Working Paper
Elite murder and popular resistance

Evidence from post-World War II Poland

Does repression of opposition elites prevent resistance against foreign-imposed regimes? On the one hand, elimination of elites can undermine the opposition’s capacity for anti-regime resistance. Yet killing opposition elites deprives the new regime of useful human capital. Co-optation of elites becomes a tempting alternative.

We examine this trade-off by studying the effects of elimination vis-à-vis survival of Polish elites during World War II. Our focus is on the Polish nobility, intellectuals, and (reserve) army officers. We exploit plausibly random variation in the officers’ wartime deployment and subsequent imprisonment.

While most officers in Nazi captivity survived, almost all those in Soviet captivity were murdered. We find that municipalities with more surviving elites saw fewer protests against the postwar Soviet-backed regime during the Solidarność-led uprising in the 1980s.

Historical evidence suggests that surviving elites positively influenced local-level economic development, thereby reducing economic hardship and grievances against the regime.