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Jochen Lingelbach

Jochen Lingelbach is a member of the Research Training Group “Critical Junctures of Globalization”. He studied Geography and African Studies at the Universities of Leipzig and Dar es Salaam. During his studies he became interested in colonial history and its traces in the urban landscapes of Leipzig and Dar es Salaam. His interest in the colonial history of East Africa and its global entanglements with other historical processes lead him to the work on his current PhD-research project under the title Polish refugees in colonial Africa (ca. 1942-1950). Effects of the presence of European war refugees on the societies of the British colonies in southern and eastern Africa.

Polish Refugees in Africa – Central Europeans and Their Position within Colonial Society

During and after World War Two, a group of about 20.000 Polish refugees lived in camps in the British colonies of eastern and southern Africa. They came there mainly from Eastern Poland (Kresy) and were initially deported to Soviet labour camps in 1939, released in 1941 and hosted by the British colonial governments from 1942 onwards. Around 1950 most of these refugees left the colonies and were resettled elsewhere. They were neither colonizers nor researchers and lived for some years in colonial societies. As they came there completely inadvertently, they provide an excellent case study for the social positioning of Central Europeans within colonial societies. This can add to the general discussion about the transfer of insights from postcolonial theory to the understanding of Central European history.

In my paper I inquire how this group of Polish refugees was positioned within the hosting colonial societies. While belonging to the privileged social group of whites, they had nevertheless a personal history of marginalization and suffering in their home country as well as in the Soviet Union. Furthermore, their efforts for an independent nation-state had some similarities with the emerging African nationalist movements. The British colonizers were hosting them, sustaining them but at the same time also discriminating against them. I examine how the migrants understood themselves in the colonial situation they lived in and how they were seen by diverging actors of the hosting colonial societies. I will trace this social positioning in a multi-perspective approach to the interactions between colonizers, colonized and Polish refugees, drawing on sources from British colonial archives, Polish exile archives as well as oral history from interviews with former African workers in the refugee settlements. The results of my inquiry show that the Poles were not simply a neutral in-between group, but can be understood contradictorily from different social perspectives.