In times of increasing weaponization of homogenized national narratives, the edited volume No Neighbors’ Land aims to counter this tendency. The goal of the publication is twofold: It aims to relate the multilayered history of killings, expulsions, and population shifts during and after the Second World War to the perspectives of both leavers and remainers – the neighbors. At the same time, it sets itself the goal “to do justice to the experiences of the No Neighbors’ Lands” (p. 411), and to showcase the current relevance of mnemopolitical debates related to them. Hence, in the volume, historical analysis of the immediate events of (post-)war violence and expulsions overlaps with studies of their memorialization or non-memorialization.
The book’s title alludes to Jan Tomasz Gross’ groundbreaking publication “Neighbors”.1 Gross problematized the victim/perpetrator-dichotomy in Second World War violence by highlighting the role of the third party, previously referred to as bystanders, or by Gross, neighbors. It is this historiographical debate that the book aims to develop further. In doing so, it goes far beyond merely examining neighborly relations.
The interdisciplinary case studies of the volume are aligned in roughly chronological order, including violence during and after the war, the immediate consequences of that violence in the postwar years and the strategies of forgetting and memorializing the events until today. Regionally, the collection is mostly focused on what Timothy Snyder called “Bloodlands”2 – the multiethnic territories of East Central and Southeastern Europe that did not only experience brutal German and Soviet occupation, but also profound changes in borders and populations, accompanied by broad-scale violence, in the aftermath of the war.
While the wartime experiences of the nationalities in the region under discussion were diverse – from collaborators of the German occupants to the latter’s victims –, most of them shared a common postwar experience. The region witnessed the establishment of state-socialist regimes that aimed to create homogeneous mnemopolitical narratives focused on either national suffering or national heroism. These narratives and their deconstruction are the topics of many contributions to this volume.
Nicole Eaton presents the case of Kaliningrad’s “de-Prussianization” during which not only the German population was expelled, but the German heritage was entirely pushed out of the material and symbolic sphere of the region as well. This process was embedded in the larger framework of the Soviet antifascist narrative, which perceived the Germans as a threat to the implementation of socialism. Johanna Wyss discusses a similar phenomenon, namely the omittance of the German past in the Czech town of Opava. Her anthropological chapter focuses on the contemporary persistence of a unilateral national narrative and tracks its historical roots. She claims that the indirect “implication” of the new Czech settlers, who had not directly witnessed the expulsion of the Germans, has until now precluded a discourse on the German history and the fate of the German population in the region. In turn, Irina Rebrova’s chapter concentrates on the remembrance of a site of the mass killing of Jews in Russia in order to show how the Soviet narrative of the Second World War pushed specific national groups out of the memory framework by subsuming all the victims under the umbrella of “Soviet citizens”.
Likewise, the expulsion and/or expropriation of ethnic groups was not seen as a solely national question in the socialist narrative, as Emanuela Grama makes it clear in her chapter on Romania. She describes how formerly expropriated Germans were in some cases allowed restitution in the 1950s on the condition of joining collective farms. This was not only a partial revoking of the collective punishment of the German population, but also an attempt to advance the lagging collectivization campaign. Pamela Ballinger’s contribution touches upon the social dimension of the afterwar national conflicts in the region of Istria, where Italian had been the dominant language and Italians made up the urban, economically stronger part of the population. After the war, power relations changed in favor of the Slavic population. Ballinger’s discussion moves away from the larger categories of nation and class, highlighting the space for individual agency and choice that still existed to some extent.
This switch of perspective – from national policies and collective approaches to the neighbors towards individual relations with neighboring populations – is also employed by Borbála Klacsmann in her chapter on the discrepancy between national policies and individual cases with regard to the restitution of property to Jews in Hungary. Even though the communist government officially condemned the antisemitic violence during the war and stated its intent of restitution, it did not provide clear guidelines for the process. Since many local actors responsible for restitution were the same people who had carried out the expropriations only a few years ago, the success of Jewish claims depended on the benevolence of their non-Jewish neighbors. A very similar phenomenon is touched upon by Nadège Ragaru, who draws a picture of an informal social system of personalized relations based on giving and receiving favors that undermined the persecution of antisemitic wartime crimes in postwar Bulgaria. Marta Havryshko underlines the importance of individual decisions as well. Drawing attention to the aspect of sexual violence during the Holocaust in Ukraine, she argues that there was no consistent strategy of dealing with cases of rape in postwar trials, which gave considerable leeway to individual judges and witnesses.
