Eastern Europe’s Minorities in a Century of Change

To mark the Institute for Historical Research’s centenary, the BASEES Study Group for Minority History is proud to present ‘Eastern Europe’s Minorities in a Century of Change’, a podcast series on the history of minorities and minority experiences in twentieth-century Central and Eastern Europe. While often presented as simply long-suffering victims of historic persecution, this series investigates the historical roles such groups played in this vast and complex region spanning the Baltics to the Eastern Mediterranean and the Rhine to the Ural Mountains.

Bringing together a range of interviews with internationally recognised experts, it considers how the momentous changes that befell the region in this period impacted upon the lives of millions, such as the creation of new countries on the ruins of Europe’s former empires.

Guests include Orlando Figes (Birkbeck, University of London), Molly Greene (Princeton University), Mark Levene (University of Southampton), Cathie Carmichael (University of East Anglia), Andrii Portnov (European University, Viadrina), Matthew Frank (University of Leeds), Raul Carstocea (Maynooth University), Boerries Kuzmany (University of Vienna), John Paul Newman (Maynooth University), and Tomasz Kamusella (University of St Andrews). Each episode will be released weekly from early October and will be made available for free via a range of online platforms including the official IHR and BASEES websites.

Episode 1. Molly Green and Samuel Foster “Greeks and Muslims in the Classical Ottoman Empire”

In this episode, Molly Greene, Professor of History and Hellenic Studies at Princeton University, talks to us about civil and cultural relations during the Ottoman Empire’s ‘Classical Age’ from 1300-1800. Focusing on the Empire’s Christian Greeks, Molly considers how this period would define modern Greek identity. Key to this was a perceived sense of historical persecution, necessitating a Christian ‘flight to the mountains’.

Episode 2. Matthew Frank and Michal Frankl Minority Protection and Population Transfers in interwar Europe

In this episode, Michal Frankl, principal investigator of the ERC-funded project “Unlikely refuge? Refugees and citizens in East-Central Europe in the 20th century” at the Masaryk Institute and Archive of the Czech Academy of Sciences talks to Matthew Frank, Associate Professor in International History at the University of Leeds about the mass displacement of minority populations in interwar Europe. Focussing primarily on the ideologies and actions of governments and international organizations, Matthew considers how such population transfers concurred with the nascent minority protection regime set out by the League of Nations and came to be widely accepted as a state-building mechanism for the newly established nation-states of Eastern Europe.

“Unlikely refuge? Refugees and citizens in East-Central Europe in the 20th century” www.unlikely-refuge.eu/

Matthew Frank, Making Minorities History. Population Transfer in Twentieth-Century Europe (Oxford UP, 2017): global.oup.com/academic/product/…41?cc=ua&lang=en&

Episode 3. Raul Cârstocea and Roland Clark Minorities in Interwar Romania and the Rise of Fascism

In this episode, Raul Cârstocea, Lecturer in European History at Maynooth University and Honorary Fellow at the Stanley Burton Centre for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, University of Leicester, talks to Roland Clark (University of Liverpool) about historical antisemitisim and the rise of fascism in interwar Romania. He discusses the dramatic expansion of Romania’s borders following the First World War and the appearance of greater diversity in what had previously been a relatively homogenous population. The newly-incorporated territories included many Jews, who became a scapegoat for many of Romania’s postwar socioeconomic problems. Raul considers the role antisemitic narratives played in the emergence of the native fascist movement, and what distinguished it from other far-right groups in Europe before the Second World War.

Episode 4. Tomasz Kamusella and Olena Palko. The Minority Question in Poland: Past and Present

In this episode, Tomasz Kamusella, Reader in European History at the University of St Andrews, talks to us about the national and minority questions in modern Poland. Focusing on Poland’s language and minority policies from 1918, Tomasz considers how Polish nationalism came to define the ethnic make-up of interwar Poland and keeps shaping a particular idea of the country as an ethnically homogeneous nation-state. Tomasz discusses language politics, both in Poland and Central Europe in general, to show how national activists and politicians constructed languages and minorities in this region.

Episode 5. Mark Levene and Raul Cârstocea Minority crises in ‘the Rimlands’

In this episode, Mark Levene, Emeritus Fellow in History at the University of Southampton, talks to Raul Cârstocea, Lecturer in European History at Maynooth University and Honorary Fellow at the Stanley Burton Centre for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, University of Leicester, about historical ethnic and religious diversity in Central and Eastern Europe and the challenges the region and its people have faced throughout the 20th century. Key to this was the ethnic violence that accompanied the collapse of the European empires from 1917 to 1923 and the atrocities of the Second World War, as well as the ongoing climate crisis as experienced by the region’s minority groups.

