Conference report: Contested Minorities in the ‘New Europe’: National Identities from the Baltics to the Balkans, 1918-1939
Published in BASEES Newsletter No.27, November 2019 (http://basees.org/newsletters)
Contested Minorities in the New Europe was a two-day academic conference held at Birkbeck (UofL) on 1-2/06/2019. Organised by Dr Olena Palko (Birkbeck) and Dr Samuel Foster (University of East Anglia), it focused on the various histories of ethnic minority communities across the independent states of Eastern Europe and western Soviet Union during the interwar era.
Among the many challenges facing the new, or enlarged, nation-states that arose on the territories of the former German, Habsburg, Ottoman and Russian Empires in 1918, few were as vexing or complex as the ‘minorities question’. Across this mosaic of geopolitical boundaries, what the Czech statesman Tomáš Masaryk emphatically termed the ‘New Europe’, thousands of disparate ethnic and religious communities discovered that they now existed as minorities, often in areas adjacent to their designated homelands. Following the centennial commemorations of the Great War and Russian Revolutions from 2014 to 2018, the conference sought to address a significant gap in current Western scholarship that typically oversimplifies this area of historical enquiry by presenting the region’s successor as inherently unstable, with minorities as perpetual victims of nationalist antagonism and authoritarian persecution. We were especially keen to reorient discussion away from a ‘topdown’, unidirectional approach – that tends to emphasise the rise of ideological extremism, deteriorating international relations in the 1930s, or the spectre of Stalin’s purges and the approaching Holocaust – by expanding the historical discussion beyond the views and actions of Eastern Europe’s political and intellectual elites.
To this end, the conference’s central themes emphasised the role and agency of minority communities and the ways through which they strove to develop or preserve their respective sense of national or cultural identity through non-violent means between 1918 and 1939. Areas of particular interest included the study of local and community politics, especially before 1938; minority engagement with state or religious institutions; inter-community relations and forms of cultural and socioeconomic exchange; diaspora formation and crossborder networks; and the role of language, education and the press as a means of preserving or cultivating identities. While not every country in the region could be represented, we were delighted to host presentations discussing differing aspects of minority history in interwar Estonia, Czechoslovakia, ‘Greater Romania’, Greece, Hungary, Latvia, Ukraine and Yugoslavia. These were divided across seven panels and encompassed an equally broad spectrum of topics and case-studies as well as consideration of the issues in a transnational context. The expansion and social diversification of Romania was a particular point of interest with some notable contributions being Christopher Wendt’s (Institute of Political History, Budapest) analysis of German national identity among the Banat Swabians; Anca Filipovici’s (Romanian Institute for Research on National Minorities, Cluj-Napoca) case-study of the interwar Youth Organisations Straja Țării and Maccabi; and Giuseppe Motta (Sapienza University, Rome) on reactions to the Treaty of Trianon among Transylvania’s Hungarians. Mart Kuldkepp (University College London) provided an intriguing overview of the little-known role Estonia’s Swedish minority played in the country’s interwar politics while Stephan Stach’s (Polin: Museum of the History of Polish Jews, Warsaw) historical evaluation of The Polish-Ukrainian Bulletin and Petru Negura’s (Free International University, Chisinau) comparative study of primary education among minorities in Romanian Bessarabia and Soviet Transnistria, provided conference participants with a more transnational perspective. The above-mentioned presentations have also been selected for publication as a special issue of the interdisciplinary journal National Identities.
Both conference days also featured talks by our two invited keynote speakers: Professor Cathie Carmichael (University of East Anglia) who closed the first day with a public lecture on the Austro-Hungarian legacy in Herzegovina after 1918 and Professor Julia Richers (University of Bern) who opened day two with an in-depth assessment of Jewish communities in Carpatho-Ukraine, a territory that existed at the centre of multiple border changes and regional conflict between the wars. Despite the myriad of the subject matter under discussion and the unexpected warmth of early British summer, both days generated exhaustive, yet civil, the debate regarding each presentation’s place in relation to the key research themes. Overall, we were delighted as the extent to which Contested Minorities managed to bring together such a broad international mix of attendees from a diverse range of institutions. Given that the majority of presenters were PhD students or early career scholars coming from outside of the United Kingdom, the event provided ample opportunity for more informal discussion and professional networking during the coffee and lunch breaks. Equally gladdening was the overwhelmingly positive response recorded on our post-conference evaluation forms with most ranking their experience as either ‘satisfied’ or ‘very satisfied’. Much of this was only made possible through the generous support of a BASEES grant that helped fund travel and accommodation for presenters from eastern and southeast Europe. On behalf of all those who attended, we wish to extend our sincere thanks to the Association for helping to make this conference a major success!
Dr Samuel Foster University of East Anglia