For decades, the scholarly study of European colonialism remained largely confined to its political, military and economic dimensions. The strategies and practices of conquest, rule and economic exploitation were the preferred topics for historians investigating the European penetration of the world in the 19th and early 20th centuries. In addition, well into the second half of the 20th century, numerous studies appeared which – in a continuation of late-imperial rhetoric – investigated the "development" of colonised regions, that is the more or less successful transfer of Western ideologies (nationalism, liberalism, socialism, etc.), institutions and technologies to the non-western world. Around 1980, however, a new current in literary and cultural studies emerged whose radically different view of colonial rule and its consequences soon spilled over into the discipline of history. In the following decade, the new theories gathered under the umbrella "postcolonialism" quickly acquired an established place in academic debates and university curricula in the humanities and social sciences.1 The field of "postcolonial studies" can be divided into two partially complementary, partially conflicting directions. On the one hand, it is concerned with the historical analysis of colonialism thereby investigating its discursive, rather than material, dimensions. On the other, there is a much broader discursive project, not infrequently connected to contemporary political agendas (criticism of globalisation, multiculturalism, etc.), seeking to overcome the Eurocentric categorisation of knowledge and systems of representation. Within this current of political criticism, the concrete reference to the historical phenomena of European colonial rule is sometimes barely apparent.
The first part of this short overview will trace the historical roots of postcolonial thought back into the era of decolonisation. Because it would be impossible, in the short space available, to map the broad and variegated field of postcolonial studies in its entirety the second section will summarise as representative examples the theories of three central protagonists of contemporary postcolonial studies: Edward Said (1925–2003) and his critique of Orientalism, Homi Bhabha's (born 1949) concept of hybridity and, finally, Dipesh Chakrabarty (born 1948), who emerged from the Subaltern Studies school and whose oft-quoted appeal to "provincialise" Europe takes particular aim at the methodological Eurocentrism prevalent in the discipline of history. The last section examines the question of the specific significance of postcolonial approaches for European history and offers a range of examples of its application in recent research.
Postcolonialism avant la lettre
In many colonised countries, the rise of nationalism around 1900 (which later received considerable impetus following the First World War) promoted the awareness that a restriction to the purely material dimension of colonialism possessed considerable shortcomings. The West's economic dominance and military potency could neither explain the global success of European imperialisms nor the acceptance of colonial rule by at least a part of the colonised societies. It was therefore the representatives of the indigenous political intelligentsia from various colonies who first created a complementary explanatory approach. They understood colonialism not primarily as a form of domination and exploitation, but rather as a system of exerting power discursively which owed its success to the dissemination of a very specific construction of difference, namely the depiction of the colonised as inferior and immature in comparison with their benevolent colonisers. The question of the precise ideologies and discursive mechanisms which enabled the construction of a colonial hierarchy gained central importance. The creation, defence and hierarchisation of difference thus became the focus of interest for the first generation of anti-colonial thinkers. Their strategies of resistance were already varied in this early phase: sometimes, the construction of difference was challenged in its entirety and, at other times, only the hierarchisation of difference was criticised. It was nationalists and intellectuals from the French colonial possessions in Africa and the Caribbean that led this first wave of constructing critical theories of colonialism. Frantz Fanon (1925–1961), for instance, a psychiatrist and philosopher from Martinique, anticipated the fundamental findings of the postcolonial theorists of the 1980s and 1990s in that he discussed the problem of internalising European perspectives and values by colonised elites. In his classic Peau noire, masques blancs (in English, Black Skins, White Masks) from 1952, he described the paradoxes of his own social group, the colonised intellectuals, who under the existing power structures had to permanently wear "white masks" in order to achieve recognition from the outside and – worse still – in order to respect themselves.2 Fanon's radical anti-imperialist mind-set derived in part from the influence of his teacher, the well-known litterateur Aimé Césaire (1913–2008), who at about the same time published an essay on colonialism.3 In this influential piece, he debunked the great promise of "civilisation" and "progress" in the wake of Europe as nothing but cynical rhetoric to palliate the asymmetries of power and exploitative relationships that, in reality, were based on crude racism.
