S. Huigen u.a. (Hrsg.): East Central Europe Between the Colonial and the Postcolonial in the Twentieth Century

East Central Europe Between the Colonial and the Postcolonial in the Twentieth Century.

Huigen, Siegfried; Kołodziejczyk, Dorota
Cambridge Imperial and Post-Colonial Studies (CIPCSS)
265 S.
€ 53,49
Reviewed for H-Soz-Kult by
Piotr Puchalski, Institute of History and Archival Studies, University of the National Education Commission, Kraków

The publication of Kołodziejczyk and Huigen’s collection comes only one year after the appearance of two similar books: “Central Europe and the Non-European World in the Long 19th Century”, edited by Markéta Krížová and Jitka Malečková, which I reviewed on this website,1 and “The World Beyond the West: Perspectives from Eastern Europe”, edited by Mariusz Kałczewiak and Magdalena Kozłowska, to which I contributed a chapter.2 Whereas these two works were concerned with Eastern European relations with the non-Western world, from which they deduced the regional elites’ reflections on race and colonialism, the book under review tackles the position of nations between Berlin and Moscow on these questions more generally. It is this broad and eclectic approach that “East Central Europe Between the Colonial and the Postcolonial” draws its strengths from and reveals its drawbacks.

The premise of the volume, which Kołodziejczyk and Huigen lay out in the introduction, is the well-known thesis that East Europeans recognized their inferior position in global hierarchies and compensated for it by adhering to imperialist missions in Africa, Asia, and elsewhere. “Traces of empathy,” if they occurred, were subordinated to the national discourse prevalent at the moment, at least until World War II (p. 2). The editors also claim that “being subjected to foreign rule was not regarded a colonial dependence” and that “the concept of colony was reserved to non-European territories and populations, as those which, arguably, had no national consciousness to speak of” (p. 2). Though exceptions could be listed easily, these claims are not necessarily false – and, for the most part, they are corroborated empirically in the book. Unfortunately, they are presented in a tone that makes them appear as manifested truth. One can also sense a degree of apriorism in that, for instance, Chinua Achebe’s interpretation of Joseph Conrad’s racial attitudes is cited uncritically.

In addition, the editors’ references to present-day postcolonial (self-)perceptions of Poland and Hungary are rather sweeping. Political in nature, these references are not an explicit attempt to demonstrate a continuum of discourse on the broadly defined political right in an academic manner. This “problem” is only tackled in Kraft’s chapter, which notes that postcolonial “nativism is not only the product of the ‘backward’ attitudes in the East, but also an effect of the ignorance of Western opinion leaders who diagnose otherness but ignore the fact that they are also involved in the formation of these supposedly ‘cultural’ antagonisms” (p. 50). In contrast, the introduction discusses the adoption of postcolonial rhetoric by figures such as Viktor Orbán and Jarosław Kaczyński in a mere footnote (pp. 15–16), presenting right-wing postcolonialism in a reductionist and pathologizing manner. As Zoltán Ginelli has demonstrated, the belief that such rhetoric is homogenous across the region and merely a function of nationalist politics obscures more than it illuminates.3 It would also be amiss not to mention the irony that the open access to the book was made possible by funding from Poland’s Ministry of Science.

More usefully, Kołodziejczyk and Huigen appreciate the application of the postcolonial approach to East Central European history. They issue a correct reservation that scholars should refrain from attempting to present the region as essentially postcolonial – rather than “post-dependent,” the term they prefer – and should instead analyze specific instances where the discourse and practice of colonialism outside of Europe and imperialism in East Central Europe intersected. This proposition is presented in the first chapter, in which Claudia Kraft references the concepts of “peripherality” and “in-betweenness” (or “in-between peripherality”) to describe the region, applying the postcolonial lens to Poland under various partitions. She also clarifies that Poles were not reduced to colonial status in all partitions or throughout the “long” nineteenth century.

Similarly, in the following chapter, Tomasz Zarycki discusses the “Polish stereotypes of the East,” illuminating Poland’s dual role in postcolonial discourse as Orientalizing and self-Orientalizing. He employs the concepts of psychologism and culturalism to argue that according to the “conservative paradigm,” “Poland in its entirety is often regarded as a postcolonial country,” with weaknesses that can be traced to “Russian and Soviet colonisation.” Nevertheless, for some liberals, the eastern regions – if not the whole country –“appear to be the victim of Polish colonising domination (…) by the Polish landowners in the region,” agents of broader European colonial forces (pp. 67–68). Zarycki then demonstrates the ways in which these stereotypes have emerged in different Polish cities and regions and their transfiguration in neighboring countries such as Ukraine.

