Settling and Unsettling: Towards a “Settler Turn” in the Study of the East of Europe (1700s – Present)

Settling and Unsettling: Towards a “Settler Turn” in the Study of the East of Europe (1700s – Present)

Cristian Cercel, Institute for Danube Swabian History and Regional Studies, Tübingen; Dietmar Müller, Leipzig University
Funded by
Took place
In Attendance
From - Until
12.10.2023 - 14.10.2023
David Borchin, Institut für Interdisziplinäre Studien und Forschungen, Lucian-Blaga-Universität-Sibiu

Have settler colonial studies and Eastern European studies something to tell each other? This was the overarching question that the conference wanted to address, by bringing together the research fields of settler colonial studies and Eastern European history. The conference was thus an exploration of how and whether settler colonial studies can contribute to the study of Eastern Europe and, conversely, what distinctive aspects of Eastern European history could bring significant contributions to the field of settler colonial studies.

The conference was opened by REINHARD JOHLER (Tübingen), who expressed his hope that the research results presented will be able to incorporate the region of Eastern Europe within the main body of research on settler colonialism by emphasizing the specificities of this region.

ROBERT NELSON (Windsor) delivered the keynote speech in which he engaged with the settler colonial project developed by German economist and agricultural expert Max Sering (1857-1939), for Imperial Germany’s eastern frontier Nelson emphasized that Sering developed his model following his research trip to Northern America where he observed how homesteading was done in the Western Frontier, whereby the indigenous population either faced extinction or assimilation. Sering wanted to apply the strategies of colonization that he saw in North America in order to Germanize Posen and West Prussia. Resistance from both the local population and the German large estate owners had made Sering’s project turn into a failure by 1914. However, his ideas enjoyed a new lease of life during the First World War in Latvia, which he saw as an empty space as the local population withdrew from the advancing German Army. Nelson highlighted the way in which settler colonial projects see spaces as empty, emphasizing that this mindset was emblematic for the way in which Germans such as Sering looked at Latvia during the First World War. Likewise, during the Second World War, the Warthegau represented a prime example of Nazi settler colonialism in the East. The keynote concluded by challenging the notion that settler colonialism could only exist in cases where the colony was overseas and where colonizers were white and the colonized non-white. It emphasized that parallels between the colonization of the western frontier in North America and the colonization of Germany’s eastern frontier, suggesting that if the former was a case of settler colonialism, then the latter was such a case as well.

MANUELA BOATCĂ (Freiburg) commented on Nelson’s keynote, lauding his approach, which he self-described as being “a lumper, not a splitter,” by focusing his research on searching more for connections rather than separators. In so doing, Boatcă argued, he manages to analyze colonization at both the micro and macro level, taking individual stories into account in order to highlight how they tie in with broader policies enacted. Boatcă concluded her remarks by urging a discussion on the intersectionality of race, geopolitics, and citizenship. The ensuing discussion was moderated by DIETMAR MÜLLER (Leipzig).

The first panel brought together papers that employed a comparative approach to settler colonialism in global history. The first paper, the only paper presented online, was co-authored by SACHA DAVIS (Newcastle/Australia) and JOHANNA PERHEENTUPA (Sydney). It compared the policy of forced removal of Romani children in the Habsburg Empire (eighteenth century) with that of indigenous children in Australia (nineteenth and twentieth centuries). This comparison highlighted the rhetoric of paternalistic state-building, which viewed these removals as necessary for the well-being of the children. The presentation underscored that in neither of the two cases did the policy lead to the successful integration of these children. RÓISÍN HEALY (Galway) contrasted the land commissions of Ireland and Prussia at the end of the nineteenth century. She emphasized the latter’s shortcomings, as it was more preoccupied with Germanization, in contrast to the former, which focused on providing land to Irish farmers. The British settler colonial project of expelling the Irish had already been in full swing centuries earlier, leaving only a minority of Irish Catholics as landowners in Ireland to begin with. OLIVIA DURAND (Berlin) examined the regions of Louisiana and Southern Ukraine and their respective settler metropoles, New Orleans and Odesa, as global hubs of international commerce at the start of the 1800s. Both regions benefited from the system of free labor, namely slavery in the US and serfdom in the Tsarist Empire to grow from peripheral imperial frontiers to become important shipping hubs of global commerce.

