Interest in Europe’s multi-ethnic, religiously diverse and generally contested borderlands has been steadily on the rise over the past two decades. Both books under review here testify to that trend and to the richness of the current scholarship in this field.
The first of these books, ‘Shatterzone of Empires’, is based on a series of conferences and symposia, held over several years at Brown University, the University of Minnesota, and the Herder Institute in Marburg. As the editors, both well-known experts of ethnic violence in modern times, make clear in the introduction, the book seeks to explore borderlands as “places of interaction of different ethnic and religious groups”, notably “the territories between the Baltic and the Black Sea where four great empires encountered each other in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries along a variety of often changing and contested borders” (p. 1). The purpose of the exercise is to contribute to a better understanding of why and how – between the “national awakening” in the nineteenth century and the period of ethnic cleansing during and after World War II – populations of the borderlands managed to coexist before eventually turning on each other.
The individual contributions to the volume, written by a healthy mix of senior and junior scholars, reflect these general ambitions. The first section, “Imagining the Borderlands” opens with Larry Wolff’s essay on travel in “Central Europe”, a multi-ethnic borderland in which the German and Slavic worlds overlapped. Once characterized by (and admired for) cultural diversity and richness, the genocidal cleansing campaigns of the twentieth century deprived the region of precisely that characteristic feature. The origins of these violent purification campaigns, or so Gregor Thum suggests in his chapter, can be traced back to Germany’s long-standing obsession with the eastern borderlands, hostile perceptions of its Slavic inhabitants and the long-held fantasies of colonization that prepared the cultural ground for Germany’s ethnic war against its eastern neighbours.
In a thematically different essay, Dan Diner points to the changing fates of Jews from the early modern period to the twentieth century as emblematic of the larger political and social transformations that took place from the eighteenth century to the Second World War. Diner proposes a stronger integration of the transnational Jewish experience into mainstream historiography as a way of undermining the long-dominant national paradigm in European historiography.
The second section, entitled “Imperial borderlands”, starts off with two essays on the Austro-Hungarian Dual Monarchy, both of which follow the recent trend of portraying the late Habsburg Empire as anything but a failed multi-national state doomed to collapse as a result of ethnic tensions. Until the very end of the Great War, Gary Cohen contends, even nationalists sought primarily to reform the empire’s structure. Pieter Judson argues similarly and convincingly demonstrates that most of the subjects of Emperor Franz Joseph were not nationalists at all.
The following two essays are devoted to the Ottoman case. Eric Weitz shows how in the context of the Great War international and domestic concerns became inextricably entwined. Weitz argues that imperial competition and national conflicts within the Empire eventually led to the genocide of Armenians and Assyrians, while Elke Hartmann’s chapter on Eastern Anatolia seeks to demonstrate ethnic tensions and violence increased as a result of the central state’s ambitions to gain greater control over its population. As part of its overall reform efforts, the empire sought to secure its eastern borders by arming some Kurdish groups, who then perpetrated violence against Armenian villagers.
The chapters in section 3 (“Nationalizing the Borderlands”) also show a great geographical range. Patrice Dabrowski investigates one of the quintessential borderlands, the Carparthian Mountains where nationalist Poles attempted to nationalize the Tatra highlanders, while Ukrainians sought to do the same with the Hutsul mountain people, making the region a space for competing national projects. Robert Nemes also uses a local case – the Hungarian-Romanian borderland – to demonstrate how nationalists on both sides sought to draw a fixed border across what had long been an area of cross-cultural interaction. Other case studies in this section include a chapter on Habsburg Galicia (Yaroslav Hrytsak) and an excellent contribution by Tomas Balkelis, focusing on the “unmixing” of populations in Lithuania in the first months of World War II.
Section 4 focuses on episodes of ethnic violence during the twentieth century. It kicks off with contributions on young-policies towards Bulgarians during and after the Balkan Wars of 1912–13 (Eyal Ginio), Greek atrocities against Bulgarians during the same conflict (Keith Brown), and local participation in the mass killings of Assyrian populations of the Ottoman Empire during World War I (David Gaunt). Further chapters include Peter Holquist’s thoughtful essay on Russian occupation policies in the formerly Ottoman Caucasus and northern Anatolia during the Great War, and three chapters on the Polish-Ukrainian borderlands, focusing on anti-Jewish violence in Galicia in both world wars (Alexander Prusin), the ways in which German propaganda used the news of Soviet atrocities in Ukraine to justify Nazi violence (John-Paul Himka), and Omer Bartov’s stimulating essay on interethnic relations in the Eastern Galician town of Buczacz during World War II.
The final section of the book (“Ritual, Symbolism, and Identity”) opens with Pamela Ballinger’s discussion of the Adriatic as a “watery borderland” (p. 423) and is followed by contributions on Ukrainian and Jewish attempts to establish cultural and political identities in the early twentieth century (Myroslav Shkandrij), the violent rituals underpinning the 1941 pogroms in Eastern Galicia (Kai Struve) and Philipp Ther’s closing essay on hybrid identities in the “lands between”.
