If there is any doubt about the importance of Central and Eastern Europe’s historic relationship to the non-European world, it suffices to say that only last year, it became the subject of the book The World Beyond the West, in addition to the presently reviewed work. The theme of the former was the marginality of the lands between Berlin, Istanbul, and Moscow: the ways in which the “in-betweenness” of European nations without official colonies affected their (often colonialist, but sometimes quite unique) perceptions of the world beyond the continent. In the latter, edited by Markéta Křížová and Jitka Malečková, the contributors adopt a similar approach, but – for better or worse – their joint methodology discloses an implicit thesis concerning the participation of Central European actors in the (re)production of Orientalist knowledge about Asia, Africa, and other parts of the globe. Their conceptual framework is borrowed from three major ideas: Christoph Kamissek and Jonas Kreienbaum’s “colonial cloud”, meaning a body of imperial knowledge that all Europeans could “upload” to and “download” from; Ulla Vuorela’s “colonial complicity”, or the great-power aspirations of smaller nations without colonies; and Anibal Quijano’s “coloniality”, denoting the combined ideological character of modern Europe’s place in the world.
While describing the actions and ideas of actors from selected parts of the Habsburg monarchy in the “long” nineteenth century, the first contributors add to these concepts Andre Gingrich’s “frontier Orientalism”, referring to the looming (and intimate) presence of the Ottoman Turks in the immediate geopolitical and ideological landscape. In chapter 2, Robert Born proposes to correct the absence of sources from Central Europe in Linda Nochlin’s Said-inspired study of Orientalist representations in art. Inscribing the Central Europeans into a longer Orientalist tradition, Born discusses Ottoman-themed art ranging from Edward Raczyński’s illustrated travelogue from 1821 to later paintings by Jaroslav Čermak or Paja Jovanović. Noting the influence of the Western canon, Born argues that current political agendas, such as transnational Romanticism, still determined the Orientalist messaging of these artists. Malečková, in turn, inspects the Orientalist discourse as uttered about the Ottomans by Czech writers. In chapter 3, she argues that a form of “frontier Orientalism” is not to be found in the Czech sources, as – due to greater geographic distance – a distinction between “good Muslims” and “bad Muslims” was not made in them. In addition, while depicting the Turks as backwardly Oriental, the Czechs deferred to Western Europe and Russia as capable of “uplifting” the Ottoman realm. Instead, it was the Slavic “Mohammedans” of Bosnia and Herzegovina that became the object of a Czech “colonialism”, niched within a broader imperial Habsburg project.
While Born’s chapter, especially, features many embedded images of the discussed art, Charles Sabatos carries out a more literary analysis and includes an English translation of the original rendition of a Hungarian-Slovak folk legend. The “well of love” story is about a Turkish officer named Omar who digs a well in order to buy the freedom of his beloved, a hostage of the master of the Trenčín Castle, Stephen Zápolya. In chapter 4, Sabatos traces the transformation of this story since its first publication in German by Alois Freiherrn von Mednyánszky in 1829, in which a sense of appreciation for the multiethnic Habsburg realm can be detected. By manipulating the “sympathetic identification” of the narrator with the noble Turk, however, other writers later adapted the story to attack the Hungarian rule in this part of the Habsburg monarchy (Ján Francisci-Rimavský) or to retell the “heroic” past of the Slovak nation under Jozef Tiso’s wartime fascist regime (Jozef Branecký). In this way, the first few chapters of the book study the ways in which writers and artists from Central Europe used Orientalist discourse and images to pursue their colonial and nationalist agendas on the fringes of an adjacent empire.
In turn, the chapters by Křížová and Bálint Varga discuss the entanglements of Central Europeans with more distant parts of the globe. In chapter 5, Křížová uses the concept of “scientific colonialism” to incorporate Czechs and German-Bohemians into our understanding of transnational imperial epistemologies. She argues that especially after the “absurd” division of the Charles University in Prague in 1882, colonial fantasies intersected with nationalist struggles, as each group in Bohemia used the acquisition and dissemination of African arts and curiosities as proof of its national prowess and superiority vis-à-vis the other. Křížová also shows that most of these “fantasies” did not come to fruition, however, as the local museums that housed exotic collections could not secure funding, while the African escapades of Emil Holub gradually lost their national character, assuming an imperial nature. In chapter 6, on the other hand, Varga carries out a study of two groups of Hungarian missionaries in colonial and semicolonial settings: the Vincentian or Lazarist mission in Ningbo, China, and the Jesuit mission in Portuguese Mozambique. Neither group, however, reflected on their role in imperial politics and colonialism at significant length. Instead, the two Vincentians Ignác Erdélyi and Ignác Ürge asked the Hungarian population for donations, painting an Orientalist image of a patriarchal China populated by opium smokers and sly merchants. The two Jesuits István Czimnermann and László Menyhárth, on the other hand, considered Africans “large children” to be educated and spiritually uplifted. Varga suggests that this lack of a Central European specificity in a Hungarian colonial discourse was due to the indebtedness of his protagonists to a Catholic form of the “colonial cloud”.
In the conclusion of the book (chapter 7), Barbara Lüthi writes: “The example of Central Europe […] shows that ‘colonialism without colonies’ should not merely be understood as a purely discursive colonialism, but points to the—even if limited—participation of individual actors and transnational actor networks” (p. 207). This is a good concluding remark on this important collection of chapters, but it also prompts this reviewer to point out its limitations. In fact, perhaps with the exception of Křížová, some contributors are mostly describing perhaps colonial discourse and not actions performed by the protagonists, while others tackle them in a “bestiary” approach, presenting them in loose thematic or periodic connection. For instance, beyond generalities, the readers do not find out what the Czech travellers or Hungarian missionaries actually did in the Ottoman lands, Africa, or China. While perhaps more difficult to interpret than discourse, their actions might speak at least as loud as words for or against their colonial “complicity”. In addition, the term Central Europe is meant to correspond to the Habsburg Empire, but Galicia (Poland) and Croatia are largely missing. In what ways would including the perceptions of the non-European from these nations, influenced by the German and Italian maritime empires, muddle the picture? This brings me to the issue of the Ottoman “intimate stranger” dominating most of the chapters. While the signifier non-European is naturally a matter of perception and while the transplantation of colonial dynamics to European settings is important to study, the focus on the Ottoman lands, including the Balkans, renders the title somewhat problematic. Notwithstanding these imperfections, however, the book is a well-edited and well-written collection of chapters applying the newest methodologies and concepts to specific historical cases in Central Europe.