Roundtable III

East/Central European knowledge production on and with Africa during the Socialist era

Monday, 21 March 2016, 11:00-12:30

Convenor: Jan Záhořík (University of West Bohemia Pilsen)

Chair: Frank Hadler (GWZO Leipzig)

Panelists: Steffi Marung (Leipzig University), Istvan Tarrosy (University of Pecs), Viera Vilhanova (Slovak Academy of Sciences Bratislava)

In a Cold War context, both in the ‘West’ and in the ‘East’, the production of knowledge on Africa combined an academic logic of fundamental research and a political motivation to apply geopolitically relevant area knowledge. As always, research interests and approaches were informed by ongoing events as well as by ideological convictions. At the same time, knowledge production on Africa obviously involves Africans, both as peers, as partners, as informants and as research subject.

It is tempting to make sense of the shaping or refashioning of African Studies in general and of African history writing in particular in the 1950s through the 1980s along the lines of decolonization and Cold War dynamics. Such an approach would lead to valuable yet partial understandings: scholars in newly independent African states contributed to nation-building efforts, either by writing national histories or histories of anti-colonial resistance, thereby implementing possible ideological preferences. In former colonial powers academia tried to find a balance between either closing or revaluating the colonial chapter on one hand and repositioning the expertise and connections which had been built under colonialism on the other. The great powers of the Cold War tried to win the hearts and souls of African people and rulers, support nation-building efforts of allies, undermine the stability and unity of foes, and instil understandings of past, present and future with their respective ideologies of high modernity.

However, in such an approach certain actors who fit in neither the national liberation nor the Cold War schemes remain hidden, as do differences inside African states, former colonial powers or Cold War blocks, as well as interaction between these actors and across these differences. Historical research that revisits our understanding of African history writing in the 1950s-1980s has both been conducted in recent years, and is furthermore very much needed: either by reinterpreting the role of Third World actors during the Cold War, by researching influential and internationally connected schools of historiography at African universities, by focusing on African socialisms and African-socialist interactions, or by highlighting Western Marxist scholarship to give but a few examples. Largely staying under the radar are the then socialist countries of East / Central Europe and their knowledge production on and with Africa.

This table ronde deals firstly with the establishment of African Studies and in particular the field of African history in East / Central Europe at the time of Cold War and decolonization and secondly with the question in how far the field today does or does not build on this legacy. The first set of questions includes which academic disciplines dominated the field of African Studies and African history in different East / Central European states, how cooperation with African colleagues and stays in African countries were chosen or put in place, which role was played by collaboration and competition with Soviet, Western or other East / Central European Africanist research(ers), and which research topics were primarily dealt with. Whereas preferential research topics and cooperation in/with Africa allow us to recognize the possible pursuing of political agendas, it also raises the second set of questions, namely whether or not certain research interests, academic networks and contacts, or archival sources collected or produced during the Cold War have an influence on setting up historical research projects and networks in East / Central Europe today.


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