“The format allowed a democratic and relaxed atmosphere which led to exceptionally interesting and productive conversations”
By Elżbieta Kwiecińska
When one thinks about colonialism, typically that implies a relation between a Western European metropole and its overseas colony. At the WeberWorldCafe on October 15th, 2019 at the MARKK museum in Hamburg, we discussed the legacies of colonialism in East-Central Europe, an ambiguous region with regard to colonialism. The event was jointly organized by the Max Weber Stiftung – Deutsche Geisteswissenschaftliche Institute im Ausland, the Forum Transregionale Studien, and the Nordost-Institut at Hamburg University and in cooperation with the Museum am Rothenbaum. Kulturen und Künste der Welt (MARKK). The discussion lasted about two and a half hours and was divided into five tables, each with two experts, tackling various aspects of the legacies of colonialism in East-Central Europe: Entanglements, Terrains of Colonialism, Uses and Abuses of Expertise, Heritage and Legacies and Durabilities. Each 25 minutes, the participants changed the table and had the chance to gain insights into one of the five topics. We took notes on the table clothes in-between tasty food. The format allowed a democratic and relaxed atmosphere which led to exceptionally interesting and productive conversations.
The colonial concepts and East Central Europe
The main plot of the discussions considered how we can appropriate the concepts of race, class, civilizing mission, development, centre and periphery and other colonial concepts to East Central Europe. At the ‘Entanglements’ table, we particularly addressed the question of race and racism. Prof. Maciej Górny helped us to understand race as a means of exclusion and othering. He referred to Franciszek Duchiński (1816-1893) who introduced the first Polish racial theory about Russia as a Turanian race. While Russians were supposed to be racially different from Europeans and belonged to Asia, Poles were Arians and Europeans. Prof. Maciej Górny compared racial exclusion with the concept of the ‘civilizing mission’ that was used rather to construct a hierarchy between East-Central European nations than to exclude them from Europe. He also highlighted differences between various ways of ‘othering’. In racial theories the ‘other’ is often perceived as an internal danger within a race, as it was for example the case of racial anti-Semitism. Furthermore, the racial ‘other’ often overlapped with a national other. The implied ‘danger’, allegedly caused by the racial ‘other’, was also the cause for a fear of an erosion of the nation-building process. We also discussed reasons for the popularity of racial theories at the end of the nineteenth-century, a trend stemming from the supposedly scientific character and universalism of the theories.
Apart from the concept of race, we also considered questions of knowledge and power. Especially, at the tables ‘Terrains of Colonialism’ and ‘Uses and Abuses of Expertise’, we talked about production and exchange of knowledge which made up a colonial tradition that remains prevailing in contemporary thinking. In regard of the ‘Uses and Abuses of Expertise’, we pointed out blurred power relations in colonialism and language which can be abused and used to segregate. The question of knowledge and power are particularly present in think tanks and institutes which provide expertise for development of those ‘less developed’. Although the development expertise acknowledged the end of evolutionism, we should be careful about the durability of some colonial mindsets.
A definition of colonialism
A rendering of how to define and differentiate colonialism raised much debate among the tables. Some of our experts attempted to provide us with definitions of colonialism, others believed that coming up with definitions is never a good idea. One of the proposed definitions mentioned three elements of colonialism: settlement, military and trade. We also distinguished ‘colonialism at home’ and the ‘internal colonization’ which were non-overseas colonialisms that particularly fit in the East-Central European colonial context. Then we compared colonialism with imperialism and agreed that when it comes to power relations, imperialism can be a more appropriate term than colonialism.
We discussed several cases of contemporary colonial legacy in East-Central Europe: Eastern Germany, Eastern Prussia, German-Polish-Ukrainian relations. Besides, we also considered other issues related to colonialism such as an imaginary geography of the East, contemporary post-socialist legacy, memory and the social life of objects in museums.
Overall, the WeberWorldCafe was a remarkable experience which allowed me to discuss the legacies of colonialism in East-Central Europe from various perspectives. I admired the democratic formula which enabled me to have direct and very productive conversations with the experts. For certain, taking part in the WeberWorldCafe will contribute to my intellectual growth and the remarks made by the experts will help me to develop as a scholar.