Since later theoreticians of postcolonialism drew more on these two Francophone predecessors of postcolonialism from the post-war period, it is often forgotten that an equally extensive critique of "colonial consensus"4 had taken place among the colonised elite in the British Empire several decades before. The most famous example is certainly the critique of civilisation articulated by Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1874–1948), the "father of Indian independence".5 His 1909 pamphlet Hind Swaraj (Indian Home Rule) is, without doubt, the most notable and powerful contribution to the critique of power by the later "Mahatma" ("great soul"). The text, which does not even stretch to 100 pages, is a declaration of war on the Western myths of superiority, a form of "anti-modernist manifesto" whose radicalism is still unmatched.6 In contrast to the willingness among anti-colonial nationalists to appropriate at least select aspects of European modernity, Gandhi condemned it lock, stock and barrel. Accordingly, he assessed technological innovations and medical progress as the work of the devil and came to the conclusion "that Indian civilisation is the best and that European is a nine days' wonder".7
No less noteworthy than Gandhi's spectacular rejection of a universal and uniform "modern" ideal of civilisation is the contribution by his contemporary and fellow countryman Benoy Kumar Sarkar (1887–1948), which to a large extent has been forgotten. In contrast to Gandhi, Sarkar did not see himself primarily as a political activist, but was a renowned social scientist who taught, for almost a decade of his life, at universities in Europe and the USA. His knowledge of Western scholarly traditions enabled him to recognise and attack the "epistemological violence"8 inherent in the West's colonial project. He saw the global superiority of "Euro-America" since the late 18th century as an unimportant intermezzo in world history resulting from contingency and vehemently attacked the "albinocratic" accounts seeking to trace Western hegemony back to the inferiority of Africans and Asians.9 Sakar's struggle for the power of non-Western cultures to represent and explain themselves anticipated other major topics of contemporary postcolonial studies.
The Formation of Postcolonial Views since 1980
The roots of the critique of colonial views of the world and thought patterns are thus evident in the late period of colonialism. However, it took decades before attempts to systematise the critical approaches to colonialism were undertaken. A central reason for this delay is probably the fact that the persistence of colonialism's Manichean world view only became apparent years after the formal end of the great European colonial empires. Practices of "othering" and the resulting perception of the non-Western world as "underdeveloped" and defective continued to shape the West's foreign policy, developmental aid10 and cultural production. In addition, the receptiveness for a reassessment of the colonial past grew in countries such as Great Britain, France and the Netherlands as the encounter with immigrants from their erstwhile colonies intensified. It was now obvious that colonialism could no longer be treated as a historical epoch that had come to its conclusion. Hence, the prefix "post" in "postcolonial" is explicitly not to be understood temporally in the sense of "after colonialism". Instead, it should be read as a postulate of the current engagement with and future overcoming of deep seated colonial assumptions and stereotypes.
As indicated above, the (re)discovery of the critique of colonialism was initially propelled by literary and cultural studies and was particularly evident in the USA. The debate then reached history, the social sciences and area studies with a slight delay. Here, too, it was at first almost exclusively received in the Anglophone research. Only from the 1990s did a global discussion develop that also took place in the Spanish-, French- and German-language publications. The role of Edward Said's seminal work Orientalism from 1978 in popularising postcolonial perspectives can hardly be exaggerated.11 In his book, Said – a Palestinian who was for a long time professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University, New York – discussed the epistemological components of colonialism through the example of the history of Oriental Studies in Europe. Inspired by Michel Foucault (1926–1984) and Antonio Gramsci (1891–1937) in the first place, he postulated several sweeping theses, only the three most important of which can be discussed here. First, Europe's scholarly engagement with the Orient12 has remained a European monologue which, influenced by Western categories and Eurocentric biases, at best has provided a caricature of the real histories and societies of the regions under study. Second, despite the dubious essentialising findings of the Orientalists, the claim to authority of Western science has led to a discursive disenfranchisement of the "Orientals": the successful creation of a hegemonic scholarly discourse robbed them of the opportunity to speak for themselves, condemning them to being represented and explained from the outside. Third, despite the constant protestations of academic neutrality, the outside depictions from the West always had self-serving purposes. In part, the emphasis was on the production of knowledge for the sake of colonial domination, which directly flowed into the exploitation and administration of colonial territories. However, in part, it was also a discursive self-reaffirmation by a modernising Europe. Through the projection or "outsourcing" of disagreeable phenomena within one's own society (for example, passivity, irrationality, despotism, and violence) to an external "other", the West was able to put itself in a more positive light. At the same time, the Orient, as a catchall term for the entire non-European world, was ascribed the role of a negative pole and "anti-Europe".
