Regionalism and Modern Europe

Leiden University
10.11.2016 - 12.11.2016
Joseph Molto, Leiden University

Leiden University welcomed several noted academics from the humanities and social sciences for a workshop, held 10th – 12th November 2016, to discuss contributions for an upcoming edited volume on European sub national regionalisms, post 1890. The editors, XOSÉ NÚÑEZ SEIXAS (Munich) and ERIC STORM (Leiden), set out the goal of the project as: providing a practical introductory text for undergraduate students from various disciplines, with a partially illustrated collection of articles that survey a broad selection of relevant issues in the recent history of European regionalism.

The first four sessions focused on thematic articles, covering the role of political ideology (Fascism, Communism and democratic European integration) and cultural expression (folklore, language and tourism) in the development of regional identity. Núñez Seixas and SUSAN SMITH-PETER (Staten Island) presented papers that noted the surprisingly lively interactions between the totalitarian regimes of early twentieth century Europe and forms of regionalism. Both articles draw the reader beyond the apparent centralising tendencies inherent in fascism and communism. Núñez Seixas in particular illustrated the “parallel” uses to which regional identity was put by fascist regimes as a “legitimising strategy.” Smith-Peter, taking a more institutional approach, emphasised the tension between the centralising ideological commitments of the Communist Bloc states and forms of regionalism that were often presented as local economic discontent; a conflict that, she argues, was ultimately insoluble within the communist system. Problematizing regional identity in the unpropitious context of totalitarian ideologies proved to be a useful way to tease out some of the problems of definition and relevance in the history of regionalism. Indeed, the issues raised by these papers were returned to again several times during the workshop and it was decided that problems arising out of the lack of any accepted definition or taxonomy of “regionalisms” would be problematized in the introduction, allowing the individual contributors to speak for themselves within a general narrative.

Political scientist DANIELE PETROSINO (Bari) took up the relationship between regional identities and politics in the context of liberal democracy and the drive toward European integration. Although well engaged with the theoretical approaches of his discipline, Petrosino also placed great emphasis on the role of culture as distinct from institutions. And cultural regionalism here is no static force, “the answer is not in the past,” rather cultural identity is always under construction and this is what captures his attention. More generally the author highlights a trend towards regional identity after 1945 and another more recent trend towards popular nationalism. While not offering a definitive explanation for these developments the discussion of these trends is well suited towards engaging today’s prospective reader in the debate. Indeed Petrosino’s account touched off some discussion of the chronological issues encountered throughout the text, in particular the question of whether there was a discrediting of regional or national identities immediately after 1945.

After this foray into political science the workshop shifted focus to questions of regional identity construction, yet strong links between the two sections helped to maintain some overall unity in the approach. Linguist JOHANNES KABATEK (Zürich) presented a highly theoretical paper that generated a great deal of discussion on the distinction between the universal features of language and its purpose of enabling communication between peoples versus the contradictory uses to which local languages and dialects are put in the service of constructing group identities. Strong links with Petrosino’s emphasis on economics were also apparent in the articles on folklore and tourism by historians DAVID HOPKIN (Oxford) and Eric Storm. Both emphasised the impact that economic demand and consumption have had on the construction of regional identities, in particular the impact of the demand for cultural products by those on the periphery of or outside the traditional cultural centres. Hopkin notes in particular the role that Breton émigré groups in large French cities had on the diffusion of modern Breton culture, a culture that is in part the creation of Breton revivalists who themselves came from outside the Breton-speaking core of the historic province. Storm takes a more international approach, outlining the power of economics and the demand for cultural products at world exhibitions. According to Storm cultural exoticism responds to demands for cultural differentiation and cultural markers of identity which obtains practical economic value from tourists and those catering to them. The one point of discussion between Hopkin and Storm centred again on the chronology of regional identity construction, specifically if the success of the internationalist style of architecture after 1945 represented a post-war reaction against traditional forms of identity creation. However, Storm argues that forms of modernism can also be appropriated in the creation of new regional identities.

the workshop did have the opportunity to discuss an upcoming contribution by JAN-HENDRIK MEYER (Copenhagen / New York) via skype. Meyer’s plan is to show in which ways the construction of regional identities involved the appropriation of their own land, specifically local nature parks and flora, with a concentration on German regions. Meyer also raised the larger practical issue of whether the purpose of the text would be better served by specific case studies or a more comprehensive approach.

