Puchalski on Lingelbach, 'On the Edges of Whiteness: Polish Refugees in British Colonial Africa during and after the Second World War'

Jochen Lingelbach
Piotr Puchalski

Jochen Lingelbach. On the Edges of Whiteness: Polish Refugees in British Colonial Africa during and after the Second World War. New York: Berghahn Books, 2020. xi + 292 pp. $34.95 (e-book), ISBN 978-1-78920-447-6; $135.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-78920-444-5.

Reviewed by Piotr Puchalski (Pedagogical University of Kraków) Published on H-Poland (November, 2021) Commissioned by Anna Muller (University of Michigan - Dearborn)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=56672

The fascinating story of the rather large clusters of Polish settlements that in the middle of World War II suddenly emerged in different parts of the British Empire continues to generate much public and some scholarly interest. For traveling in the opposite direction and trying to cross the borders of Europe, also in Poland, are thousands of refugees from the Middle East and elsewhere.[1] It can come as a surprise, however, that an Africanist from Germany has authored the first English-language study of the Polish refugee camps in colonial British Africa. But perhaps the interdisciplinarity of Jochen Lingelbach, a researcher at the University of Bayreuth, has made it possible to render this story into a truly global one, as his methodological approach marries historical skills and anthropological craft: a close reading of archival documents from colonial, British, Polish, and international institutions is complemented by a clever analysis of interviews conducted by the author with Africans previously connected to the camps. In his histoire croisée, Lingelbach is therefore able to narrate the story from multiple perspectives, which are those of the refugees, their British hosts, local white settlers, international refugee agencies, and indigenous Africans. Thanks to this transnational interweaving, On the Edges of Whiteness is not only a Polish story of exile and nation-building during a transitory stay in Africa but also an analysis of the Polish refugees’ place in British and international geopolitical as well as humanitarian politics of the 1940s and 1950s.[2] Most importantly, however, Lingelbach’s aim is to complicate our understanding of late colonial society in East Africa by casting the Poles in the role of “subaltern whites,” a problematic group in an age of what the British called “racial partnership” and “developmental colonialism.”

The structure of the book is thematic, as the author opens with an introductory background chapter, which is then followed by three chapters on selected issues related to the camps and one final section that cross-examines the perceptions of the Polish refugees by the previously mentioned groups and institutions as well as their self-perceptions. In this way, chapter 1 documents the journey of the Polish deportees from the Soviet Union to East Africa and discusses the settlements as physical sites. After the signing of the Sikorski-Maiski agreement on July 30, 1941, Joseph Stalin allowed the formation of a Polish army on Soviet territory. Due to tensions between the two governments, however, about thirty-five thousand troops under General Władysław Anders were evacuated to Iran in March 1942. Thousands of destitute deportees, mostly peasants from Poland’s former eastern borderlands annexed by the Soviets, came with the army. The British decided to locate these people in their colonies, mandates, and protectorates in East Africa. One reason for the relocation was the fear of the refugees complicating the military operations in the Middle Eastern war theater, another the ability of London to impose its will on its colonial dependencies. Furthermore, it was necessary for the British to uplift the morale of its (male) Polish allies by looking after the safety of their “women and children”—a phrase the author deconstructs later in the book.

In all, 19,200 Polish refugees settled in Africa in more than fifteen camps, which they preferred to call settlements, the best known being Ifunda and Tengeru in Tanganyika, Masindi and Koja in Uganda, Makindu in Kenya, Bwana Mkubwa in Northern Rhodesia, and Rusape in Southern Rhodesia. Lingelbach underlines that most of the infrastructure and housing in the camps—located mostly in isolated areas or former missions—were erected by indigenous labor, with some becoming a curious architectural blend of Polish and African influences. In many of these remote sites, the Polish “peasants” could “till the land out of sight of natives,” which reflected their awkward position in colonial societal hierarchies discussed throughout the book (p. 34). Lingelbach also outlines the double British-Polish administration of the camps, with the East African Refugee Authority (EARA) and British camp commandants being shadowed by Polish officials in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam as well as settlement leaders. The Polish functionaries were degraded to a counseling role after the derecognition of the Polish government-in-exile in July 1945, and from August 1946, the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) was officially in charge, trying but failing to repatriate refugees to communist Poland, some of whom benefited from the Polish Settlement Act of 1947 and “Operation Polejump” of 1948. The International Refugee Organization (IRO), which succeeded the UNRRA in 1947, offered more resettlement options to the remaining Poles. The last group, classified as a security risk, was accepted by the British government in May 1967.