While Kraft and Zarycki’s chapters, which constitute the first section of the book, address (post)colonialism in East Central Europe – mostly in Poland – methodologically, chapters in the second section tackle specific cases. Comparing the attitudes toward colonialism in Ireland and Poland, Róisín Healy points to the fraternization of both nations with colonized peoples. While in Ireland, anticolonialism continued after independence, it hardly did in Poland, which began to advocate for its own colonies in the 1930s. Healy suggests only one major reason for this conspicuous difference: the tradition of dominating in a multiethnic region, which was the case in Poland but not Ireland (pp. 103–104). While this factor contributed to the Polish colonial ambitions, the analysis attempted by Healy warrants a much more empirical approach that goes beyond citing a couple of articles. Furthermore, Irish complicity in British colonialism is barely discussed.

The next two chapters in the section deal with East Europeans traveling to India. Raul Cârstocea analyzes the attraction of the Romanian thinker Mircea Eliade to the idea of emancipation through fascism by tracing his assessment of colonialism in India, which he related to the situation in his homeland. Agnieszka Sadecka’s chapter, on the other hand, discusses the writings of Polish reporters from India circa 1950–1980, which, she argues, featured communist anti-colonial propaganda, an East Central European sense of inferiority toward the West, as well as a pan-European identification. The fourth chapter in the section – Jagoda Wierzejska’s contribution on Polish writer Andrzej Bobkowski’s writings on Guatemala (1948–1961) – likewise describes the process whereby East Central Europeans faced and compensated for their in-betweenness. All three chapters feature empirical data and source-based research findings and are good illustrations of the different ways in which a sojourn in colonial settings affected the East Central European imagination.

The final section of the book discusses the framing of displaced identities. Kinga Siewior argues that communist Poland’s “Regained Territories” – the regions incorporated after the defeat of the Third Reich – were presented as borderlands (kresy) in popular culture. This colonial tradition was inherited from the prewar period, in which the landscape was imbued with characteristics of familiarity and power by the state that claimed it. Emilia Kledzik’s chapter then tackles the question of “necessary fictions,” or stereotypes, in Roma storytelling, the aim of which was both to pass on elements of tradition and to inscribe them into modern East Central European cultures. Kledzik’s approach is postcolonial in that she adopts the position of the Roma, not of the Jews or Poles, in discussing their remembrance of the Holocaust. Finally, Miriam Finkelstein addresses the tension between Russian and East Central European writers in post-unification Berlin, whereby the former have attempted to monopolize the communication of communist totalitarianism to the Western reader while the latter cannot present a unified front. This fascinating chapter frames a recent and continuing phenomenon in what could be considered postcolonial terms.

In brief, Kołodziejczyk and Huigen’s book is a collection of sound chapters that reiterate and reinforce the dominant idea about the “in-betweenness” of East Central Europe, which, the argument continues, renders it only slightly different from Western Europe in its relations with the Global South but produces regional colonial dynamics. Grouped in clusters, the contributions follow certain themes, but the issue is that the book is too eclectic. There is no concluding section to connect the arguments into a coherent whole, and some chapters seem to put forward claims that cannot be substantiated without much more empirical data. Nonetheless, this is a required reading for all interested in postcolonial studies and the past and present of the region.

1 Piotr Puchalski, Review of Markéta Křížová / Jitka Malečková (eds.), in: Central Europe and the Non-European World in the Long 19th Century, March 10, 2023, https://www.connections.clio-online.net/publicationreview/id/reb-130978 (28.05.2024).
2 Mariusz Kałczewiak / Magdalena Kozłowska (eds.), The World Beyond the West: Perspectives from Eastern Europe, New York, 2022.
3 Zoltán Ginelli, Misunderstanding Hungary’s ‘anti-colonial’ turn, in: Social Europe, April 24, 2024, https://www.socialeurope.eu/misunderstanding-hungarys-anti-colonial-turn (28.05.2024).

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