K. Alenius u.a.: Balancing between National Unity and “Multiculturalism”

Balancing between National Unity and “Multiculturalism”. National Minorities in Lithuania and Finland 1918–1939

Alenius, Kari; Kaubrys, Saulius
On the Boundary of Two Worlds
Anzahl Seiten
XII, 264 S., 2 farb. Karten, 42 SW-Tabellen
€ 99,00
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Timo Aava, Jacob Robinson Institute for the History of Individual and Collective Rights, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem

In historical scholarship, the prevailing understanding of different regions often prescribes which regions scholars analyse or which countries they analyse together. Contemporary historians usually group together the three Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania) or the Nordic countries (Finland, Sweden, Norway and Denmark) and are far less likely to study these two regions, or countries from these regions, jointly. Yet, for many reasons, it is worth looking at the history of Lithuania and Finland comparatively: Both were part of the Russian Empire, which acquired these lands between the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Although the Duchy of Finland had a special autonomous status and its own diet in the Russian Empire, both were part of the same political-legal space for over a century, and both experienced the revolutions of 1905 and 1917. Furthermore, both emerged (or reemerged in the case of Lithuania) as independent states as a result of the First World War – Finland in December 1917 and Lithuania in February 1918. They underwent a similar process of state-building and winning international recognition. What is perhaps less known today is that during the interwar period, Finland was also occasionally understood as a Baltic state. This changed after the Second World War. Having resisted the Soviet invasion, Finland preserved its independent statehood, aligned with the Nordic countries, and dissociated itself from the Soviet-occupied Baltic republics.1

The comprehensive survey of national minorities in Finland and Lithuania during the 1920s and 1930s, written by Kari Alenius (University of Oulu) and Saulius Kaubrys (University of Vilnius), thus offers an account of cases that are not usually treated together. The book is part of the series “On the Boundary of Two Worlds: Identity, Freedom, and Moral Imagination in the Baltics”, perhaps one of the most important book series on Baltic studies. The publication begins with a brief introduction explaining the chief similarities and differences between the two countries, the importance of analysing them together, and the concept behind the book. The first chapter then gives a general history of different ethnic groups in Finland and Lithuania, including the years before independence. It serves as a necessary context for the subsequent, more detailed chapters. Chapter 2 analyses census data, highlighting two different principles used to assign ethnic classifications: Whereas the 1923 Lithuanian census relied on the individual’s self-declared ethnic identity, annual population statistics in Finland relied on the individual’s native or principal language. Chapter 3 is the most extensive. Although it bears the name “Law and Politics”, it is packed with a plethora of topics, including, for instance, minority representation in the parliaments and local self-governments, minorities’ political activities, minorities in legal frameworks, Lithuania’s international commitments to minority protection, examples of minority societies and organisations, the army, anti-Semitism, majority party approaches to minorities, and living conditions. Chapter 4 on the educational life of national minorities demonstrates that in Lithuania, educational policies and practices were defined by the multitude of different minority groups (most importantly the numerically strong Jewish community but also the Poles, Russians and Germans), whereas in Finland, it mainly revolved around the Finnish-Swedish question (and to a smaller extent the Sámi). Subsequently, chapter 5 analyses social and economic aspects of the lives of minorities, focusing on their settlement structures and the economic fields in which these groups were active. Chapter 6 treats the religious life of minorities, describing different religious groups in the case of Lithuania and, in the case of Finland, determining which minorities affiliated with which religious groups. Finally, a short conclusion highlights broad trends in minority-majority relations in the two countries. The authors conclude that the position of Swedes in Finland was similar to Poles and Jews in Lithuania who had dominated in different walks of life before independence and whose influence remained a matter of concern for Finns and Lithuanians.

The parts of the book covering Lithuania and Finland differ both conceptually and stylistically. The parts analysing Lithuania place a strong emphasis on numerical data, and the text is packed with rich quantitative information on various aspects of minority life. They provide a great number of statistical tables and lists about such topics as census data, the share of minorities in municipalities and the state, election results, the share of minority deputies in various elected bodies, and minority schools – to name only a few. Altogether the book contains 32 tables, most of them about Lithuania. In addition, the text on Lithuania includes plentiful lengthy quotations from both primary sources and secondary literature. This rich, concentrated material is a valuable source of information for researchers and can even serve as a handbook. However, such a densely detailed text makes it sometimes hard to follow, and some of the information could easily have been left to footnotes.

The parts covering Finland follow a different approach. They offer a more coherent narrative, interwoven with examples, arguments, and quantitative data that does not dominate. This is probably at least partially because Finland was ethnically more homogenous; the complexities of Lithuania proved more challenging to encapsulate in a coherent text. However, stronger integration of quantitative data into the text and a more lucid style make the sub-chapters on Finland easier to follow and more engaging to read.

The account’s greatest strength is its comparison of two cases that are not usually treated together. Such an approach indeed brings our attention to similarities and differences, many of which can be traced to the different ethnic compositions of the two countries. However, the book compartmentalises these two cases into separate sub-chapters. While the advantage of this is that a reader can quickly get a picture of one or the other country, a more integrated text, intertwining the core topics and the two countries, would have strengthened the comparative dimension of the account. And while the conclusion of each chapter usually recapitulates the main points about each country, it hardly puts them in a dialogue.

The survey of minorities in Finland and Lithuania by Alenius and Kaubrys is a valuable addition to the body of literature on the history of national minorities in Europe. Although stylistic and conceptual approaches vary in different parts of the book, it is rich in detail and will be a useful source of information for scholars. Analysing countries that are usually treated separately, it highlights the importance of comparative analysis and hopefully will encourage more cross- and trans-regional comparative studies.

1 Pärtel Piirimäe, The Baltic, in: Diana Mishkova / Balázs Trencsényi (eds.), European Regions and Boundaries. A Conceptual History, New York 2017, pp. 67–69.