S. Ramisch-Paul: Fremde Peripherie – Peripherie der Unsicherheit?

Fremde Peripherie – Peripherie der Unsicherheit?. Sicherheitsdiskurse über die tschechoslowakische Provinz Podkarpatská Rus (1918–1938)

Ramisch-Paul, Sebastian
Studien zur Ostmitteleuropaforschung (53)
Anzahl Seiten
280 S.
€ 55,00
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Stanislav Holubec, Institute of History, Academy of Sciences Czech Republic

“Podkarpatská rus” in Czech, “Zakarpattia” in Ukrainian, or “Kárpátálja” in Hungarian is a region with a complex and difficult history. According to a popular joke, an old, local peasant recalled around the year 2000 that “I was a citizen of five countries during my life, but I never left my village”. There is probably no other European region that has had its “owner” changed so frequently during the last century than Subcarpathia, with the area consistently being on the periphery of, and located in the borderlands between, empires (Habsburg, Soviet) and nation states (Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Ukraine). In terms of ethnic diversity, Subcarpathia represents one of the best examples of multiculturalism in Central and Eastern Europe. Before 1945, substantial numbers of both Ukrainian and Rusyn speakers lived here, along with Hungarians, Germans, Roma, and Jews. The picture was just as broad when it came to religious affiliation, with Greek Catholics, Orthodox Christians, Protestants, and Israelites all coexisting in the region.

Due to the abovementioned mosaic of ethnicities and religions, conducting historical research on this region that is entirely free from ethnic bias is by no means an easy undertaking. Existing works are mostly written from the perspective of one ethnic group. A thorough understanding of the ethnic diversity found in Subcarpathia requires an extensive knowledge of languages, as well as the ability to visit numerous archives. The book by Sebastian Ramisch-Paul entitled Fremde Peripherie – Peripherie der Unsicherheit? Sicherheitsdiskurse über die tschechoslowakische Provinz Podkarpatská Rus (1918–1938) can be placed among the works partly overcoming this challenge.

The first chapter gives an overview of the region’s history during the time of the late Habsburg Monarchy and under Czechoslovakian rule, with Ramisch-Paul concentrating on the two processes of democratization and nationalization. Although a synthesis like this one is far from new, the author provides fresh details here by making use of little-explored archival sources, such as documents originating from the Czechoslovakian presidential office. While Ramisch-Paul acknowledges the oversight briefly, greater attention to the attempt of the Hungarian government to grant the region autonomy between 1918 and 1919, and also to the Romanian occupation of the territory in 1919, would have been desirable in this chapter.

The empirical part of the book consists of two chapters. The first examines the region as an object of international (ethnographic, linguistic, historiographic) research, much of which has been conducted by German and Hungarian scholars since the late nineteenth century. For the period after 1918, Ramisch-Paul chiefly discusses Czech authors, most importantly the state official and social democratic politician Jaromír Nečas, but also the lesser-known journalist Antonín Hartl. By presenting their opinions on ethnic issues (which entailed supporting the use of Ukrainian or Russian as a language to be spoken at schools and in public), Ramisch-Paul shows that most authors saw their own culture as superior (pp. 90–100). Finally, the chapter looks at discourses on Subcarpathian Rus in post-1918 Czech novels. Here, it would have been useful to also discuss novels written by Hungarian, Russian, or Ukrainian authors at that time, if there were any.

The second analytical chapter explores the concept of “Versicherheitlichung”, which can be translated as “becoming secure” or “pursuing security”. For Ramisch-Paul, “Versicherheitlichung” is a discursive process initiated by certain security agents, in which a certain topic is articulated and dramatized as a problem of security (p. 4). The agents in question were primarily Czech authorities and journalists, but also public figures from other ethnic groups. The author attempts to contextualize their discussions on a local, national, and international level, and further links them to the blossoming civil society seen in the region after 1918. As Ramisch-Paul mentions, there were only ten newspapers published in Russian or Ukrainian in the region before 1918, but during the two decades of Czechoslovakian rule this number rocketed to more than 120. Political parties multiplied in much the same way, with more than 20 established after 1918.