Said's influence on other postcolonial authors is evident above all in their attempts to identify and deconstruct the oppositional binary pairs such as Orient/Occident, civilised/savage, developed/underdeveloped, colonising/colonised, etc., that ran through colonial and neo-colonial rhetoric. The dichotomy of colonising rulers and colonised subjects occupies a particularly prominent place in the work of the second important pioneer of post-colonialism: Homi Bhabha, who was born in Mumbai and taught English literature in Chicago, also put the analysis and deconstruction of the "colonial discourse" at the centre of his work.13 However, in contrast to Edward Said, he denied that Europe was really able to adopt a hegemonial position or create the often postulated, clear demarcatory line between "the West and the rest".14 Whereas Said's ascription of real and potential power to the colonial rulers is nigh on essentialist, Bhabha stresses instead the instable and precarious character of colonial identities and claims to power. In various ways, the colonisers' hegemonial ambitions were thwarted and broken by their own obstinacy and the resistance and strategies of appropriation of those being colonised. Colonial stereotypes, which should have supported the unequal distribution of power, were often appropriated for purposes that ran counter to European interests. In his famous essay, Of Mimicry and Man, Bhabha shows, for example, how mimicry, i.e. the imitation of the colonial rulers' behaviour and speech by certain segments of the elite, could lead to the erosion of colonial certainties and demarcations, and as a result provoke disorientation and crises of identity among the white rulers.15 Therefore, Bhabha reveals colonialism to be both a hybrid and hybridising phenomenon which influenced both sides of the fragile boundary between the powerful and the powerless. Understood thus, colonial rule seems to be less the realisation of European fantasies of power at the expense of powerless non-European victims than a process of negotiation in which rulers and ruled were equally involved.16 The very fact that the interpretations of Said and his earlier epigones deny the colonised any agency to act had repeatedly provoked criticism.17 Using Bhabha, one could, at least to a degree, counter such criticism with a reference to the ambivalences of the colonial discourses, the risks and side-effects of colonial attributions, and the existence of a (fragmentary) agency among the colonised. Furthermore, the question of the knock-on impact on Europe acquired a greater pertinence as a result of Bhabha's argumentation.
In recent years, perhaps the most important impulse for postcolonial studies in the discipline of history came from Dipesh Chakrabarty. In the 1980s and 1990s, the historian, who was born in Kolkata and now teaches in Chicago, belonged to the eminent and influential Subaltern Studies Collective.18 This Anglo-Indian association of historians was, inspired by Antonio Gramsci (from whom they took the concept of subalterns) and the Marxist social history of the "Warwick School" around Edward Palmer Thompson (1924–1993). At first the Subalternists simply demanded an alternative approach to the history of the Indian struggle for independence, which until then had centred on the elite. The new perspective "from below" should, above all, give a voice to those groups which did not appear in the established narratives because they were socially marginalised and, as a rule, illiterate. Peasants, factory workers, members of the lower castes, tribal groups, and women are examples of such subaltern groups, to whom the confrontational collective of historians ascribed an oppositional "subaltern consciousness" that could be reconstructed. The aim of the early Subaltern Studies was to reveal this common consciousness, which at the same time would allow the subalterns "to speak".19 This was also a methodologically challenging task as the members of the non-elites to be studied had, on the whole, left no written testimonies of their own.20 The subaltern historians' agenda and theoretical reference points, however, quickly expanded. The first four volumes of the series Subaltern Studies,21 which appeared irregularly from 1982, were certainly shaped by these focused objectives. However, the emphasis quickly shifted from the (in the broadest sense) neo-Marxist orientation and empirically based case studies to heavily theoretical discourse analyses, which not only ignored the original geographical boundaries,22 but also employed the concept of subalterns extremely loosely, for example extensively examining the Indian bourgeoisie. The most important theoretical points of reference in the 1990s were no longer Gramsci and Thompson, but increasingly the heroes of cultural studies – Michel Foucault and Edward Said – which were experiencing a boom in the USA.