Episode 6. Cathie Carmichael and Samuel Foster: Herzegovina’s Minorities under the Habsburgs


In this episode, Cathie Carmichael, Professor of European History at the University of East Anglia, talks to us about the military occupation of Bosnia-Herzegovina by Austria-Hungary and its impact on the various minority groups that comprised its multiethnic population from 1878 to 1918. This was especially notable in the territory’s more remote southern region of Herzegovina where the Habsburg military’s ‘civilizing’ efforts faced a plethora of social challenges and rising political tensions. 

Episode 7. Andrii Portnov and Olena Palko: The entangled history of Ukraine’s minorities

In this episode, Andrii Portnov, Professor of Entangled History of Ukraine at the European University Viadrina (Frankfurt/Oder), talks to us about the historiographical challenges of Ukraine’s ethnic and confessional diversity. Once the borderland of three different empires, the territory that forms modern-day Ukraine had failed to secure its independence in the aftermath of the First World War and remained split between the Soviet and Polish governments until 1939. Even after seceding from the Soviet Union in 1991, however, Ukraine continues to grapple with these imperial legacies while struggling to politically embrace its historical and modern-day heterogeneity.

Episode 8. Boerries Kuzmany and Olena Palko: Minorities and Non-Territorial Autonomy

In this episode, Boerries Kuzmany, assistant professor for Habsburg and East European History at the University of Vienna, talks to us about ethnic and religious diversity in the Habsburg province of Galicia, specifically the city of Brody located today near Ukraine’s border with Poland.

Boerries is also the principal investigator for the “Non-Territorial Autonomy as Minority Protection in Europe” project, funded by the European Research Council. He explains the concept of non-territorial autonomy and its potential for minority protection. Originally articulated by Austrian Social Democrats at the turn of the 20th century, the idea of non-territorial autonomy was incorporated into the political agenda of several newly established governments in Eastern Europe in the interwar period as a method for managing ethnic diversity. Despite its recognized limitations, Boerries argues that the concept endures as a suitable model for multi-ethnic states and continues to appeal to politicians and theorists worldwide.

Episode 9. John Paul Newman and Samuel Foster: Yugoslavia’s Disabled Veterans as a Social Minority

In this episode, John Paul Newman, Associate Professor in Twentieth-century European History at Maynooth, National University of Ireland, discusses his ongoing research into the lives and experiences of physically disabled military veterans in the Former Yugoslavia during the inter-war and Cold War eras. Despite receiving official and public praise for their sacrifices in the First and Second World Wars, former soldiers often struggled to reintegrate into civilian life, frequently coupled with inadequate state welfare provision. This, in turn, gave rise to a partial sense of social identity among disabled veterans, one with the potential to transcend ethnic and historical divisions.

Episode 10. Orlando Figes and Olena Palko: The ‘Nationalities Dilemma’ in the Russian Empire

In this episode, Orlando Figes, Professor of History at Birkbeck College, University of London, discusses ethnic and religious diversity in the late Russian Empire and its impact on the outcome of the 1917 revolutions in the broader historical sense. Orlando also highlights important, and often overlooked, issues of continuity between Imperial Russian and early Soviet history in relation to nationality and minority concerns, and the benefits of following a transnational approach when it comes to studying modern Russia’s history and culture.

Episode 11. Pieter Judson and Jan Rybak: Empire, Nation, and Minorities in Central and Eastern Europe

In this episode, Pieter Judson, Professor of 19th and 20th Century History at the European University Institute in Florence talks to Jan Rybak at Birkbeck Institute for the Study of Antisemitism about the relation between Empire and nation and what they meant for minorities in the Habsburg Empire and its successor states. Judson speaks about how both imperial institutional practices and nationalists’ activism invented minorities in a decidedly multinational/ethnic/linguistic space. With the downfall of the monarchy nationalists aimed to make the category ‘nation’ the bedrock of their new states, leading to often disastrous consequences for those who could not identify with the titular majority nation. Pieter discusses the long-term trajectories of imperial practices and nationalist politics and ideologies and what they meant for minorities in the former Habsburg space.

Episode 12. Alexander Maxwell and Samuel Foster: Pan-Slavism as ‘Minority Nationalism’ on the Habsburg Monarchy

In this episode, Alexander Maxwell, Associate Professor in History at Victoria University of Wellington, discusses his research on Habsburg Pan-Slavism, a form of minority linguistic nationalism. While Panslavism is often conflated with Russian expansionism, linguistic Panslavism, as originally propounded in the Habsburg lands in the 1830s and 1840s, emphasised linguistic commonality between speakers of different Slavic “dialects.” By 1914 however, linguistic Panslavism had largely given way to the particularist nationalisms that dominated the twentieth century.

