Drawing the Line: Border Commissions in Eastern Europe, 1699-1921

Drawing the Line: Border Commissions in Eastern Europe, 1699-1921

Luminita Gatejel, Leibniz Institute for East and Southeast European Studies, Regensburg; Stephan Rindlisbacher, Center for Interdisciplinary Polish Studies, European University Viadrina, Frankfurt an der Oder
digital (Regensburg)
Vom - Bis
26.11.2021 - 27.11.2021
Url der Konferenzwebsite
Sven Jaros, Leibniz-Institut für Ost- und Südosteuropaforschung, Regensburg

The workshop brought together scholars from North America and Europe – ranging from early career researchers to established academics. The participants explored the emergence of borders that delineated European empires and emerging nation-states for centuries and shaped the daily lives of their inhabitants. Considering this broader framework, the contributing papers focused on the border commissions, their members, and their agency.

Most papers presented case studies from the multifaceted history of border conflicts and border making between the Ottoman Empire and its neighbours, mainly in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. MICHAEL POLCZYNSKI (Georgetown, SC) and MARK POLCZYNSKI (Marquette, MI) added an early example of a failed border commission between the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and the Ottoman Empire in the mid 16th century. The Southeast European perspective was enhanced by THEODOR SMEU (Independent Researcher, Romania) with his remarks on the Romanian-Bulgarian Border Commission of 1878–1880. SVETLANA SUVEICA (Regensburg) returned later to the re-drawing of the Romanian border after the First World War. The creation of the Albanian border was the subject presented by MELINA GRIZO (Skopje). ELLINOR FORSTER (Innsbruck) added an example of border demarcation in 18th-century Silesia between Prussia and Austria-Hungary – a contested region that TESS MEGGINSON (Chapel Hill, NC) revisited in her paper on community mapping in Teschen (Český Těšín/Cieszyn) between the newly established states of Czechoslovakia and Poland between 1918 and 1920. CATHARINA GIBSON (Tartu) and Rindlisbacher completed the spectrum with case studies on the Estonian-Latvian and the Turkish-Soviet boundary commissions.

The extensive range of case studies enabled a deep exploration of the continuities and changes in political practices, knowledge circulation and everyday affairs in border regions. Rather than paraphrasing each of these insightful papers, this report will focus on some of the recurring topics of the workshop, following the example of NICK BARON’s (Nottingham) concluding remarks. Baron pointed out five main themes that emerged during the conference:

(1) The dialectics of local perspectives and border commissions

The importance of local knowledge about borders was pointed out in the very first paper: the Polczynskis emphasised that both Poland-Lithuania and the Ottoman Empire established border commissions that asked local communities about the “true” and “historical” borders. The answers proved to be vague and contradictory, however, and therefore of little help. Almost 400 years later, local perspectives still remained an ambivalent criterion for border demarcation. Gibson presented a great number of petitions from local farmers that addressed the Estonian-Latvian Boundary Commission between 1919 and 1921. These perspectives were mostly considered “personal” and “subjective” and therefore regarded as disturbing the work of the commission’s assessment of an “objective” and “scientific” border. – This observation leads to a problem that was addressed most explicitly by Suveica, who pointed out that the question of national self-determination – which was prominently addressed not only by Woodrow Wilson, but also by Lenin – cannot be separated from the issue of political representation: during the Paris Peace Conference, regional perspectives were only considered by the different delegations when it supported their overall goals. Referring to the Albanian case, Grizo clearly showed how old habits such as secret treaties, “geopolitical” considerations and the interests of the great powers remained decisive, despite the Wilsonian Moment.

(2) The agency of the border commissions

All papers pointed out that processes of border making need to be understood in their context. This was expressed most explicitly by CONSTANTIN ARDELEANU (Galați/Bucharest) who analysed the border commission in Bessarabia in the aftermath of the Treaty of Paris in 1857. He distinguished three levels of decision making: (a) the highest level of diplomacy, whereby statesmen were concerned with negotiating the border, (b) the meso-level of the commission, in which political decisions were translated into maps, and (c) the micro-level, where land surveyors and cartographers had to determine the definitive border out in the field. – Many papers addressed the administrative organisation of the commissions as well. Through the example of the Russian-Ottoman Border Commission in the Southern Caucasus in 1912, GÖZDE YAZICI CÖRÜT (Leipzig) revealed the limited control of the Ottoman Empire over its peripheries. Organisational deficits have led to the loss of evidence of borders once agreed upon. GIORGIO ENNAS (Lugano) also reported on the serious alienation between the Italian delegates and their Ottoman colleagues due to the organisational deficits of the latter. However, misunderstandings could arise also within a single delegation: Rindlisbacher presented a case where the Soviet delegation of a border commission came into conflict with local Soviet border guards. Border commissions could also attempt to exceed their mandate: Yazıcı Cörüt showed how a commission tried to regulate cross-border trade after the border’s establishment.

