Poolse vlag
Poolse vlag

Stereotypical Dutch images of Poland from the seventeenth century defined Eastern and Western Europe

There are prejudices against Poles in the Netherlands. Poles are supposed to cause nuisance, be corrupt, and drink too much. Such prejudices have a long history, according to literary scholar and historian Paul Hulsenboom, who will be defending his PhD thesis at Radboud University on 24 October. ‘Today's perceived opposition between Eastern and Western Europe stems from the seventeenth century.’

Just as now, as early as in the seventeenth century, the Netherlands and Poland maintained close contacts in a wide range of areas, from trade and diplomacy to religion and science. At the same time, Polish and Dutch people developed various ideas about each other. Literary and cultural historian Paul Hulsenboom wrote a PhD dissertation on these mutual Polish-Dutch perceptions.

Peasants and barbarians

He examined sources such as Dutch, Polish, and Latin travelogues, poems and pamphlets, prints, maps, and paintings. Many of these sources had never been studied before. Together, they reveal the ways in which the two countries were represented. Whereas some Poles dismissed the Dutch as heretic peasants, the Dutch frequently portrayed the Polish people as uncultured savages. 

Alongside these negative stereotypes, however, there were also more positive perspectives. For example, the Dutch praised Poland as a crucial trading partner and protector of Christianity against the Ottoman Empire. On the other hand, many Poles were impressed by the nature and rich cities of the Netherlands, or by the military prowess and the desire for freedom of the Dutch. Hulsenboom: “The narrative an author or artist used depended mainly on their background and interests.”

Hulsenboom stresses that imagery was often deliberately deployed for political and commercial purposes, for example by diplomats, but it could also have a more subtle impact. “Some Dutch scholars praised their Polish students or colleagues by saying they were surprised that Poles could be so smart and erudite at all.”

East and West

Crucially, moreover, the mental division of Europe began to shift in the seventeenth century. “Originally, Poland was classified among the northern countries,” says Hulsenboom, “where the nobility consumed a lot of alcohol, loved opulence to excess, and were violent, and where the common people were oppressed and living in abysmal conditions.” 

Scène uit Bredero's Lucelle - Jan Miense Molenaer (Allard Pierson)
Scène uit Bredero's Lucelle - Jan Miense Molenaer (Allard Pierson)

This image went all the way back to Classical Antiquity. In the seventeenth century, however, the Dutch also began to imagine Poland as an eastern country, which they associated with the exotic Orient. In doing so, they made a substantial contribution to the continent's mental division between West and East, which continues to this day. Hulsenboom: “Although Poland is also sometimes classified as part of Central Europe, the focus is mostly on the alleged differences between East and West.”

Inclusive historiography

According to the researcher, many Western Europeans look down on their eastern neighbours, and Poles are regularly discriminated against. “In 2012, for example, the PVV party introduced the so-called Meldpunt Midden- en Oost-Europeanen (Central and Eastern Europeans Reporting Point), which encouraged Dutch people to report nuisance caused by Eastern Europeans. In doing so, the party mobilised a negative, stereotypical image of Poles, among others.” 

This kind of perception has adverse effects on the economic and social position of Poles. We must therefore rid ourselves of our ingrained stereotypes about Eastern Europeans, Hulsenboom argues. He hopes to contribute to this with his research, in which he advocates for a more inclusive historiography. “Western historians should devote more attention to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. This leads to a better understanding of Central and Eastern Europe – something that is particularly needed in light of Russia's war against Ukraine.”

Contact information

Meer weten? Neem contact op met Paul Hulsenboom via paul.hulsenboom [at] ru.nl (paul[dot]hulsenboom[at]ru[dot]nl) of met Persvoorlichting & Wetenschapscommunicatie via 024 361 6000 of media [at] ru.nl (media[at]ru[dot]nl)

Diversity, History, International