The Diaspora Dilemma

Understanding the history of the Polish diaspora is the key to harnessing Poland’s full business, intellectual and economic potential

To understand the country that Poland has become, it is essential to understand its past. Poland’s character is deeply embedded in its people, and the waves of migration by Poles have created a diaspora across the globe. However, Poland has not utilised the resources of its significant diaspora as effectively as other nations. The key to unlocking the potential that Poles abroad possess, we believe, may lie in understanding how the diaspora came to be. To this end, our section begins with an outline of the Polish migrations and the historical events that influenced them.


Migration can be a confusing subject, so here’s a handy guide to set you straight: An emigrant has left their current homeland, but an immigrant moved to a new country. For example, Tadeusz Kościuszko emigrated from Poland and immigrated to the United States. Migration simply refers to movement between countries. It’s just about perspective.


Poland’s political history has been significantly influenced by uprisings, so here’s a little more information on the revolts mentioned in the text:

The Bar Confederation, which took place between 1768 and 1772, was a civil war between an association of Polish nobles – szlachta – and King Stanisław II Augustus over growing Russian influence and attempts to limit the power of Poland’s wealthy magnates.

  • The 1794 Kościuszko Uprising, led by Tadeusz Kościuszko, began in Kraków and was a failed attempt to liberate the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth from the influence of Russia and Prussia following the second partition of Poland the year before.

As revolution swept through Europe in 1830, the November Uprising began in Warsaw, against Russia, and spread to large swathes of Poland, Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine. It lasted almost a year, before being crushed by Tsar Nicholas I’s forces.

Similarly, the January Uprising began in 1863, against Russian influence, and lasted a year before being put down by Russian forces.

Late 18th century – The Partitioning of Poland

The trigger for the first prominent emigration of Poles can be traced back to the late 18th century, to two uprisings – 1772’s Bar Confederation and the Kościuszko Uprising in 1794 – and the partitioning of Poland. Three agreements between Russia, Prussia and Austria – in 1772, 1793 and 1795 – carved Poland up, with the final 1795 partition, a response to the Kościuszko Uprising, wiping the country off the global map for over a century.

During this turbulent time, the Polish peasantry had no political or economic power as they were not liberated from serfdom until the second half of the next century. Emigration in the late 1700s was almost entirely from the nobility who had been engaged in Poland’s political struggle for survival. Although the numbers were small compared to later waves of migration, the intellectual and social capital lost was significant.

Many notable Poles migrated during this period, including Tadeusz Kościuszko, who famously fought in the American Revolution; Jan Henryk Dąbrowski, a general in Napoleon’s army; and Hugo Kołłątaj and Ignacy Potocki, both influential politicians. Aided by the tightly-knit family networks of the nobility, most settled in Europe – France, Italy, Switzerland and Turkey in particular – while a small minority, like Kościuszko, forged west to the United States.

The impact of this first wave can be clearly seen in the romanticising of the Polish nation by those who followed – the national anthem, for example, has its roots in the patriotic song written by Józef Wybicki during the creation of Dąbrowski Legions in Italy in 1797. These writers did not experience the Poland of their time because they were in exile, and so focused on past events. The literature they produced helped create an ideal of the Polish nation at a time when the state did not exist. Even in communism, which selectively censored periods of Polish history, this vision remained and does so to this day.

Nation of Immigrants 
Click for larger image.

Mid 19th century – The Great Emigration

Poland’s most famous wave of migration – the Great Emigration – was kickstarted by the failure of the November Uprising in 1831 and continued during 1864’s January Uprising (see our info box for more information). Many notable Poles fled during this period, including Adam Jerzy Czartoryski, Polish President during the November Uprising; Antoni Patek, founder of Patek Philippe watches; and the poet Cyprian Kamil Norwid. Paris was a popular destination for famous Polish émigrés, with pianist Frédéric Chopin and Poland’s Three Bards – Adam Mickiewicz, Juliusz Słowacki and Zygmunt Krasiński – all plying their trade there for many years.

Those who left Poland during the Great Emigration were members of the aristocracy and high society, the prominent curators of the arts at the time. As such, these uprisings had a crucial impact on Poland’s cultural heritage and national identity. For example, Chopin and the Three Bards are considered national treasures and their works remain a significant foundation in Polish education and culture today.

Late 19th century – Economic Emigration

The liberation of the peasantry in the 1800s led to a massive outflow of Poles who simply could not have moved beforehand. An estimated ten percent of Poland’s pre-World War I population migrated, largely for economic – rather than political – reasons, and the vast majority were either rural peasants or low-income working class. This boom in migration was also enabled by the increasing speed of overseas travel, which allowed greater movement to the Americas, and the political relationship with the partitioning countries. During this period, Russia, Austria and Germany increasingly treated their share of Polish territory as their own, leading to a relaxation of migration restrictions.