Episode 13. Tamara Scheer and Samuel Foster: Diversity and Language in the Austro-Hungarian Army

In this episode, Tamara Scheer, Lecturer in East European and Contemporary History at the University of Vienna, talks to us about ethnic and linguistic diversity in the Habsburg military in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. Following Austria-Hungary’s political formation in 1867, its broad ethnic diversity was recognised as key to its legal and institutional cohesion. Nowhere was this more pronounced than in the armed forces, which began implementing measures that could better reflect the linguistic diversity of its soldiers, particularly as the Empire’s borders expanded southeastwards. However, such measures also highlighted persistent socio-political imbalances between the Dual Monarchy’s Austrian and Hungarian portions.

Episode 14. Maciej Górny and Olena Palko: Nation-States and the Minorities Question after the World War One

In this episode, Maciej Górny, Professor of History at the Institute of History of the Polish Academy of Sciences, talks to us about the legacies of the First World War in East, Central and Southeast Europe. Górny draws our attention to the experiences of war along the Eastern Front, an area of study that has still remained largely neglected in contemporary Western historiography. Górny notably demonstrates that the war ultimately determined patterns of inter-state violence that accompanied the formation of the new nation-states in the region. This is followed by a discussion of the role of experts and maps in the process of the social construction of ethnic identities and national minorities in East-Central Europe.

Episode 15: Andrei Cușco and Anca Filipovici “Bessarabia, a Contested Borderland and its Peoples”

In this episode, Andrei Cușco, researcher at the “A.D. Xenopol” Institute of History in Iași, Romania, talks to Anca Filipovici at the Romanian Institute for Research on National Minorities, about the history of Bessarabia and its various minority communities, from the 19th century to the dissolution of the Russian Empire, and during the interwar period. Andrei analyzes this region from the perspective of a “contested borderland” the status of which was disputed by both an imperial Russian and Romanian nationalist narrative. In this context, he demonstrates how ethnicity was affected by the consequences of post-imperial transition while revealing the continuities and discontinuities between rival imperial and national regimes, especially in regard to ethnic communities and interethnic relations.

Episode 16. Ulrich Schmid and Olena Palko: Minorities, Federalism and Nation in Russia

In this episode, Ulrich Schmid, Professor of Russian Culture and Society at the University of St Gallen, talks to us about Russian nationalist ideology and its place in contemporary Eastern European and international politics. Prof Schmid discusses how popular understanding of the Russian nation has evolved since imperial times, and what being Russian means in today’s multi-ethnic and multi-confessional context. Central to this are questions regarding Russia’s status as a Eurasian empire, its dealing with the tsarist and Soviet past, as well as the Russian state’s attempts at rewriting history. Prof Schmid shows how contested issues of language and identity are being politicised to the point that they have become a legitimising factor in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Episode 17. Ulf Brunnbauer and Petru Negura: Ethnic and Religious Diversity in the Balkans

In this episode, Ulf Brunnbauer, Professor of History at the University of Regensburg and director of the Leibniz Institute for East and Southeast European Studies, discusses the categories of perception, as well as strategies for the inclusion and exclusion of interwar Bulgaria, Greece and Yugoslavia’s Muslim minorities. The historic “othering” of these minorities was broadly twofold, comprising ethnic and religious components. The case of the Bulgarian-speaking Pomaks is especially revealing with both Bulgarian and Greek nationalists and state agencies claiming they were “alienated” from their true identity (Bulgarian or Greek), having been forced to embrace Islam in the past. The state’s mission would, therefore, be to bring these minorities back into the national fold. Emigration was another prominent theme insofar as it often represented part of the wider nationalising agenda deemed crucial for creating diaspora communities that would remain politically loyal to their respective homelands. This was especially relevant in the case of independent Serbia, and subsequently Yugoslavia after 1918. Both states also viewed emigration policies as a useful means of removing groups perceived as “a-national,” or of non-Slavic origin, such as the Kosovo Albanians.

Episode 18. Ágoston Berecz and Alexander Maxwell: Language and Identity in Late-Habsburg Hungary

In this episode, Ágoston Berecz, Research Fellow at the Imre Kertész Kolleg Jena, is in conversation with Alexander Maxwell (Victoria University of Wellington) on the increasingly fraught relationship between language, education and nation-building in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century Kingdom of Hungary. Having gained extensive political autonomy within Austria-Hungary since its formation in 1867, in the closing decades of the Dual Monarchy’s existence an increasingly nationalistic Hungarian state sought to impose a Magyar identity on its territory’s populace. Unsurprisingly, language was viewed as key to this process. By 1900, the Budapest government had already passed a raft of policies targeting education while diminishing the public visibility of all other languages besides Hungarian. Nevertheless, as Berecz reveals, these state-building efforts were far from universally successful, or consistently applied, as local actors often ignored or exploited them in pursuit of their own interests.

