Illustration The WeberWorldCafé-event “Legacies of Colonialism in East Central Europe”

Illustration The WeberWorldCafé-event “Legacies of Colonialism in East Central Europe”

Conference reports Rethinking Colonialism(s) in Eastern Europe

The WeberWorldCafé-event “Legacies of Colonialism in East Central Europe”, took place in October 15, 2019 in the Museum am Rothenbaum – Kulturen und Künste der Welt, Hamburg.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW 2019:4, p 57-58
Published on on February 25, 2020

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The WeberWorldCafé-event “Legacies of Colonialism in East Central Europe”, took place in October 15, 2019 in the Museum am Rothenbaum –  Kulturen und Künste der Welt, Hamburg. Co-organized of the Max Weber Stiftung – Deutsche Geisteswissenschaftliche Institute im Ausland, the Forum Transregionale Studien. the Nordost- Institut at Hamburg University and the Museum am Rothenbaum –  Kulturen und Künste der Welt. Curated by Olga Linkiewicz (Forum Transregionale Studien) and Katrin Steffen (Nordost-Institut/Institut für Kultur und Geschichte der Deutschen in Nordosteuropa e.V.).


Much has changed since Larry Wolff wrote his contemporary classic Inventing Eastern Europe (1994). It seems paradigmatic that Wolff’s book wasn’t even mentioned in the series of discussions titled “Legacies of Colonialism in East Central Europe: Race, Scholarship and Politics” held in the former Ethnographic Museum, newly renamed Museum am Rothenbaum / Kulturen und Künste der Welt [Cultures and arts of the world] in Hamburg. The event brought together two promising aspects, which made me excited to attend: first, the idea of smaller groups in which discussions involving scholars, museum curators and an interested local audience would be held on a smaller scale, and second, the subject of colonialism and its complex influences in Eastern Europe.

The event was organized in the form of five table discussions led by two hosts, which in most cases involved a younger and a more experienced scholar, while the “Heritage” table also included a young museum curator. All attendees had a chance to participate in all five tables during the two and a half hours of discussion, following the WeberWorldCafe format. I started at the table “Uses and abuses of expertise”, and finished with “Entanglements”. I will introduce some of the discussions in the order of my participation in the tables.

The first table discussion, “Uses and Abuses of Expertise”, was chaired by Olga Linkiewicz and Victor M. Stoll. It focused on Eastern European scholars who participated in colonial quests led by Western countries. The role of anthropologists of Eastern European origin was discussed here on different occasions. Bronisław Malinowski (1884—1942), a Polish scholar who became one of the founding fathers of British anthropology, had a very transnational and empire-related career, working at the LSE and several American universities before settling at Yale University. In his work on Papua New Guinea, Mailu and the Trobriand Islands he participated in spreading the widespread racist prejudices and practices of knowledge creation, while his personal collection was later incorporated into the British Museum. How are we to judge the work of scholars such as Malinowski, in view of the fact that they served broader systems of colonial knowledge, but often justified the ideals of colonialism’s civilizing mission in their work? The role of disciplines for colonial expertise and “valuable fields” was also mentioned: anthropology analyzing peripheries while sociology studied centers, art history studying the local Western heritage while anthropologists and ethnographers focused on analyzing the colonial others.

The second discussion table, “Heritage”, focused on how trade in objects throughout the centuries has remained a particular colonial legacy embedded in museum collections. Whereas constructing the institution of the museum was driven by the idea of glorifying the nation, objects of colonial origin often tell stories that are more complex, involving specific people with names and characters, interests and agencies. It was acknowledged that the complexity of the role of nation states needs further discussion and that often a focus on objects as something tangible and specific, bringing up histories that are not based on opinions but on facts, could also help us in the context of growing polarization in European societies. Objects also help us to think about dissonances and inherent contradictions in discourses and thus make discussions about complex historical relations and troublesome agencies more tangible. The example of German-Danish merchant Schimmelmann (1747—1831) was mentioned in various discussions, as he contributed to the abolition of slavery in Denmark while favoring better conditions, driven by economic interests, yet simultaneously he himself was not against slavery.

At the “Terrains of Colonialism” table, chaired by Justyna Turkowska and Maria Rhode, we were invited to distinguish between three dimensions: globally localized colonialism present in physical persecution, local colonization and its material presence in Eastern Europe and finally imaginary geography, a concept introduced by Edward Said to bring further nuance to the pervasive influence of colonialism. Thus, Eastern Europe was seen as both an object of colonial imaginary and civilizing mission, as well as an active participant in colonial projections and discourses, developing its own colonial fantasies. An example of this mentioned here were Poland’s dreams of permanent settlements in New Guinea or Liberia. It was acknowledged that while European Black experience has remained the dominant discourse in the understanding of colonialism, language has become something used to claim such histories instead of communicating them. Integrating Eastern European experience allows for further complexity. The question raised, “What do we mean when we talk about Eastern European colonialism?” related our discussion to my own experience as a lecturer encountering Estonian students’ eagerness to take up white guilt in their own position towards European black people. I explained this as due to the young generation’s eagerness to identify with their Western contemporaries, but in fact its reasons need further exploration. Everyone at the table agreed that this needs to be problematized and we need to find space for holding these kinds of discussions.

At the next table, “Legacies and durabilities”, the chairs Grzegorz Krzywiec and Filip Herza made an attempt to bring migration crises and climate change onto the table as a way of thinking about how colonial discourses influenced the socialist era and the post-socialist present, but this approach received some resistance as discussion topics from earlier tables continued to linger in participants’ heads. One approach that was perceived as productive was seeing colonizing and nationalizing as parallel developments and colonialism as a by-product of Enlightenment that involved prestige and cultural imperialism as much as exploitation and slave labor.

I finished the intense day of discussions at the “Entanglements” table, chaired by Christian Geulen and Maciej Górny, where we returned to discussing the complexities of colonialism, revisiting the problem of how exactly should we define it in Eastern Europe. Here, Geulen questioned whether we actually have the right to use this term in reference to the oppression and enslavement of Western countries’ overseas colonies as well as, for instance, for colonization of Ukraine by Russia. In view of the considerable differences in these two experiences, is the use of the same concept in fact justified? The table seemed to agree that it might prove to be more productive to find alternative vocabularies to address parallel forms of participation, self-colonization and mimicry in the Eastern European experience. The other issue raised was how we could trace back subtle differences in locals’ ways of reacting to Western European colonialisms.

There’s an increasing need for new formats in which to exchange knowledge, both in academia and other institutional settings, and to increase engagement that has extended recently both to explorations of real life and digital means. A format such as that appropriated by the Max Weber Institute could be seen as a successful approach, especially for collaboration between different fields and institutions. It’s a challenge to listen to each other and certainly there were some shortcomings: For instance, the fact that Polish colleagues dominated as table hosts defined the scope of some of the questions and frameworks. In the discussions later on during the evening I heard that for colleagues who are used to giving lectures, it also raised frustrations, because being a host was mainly about setting up a frame and being a good listener. Disappointing someone is inevitable when exploring new formats, especially if these formats break habits and require change. Yet as the topic itself is new, the event definitely succeeded in opening up many new questions about Eastern European complicity, the responsibility that arises from it and the need to think about decolonization and its discontents in ways that go beyond the work of Western Enlightenment thinkers. ≈