial products, as well as place to funnel investments. The first Polish colonialists started out from the new port city Gdynia in 1934, sailing to Liberia’s capital, Monrovia. Despite the commercial aims, writes Puchalski, “many of the Polish expeditioners envisioned themselves as representatives of a nation that would draw from its own experiences under oppression to assist another nation in need.”
There have been many rationals for colonialism. The Polish rationale that “we were oppressed, too” may be fairly unique. Whatever flavor it came in, however, Liberians weren’t having it. Nor, for that matter was the Firestone Company, the “true colonial master of the land.”
“The double-edged discourse of the Polish colonial lobby, which simultaneously claimed the superiority of Polish colonialism among Western powers and appealed to an alleged Polish-African brotherhood, did not convince Liberia,” writes Puchalski.
The Polish mission ended in 1938 after “rumors of a planned Polish takeover” fatally soured relations. There was no time for a do-over: World War II began with the invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939. The next resurrection of a Polish state was quickly subsumed under Soviet hegemony after WWII, just as the decolonization movement began in earnest across Africa and Asia.