“There is nothing in the world as invisible as a monument” – The Twelfth WeberWorldCafé

By Burrhus Njanjo

On October 10th, the 12th WeberWorldCafé on “Legacies of colonialism in East Central Europe: Race, Scholarship, and Politics took place in the Museum am Rothenbaum –  Kulturen und Künste der Welt. For a rich and diverse audience (international experts, scholars, researchers, students, artists and the general public) this was a worthwhile opportunity to take a closer look at the interaction between theories and practices of race and colonialism, how they migrated across space and time, and how they got themselves translated into the local contexts of East Central Europe.

After the admission and registration of participants, a brief introduction about the goals of the WWC kicked off the event. The discussions rounds were the core of the event, and they were structured in five rounds of about 25 minutes each. The day ended with a short final joint discussion of all the five tables, whereby the different host-experts tried to deliver the quintessence of the exchanges carried out on their tables. The five discussions panels were respectively on Entanglements, Terrains of colonialism, Uses and Abuses of Expertise, Heritage and, Legacies and Durabilities. In the following, I turn to mapping out the main points especially discussed at the tables 3 and 4, and sum up the aspects debated on the other tables, which does not imply that they were of less importance. 

Table 3 was titled Uses and Abuses of Expertise. Viktor Stoll, Olga Linkiewicz and the other participants discussed three particular aspects: the difference between colonial and non-colonial expertise, the role of expertise and knowledge in the shaping of categories, and other forms of Abuses and Uses. The two latter aspects particularly drew the attention of the discussants.

The second aspect dealt with “Expertise and Knowledge” as power, based on Foucault’s school of thought. It was argued that the notion of expertise as power was used in the 19th and 20th century by scholars mostly from Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. What was striking here was the importance of “Expertise and Knowledge” in the categorical transposition from race to class. The participants paid attention to the means by which experts drew an analogical line between categories like race and class within the frame of East Central Europe. The discussants sought to explore how the category class for instance, just as race, was shaped in a binary sense (bourgeois and proletarians) in this specific historical context, and how this shifted across time.  

Concerning the Uses and Abuses of experts within the Austro-Hungarian Empire, some specific actions could be identified during the discussion. It is first of all important to keep in mind that this Empire consisted of a multiethnic population. After 1877, the expertise of scholars was harnessed with means of ethnographic research, when the Empire tried to build up a sort of unity from this diverse socio-cultural mosaic. Under the order of the empire’s government, 42 volumes of ethnographic and ethnological research work looking for similarities among these groups were published. The fact that these research projects within the frame of the national identity discourses used for instance techniques like biological anthropology and anthropometries is noteworthy. Similarly, the same ideological and methodological tools were translated into the Bosnian context by the Austro-Hungarian Empire, when the Empire took control over Bosnia in 1878.

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Table 4 engaged with contemporary issues of Heritage under the supervision of Lara S. Ertener and Afonso D. Ramos. The discussion centered on the interaction between people and public history, i.e. between people and their awareness of symbols and artifacts of public history. Discussants were quite unambiguous on the point that people were mostly not aware enough of certain monuments around them, constituting their history. As Robert Musil puts it: “There is nothing in the world as invisible as a monument”. And this assertion seemed or still seems to be overtly true for soviet monuments in East Central Europe generally, and for those in Poland in particular. In Warsaw for example, the four sleeping soldiers-monument is almost totally inexistent in the perspective of the Polish population. It seemed that their attention was actually only drawn to that monument when it was about to be dismantled for the purpose of building a new metro line in 2013.

Due to the tensions raised by narratives of victimization (of being colonized) among others in the former colonies of East Central Europe, the participants on this table expressively questioned the role played by museums in the genesis and the developments of such narratives, and strongly claimed the reconstruction of heritage with new significations.

Towards the end, it was also debated whether the Soviet history could be seen as a colonial one. Arguments both for and against were developed from different angles. For some, the Soviet history can be appreciated as mere colonial regarding power relations, the social hierarchies at work, the alterity at work in the past and to some extent in consideration of narratives of victimization by the former “colonized”. According to others, it seems difficult to read the Soviet history through the lens of colonization. The different degree of violence and dehumanization compared to other colonized contexts renders such an analogy disproportional and impossible as well. 

While Maciej Górny and Christian Geulen tirelessly evoked on Table 1 (Entanglements) the manifold connection and gap between colonialism, racism and imperialism, Justyna A. Turkowska and Maria Rhode worked out on Table 2, titled Terrains of colonialism, the concept of colonialism as an analytical category before analyzing the difference between “being colonized in Africa” and “being colonized in Europe” on the one hand, and between colonial practices and colonial imagination on the other hand. Drawing from concepts like colonized and colonizers, Table 5, (Legacies and Durabilities) supervised by Filip Herza and Grzegorz Krzywiec, connected this problematic of the past with contemporary issues of migration crisis.

The 12th WeberWorldCafé was definitely a great opportunity to have a solid grasp of Legacies of Colonialism in East Central Europe from different angles and to get in touch with experts on the question. It is true that some participants wished to have more time for discussion,but this critique does not change a lot of the good organization of the event and the high theoretical quality of the debates.       


Max Weber Stiftung

The Max Weber Foundation promotes global research, focused on the areas of social sciences, cultural studies and the humanities. Our research is conducted at ten institutes in various countries across the globe with different and independent fields of focus. Through our globally operating institutes, we are able to contribute to the communication and networking between Germany and our host countries or regions. By promoting academic dialogue and merging academic and non-academic employees from several countries with different cultural backgrounds, the Max Weber Foundation is able to strengthen the internationalization of research.

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