Exploring the Legacies of Colonialism in East Central Europe at the WeberWorldCafé #12

By Tom Menger

On 15 October 2019, the twelfth edition of the WeberWorldCafé took place at the Museum am Rothenbaum – Kulturen und Künste der Welt (MARKK) in Hamburg. The discussions revolved around the topic of ‘Legacies of Colonialism in East Central Europe: Race, Scholarship and Politics’. Being a museum with a large ethnographical collection, the MARKK itself is a very material reminder of colonial legacies, and was thus a well-chosen location. The event brought together a welcome diversity in attendees, ranging from historians, art historians and anthropologists to jurists and artists.

As someone who specialises in British, German and Dutch colonialism, for me the event was an excellent opportunity to learn more on the topic of ‘colonialism’ in the East Central European context. Although serious train delays unfortunately prevented me from attending all the tables at the WorldCafé, I was still offered a good taste of the different questions and discussions that shape this field. These were manifold, but I think two issues stand out.

The first was the question of the appropriateness of the label ‘colonialism’ to the history of East Central Europe. Could the different forms of foreign rule and domination in East Central Europe over the previous centuries be captured with this label? To discuss this question meaningfully, people obviously had to agree on a definition of what colonialism means. As I moved from table to table, this was a recurring discussion. ‘Colonialism’ is not simply the same as foreign domination. What amounts of violence and repression does it imply; and what degree of interference or even destruction of the colonised society? And what about constructions of racial difference which generally seem to underpin colonial rule? Furthermore, what does colonialism have to do with economic inequality?

Click to enlarge

Obviously, it would have been surprising had the gathering come up with a definition all participants could agree on. What complicated the issue was the fact that the term ‘colonialism’ is generally thought of in connection with the colonisation of the Americas, Asia and Africa by Western or westernised powers. Applying the label to East Central Europe could imply that the processes there were more or less the same as on the other continents. This prompted some participants to doubt the applicability of the term for the East Central European context and to ask whether an alternative term might not be more appropriate. To others, however, the colonial character of foreign rule over East Central Europe seemed rather self-evident. Many thought that, as an analytical tool at least, the concept can help us to describe, explain and understand the history of the area.

Despite the differences in opinion, everyone nevertheless agreed that the experiences of being colonised in America, Asia or Africa certainly differed from those in East Central Europe. This concerned the levels of repression and violence used by colonial rulers to sustain their rule, but also the rights accorded to the state’s subjects. Another factor was the fact that East Central Europeans still figured much higher than Asians or Africans in the racial hierarchies developed in the West in the nineteenth century.

The second big issue at this WeberWorldCafé was the question of ‘double colonialism’ in East Central Europe. The region’s inhabitants were in a special position: while they could be perceived as being colonised themselves, a great number of them also participated in the overseas colonial project of the West. Especially in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, when the colonisation of foreign lands increasingly came to be seen as a characteristic of a ‘civilised’ and ‘modern’ nation, nationalist intellectuals in East Central Europe were anxious to prove that their (often not yet independent) nations could be counted as such due to their participation in the colonial project of several imperial powers.

Table 2 ‘Terrains of Colonialism’ offered many examples for this, especially from Polish history. Several participants pointed to the strength of Polish colonial longing, i.e. the wish to possess colonies. Particularly in the Interwar period, this was expressed in the Maritime and Colonial League. Several attendees were surprised to learn that this was not a marginal but rather a hugely popular Polish organisation at the time. Furthermore, Poles were also active participants in many Western expeditions that ‘explored’ the colonial (or soon to be colonised) world in the nineteenth and twentieth century.

Another example concerned the numerous settlements of Polish emigrants overseas, for example in Brazil, which were often actually designated as ‘colonies’ and which were a part of the actual colonisation of the land by European settlers. After Poland became an independent state in 1918, another feature of colonialism by Poles can be discerned in their ‘civilising mission’ in the Kresy, the eastern borderlands of the new state which had a thoroughly multi-ethnic population. These borderlands were considered ‘backwards’ and in need of civilizational uplifting – a view which echoed the ‘civilising mission’ of Western powers overseas.

Table 3 ‘Uses and Abuses of Expertise’ also touched upon the participation of East Central Europeans in the European project. As the discussants concluded, structures of expertise did always become tools of power for any group wielding power. This was particularly the case in colonial situations, where many East Central Europeans could also be found among the group of Western ‘experts’ producing knowledge on the colonies and their population, a knowledge which also served the objective of shoring up the coloniser’s power. However, due to the ‘double colonialism’ of their regions of origins, these East Central European experts also occupied a special position; they could be considered ‘in-between-figures’. As was concluded at the first table, East and West very much had an ‘entangled history’ when it came to colonial science: scientific concepts travelled from West to East and vice versa, mutually influencing each other.

Visual Artist Angela Gerlach at work. Click to enlarge

The last two tables of this edition of the WeberWorldCafé were more concerned with the actual legacies of colonialism in East Central Europe. Here again, the long shadow cast by the region’s ‘double colonialism’ came to the fore. While the West already struggles to deal with its colonial heritage, ‘double colonialism’ complicates the issue even more in East Central Europe. For instance, large ethnographical collections, which have their origins in overseas colonies, can not only be found in Western European museums, but also in many museums in the central and eastern parts of Europe. During the Second World War and the German occupation, many ethnographic objects were also looted from museums in Poland and elsewhere and taken to Germany. It is circumstances such as these which further complicate the often already complex questions of ownership and restitution.

‘Double colonialism’ has also fundamentally impacted some of the immaterial legacies of colonialism in the region. The fact of having been both colonised and coloniser, both ‘victim’ and ‘accomplice’, means that East Central Europeans have always held a special position in dealing with this past, as has been visible both in the Socialist and post-Socialist era. This has had an important influence, for instance on current forms of East Central European racism. As was pointed out, it might be one of the explanations for the differing responses East and West to the European ‘migration crisis’ a few years ago. That need not be the end of the story, however. One of the more surprising anecdotes we heard at the WeberWorldCafé certainly was that cases of ‘white guilt’ have now been reported even in unexpected places like Estonia.

This last anecdote again exemplifies the main lesson I learnt that Tuesday during the discussions in the Museum am Rothenbaum. As a historian of Western colonialism, I knew very well that the legacies of colonialism in our current-day societies are diverse, complex, ambivalent, tortuous and disputed, sometimes haunting us but too often also just being ignored. All this is exponentially more the case in East Central Europe. It is therefore to be hoped that the topic will continue to be further and further explored and discussed at events such as this one.

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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