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Conference Report

The project “Colonisation and Decolonisation in National History Cultures and Memory Politics in European Perspective”, granted under the European Union’s Life Long Learning Programme/Comenius-CMP, considers colonial pasts and processes of decolonisation in different European states in a comparative perspective. Partners from Belgium, Germany, Estonia, Great Britain, Austria, Poland and Switzerland joined in the analysis and discussion of these issues. The main focus of the project surrounds two questions: to what extent are the themes colonialism and decolonisation taught in history lessons in the respective partner countries; and what meaning is currently attributed to the colonial past in national history cultures and memory politics?1

The project’s main aim, as noted on its website, is to discuss the extent to which national history cultures can be integrated into a collective European framework, in the context of colonisation and processes of decolonisation. It begins from the perspective that the colonial past is a uniting as well as dividing moment in European history. This requires the project to also consider whether or not Europe, regardless of the various and differing historical developments and memories, possesses a 'memory community' with regard to the colonial past, and whether or not the colonial past is or can be a European 'space of memory'. The practical outcomes of the project are lesson modules that have been developed in cooperation with the partners which tell a European story of colonialism and decolonisation for education in Europe.2

An international conference was held in Siegen from 15-18 October 2014 and it was the first step in developing the perspectives and practical outcomes noted above. Experts in the history of colonialism and decolonisation from the partner countries introduced recent research questions and presented new sources for consideration and discussion. In workshops, teaching suggestions were presented and discussed, and these will be further elaborated upon as published (online and print) lesson modules. A European perspective is provided in the selection of sources presented by the scholars to enable teachers, from around Europe, to make use of them in a way that enables them to tell the story of a "histoire croisée" or interlinked colonial pasts.3 The modules that have been produced relate to one of the project’s main themes: Overseas Colonialism; Inner-European Colonialism, Decolonisation, and Memory Politics.

After a welcome address by ANGELA SCHWARZ, on behalf of the University of Siegen, and an introduction about the structure and aims of the conference by BÄRBEL KUHN and UTA FENSKE, both of the University of Siegen, attendees were treated to a keynote lecture by IDESBALD GODDEERIS of the University of Leuven. His lecture focused on the multitude of research approaches and concepts connected with colonialism and decolonisation. His lively paper sparked an excellent and animated discussion on the different approaches and the ways in which historians from around European engage with them.

This was followed by a presentation from S. KARLY KEHOE and BEN SHEPHERD, Glasgow Caledonian University, wherein they discussed the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and British Appeasement Policy. The first was connected with Overseas Colonialism and the second with Decolonisation. Whilst Kehoe’s discussion on the Atlantic Slave Trade focused on Britain’s acquisition of islands in the Caribbean following the 1763 Treaty of Paris and the ways in which it managed and expanded the slave-based economy on these new colonial holdings, Shepherd’s section on Appeasement presented a transnational picture and considered the decolonisation of states formerly belonging to the British Empire. He discussed the ways in which many were willing to act against Hitler’s increasingly expansive politics, but were keen to do so on their own terms and without unlimited input from Britain. He demonstrated how, in this way, British Appeasement was a product of ambitions for autonomy and self-determination on the part of former British colonies.

In his presentation entitled 'Slavery, Genocide and Racism: (Post-)Colonial Entanglements of a Swiss kind', BERNHARD SCHÄR, FHNW Aarau, highlighted the Swiss perspective on colonialism and decolonisation which was interesting because Switzerland was never in possession of overseas colonies. What Schär demonstrated, though, was that Switzerland was a net beneficiary of colonial entanglements in numerous ways. He outlined how, in recent Swiss historiography on colonialism, scholars are beginning to consider the depth of Swiss involvement in colonialism. Much of this work deals with the economic entanglements of Switzerland in terms of colonial trade relations, and he highlighted the extent to which Swiss trading companies profited from colonial infrastructures such as the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The new research is challenging perceptions about Swiss 'non-involvement' in processes of colonialism and colonisation. Schär also expanded the discussion by considering Swiss development aid in Rwanda. While Switzerland provided bilateral development cooperation, it also sent a number Catholic missionaries to the country at the same time.4 The desire to impose European knowledge systems and administrative structures in Rwanda, coupled with the tendency for Swiss activities to be concentrate on the Hutu majority raises important questions about the extent to which Switzerland should share responsibility for the violence between Hutu and Tutsi during the 1994 Rwandan Genocide. Finally Schär introduced sources that demonstrate a familiarity with colonial imagery such as Globi comics.

The second day of the conference was opened by IDESBALD GODDEERIS, KU Leuven, who discussed aspects of Belgian colonial history. Goddeeris explained that a number of varying perspectives on colonialism and decolonisation were evident in Belgium, particularly when one compares Flanders with the French-speaking community of the country. Nevertheless, a swing towards a new imperial history, which focuses on the multidirectional relations between metropolis and periphery (including colonial educational systems and missions) can be seen in current Belgian historiography. He notes, however, that much of the research and writing remains at an early stage and that the majority of the works on Belgian colonialism do not deal with the colonialism in a critical way. There is, for example, a rather sizeable collection of publications dedicated to the Congo and Leopold II which tend to be nostalgic instead of critical. The scholars who are producing the more critical works are those from Britain and the United States. Goddeeris also touched upon (post)colonial memory politics and this linked rather well with the Swiss presentation of colonial patterns of interpretation in the Globi comics. Goddeeris widened the spectrum of sources by referring to the public presence of colonial pasts as he discussed street names and monuments. He also mentioned the importance of hip-hop lyrics by Belgian-Congolese musicians and explained how sources like these have the potential to inspire a deeper analysis of (post)colonial patterns of interpretation.