The work of Dipesh Chakrabarty provides an excellent example of this paradigm shift. His early contributions to the Subaltern Studies series were empirically grounded micro studies of jute workers and trade unions in colonial Kolkata, entirely in line with the tradition of the early subalternists' "history from below".23 In the 1990s, however, he increasingly moved towards the more theoretical aspects of the historiography. There is little in Chakrabarty's extremely influential monograph, Provincializing Europe from 2000 that recalls his beginnings as a labour historian. In the book, which was read widely in the mainstream of the US academic community, Chakrabarty set himself the ambitious task of critiquing the "methodological Eurocentrism" that dominated global historiography. The unreflected use of concepts, theories and methods that emerged in the West and were shaped by its particular regional conditions is so problematic because it sees Europe's historical genesis as "natural", elevating it to a blueprint for the entire non-European world. The expectation that "the rest" would have to follow the West allows only a little room for alternative structures and developments; it leads to the establishment of a hierarchy which permanently relegates the regions of the periphery and the semi-periphery to the "waiting room of history": only when the stragglers – through the diffusion of Western knowledge and Western values – could reach the developmental level of the metropole would they be accepted as an equal partner.24
The Chicago-based historian found particularly lamentable the tacit acceptance of an "asymmetric ignorance" whereby a profound knowledge of European history was a professional prerequisite for Asian and African historians, while a comparable familiarity with non-Western history was not considered necessary for their Western counterparts.25 Chakrabarty sees the solution to the dilemma of the "simultaneous indispensability and inadequacy" of Western concepts and categories in non-Western contexts not in a relapse into nativism or radical cultural relativism, but rather a critical assessment of their "ethno-centric" origins and the willingness to translate them and, if necessary, to build upon and modify them. Europe should be "provincialised" – i.e. its status should be set back to that of one region among many. In this way, the idea of the universal applicability of the continent's intellectual achievements would give way to an image of knowledge and the world in which the concept of heterogeneity is unproblematic.
Chakrabarty's call for provincialisation met with particular interest among historians working on the history of transfers and specialists in world and global history, for whom the question of the suitable methodology and problems surrounding cultural translations possess an apparent relevance. The last section will examine some possible applications for the postcolonial approach in a few less obvious contexts.
