Contested minorities in the ‘New Europe’: Special Issue

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.

The issue, published in National Identities, 2021, Vol.23, No.4 consists of the following publications:

Mart Kuldkepp (2021). The political choices and outlooks of the Estonian Swedish national minority, 1917–1920

The Estonian Swedish national awakening did not start until the turn of the twentieth century, but by the 1917 Russian February Revolution, it was well underway. This article studies Estonian Swedish political choices and outlooks in the period that followed: 1917–1923. As Estonia went through tumultuous political changes, the leadership of the Swedish minority faced the task of formulating and carrying out a political strategy that would safeguard their national interests. This article discusses how they did it, while also asking why the strength and influence of Estonian Swedish politics soon began to decline despite earlier remarkable successes.

Petru Negura (2021). Nation-building and mass schooling of ethnic minorities on the Romanian and Soviet peripheries (1918–1940): a comparative study of Bessarabia and Transnistria

The paper examines the local responses to mass schooling in the rural areas of Romanian Bessarabia and Soviet Transnistria (1918–1940). Both Romania and the USSR aimed at deeply transforming the local populations. Romania implemented schooling to assimilate ethnic minorities within the model of a nationalizing state, while the USSR adopted an inconsistent nationalizing policy, determinedly imposing compulsory education for all children. The resistance to schooling among ethnic minorities was less intense in Transnistria than in Bessarabia. In both cases, the state authorities abandoned, in the late 1930s, the schooling in minority languages for the benefit of the titular nationalities.

Giuseppe Motta (2021). Rejection, accommodation, disillusion: the responses of Magyar intellectuals to the unification of Transylvania with Romania

This study examines the role of minority identity strategies in Transylvania within the context of competing nationalisms. The case of Magyar communities perfectly illustrates the great complexity of many contested regions after WWI. On the one hand, a substantial number of Transylvanian Hungarians maintained a solid connection with the official revisionist aims of the Hungarian government and showed a fierce and violent refusal to accept the end of historical Hungary. On the other, a minority of Transylvanian Hungarians tried to assume a different perspective of the past and develop new strategies of integration, focusing on the multicultural legacy of Transylvania in order to renew the cultural milieu of the community and offer new responses to changed conditions. This article conducts a historical examination of these responses, analyzing the interwar cultural experience of Magyar intellectuals in relation to categories such as minority rights, regionalism, or national indifference. It concludes that it was not exactly indifference that characterized the fight for the defence of minority rights or ideas such as Transylvanism. This, it is also argued, failed in providing an alternative representation of Transylvanian history and multiculturalism, and was thus unable to break the monopoly of nationalist imaginary.

Anca Filipovici (2021). ‘Faith and work for King and Country!’ Nationalization and covert Romanianization through the youth organization Straja Țării (1934–1940)

This study investigates the youth organization Straja Țării, created by King Carol II of Romania in the second interwar decade. The research will consider two levels of analyses: the organizational and ideological dimensions of Straja Țării within the national project of unification (1); the relation of the Jewish youth to Straja Țării (2). Although Straja included youngsters from ages 7 to 18, I will focus mainly on adolescents (above the age of 14), because they were a distinct instrumental group for radical political movements. The paper’s main argument is that by being packed in the formula of nation-building and strengthening, Straja Țării was rather an ineffective organization which served as a tool to consolidate the king’s power at both the internal and external level. In relation to ethnic minorities, Straja oscillated between recklessness, assimilation, and rejection, lacking any mechanism for integrating non-Romanians.

Christopher Wendt (2021) Formulating Germanness in the Banat: ‘Minority making’ among the Swabians from Dualist Hungary to interwar Romania

This article examines the shaping of a dominant discourse on Germanness among the Banat Swabians a German-speaking minority community over a long period of upheaval. Particularly following WWI debates over what it meant to be German gained significance as a means of political contestation and a way of mobilizing the Swabian community vis-à-vis the Romanian state. While appeals to belonging within a broader German nation were popularized the symbols developed to convey this affiliation showed particular local and regional understandings of Banat Swabian Germanness—a trend that only began to change in the 1930s as these symbols were appropriated by new challengers.

Stephan Stach (2021). The Polish-Ukrainian Bulletin in Piłsudski’s Poland — or, how to create space for dialogue and build trust in an authoritarian state

Historical works on Polish-Ukrainian relations in the interwar period mostly concern conflict history. The Polish-Ukrainian Bulletin, the subject of this article, was published from 1932 with the intention of contributing to a peaceful resolution of the conflict. In Poland, under the authoritarian regime of Józef Piłsudski, the journal created a space for a relatively free debate on common questions and helped to build mutual trust across national divisions. Around the journal, networks of Polish and Ukrainian political and social activists emerged. These networks played a crucial role in the conclusion of the Polish-Ukrainian Normalization Agreement of 1935.

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