The second panel revolved around imperial and national settler projects. SZILVESZTER CSERNUS-LUKÁCS (Szeged/Marburg) analyzed three migration processes in the Habsburg Empire: The Serb Migration (1699-1730), the repopulation era (1730-1770), and the mobility of the masses during the Austro-Hungarian Empire (1880-1910). His emphasis was on the latter’s attempt to bring Hungarian settlers into predominantly Serb areas in Southern Hungary, thereby undoing the effects of the first migration and attempting to make Hungarians the majority population. ELLA FRATANTUONO (Charlotte) evaluated the debates in the Ottoman Parliament and at the governmental level between 1908 and 1911 on the issue of immigration to uninhabited lands, with the objective of making these lands economically productive. Her analysis concluded that settler colonialism was marketed as Ottoman statecraft, and viewed more in economic, rather than ethnic or religious terms, which led to the contestation of the concepts of indigeneity and nationality in the Ottoman Empire. CHRISTINA NOVAKOV-RITCHEY (Houston) examined the rhetoric surrounding the status of Bosnia and Herzegovina under Austro-Hungarian as an underdeveloped, uncivilized land, that came to be referred to as Vienna’s first colony. Using Cedric J. Robinson’s concept of “racial capitalism”, she also discussed the anthropometric theories developed by Arthur Haberlandt and his expedition to the Balkans, through which he sought to biologize people in the Balkans, particularly in Albania, in order to explain their perceived “backwardness,” which, he argued tautologically, resulted in their poor cultivation of the land.

The third panel addressed the issue of farming as a critical dimension of settler colonialism. EVA MARIA STOLBERG (Bochum) analyzed the dynamics of settler colonialism in Western Siberia, which created the agricultural romantic epitome of the Russian Siberian peasant that later served as a central symbol of Russification. She demonstrated that the agricultural output of this region transformed the Russian Empire into the world’s largest supplier of wheat. DMYTRO MYESHKOV (Lüneburg) showed that the northern region of the Black Sea was the last space where the Tsarist Empire welcomed colonial immigration in the nineteenth century in order to increase agricultural output. German Mennonites were settled in Jewish agricultural colonies in order to serve as “model farmers”. Myeshkov’s account invited for a critical assessment of settler colonization processes in the Russian Empire.

The fourth panel examined the entanglements between settler colonialism and migration, showing the east of Europe to have a place on the global map of settler migration. ROII BALL (Münster) presented the social history of four influential Protestant families from the village of Möglingen in Swabia. From the 1860s to the 1920s they settled in Poznania, Palestine, and Tanzania. Ball highlighted the role that kinship, religiosity, agricultural labor, and land can play in settler colonial projects. BEN VAN ZEE (Florence) chronicled the growth of a Polish emigrant community in Curitiba, Brazil, and how this community was framed as part of a Polish colonial project in Polish periodicals in the early twentieth century. However, this project was later scrapped in favor of internal colonization projects in the Second Polish Republic. CRISTIAN CERCEL (Tübingen) analyzed postwar plans to resettle German expellees from the east of Europe to Latin America, through the lens of the “coloniality of migration”, a concept developed by sociologist Encarnación Gutiérrez Rodríguez. Such plans drew on representations of Germans as white pioneers of agricultural and technical modernity. Cercel’s paper showcased the entanglements between nineteenth-century settler migration and postwar resettlement plans aimed at German expellees.

The fifth panel discussed settler colonialism in relationship to the Second World War. RACHEL O’SULLIVAN (Munich) examined the annexed regions of Poland, particularly the Warthegau, through the lens of settler colonial studies. Policies were put in place to facilitate the deportation of Poles and Jews and the settlement of Germans, particularly ethnic Germans from Bucovina, Bessarabia, Volhynia and the Baltics. O’Sullivan highlighted the manner in which the concept of Germanness was instrumentalized and racialized in order to differentiate between non-citizen ethnic Germans and German citizens from the German Reich. RÉKA MARCHUT (Budapest) discussed the policy of resettling 14,000 Hungarian Szeklers from Bukovina and 1,000 Csángos from Moldavia to the Bácska region after the latter fell under Hungarian occupation in May of 1941. After the tide of war had shifted, hastily drawn up plans were made to have these Szeklers and Csángos resettled to Transdanubia in 1944. These colonization plans were contrasted with the later expulsions of ethnic Germans and Hungarian-Slovak population transfers, which followed similar patterns and long-term social, cultural, and economic effects.