REINHARD WENDT, FernUniversität Hagen, gave a presentation wherein he considered the classification of colonial goods in an eight-stage scheme which shows classifications from the first encounters with foreign consumer goods, to their import and cultivation, and, eventually, to their integration as ‘normalised’ products of European lifestyles. He demonstrated how colonial goods and products played an important role in shaping and constructing European identities. Wendt illustrated this by highlighting coffee as an example – the foreign product that became an integral part of the European lifestyle. Objects and products commonly classified as European, those seen to embody ‘our’ identity, can be deconstructed in terms of their 'migratory movements'5 as well as in the role they play and have played in processes of constructing lifestyles and identities.

A further perspective was discussed in the contributions provided during the third day of the conference and this was how far colonial entanglements can be identified as inner-European, meaning between a Western-European metropolis and Eastern-European (semi)peripheries. In her contribution CLAUDIA KRAFT, University of Siegen, emphasised that it was one of the main strengths of postcolonial studies to see colonialism not simply as relations based on exploitation and power, but also as knowledge systems which shaped and represented these relationships. This dual perspective was especially useful when considering the experience of Eastern Europe. Significant parallels emerge when we consider the conflicts that these ‘peripheries’ experienced in connection with the knowledge-power-relations that are critical to colonially-constructed ideas about dependency. In this respect, the positions of Eastern Europe, Eastern Middle Europe and South Eastern Europe are problematic. Kraft argued that we are dealing with semi-peripheries here: with regions that were and are considered to be a part of the (western) European/northern Atlantic centre, albeit in a marginalised way and with certain constraints; with regions that define or have defined themselves in relation to this centre. Using the work of Nikolaj Trubetzkoy and Dipesh Chakrabarty, Kraft considered whether or not her theoretical considerations are able to be applied to the relationships that existed between Western and Eastern Europe. She argued that Chakrabarty’s argument in particular, which presents Europe as a 'silent referent in historical knowledge',6 can serve as a pathway for consideration if this ‘silent referent’ was not Western Europe and not simply Europe.

The perspective of an 'inner-European' colonialism was taken further by the Estonian project partners. There is a tendency for Estonian historiography to focus on aspects of military, migration and mission history when dealing with the theme of colonialism and this was something that was discussed in interesting detail. ANDRES ANDRESEN, University of Tartu, highlighted aspects of the Lutheran mission in Estonia and its change from a ‘Colonial Church to a People’s Church’, while HILLAR TOOMISTE, University of Tartu, focused on the history of the secret uranium enrichment plant in Sillamäe as a way of drawing out the nuances of inner-European colonialism in the context of exploitation and economic policy.

During the final presentation, it was explained that colonialism and decolonisation do not play a significant role in Polish historiography and in fact even the scholarship of historians outside of Poland on these topics received very little attention. PRZEMYSŁAW DAMSKI, Łódź University, referred to this situation and noted, among other things, that the approaches presented by the Estonian scholars might be applicable to Poland in terms of understanding more about the political, economic and cultural dominance of the Polish and Polonish-ised nobility over Ukrainian und Belarusian populations in the Kresy, a Polish border region. This did much to demonstrate the value of an 'inner-European' colonialism for countries like Poland.

The results of these discussions will form the framework of the project’s publications which will be a multi-lingual printed volume that contains a number of scholarly introductions, new sources and suggestions for using the materials in history lessons, as well as digital modules available on the project’s website to be used in history lessons throughout Europe.

The diversity of perspectives on colonialism and decolonisation reflects the diversity of the history and education cultures of the European partner countries. The conference was an important step in having a collaborative discussion about what these terms mean and how they are used within and across borders.

When addressing the question of whether colonialism and decolonisation can be seen as a European ‘space of memory’ it must be acknowledged that, depending on national, regional and group-specific circumstances, different and oftentimes competing interpretations come into play. The project must work with this diversity and use it as an opportunity to make students aware of the formations of different history cultures and to encourage them to think about colonialism and decolonisation in new ways.

Daniel Groth
University of Siegen

S. Karly Kehoe
Glasgow Caledonian University


1 Http://www.uni-siegen.de/codec-eu/projekt.html.en?lang=en (9th January 2015).
2 Ibid.
3 Http://www.uni-siegen.de/codec-eu/konferenz.html.en?lang=en (9th January 2015).
4 See Lukas Zürcher, Die Schweiz in Ruanda. Mission, Entwicklungshilfe und nationale Selbstbestätigung (1900-1975), Zürich 2014.
5 See Jutta Schumann / Susanne Popp, Die Entwicklung transregionaler Perspektiven im Museum. In: Bärbel Kuhn / Susanne Popp / Jutta Schumann / Astrid Windus (eds.), Geschichte erfahren im Museum (Historica et Didactica . Fortbildung Geschichte, Bd. 6), St. Ingbert 2014, pp. 109-119, here pp. 109-110.
6 Dipesh Chakrabarty, Postcoloniality and the Artifice of History: Who speaks for „Indian“ Pasts?. In: Representations 37 (Winter 1992), pp. 1-26, here p. 2.

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