(3) The geography of borders

In presenting the attempts to establish borders between the newly founded Kingdom of Greece and the Ottoman Empire, DILEK ÖZKAN (Thessaloniki) paid special attention to the argument of ‘natural’ borders. While in this case the borderland between the two states offered at least a large mountain range that could be taken as a border, many other papers emphasised the arbitrariness and equivocality of criteria referring to “nature”. For example, rivers might offer a proper border when viewed on a large-scale map lying on a conference table. However, in the real world rivers more frequently meander or include wide riverbeds. In Grizo’s example, valleys were also considered a “natural” border alongside ethnographic and linguistic factors. In surveys of the local population, aspects such as taxation, church affiliation or graveyards could also be considered.

(4) Symbolism

In her paper on the Silesian border, Forster explored Austria’s border pillars. It was especially surprising how much effort the authorities exerted on the design of pillars to demarcate a border that both empires intended to revise sooner or later. When it comes to symbolic changes, Megginson presented rich material from public newspapers, where the newly established border between Czechoslovakia and Poland was perceived as a bulwark between two very different cultural spheres – even if the areas of former Teschen had previously been connected for centuries.

(5) Violence

The experiences of war and political violence and the search for stable peace settlements were the driving motivation for many border commissions, most explicitly mentioned perhaps in the Sawrań-Kodyma border dispute between Poland-Lithuania and the Ottoman Empire. The aspect of political violence links the analyses of border making and border commissions to broader research on European and global history.

Other recurring topics might easily be added, concerning for example the increasing role of public opinion. Especially the papers of Megginson and Gibson showed how extensively the work of border commissions could be discussed in press.

The insightful case studies and vivid discussions highlighted many aspects worthy of further comparative research. One might ask if differences can be detected between the work of bilateral border negotiations and that of multilateral, international conferences such as in Berlin in 1878 and Paris in 1919/20. Baron also underlined the issue of scale with respect to maps, which was addressed implicitly in many papers. Scale was an essential element that shaped the perceptions of space and conflict. A line once drawn at a conference table could lead to serious difficulties when experts had to establish its tangible equivalent on the ground.

The discussion of the process of border making offers a fresh perspective within the extensive research on border studies and state formation, as Baron concluded. Border commissions provide a lens through which case studies from different time periods and regions can be explored and compared.

Conference overview:

Welcome / Introduction

Stephan Rindlisbacher (European University Viadrina, Frankfurt/Oder) and Luminita Gatejel (Leibniz Institute for East and Southeast European Studies, Regensburg)

First Panel
Chair: Stephan Rindlisbacher (European University Viadrina, Frankfurt/Oder)

Michael Polczynski (Georgetown University, SC) and Mark Polczynski (Marquette University, MI): Sawrań –Kodyma Border Dispute, 1539-1542

Ellinor Forster (University of Innsbruck): From Well Acquainted to Eyeing Each Other Suspiciously? The Border Commissions in Silesia in the 18th Century

Second Panel

Chair: Svetlana Suveica (University of Regensburg)

Dilek Özkan (University of Macedonia): Making the First Borders between the Ottoman Empire and Greece

Constantin Ardeleanu (The Lower Danube University of Galați / New Europe College Bucharest): The Making of the Bessarabian Border, 1856

Third Panel

Chair: Nenad Stefanov (Humboldt-University Berlin)

Theodor Smeu (Independent Scholar): The Romanian-Bulgarian Border Delimitation Commissions, 1878–1880

Giorgio Ennas (European University Institute Fiesole): Between Diplomacy and Scientific Knowledge. The Works of the First Delimitation Commission of Montenegro, April 1879 – February 1880

Gözde Yazıcı Cörüt (Leibniz Institute for the History and Culture of Eastern Europe, Leipzig): The Meeting of the Russo-Ottoman Border Commission in 1912: Lost Maps and Unclear Borders

Fourth Panel

Chair: Nick Baron (University of Nottingham)

Tess Megginson (University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, NC): Shaping Europe’s Borderlands: Community Mapping Practices in Teschen, 1918–1920

Catherine Gibson (University of Tartu): Petitioning in the History of Border Drawing: Letters and Maps from the Local Population to the Estonian-Latvian Boundary Commission

Fifth Panel

Chair: Luminita Gatejel (Leibniz Institute for East and Southeast European Studies, Regensburg)

Melina Grizo (University of Skopje): The Diplomats, the Experts and the Creation of the Albanian Borders, 1913–1925

Svetlana Suveica (University of Regensburg): Re-designing Greater Romania’s Eastern Borderline: Bessarabia in the Eyes of Paris Experts and Foreign Humanitarian Representatives, 1919

Stephan Rindlisbacher (European University Viadrina, Frankfurt/Oder): Drawing a Boundary of Friendship. The Turkish-Soviet Border Commission, 1925/26

Concluding Remarks

Nick Baron (University of Nottingham)