Drawing on the title of a book by Lorenzo Veracini, the last panel considered the so-called “settler colonial present”. SUNNIE RUCKER-CHANG (Columbus) presented the development of the Chinese diaspora community in Serbia in light of the Belt and Road Initiative of the People’s Republic of China, which fostered Chinese investment and tourism in the country. She suggested, however, that the settler colonial frame might be more applicable to the Chinese presence in Africa. TAMÁS KISS (Cluj-Napoca) and LUIS ESCOBEDO (Bloemfontein) analyzed the reception of the events in Ditrău/Ditró (Romania), where in 2020 two Sri Lankan migrant workers were fired from their jobs in a local bakery following local outbursts of xenophobia. Kiss and Escobedo argued that the Romanian media sought to present the Hungarian villagers as backward and racist, conversely presenting Romanian society at large as being tolerant and welcoming to foreigners. They dissected the anti-Hungarianism and the utilitarian representation of migrantsin such representations.

In his final remarks at the end of the conference, CRISTIAN CERCEL (Tübingen) reiterated the intial goal of the conference, which was to expand the use of settler colonial studies to the region of Eastern Europe. He argued that the conference confirmed that such an approach can be successfully used in order to look at German-Polish relations in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and expressed his hope that the conference made an important step towards thinking about settler colonialism also in connection tothe southeast of Europe. He also made the case that it is also time to think about what the study of the east of Europe can do for settler colonial studies and about how processes of settling and unsettling challenge the theoretical elaborations of settler colonial studies.

The further implications of incorporating Eastern and Southeastern Europe into the research literature of settler colonial studies are still to be seen. Overall, the conference illustrated that the the concept of settler colonialism can be applied to the study of Eastern Europe, and that comparative analyses as well as analyses of entanglements linking the east of Europe to geographical regions of the world seen as spaces of settler colonialism can be particularly fruitful.

Conference overview:

Reinard Johler (Tübingen): Opening Remarks


Robert Nelson (Windsor): Eastern Europe as Settler Colonial Frontier? Settlerism as a Global Concept and Practice

Manuela Boatcă (Freiburg): Commentary

Dietmar Müller (Leipzig): Moderation

Panel 1: Comparing

Sacha Davis (Newcastle/Australia) and Johanna Perheentupa (Sydney): Beyond Settler Colonialism: Comparing Forced Removal of Romani and Indigenous Children in the Habsburg Empire and Australia

Róisín Healy (Galway): The Royal Prussian Settlement Commission: Irish Precedents and Parallels from Plantation to Assisted Migration and Peasant Proprietorship

Dr. Olivia Durand (Berlin) Colonization, Migration, and Labor in New Imperial Frontiers: Comparing the Effects of Settler Colonialism in Southern Ukraine and Louisiana

Panel 2: Imperial Settlerness, National Settlerness

Szilveszter Csernus-Lukács (Szeged / Marburg): Settler Colonization in the Late Habsburg Empire as a Tool to Counter and Foster Nation-Building

Ella Fratantuono (Charlotte): “To Whom Does This Land Belong?” Debating Ottoman Belonging and Migrant Settlement, 1908-1911

Christina Novakov-Ritchey (Houston): A Colonial Expedition in the Balkans: Ethnography and Racial Capitalism during the First World War

Panel 3: Farming

Eva Maria Stolberg (Bochum): Settler Colonialism in Siberia and the Building Up of a Wheat Frontier

Dmytro Myeshkov (Lüneburg): German Model Farmers in the Jewish Agricultural Colonies in Southern Ukraine in the Second Half of the 19th Century – Success or Failure?

Panel 4: Entanglements

Roii Ball (Münster): Towards a Social History of Settlement: Studying Transregional Swabian Families across the Frontiers of German Imperial Expansion, 1860s-1920s

Ben Van Zee (Florence): The Kulturkampf Comes to Curitiba: Internal Colonization, the Nationality Struggles of Partitioned Poland, and the Birth of Polish Emigrant Colonialism in Brazil

Cristian Cercel (Tübingen): The Resettlement “Solution” and the Migration-Colonization Nexus: Postwar Plans of Resettling German Expellees to Latin America

Panel 5: The Settler Colonial Model and the Second World War

Rachel O’Sullivan (Munich): Effacing Difference: The Holocaust and the Settler Colonial Model in Annexed Poland during the Second World War

Réka Marchut (Budapest): The Plan and Practice of the “Resettlement” of the Szeklers from Bukovina and the Moldavian Csángós during and after the Second World War

Panel 6: The Settler Colonial Present?

Sunnie Rucker-Chang (Columbus): The Imprint of Chinese Diaspora in Serbia

Luis Escobedo (Bloemfontein) and Tamás Kiss (Cluj-Napoca): Revisiting Ditrău/Ditró: Challenging Media Representations, Reconstructing Local Frameworks and Memories

Final Remarks
Dr. Cristian Cercel (Tübingen)