The second half of the workshop was dedicated to discussing the papers on the history of regionalisms in different parts of Europe: Scandinavia, Russia, the Balkans, the Low Countries, the British Isles, Southern Europe and the German-speaking regions. Taking the most comprehensive format TCHAVDAR MARINOV (Istanbul) and JOEP LEERSSEN (Amsterdam) chronicled the histories of the principal regional movements in the Balkans and the Low Countries since the late nineteenth century. Leerssen iterates through the major regions of the Low Countries, focussing on the developments in the regional identity of each, developments which he argues usually arise as a response to political or other “irritants.” However, there was some criticism of a traditional textbook approach to the history of regions that might tend to essentialize violence and political aspirations for national sovereignty as markers of regionalism. Nevertheless both Leerssen and Marinov by presenting accounts that treat with roughly equal weight various different types of regionalism, can point to examples that bely such a typification, for example the Serbian province of Vojvodina where, as Marinov points out, regional identity has not expressed itself through violence or a desire for political independence. Read with this in mind the most textbook-like contributions offer the reader much of the essential historical and geographic vocabulary of European regionalism while playing well into the problematized critical approach the edited volume hopes to achieve.

In contrast MIKHAIL SUSLOV (Uppsala) takes the history of Russian regionalism in only two examples, Siberia and Novorossiya, which reanimated the discussion about the most practical method of addressing the history of regionalism. Interestingly, Suslov took as his subject not the regions themselves but rather the problem of belonging, specifically belonging to a nation (Russia). Regionalism, Suslov suggested, should be understood as “a relational concept.” Pairing the distant but generally unproblematically Russian region of Siberia with the intensely problematic concept of Novorossiya enables Suslov to engage with his subject in a variety of spheres, economic, cultural and political. Nevertheless there was some doubt about the practicality of the historical papers taking such a specific focus in a book designed as a text for undergraduates. This criticism was raised in regards to many of the contributions in this section, such as the article on regionalism in the British Isles by JAMES KENNEDY (Edinburgh) which focuses on the constituent nations of the UK at the expense of English regions. Kennedy’s approach, however, was an intentional choice that enabled a discussion of the UK as a “composite” nation of regions with their own identities which the nation state must accommodate, a structural problem that varies from innocuous at times of national unity prompted by the presence of external threats to times such as the present when regionalism enjoys resurgence. Thus Kennedy is able to problematize the relationship between nation and region at the heart of his case study. In the ongoing discussion occasioned by these problems of focus it was suggested by several contributors that nation states appear to develop an exoticized region of special cultural significance to the nation as a whole, a kind of regionalism Hopkin described as “national[ism] with tabasco sauce,” a phenomenon that might deserve some mention in the final text.

During the final session JEREMY DE WAAL (Vanderbilt / Berlin) presented an article tracing the history of regionalism in Germany from the Heimat movement of the Kaiserreich era to the post war period. While noting the negative connotations that have accrued to Heimat as a concept of identity, and in contrast to Leerssen’s irritants or Kennedy’s composite nation, De Waal downplays any fundamental friction between nation and region. De Waal makes the novel argument that the FDR (West Germany) was an example of a mutually supportive relationship between popular regionalism and the nation state. Directly addressing the issue of post war feelings about regional identity De Waal ably shows that after the war far from being discredited German regionalism was seen as an important support for the federal state. PETER STADIUS (Helsinki), presenting a paper on regionalism in Scandinavia, also noted cases in which regionalism enjoyed a positive, reinforcing relationship with national identity particularly in central Sweden although he chose to concentrate on the more contentious cases where regionalism has expressed itself through demands for autonomy. Stadius heavily leans towards a centre versus periphery model in his explanation for the growth of antagonism between nationalism and regionalisms in Scandinavia, and concludes by problematising the relationship of Scania, in Sweden's southern periphery, with the core as a future point of interest.

At the conclusion of the workshop several of the contributing social scientists asked that some editorial decisions be made in advance as to the appropriate terms to use throughout the text, decisions which may well be influential in the field. The editors also addressed some of the more general editorial questions raised over the course of the workshop, clarifying the aim as being to provide “a selective overview of the field,” and closed with their thanks to all the participants.

Conference overview:

Xosé M. Núñez Seixas (Munich) & Eric Storm (Leiden): Introductory Welcome

Xosé M. Núñez Seixas (Munich): Regionalism under Fascism

Susan Smith-Peter (Staten Island CUNY): Regionalism under Communism

Daniele Petrosino (Bari): Western Europe and Democracy

David Hopkin (Oxford): Folklore

Jan-Henrik Meyer (Copenhagen / New York): Nature

Johannes Kabatek (Zürich): Language

Eric Storm (Leiden): Tourism and international expositions

Xosé M. Núñez Seixas (Munich): Southern Europe

Peter Stadius (Helsinki): Scandinavia

James Kennedy (Edinburgh): British Isles

Joep Leerssen (Amsterdam): Low Countries

Jeremy de Waal (Vanderbilt / Berlin): Germany and surrounding areas

Mikhail Suslov (Uppsala): Russia

Tchavdar Marinov (Istanbul): Balkans

Xosé M. Núñez Seixas (Munich) & Eric Storm (Leiden): Conclusion

Tagungsbericht: Regionalism and Modern Europe, 10.11.2016 – 12.11.2016 Leiden, in: H-Soz-Kult, 21.02.2017, <>.