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  • Colonial Fantasies, Imperial Realities. Race, Science and the Making of Polishness on the Fringes of the German Empire, 1840–1920 by Lenny A. Ureña Valerio
  • Bruno Arich-Gerz
Colonial Fantasies, Imperial Realities. Race, Science and the Making of Polishness on the Fringes of the German Empire, 1840–1920 By Lenny A. Ureña Valerio. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2019.

When imperialism stood in full bloom after the Berlin conference of 1884–85, one of the great European countries in terms of population and surface area lacked the status of a nation state. After three partitions in the late eighteenth century, Poland had been a nation well enough, and had successfully cultivated a sense of Polishness among its citizens. But it "had no state machinery back home supporting" expansionist efforts (134), as Lenny A. Ureña Valerio states in her material-abundant and intelligently framed monograph on Poland's Colonial Fantasies.

More than that, Poland's Imperial Reality (to bring in the other half of the study's title) was that of a quasi-colony itself. Unwelcome among Poles ever since the partitions, Germans ruled in South, West and New East Prussia while the Austro-Hungarian Empire reigned over Southeastern Poland (Galicia) and Russia in Lithuania. The Polish nation was thus in the second half of the nineteenth century caught between the Scylla of a strong and well-defined collective identity and the Charybdis of not being in existence as an internationally acknowledged state. This was of particular concern for the western parts of the country. Ruled by an outside empire that established overseas outposts in Africa and the Pacific while it continued to govern territories at the fringes of its own territory, the Prussian Poles found themselves in a state of "in-betweenness." They were "part of Germany, but not quite" (15), as Ureña Valerio puts it with reference to postcolonial theorist Homi K. Bhabha: Poles were similar to the colonizers in terms of whiteness and culturally shared ideals, yet kept different in terms of agency and power position(ing)s.

Chapter 1 elaborates on this by focusing on the Prussian and later German Reich policy as that of a(nother) "civilizing mission" in Upper Silesia and other Polish provinces. Backed by literary (Gustav Freytag), travelogue-publicist (Georg Forster) and other discourses, and further fueled by a series of epidemics (typhus, cholera) that demanded immediate biomedical research and containment, Ureña Valerio shows how Poles and the Jewish population in the provinces were regarded by many Germans as culturally backward, racially inferior and due to their proneness to diseases a threat to hygienic standards.

Germans practicing as medical scientists are further explored in chapter 2. Their civilizing mission is demonstrated to include public health, "[s]imilar to cultures considered 'primitive', diseases were to be conquered and made into a thing of the past" (57), in preparation for settler colonialism in overseas areas. Physicians of Polish origin co-engaged in the production of infection-related knowledge at their home universities and laboratories, seeing "themselves as contributing figures in the understanding of the disease [cholera] and the development of the germ theory" (66). But their striving for recognition was hardly rewarded. The (self) conception as "almost, but not quite" Germans in terms of expertise and the resulting ambivalences are further stressed in the derogatory attitudes that some of them shared toward both their impoverished and disease-stricken fellow countrymen and overseas ethnic groups. A case in point was the Poznanian medical doctor Bogusław Kapuściński: "the paternalistic feeling that Kapuściński expressed for poor people regarding cholera was the same one that many Poles expressed for the 'uncivilized' when evaluating German colonial policies in Africa" (72).

Chapter 3 highlights "the role Poles played in the colonial explorations and missions that Germans pursued in Africa" (78). Medical experts from Prussian Poland such as Emin Pasha, alias Eduard Schnitzer, a quarantine physician from Oppeln, or anthropologist Jan Czekanowski from Głuchów gathered knowledge about infectious diseases such as malaria, sleeping sickness and others in sub-Saharan Africa as did German colonial researchers such as Robert Koch and Paul Ehrlich. The findings of their studies were published...


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