Economic migration 1871-1913 (without seasonal migration)
Estimated Population of Polish territory 30.3m
Economic Migration Total 3.5m
Overseas Emigration 2.3m
Continental Emigration 1.3m

During World War I, international migration changed significantly. Poland’s neighbours discarded free movement and began recruiting, especially from groups most likely to emigrate. At the time, many Poles were forcefully transferred to inner-Russia or employed in German industry. For those who could travel, the most prominent destinations were France, Belgium, Canada, Brazil, Argentina and the United States. However, Polish migration to the US fell significantly after the war following the introduction of tighter immigration restrictions there.

Additionally, after more than a century of foreign rule, Poland regained its independence thanks to the 1919 Versailles peace negotiations. A number of border conflicts marked the newly independent Poland, including the Polish-Soviet War between 1919 and 1921 – notable for the Miracle on the Vistula in late 1920, where the Poles decisively repulsed the Soviet forces near Warsaw. Following these skirmishes, Poland settled into short-lived independence, which only lasted until 1939 and the invasions by Nazi Germany and Soviet forces at the beginning of World War II.

World War II and Communism

Following World War II, Polish territory was greatly affected by the reorganisation of Europe’s boundaries, decided on by the US, USSR and UK at the Yalta and Potsdam conferences in 1945. These changes led to a significant movement of people both in and out of Poland. On the one hand, there was significant political emigration away, which lasted until the 1950s. On the other, Poland saw many of its citizens return after the war, to find a country under the control of the USSR. By the 1970s, the trigger for migration shifted from political to economic, although movement during this period was limited by strict controls imposed by the communist government.

Migration during the 1980s was motivated by both political and economic factors. While economic conditions in communist Poland are well known, in fact political factors became the main triggers for emigration. Social unrest, caused by declining civil liberties and economic deterioration under the communist government, climaxed in the introduction of martial law in 1981. During this two-year period, half a million Poles emigrated. Many, however, were forced to return because of a failure to assimilate or obtain political migrant status. Following the end of martial law in 1983, Poland’s communist regime applied less stringent migration control, allowing economic and political emigration to continue.

Fall of Communism and a new republic

Following the end of communism, Poland experienced massive in- and out-flows of migration, movements of population which became the centre of political and social debate in Poland and across EU countries which received Polish migrants. During this period there were two major waves of emigration: in the 1990s and in the later 2000s. The former was caused by the opening of borders following the fall of communism, while the latter began following Poland’s accession to the EU. The main destinations for this migration were and remain the UK, Ireland, Germany and Austria as well as USA and Canada.

So Poland’s complex relationship with migration dates back over 200 years. Due to the successive waves of migration, Poland has an impressive diaspora of Poles across the globe. Many nations have benefited from global population movements across history, but Poland has so far failed to do so effectively, both in building a vibrant community abroad and in attracting emigrants – and economic capital – home. The potential intellectual and economic power of these migrants is immense but sleeping, and Poland would do well to wake it up.

The Descendants 
Poland’s descendants have touched the lives of people all over the world. To put a recognisable face to our mass, sprawling diaspora, we have collated a selection of several of Poland’s more important and famous emigrants. Click for larger image.

Mateusz Nowak is a Partner at Mazovia Capital and is focused on bringing the experiences of Poland’s diaspora back home. Previously, he worked as an advisor at PwC, where he also served as initiator and leader of PwC Startup Collider, a corporate FinTech accelerator run across five countries in CEE. In 2015, he co-founded Technology Entrepreneurship Foundation, licensed to run MIT Enterprise Forum Poland.

Irish Diaspora

Ireland is a good example of a country able to utilise its diaspora more effectively than Poland. The Global Irish Network comprises of around 350 highly influential individuals from around the world and plays an important role in facilitating investment into Ireland, promoting the country’s reputation abroad and recognising the Irish community as a source of soft power. The Global Irish Economic Forum holds biennial conferences, bringing together internationally-renowned Irish from business and culture, while the government’s Emigrant Support Programme focuses on cultural and heritage projects to foster a vibrant sense of Irish community and identity.

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Written by: Mateusz Nowak

Mateusz Nowak is a Partner at Mazovia Capital and is focused on bringing the experiences of Poland’s diaspora back home. Previously, he worked as an advisor at PwC, where he also served as initiator and leader of PwC Startup Collider, a corporate FinTech accelerator run across five countries in CEE. In 2015, he co-founded Technology Entrepreneurship Foundation, licensed to run MIT Enterprise Forum Poland.