J. Lingelbach: On the Edges of Whiteness

On the Edges of Whiteness. Polish Refugees in British Colonial Africa during and after the Second World War

Lingelbach, Jochen
New York 2020: Berghahn Books
Anzahl Seiten
306 S.
$ 135.00; € 122,75
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Marta Grzechnik, Institute of Scandinavian and Finnish Studies, University of Gdańsk

Jochen Lingelbach’s book On the Edges of Whiteness tells the story of a group of Polish refugees in Africa during the Second World War and its direct aftermath. Starting in 1942, the refugees, who were mostly women, children and other persons unfit to fight, were placed in camps in the British colonies: Tanganyika, Uganda, Northern and Southern Rhodesia, and Kenya.

Lingelbach explores this story over the course of five chapters, plus Introduction and Conclusions. The first chapter is mostly descriptive and provides the background for the study, explaining the Polish refugees’ fates which led them to Africa, the description of the refugee camps and their administration, and the fate of the refugees after the war. In the next three chapters, Lingelbach discusses three aspects of the refugees’ stay in Africa and their situation. In these chapters, he relates these aspects to the respective field of study, and thus places them in the wider context. Firstly, the Polish refugees are studied as one of the many groups of refugees and displaced persons that were produced by the events of the Second World War, and the ways the evolving international organisation and legislation pertaining to refugees were dealing with them. Secondly, Lingelbach considers the context of colonialism and its different facets. He especially concentrates on the questions if and how Poland’s position as a country dominated and occupied by its powerful neighbours – which is sometimes discussed in terms of colonialism in modern scholarship – determined the Polish refugees’ relation to the peoples and realities of the colonised Global South. Thirdly, the gender aspect is discussed. The author focuses on the fact that a majority of the studied group were women and children – the men having gone to fight in the war. This gives the subject another dimension of relations of power and dependence, as the women are shown both in the role of stabilisers of the communities and of transgressors. Finally, chapter five compares three perspectives on the refugee group: of the British members of the colonial societies, of the Polish refugees themselves, and of the Africans who came into contact with the refugees.

To incorporate all these different aspects and perspectives, Lingelbach draws on a variety of primary and secondary sources, including the archives in Europe, Africa and the United States, Polish newspapers published in Nairobi at the time of the refugees’ stay in Africa, as well as interviews. The lack of Polish archives among the sources is slightly surprising, but can, perhaps, be explained by the fact that the refugees never came back to Poland after their African sojourn, and their fate was rather in the hands of the British colonial administration, the Polish government-in-exile and international organisations than the post-war Polish government. The use of interviews is, on the other hand, especially interesting. They are used first and foremost to present the Africans’ perspectives. There are limitations of this type of sources, which the author is aware of (pp. 221–222), such as the difficulties with finding interviewees who remembered the refugees, the passage of time since the events, which both distorts the memories and superimposes the additional layers of meaning onto them, as well as the relation between the interviewee and the interviewer. Despite this, the interviews are still a valuable addition to the analysis, given the scarcity of written sources that could provide the African perspective on the topic.

The value of Lingelbach’s study is that he places the analysed case at the intersection of several fields: Polish history, history of colonial Africa and the British Empire and the history of refugees, and he attempts to look at it from multiple perspectives. He thus writes an entangled history of a heterogeneous group, divided along the lines of class, gender, ethnicity and religion, and occupying a precarious position with relation to the British, the Africans, and other ethnic groups present in Africa at the same time. As the book makes clear, the whiteness gave the Poles in the colonial context the privilege of a “racial dividend” (p. 154), and in the European context resulted in, for example, the efforts to acquire colonies for Poland in the interwar period (p. 111) and even during the war, by the Polish government-in-exile (p. 120). But at the same time, it was not the same whiteness as that of, for example, the British. The Polish refugees were shown hospitality, but they were also treated instrumentally as dependants of soldiers needed to strengthen the Allied forces, and the colonial administration was keen to get rid of them after the war, as not the “right” kind of white settlers, sometimes even a threat to the colonial system altogether, defying the simple dichotomy between the dominant coloniser and the dominated colonised. “East is not South,” Lingelbach concludes his discussion on whether Poland could be compared to the European overseas colonies because of its history of foreign occupation (p. 123, emphasis in the original). However, it is not, strictly speaking, West either; it occupies its own place, as “subaltern whites,” on the edges of whiteness.

The book contains some minor flaws. Diagrams on pages 27 and 48, for example, are unclear, as they contain no numerical information, either in absolute numbers or percentages. On page 214, there is an erroneous reference to “figure 3.1” – the picture in question is in fact figure 1.3. On the same page, the author translates the motto “Polonia Semper Fidelis” as “Always faithful to Poland” – a more accurate translation would be “Poland always faithful” (used in a religious context, as in this case, it is a pledge of loyalty to the Roman Catholic faith).

These mistakes, however, do not distract from the merits of the book. Lingelbach places the Polish settlers at the centre of a complicated web of relations in terms of race, gender and class, as well as processes such as the Second World War, Poland’s post-war status as a Soviet satellite, decolonisation, the new, post-war global refugee regime, etc. The story he tells is thus complex, novel and interesting. He ends it with a subtle, but very apt reminder, which his protagonists modern-day compatriots should take to heart, that this story is also a lesson about “the importance of giving shelter to people who have been forced to flee their homes” (p. 265).

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