Conflicts between local, political organizations and state authorities arose particularly over the question of autonomy. Several groups were regarded by the state as sources of insecurity, the first of these being local Greek Catholic clergy, whom Czechoslovakian authorities considered “Hungarophiles” and as possessing significant authority among the locals. In the early 1920s, according to Czech authors, several sources of insecurity existed simultaneously. These included the conflict between the Greek Catholic and Orthodox churches, friction within the Jewish community, and a further conflict between Czech authorities and Ukrainian, as well as Russian, émigrés. Border quarrels with Poland and Romania and disputes between authorities and the socially disadvantaged Roma minority also challenged the region’s security at this time. As for the 1930s, Ramisch-Paul identifies Ukrainian paramilitary groups and the German minority as sources of insecurity to be dealt with by the state authorities. For the German minority to be considered a threat was nothing short of remarkable, as it is estimated that this group accounted for only 2% of the population. It would appear that they were seen both as part of a growing number of Germans living in Czech territory, and in the context of aggressive foreign policy pursued by Nazi Germany. The author’s neglect of the Subcarpathian communists is surprising, particularly when considering that the group gained 40% of votes in the 1924 election, and were consequently seen by the state as the greatest threat to security for several years.

The concept of security discourses (“Sicherheitsdiskurse”) deserves further discussion. In political theory, securitization is often identified as a way in which ruling bodies can effectively manipulate the public. This is done by putting aside democratic mechanisms and arguing that certain issues are so dangerous, they must be placed under the jurisdiction of security organs (police, military, state authorities with extra powers). There is no doubt that Czech newspapers heavily contributed to an endemic fear of insecurity in Subcarpathia, with the state authorities sometimes reacting in an exaggerated way to threats too. But was there ever any real danger of insecurity, or was “securitization” a mere discursive phenomenon? Another question that remains open is whether or not securitization really was such an important aspect of Czech public discourses on Subcarpathia and related political topics. Certainly, Czechoslovakia’s aim to create a democratic, modern, nation state was influenced by insecurity discourses. However, there were also other issues justifying state intervention, such as underdevelopment, economic potential, and “Slavic ties” between Czechs and Rusyns. As has been shown, there were security discourses on Czech rule (safe roads, hospitals, schools) as well.[1] As a final point, it is not quite clear why “securitization” is included so prominently in the title of the book, as only one chapter deals with this issue.

Ramisch-Paul’s book contains plenty of information unknown to the German academic world, and therefore has the potential to be a valuable source of knowledge. Czech readers will similarly learn new things in reading this work, for example about the activities of people like Jaromír Nečas and Antonín Hartl, Czechoslovakian state authorities, pre-1918 research on Subcarpathia, and Nazi activities among the local German minority. The extensive use of archival sources from the Czech Republic (Prague) and from Zakarpatie (Beregovo) clearly adds to the many strengths of the book. Addional positive aspects include Ramisch-Paul working with an impressive amount of literature written in six languages, as well as presenting novel research conducted in the archives at Budapest and Warsaw. However, the Czech perspective remains crucial to his explorations. For a more complete picture, a stronger focus on Hungarian, Ukrainian, and Jewish sources and perspectives would be necessary, although this is a task that one author alone can hardly master. All in all, Ramisch-Paul has contributed substantially to current research on the Subcarpathia region and established himself as one of the main experts on this field in German academia.

[1] Stanislav Holubec, “We bring order, discipline, Western European democracy, and culture to this land of former oriental chaos and disorder.” Czech Perceptions of Sub-Carpathian Rus and its Modernisation in the 1920s, in: Stanislav Holubec / Joachim von Puttkamer / Włodzimierz Borodziej (eds.), Mastery and Lost Illusions. Space and Time in the Modernization of Eastern and Central Europe, Munich 2014, pp. 223–250.

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