The first theme of the book, which Lingelbach tackles in chapter 2, is the Polish camps as a site of contestation between British colonial paternalism and a sort of international humanitarianism embodied in the IRO, especially. In general, the IRO treated the refugees as ahistorical numbers to be reduced, aiming to end their temporary sojourn, and therefore opposed their comfortable living conditions in the camps. In contrast, many British camp commandants protected their Polish subordinates and ran “white men’s towns” in a paternalistic and almost colonial manner (p. 80). At the same time, the British colonial officers and settlers feared that white prestige and authority would decline if the poor Polish “peasants” were to be integrated into the local economies, especially in Kenya and Southern Rhodesia, as they performed marginal jobs sometimes fulfilled by other races, for example, in hairdressing. Likewise, the Polish farming model, which was larger than its African counterpart, was still too small to match the scale of European plantations; “Little Poland” was therefore undesirable (p. 85). In their turn, IRO officials acknowledged that Poles could not become cheap labor in colonial settings, which highlights some shared assumptions by this largely Anglo-Saxon coterie of internationalists. In this chapter, Lingelbach also offers a fascinating survey of the history of refugee as an international concept, demonstrating that in contrast to the earlier rejection of Jewish would-be immigrants to colonial Africa and military detainment of fleeing Ethiopians, the Polish refugees enjoyed a rather humane treatment as members of an Allied nation. He also suggests that in this transitory period of the 1940s, international law was to be applied only to Europeans.

In chapter 3, Lingelbach demonstrates the extent to which Poland’s semi-colonial status contributed to expressions of Polish-African solidarity during the refugees’ stay in Africa. This is the most theoretical and, unfortunately, the least convincing section of the book. The ways the author arrives at the conclusion that “East is not South” are, in my opinion, insufficient (p. 123). Lingelbach correctly argues that a white skin not only protected Poles from being delegated to the lowest status in Africa but also encouraged them to elevate themselves above Africans. This was true despite the Polish refugees’ occasional acts of compassion and their generally less condescending attitude toward Africans, which was a result of their own great suffering (gehenna) in the Soviet Union. The problems begin when the author investigates whether historically Poland itself can be viewed as a “colony,” which is an intellectual digression that cannot be fully elaborated in this rather brief chapter. For example, while acknowledging the colonial nature of the Nazi German occupation of Poland, Lingelbach seems to argue that its Soviet counterpart was not truly colonial, as it was not informed by race. This is a problematic suggestion that sidelines Soviet economic exploitation and ideological othering. Furthermore, Lingelbach interprets Poland’s own colonial aspirations in Africa as rather prestige-related and essentially a set of attempts to mirror Western colonialism. The Polish interwar entanglements in Africa cited in his book, however, reflected Poland’s inferior status in Europe and offered more nuanced ways of casting Poland in the role of a colonial power.[3] In a similar manner, the author adapts the least generous interpretation of literary works, such as Heart of Darkness (1899), without referencing some more sympathetic scholarship.[4] Most importantly, the fact that a nation subjected to colonial policies by other whites at home benefited from its marginal whiteness in Africa is not sufficient to conclude that it was not a “colony” at all. Perhaps this is where Lingelbach’s background in African studies works to his detriment, although his critical contestation of Poland’s allegedly perfect anti-colonial record is commendable.

The following chapter, which tackles the gender aspect of the Polish refugee camps, has more empirical cohesion. Lingelbach argues that Polish women, so most of the Polish refugees in Africa, were an “incredible pool of femininity” in a colonial setting dominated by white British men (p. 130). On the one hand, they constituted a factor of stability for the Polish settlements if they acted as mothers of the nation in exile. On the other hand, their presence was somewhat threatening to the British colonial authorities: Polish refugee “gate crashers” performing menial labor that was usually the domain of Africans defied the image of aristocratic white ladies in the colonies and disrupted the socioeconomic order (p. 154). Furthermore, the romantic relations between Polish women and Africans, especially, caused the moral indignation of Polish government officials and awakened the fear of the “black peril” and declining European motherhood in the mentally besieged British settler communities (p. 145). Most importantly, however, Lingelbach demonstrates the agency of these women: while most complied with their prescribed roles, others defied them by enjoying their time with black men, marrying rich Indians, or working at the Royal Air Force base in Nairobi. It is a neat section of the book in which the author inserts gender issues into a much broader discussion of socioeconomic and political realities of the late colonial period.