As Ther emphasises quite rightly, the study of borderlands has done much to undermine traditional national paradigms and to recover the “always fluid and transitory” nature of identities that dominated in those regions before the violent purification campaigns that culminated in the mid-twentieth century (p. 486).
All in all, the volume testifies to the important advances that have been made over the past decade in the inter-related fields of ethnic group identification, evolving intergroup relations, and the origins of ethnic violence. By including examples of peaceful inter-ethnic coexistence before and between the two world wars, the volume offers a more nuanced picture of the European borderlands than is all too often the case.
The second book under review, ‘Territorial Revisionism’, is considerably shorter than the first, but more thematically focused. It zooms in on one of the many issues discussed in Shatterzones of Empire, namely the constant revisions of borders in the period between the end of the Great War and the aftermath of World War II. More specifically, it is aims to highlight “territorial revisionism” as one of the key themes of the era; a policy objective that drove the Nazis and their nationalist partners in East Central Europe from the interwar period until 1945. As István Deák makes clear in his characteristically thought-provoking contribution, it is important to acknowledge the relative independence of revisionist projects within the Axis even if their realization depended on the military success (and good will) of Nazi Germany.
Territorial revisionism became a central preoccupation in Eastern and Central Europe as a result of the radical reshuffling of borders in the wake of the Great War. Before 1917/18, land empires dominated the European continent. By 1919, all of them had vanished while the victorious powers expanded their blue-water empires outside Europe. As a result of the collapse of the land empires, several Successor States – Poland, Czechoslovakia, German-Austria, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Finland, and the Baltic States – emerged and fundamentally changed the political map of Europe.
If US President Woodrow Wilson had hoped to establish states based on the principle of national self-determination, the exact opposite was the result. While the slogan of “self-determination” provided a powerful rallying cry for the mobilization of anti-imperial emotions and personnel, it raised more issues than it solved. There was not only the issue of perceived hypocrisy as Wilson’s idea of self-determination was applied in Paris to peoples considered allies of the Entente (Poles, Czechs, Romanians), but not to those viewed as enemies (Austrians, Germans, Hungarians, Bulgarians). Worse still, however, was that the settlements of Versailles, St. Germain, Sèvres, and Trianon established seemingly arbitrary new borders which would be challenged – time and again – over the course of the twentieth century. The application of Wilson’s principle of national self-determination to territories of mind-boggling ethnic complexity was at best naïve, and at worst an invitation to transform the violence of World War I into a multitude of civil wars. The British Foreign Secretary Lord Curzon referred to the implementation of Wilson’s promise as the “unmixing” of people, but the realities of post-1919 Europe looked very different. The only more or less ethnically homogenous states in Central and Eastern Europe were the core states of the vanquished land empires: the Weimar Republic, German Austria, Hungary, Bulgaria, and Turkey. The new Polish “nation-state”, by contrast, contained a population that was 40 per cent Ukrainian, Belarusian, Lithuanian or German.
It was therefore no coincidence that the centre of gravity for attempts at territorial revisionism in Europe was located in the multi-ethnic Successor States to the old multi-national empires. As the contributions to this volume make very clear, the recovery of territories previously lost played a crucial role in foreign and domestic policies in East Central Europe between 1918 and 1945. Even the Soviet Union was eager to re-conquer territories which the Russian Empire had lost after the Bolshevik revolution, such as Bessarabia, the Baltic states, and Wolhynia.
The assembled essays by leading scholars in their fields illustrate this general pattern very well. In the first section of the volume on “The Role of Minorities”, Norbert Spannenberger shows that among German settlements in Romania, Hungary, and Yugoslavia there was a clear orientation towards Nazi ideology. Franz Horvath demonstrates in his chapter on the German minority in Czechoslovakia and the Hungarian minority in Transylvania how after the outbreak of the Great Depression in 1929, the minorities actively supported territorial revisionism whereas previously – in the 1920s – this had not been the case.
Section two (on “Revisionism as a Driving Force”) is dedicated to the study of the practical implementation of revisionism in regional perspective with essays on Bulgaria, Romania, and Hungary by Holly Case, Elzbieta Znamierowska-Rakk, and Ignac Romsics. The third section (“Practices of Revisionism”) is concerned with the implementation of policies of purification, and notably with ethnic cleansing, mass killings of minorities, and collaboration with the Nazis. In doing so, the contributions emphasize that, far from being simply foreign extensions of the Nazi regime, the “minor players” in the war against the Soviet Union and its Western Allies were themselves driven by ambitions to achieve the greatest possible territorial revisions in their favour.
Throughout the book, we find references to Tim Snyder’s Bloodlands which is not surprising because the volume as a whole seeks to make clear that the regions of bloody conflict in the ‘lands between’ were far larger than those delineated by Snyder. Furthermore, the authors collectively insist that violence in the region was by no means only the result of war between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. Violence in East-Central and Eastern Europe both predated these regimes and was generated from within the regions rather than just being imposed from outside.
Both of the volumes under review richly deserve to be read by experts in the field as they provide an excellent survey of the latest work on Eastern, Central, and Southern European history in the modern period.