Among the many challenges facing the new, or enlarged, nation-states that arouse on the territories of the former empires of Central, Eastern and Southeastern Europe in 1918, few were as vexing or complex as the minorities’ question. During the First World War, both the Entente and Central Powers attempted to win the loyalties of various ethnic minorities across the region by exploiting societal discontent and promising recognition or even outright sovereignty. At the same time, political elites had kindled patriotic feeling and nationalistic pride among their fellow countrymen; they embraced the popular slogans of self-determination while demanding independence, or unity with their respective national ‘homeland’, following the war. Despite their idealised vision of a new European order, the successor states established on the ruins of the old Central and Eastern European empires, and those in the Balkan Peninsular which had achieved independence before 1914, remained ethnographically diverse. Across this mosaic of geopolitical boundaries, what the philosopher and first president of Czechoslovakia Tomáš Masaryk emphatically termed ‘New Europe’, thousands of disparate communities suddenly discovered that they now existed as minorities, often in areas adjacent to their politically designated homelands.
This special issue explores the various strategies that were available to these minority groups when seeking to develop or preserve their respective sense of national or cultural identity within the new borders. It comprises several papers originally presented at the academic conference ‘Contested Minorities in the ‘New Europe’: National Identities from the Baltics to the Balkans, 1918–1939’ held at Birkbeck, University of London in June 2019. The papers presented at the conference sought to address a significant gap in current Western scholarship that typically oversimplifies this avenue of enquiry by presenting the region as inherently unstable with minorities as perpetual victims of persecution. In addition, history in the region has often been written in retrospect resulting in certain minorities deemed as representing ‘a fifth column’ and blamed unanimously either for the outbreaks of interethnic violence (as in case of Poland’s Ukrainian minority), or collaboration with the Axis during the Second World War (notably ethnic Germans in Poland, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia). This approach, strengthened by the populist agendas currently pursued by many of the region’s national governments, continues to divert scholarly attention from genuine minorities’ experiences.
In challenging these restrictive narratives, the issue seeks to reorient discussion away from a ‘top-down’ unidirectional state-focused approach towards a ‘bottom-up’ perspective, emphasising historical agency among these minority communities, as well as strategies employed as a means of exercising their political and cultural rights within the newly established state borders. Its contributing authors, therefore, consider minorities not as unified homogeneous collectives, but as minorities-in-becoming, whose daily inter-ethnic cooperation, internal conflicts and competing loyalties are examined within particular localised contexts.
We would like to offer our readers a glimpse into the articles comprising the special issue.