Episode 19. Marcos Silber and Jan Rybak: Nationalism and Autonomy – Jewish Experiences in East-Central

In this episode, Marcos Silber, Professor of Jewish History and chair of the Gotteiner Institute for the History of the Bund and der Jewish Labor Movement at the University of Haifa talks to Jan Rybak, Early Career Fellow at the Birkbeck Institute for the Study of Antisemitism about the Jewish experience in early-20th century Eastern and Central Europe. Silber addresses some of the key questions relating to the experiences of persecution and exclusion in the region, notably Jewish demands for minority rights in relation to the ethnonationalist state-building projects that followed the end of the First World War and the collapse of the multinational empires. He also illustrates how discussion over the place of minorities in these newly created states related to the wider social histories of the region, especially pre-existing tensions between prevailing liberal paradigms of civil equality, the far from harmonious realities on the ground and the answers Jewish minority rights activists found in seeking to address these challenges. These demands for minority rights and national autonomy were not only key in ongoing efforts at finding a place for minorities in interwar Eastern and Central Europe, but remain an important historical means for understanding the dynamics of intercommunal relations in the more heterogeneous societies of our contemporary world.

Episode 20. David Smith and Olena Palko: the Baltic States’ Minorities between History and Politics

In this episode, Professor David Smith at the University of Glasgow discusses the minority aspect in the history and politics of the Baltic States. David suggests that the ‘commonality of fate’, rather than ethnic and demographic character, has made this region seem so culturally uniform in the popular imagination. Nowhere does this seem more apparent than in their modern history: having formerly been part of the Russian Empire until 1918, all three countries proclaimed and preserved their independence between the wars, only to be occupied by the Soviet Union in 1940. Despite these similar historic trajectories, however, following the restoration of independence in 1990, widely differing demographic challenges have seen extensive divergence when it comes to determining contemporary minority policies on the ground.

Episode 21. Yohannan Petrovsky-Shtern and Oleksii Chebotarov: Ukraine and the Framing of East European Jewish History

In this episode, Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern, Crown Family Professor of Jewish Studies and Professor of Jewish History at Northwestern University, talks to Oleksii Chebotarov, Postdoctoral Fellow at the New Europe College – Institute for Advanced Studies, Bucharest, about Jewish communities in the late Russian Empire and the Soviet Union and the challenges in framing this history.

As the Romanov Empire expanded into what is today Ukraine and Poland, these newly incorporated territories included a sizable Jewish population, most of whom remained confined to these western provinces. Petrovsky-Shtern considers how, despite often representing the majority of residents in certain towns, Eastern Europe’s Jews have continued to be exclusively viewed through the lens of their proscribed minority status. By exploring this issue in closer detail, he also assesses how even small communities that ostensibly existed at the imperial peripherals displayed far greater social and cultural diversity and division than is often presented within more mainstream historiographies. This became even more complex when analyzing the transformation of the East European Jewish population and its changing roles within societies across the region, at a micro-historical level from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries. These questions of historical framing are compounded by the no less complex and multi-faceted issue of national identity and ethnic belonging. A Jew living within the borders of the Russian Empire, for example, might not be viewed as a Russian Jew, while, until recently, a resident of Lviv or Kyiv would very rarely be labelled or self-identified as a Ukrainian Jew.

Episode 22. Barbara Warnock and Elise Bath: Persecution of Roma and Sinti in the Nazi era and after

In this episode, Barbara Warnock, Senior Curator and Head of Education at The Wiener Holocaust Library, and Elise Bath, the Library’s International Tracing Service (ITS) Archive Team Manager, discuss the marginalization and persecution of Roma and Sinti people before and during the Nazi period. Informed by archival resources held by the Library, including the first comprehensive research project conducted on the genocide against the Roma, and materials from the ITS Digital Archive, they also discuss the continued marginalization of Roma and Sinti people in the post-war era.

Episode 23. Morgane Labbé and Olena Palko: Minority Statistics and Nation-Building in East-Central Europe

In this episode, Morgane Labbé, Professor at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris, discusses the role of statistics and maps within Eastern and Central European nation-building. She emphasizes the need to consider the historical rise of statistics as a form of mathematical science used to legitimise the nation and its boundaries. Morgane also highlights how this tradition gave rise to the symbolic significance of the national census among the new states that emerged across this region during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Beginning in the 1920s, censuses not only became a tool used to legitimise the new nation-state via numerical dominance but mechanisms of mass mobilisation and mass participation in the process of nation-building. In practice, however, these censuses more often recorded a broader diversity of belonging. This, in turn, gave rise to a form of administrative categorisation that would always take place afterwards and focus on recoding or ignoring these responses, reflecting the real “fabric” of what actually constituted national majorities and minorities.

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