By contrast, Małgorzata Łukianow makes a case for the strong influence of national narratives on the ex-post rationalization of local violence. In her analysis of two instances of collective violence by Poles against Ukrainians and vice versa, she carves out specific strategies of memorialization. Both communities used depersonalized arguments and attributed the attacks rather to conflicts between nationalities than to local misunderstandings. Finally, Sabine Rutar contributes an intimate study of neighboring relations in both individual and structural contexts in Istria. Referring to the film Piran – Pirano by Goran Vojnović, she discusses both levels of neighborhood, intertwining the movie plot with the historical context.
Another aspect brought up by the volume is the complete disappearance of certain ethnic groups and its consequences for regional identity constructions and material reality. The Slovenian region of Kočevje, which had been an area of historic German settlement, remains scarcely populated until today, as Mitja Ferenc explains. After the resettlement of the local Germans, which had been started by the Nazi occupiers and was forcefully completed by the Yugoslav state, few material traces of the former German population are left. The material and economic consequences of ethnic violence are also discussed by Anna Wylegała. Her chapter shows how the multiple occupations and population exchanges in Galicia, particularly the annihilation of the Jewish population, have resulted in radical economic changes. On the one hand, there was a shortage of services as whole professions that had traditionally been performed by Jews had disappeared. On the other hand, the gaps left by them offered opportunities of rapid social advance for remainers and newcomers.
The compendium is completed by chapters on the fate of the Roma community in the aftermath of the Second World War (Volha Bartash), a transnational comparison of nationalization policies in Poland and Belgium (Machteld Venken) and the close examination of a direct case of neighborly violence of Poles against Jewish survivors (Karolina Panz).
Taken together, No Neighbors’ Land provides the reader with a cross section of the history of World War II violence and its commemoration in East Central and Southeastern Europe. While it could be argued that it consolidates the stereotypical view of this region as constantly shaken by war and crisis, it avoids that trap by carefully deconstructing unilateral historical narratives. It reveals that conflicts appearing at the national level were fueled by social and individual motivations as well. Both this deconstructivist approach and the examples of thorough historical contextualization are strong points of the volume.
Looking at the book from the context of mnemopolitical debates, one aspect seems particularly controversial: The chapters discuss the consequences of the Holocaust and the German occupation as well as the violence against local German populations after the end of the war. While all those particular histories are presented in differentiated and multifaceted ways, the German occupation and the agency of the local German population in the crimes against Jews and other national or social groups are not always pointed out specifically. The stance to omit unified national narratives as well as attributions of collective guilt is indeed crucial to historical analysis. Still, while the homogeneous notions of “victims” and “innocent bystanders” have already been thoroughly deconstructed in recent years, it remains controversial to call into question the category of “perpetrator”, which refers to the Germans in many of the presented cases.
The volume succeeds to deconstruct unilateral memory narratives by drawing attention to the emotionality and materiality of losses, by showing different scales of individual agency in the context of structural, state-imposed violence, and by unveiling the social dimension of many national conflicts. No Neighbors’ Land is a fruitful contribution to the historiographical and mnemopolitical discussion of experiences of violence during and after the Second World War.
1 Jan Tomasz Gross, Neighbors. The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland, Princeton 2001 (German edition 2001, Polish original 2000).
2 Timothy Snyder, Bloodlands. Europe between Hitler and Stalin, New York 2010, reviewed for H-Soz-Kult by Grzegorz Rossoliński-Liebe, 30.03.2011, https://www.hsozkult.de/publicationreview/id/reb-15436 (01.12.2023).