The final chapter is the longest and features three different outlooks on the Polish refugees in Africa. Lingelbach first surveys the British opinions, according to which Polish subaltern whites were to be “isolated, materially lifted and sent away as soon as feasible” (p. 13). The reasons for this British approach varied, however: in Uganda, for example, the British feared African resistance and Polish competition, whereas in Tanganyika and Northern Rhodesia developmental discourse discouraged settlement of less skilled whites. Among the Poles themselves the author notices some “unclear categorizations, shifting denominations and fuzzy boundaries,” pointing out the presence of Jews, non-Polish communists, and cosmopolitans in this surprisingly diverse pool of refugees (p. 196). In his analysis of Polish self-perceptions, Lingelbach brings forward some illuminating accounts, for example, of one Polish woman writing that she “learned to be a racist” (p. 210). He also discusses the connection of the camps to the Światpol and other broader Polonia networks. However, I find this section lacking, as the author has failed to consult the crucial files of Poland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which are accessible online. Furthermore, the fast-growing Polish literature was essentially ignored and, more specifically, the Kraków team of scholars was only mentioned in one sentence and a footnote, with a name misspelled (pp. 3, 15).[5] This neglectful treatment of Polish sources is certainly ironic and a major drawback in a book that deals with colonialism. On the other hand, Lingelbach’s interviews with Africans are crucial to understanding their general perception of Polish refugees as “friendly white people with superior knowledge who were, however, controlled and isolated by the distanced, arrogant British administrators” (p. 14).

Lingelbach deserves high praises for this clever book that sets the tone for further inquiries into the place of Polish and other “subaltern whites” in colonial settings. His erudition is commendable, as is his ability to connect social and intellectual issues to broader colonial geopolitics, including the demystification of whiteness and independence of colonies in Africa after World War II. Despite some imperfections mentioned earlier, this will be an important book for years to come.


[1]. I commented on the analogies between the two refugee crises in a conversation with an Indian journalist. See Yeshwant Naik, “A Comparative Overview of Refugee Rights in Europe and India,” Global Journal of Politics and Law Research 9, no. 4 (2021): 39. In the scholarly realm, Anna D. Jaroszyńska-Kirchmann has discussed the Polish refugee camps in Africa as objects of Polish diaspora politics. See Jaroszyńska-Kirchmann, The Exile Mission: The Polish Political Diaspora and Polish Americans, 1939-1956 (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2004). Agata Błaszczyk from the Polish University Abroad in London has also published short articles on the topic.

[2]. Katherine R. Jolluck has previously examined the role of exile in the reconfiguring of Polish national identity during World War II. See Jolluck, Exile and Identity: Polish Women in the Soviet Union during World War II (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2002). Both Jolluck’s and Lingelbach’s books reference some of the same refugees from the Soviet Union.

[3]. See Lenny A. Ureña Valerio, Colonial Fantasies, Imperial Realities: Race Science and the Making of Polishness on the Fringes of the German Empire, 1840–1920 (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2019). Lingelbach does not cite this important study, perhaps because it had appeared shortly before his.

[4]. See Maya Jasanoff, The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World (New York: Penguin Press, 2017).

[5]. This body of literature includes Hubert Chudzio and Anna Hejczyk, “Utracona ojczyzna: Kresowianie w Afryce Wschodniej i Południowej w czasie II wojny światowej i po wojnie; Reakcje na postanowienia ‘jałtańskie,’” in Kresowianie na świecie, ed. Maria Kalczyńska, Krystyna Rostocka, and Adam Wierciński (Opole: Polonia-Kresy, 2013), 55–69; Mikołaj Murkociński, “To Govern a Community of Refugees: Some Insights into the History of the Polish Refugee Administration in East Africa, 1942–1945,” Studia Migracyjne – Przegląd Polonijny 4 (2018): 119–36; and Mikołaj Murkociński, “Between War and Peace: A Brief Comparison of Polish Refugees’ Administrations in East Africa and Lebanon,” Prace Historyczne 146, no. 3 (2019): 565–83.

Citation: Piotr Puchalski. Review of Lingelbach, Jochen, On the Edges of Whiteness: Polish Refugees in British Colonial Africa during and after the Second World War. H-Poland, H-Net Reviews. November, 2021. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=56672

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