Postcolonial Studies and the History of Europe
It is hardly surprising that the first and to date most convincing attempts to apply postcolonial approaches to European national histories have been undertaken on the British Isles – after all, for more than two centuries, the United Kingdom has felt "at home with the Empire",26 as the title of a 2006 collection of articles on the topic puts it. The close interdependence of national and imperial identities attested to by various historians of Great Britain27 suggests the recourse to the theoretical apparatus of post-colonialism, as do the challenges resulting from the presence of large groups of immigrants from the former colonies. A series of historical studies published by Manchester University Press responded in a number of ways to post-colonialism's postulate that colonialism and imperialism should be seen as a reciprocal relationship which affected the metropole no less than it created the colony in the first place. As early as the 1980s, the series Studies in Imperialism28 sought to explore the impact of the empire on a variety of aspects of British culture and society. While most of the early contributions to this series remained firmly rooted in the traditions of British social history in the 1970s and exhibited little openness to the new theoretical framework offered by post-colonialism, some of the more recent publications clearly understand themselves to be contributions to a "new imperial history".29 This new paradigm differs from the established version of imperial history in that it has a thorough foundation in postcolonial theory. 30 The postulate that one should analyse European centres and colonial peripheries in a unitary field of analysis has been put forward in the mid-1990s31 and has been consistently realised in a recent study. It investigates, in contrapuntally organised chapters, the development and reciprocal influence of, on the one hand, British elite discourse on the urban lower classes of London and, on the other, the colonised population of India. The common body of knowledge that came together to penetrate and explain such geographically and demographically diverse spaces as British India and London's East End was fundamentally structured around the principle of progress. The close analysis of the rhetoric of progress and civilisation reveals the channels of influence and discursive analogies which connected the two arenas.32
The analogies are even more obvious in the recent studies of the history of Ireland. There is certain justification in naming Ireland as Britain's "metropolitan colony", although the country no longer possessed the formal status of a colony after 1801.33 Various authors have – in some cases even before the popularisation of postcolonial theories – pointed to the similarities between the technologies of British imperial rule in India and Ireland.34 Others have undertaken comparative investigations on the basis of the postcolonial approach of the Victorian discourse and practices that sought to portray the Irish as an "inferior race".35 However, Irish resistance to imperial rule can also be described using postcolonial categories, as has been shown by a series of studies of the cultural and literary revival movements in the early 20th century.36 Interestingly, a new branch of research examines the cooperation between anti-colonial activists in Ireland and in the British overseas possessions and raises our awareness of the importance of discursive processes of exchange between the peripheries.37
Although the German colonial empire was relatively short lived and did not even come close to the geographical extent of the British Empire, the last decade has produced studies that ascribe Wilhelmine colonialism an important role in the further course of German history and attempt to identify its socio-cultural impact in the light of the postcolonial critique. After the first inspirations from Anglo-Saxon historians, a younger generation of German historians raised the call to overcome the Eurocentrism of German historiography.38 A central topic of the German discussion was the question of possible continuities between colonialism and National Socialism. Studies that have described the colonial wars with, for example, the brutal suppression of the so-called "Herero Revolt" (1904–1908) in what is today Namibia as a "link between the earlier genocides of low-level state organs and the bureaucraticised crimes of National Socialism"39 are fiercely debated. The consequences for the history of science of Germany's colonial episode and in particular the significance of Wilhelmine ethnology to the processes of "racifying" populations are also among the preferred topics of historians employing a postcolonial approach.40 Nationalism, imperialism and colonial patterns of thought and perception in imperial Germany were multifariously entangled.41
In addition to such concrete interdependencies, the unrealised colonial fantasies42 and "softer" cultural dimensions of imperialism and its impact on German society have also become the subject of a number of detailed investigations – a development entirely in accordance with the intentions of the perspectives developed by Said and Bhabha. A number of studies show the various ways in which the colonies influenced German (everyday) culture.43 Other studies deal with the remnants and lasting impact of colonialism in Germany and, in doing so, explicitly refer to the political project of postcolonialism alluded to above.44
The apparent disparity between the short-lived nature of German colonialism and the great importance ascribed to it by postcolonial academics has already provoked some criticism.45 None less, postcolonial theories are enjoying increasing popularity in contexts that at first glance seem to be even much less applicable. Thus they have recently found application in countries which never possessed any colonies themselves. A recent study of the colonial interdependencies of the Scandinavian states, for instance, underlined how little one can understand the imperial "complicity" of the emergent social sciences (for example, ethnology) if one only investigates them within national borders. Some of the first chairs for ethnology and physical anthropology were held by Finns and the collection of data and materials that underpinned the early racial theories were in part collected by Swiss missionaries.46 The same is true of the spread of colonial stereotypes in popular literature and advertising, as revealed in a recent study of Switzerland.47
To sum up, postcolonial studies, whose roots reach back into the first half of the 20th century, are anything but an academic fad of the 1980s that has passed its used-by date. The subdiscipline's increasing diversification and growing proliferation beyond its original context demonstrates that a postcolonial view remains useful in the 21st century in identifying and analysing the central facts and problems of both the past and the present – unrestrained by received geographical and disciplinary boundaries.