30th December, 2021 by Christopher Wendt
On November 3 and 4, 2021, historians of modern East Central Europe came together at the Archives of the City of Budapest to reconsider an often-visited topic in the history of the Habsburg Monarchy and its successor states: the role of nationalism and ethnicity. However, the emphasis of this third conference hosted by the ERC NEPOSTRANS (Negotiating Post-Imperial Transitions) project lay not on how nationalist activists arose from the collapsing empire to shape the new and expanded post-war states and win local loyalties. Rather, the contributions of those meeting in person and online emphasized just how much the nation state did not serve as the most important point of reference for those navigating the post-imperial transition across the former Habsburg space. Many presentations pointed to how non-national allegiances continued to hold sway in local and regional societies, were actively fostered, or were even imported from other contexts. Still others pointed to the prevalence of non-orthodox nationalisms, or to the importance of looking to non-traditional carriers of nationalism. Across the varied cases, researchers highlighted how Habsburg arrangements that had shaped notions of ethnic belonging and fostered local solidarities persisted after the war—and how these continually vexed the self-proclaimed “nation states” that worked to establish themselves after 1918.
FIRST DAY – (NOVEMBER 3, 2021)
The presenters of the first panel, “Below the Nation,” focused on locals’ allegiance to sub-national units—above all, the region—as new, nationally defined states solidified after the war. Cody J. Inglis (CEU, Vienna-Budapest/NEPOSTRANS) interrogated the post-war loyalties of the predominately German-speaking populace of Znojmo/Znaim, finding that rather than becoming irridentist German nationalists after their border territory was integrated into Czechoslovakia, most remained first and foremost “Southern Moravians.” Oliver Pejić (EUI, Florence) cited examples from both Lower Styria and Bačka/Bácska/Batschka in the newly expanded SHS Kingdom to argue that in both cases, people utilized region-particular, “popular” nationalisms to smooth their transition into a post-imperial world. Christopher Wendt (EUI, Florence/NEPOSTRANS) rounded off the panel by highlighting efforts by Catholic elites in post-war Austrian North Tyrol to reinforce regional loyalties, while stressing that the region as a point of identification was little more “natural” than the nation itself.
The second panel turned to an aspect of research on nationhood and nationalism that is commonly overlooked: how the working class interpreted and interacted with national and ethnic belonging. Drawing on her research into Northern Bohemia, Ségolène Plyer (Univ. of Strasbourg/NEPOSTRANS) argued that for the Czech- and German-speaking workers, national issues took a backseat to material concerns immediately after the war, and ethnicity only slowly became a dominant category of identification. Wiktor Marzec (Institute for Social Studies, Warsaw) followed by shifting to the Russian imperial context, where he contrasted the relationship between worker nationalist mobilization, imperial toleration of worker movements (or lack thereof), and revolutionary potential in four peripheral areas.
In her keynote lecture, “Loyalties Taken Locally: New Perspectives on Post-Imperial Statehood,” Jana Osterkamp (LMU, Munich) pointed to the diversity of local responses to imperial collapse in 1918, many of which evinced strong loyalties to non-national entities. Despite key constitutional differences between Habsburg Austria and Hungary, people in both halves of the monarchy held complex, multilevel loyalties, shaped by local, regional, confessional, and class affiliations. Especially in Austria, allegiances were directed toward the Crownlands, which were seen as popular “fatherlands” and held importance as the provider of social services, benefits, and practical improvements. Above this level, even in suffrage-limited Hungary, participating in electoral politics as citizens was a crucial experience that forged bonds to an imperial whole. Osterkamp brought her keynote to a close with a poignant question: was this diversity, and the layered system of loyalties engendered by the monarchy’s federal structure, ultimately responsible for the failure of post-1918 democratic states? Answering firmly in the negative, Osterkamp pointed instead to how many of the constitutional systems adopted after 1918 continued to provide space for overlapping loyalties and encouraged consensus, thereby setting the path for democratic futures, even in multinational states.
The day’s last presenters focused on how elites and sub-elites interpreted nationhood or other forms of belonging, often to the detriment of the central state. Using the example of Prekmurje, a formerly Hungarian territory that was incorporated into the SHS Kingdom following the war, Jernej Kosi (Univ. of Ljubljana/NEPOSTRANS) showed that belying the claims of nationalists in Ljubljana to have liberated long-oppressed “Slovene” national territory were much more complicated, and ambiguous, local realities. Additionally, whereas regional identifications became more important than ever in the new state, the actual terms through which this regionalism was expressed were not necessarily deeply rooted indigenous holdovers, but rather imports from beyond Prekmurje’s borders. Ágoston Berecz (Pasts Inc, Budapest) concluded the day by outlining a new research agenda centered around the concept of “popular nationalism.” Instead of focusing on elite instrumentalization of the masses through nationalism, Berecz argued for reversing perspectives by viewing “popular nationalism” as a conceptual tool to see how everyday people coopted the language of nationalism in order to advance their claims against elites and the state.
SECOND DAY – (NOVEMBER 4, 2021)
The second day of the conference began with a panel based on the Jewish population of East Central Europe as both subject and object of national mobilization and discursive constructions of the nation. Károly Ignácz (PTI, Budapest/NEPOSTRANS) outlined how Hungarian Christian Socials utilized anti-Semitic messaging to win municipal authority in the suburbs of Budapest immediately after the war. However, at least in the early 1920s, the political resonance of Antisemitism had its limits, as Social Democrats and Liberals won back municipal power in part by defending their Jewish constituents. Next, Jan Rybak (Univ. of London) turned the focus to Jewish nationalist mobilization. Running against the historiographical grain, Rybak argued that rather than the Balfour Declaration being responsible for the breakthrough of Zionism in East Central Europe, it was the organizational and welfare work undertaken by Zionist activists during the war that built the social trust necessary for subsequent political success. Rounding out the panel, Elisabeth Haid (PTI, Budapest/NEPOSTRANS) zoomed in on debates on governance reform and the right to political representation in the city of Kolomyja in southeastern Galicia over a long period transition into post-war Poland.
The day’s second panel focused on the link made between national belonging and rights in the so-called nation states. All presenters drew their examples from the context of interwar Romania, and many exposed the behind-the-scenes mechanisms of accommodation that served to preserve local multiethnic societies in the face of nationalizing central state authorities. Sergiu Delcea (CEU, Vienna-Budapest) kicked the panel off by arguing against the commonly held precept of the incompatibility of a welfare state with a diverse, multiethnic society. Instead, Delcea posited that the heterogeneous demography of interwar Romania galvanized welfare expansion, as Romanian authorities extended state benefits to foster an ethnic Romanian middle class and create the “core” of the nation. Next, Anikó Izsák (ELTE, Budapest/NEPOSTRANS) turned to the compelling case of the Romanian National Councils that were established in the immediate aftermath of the war in Satu Mare County. Izsák showed how the Romanian nationalist rhetoric that these councils deployed could cover for the fact that their members were often drawn from a diverse, multiethnic local elite. Gábor Egry (PTI, Budapest/NEPOSTRANS) brought the panel to a close by examining the “self-fashioning” strategies employed by both members of minority nationalities and titular Romanians as they sought to maintain or gain employment in an educational system in the throes of nationalization.
The final panel, “Ambiguities at the Edge,” addressed the effects of transition on a group at the margins of society, and another at the margins of national imaginings. Vita Zalar (ZRC SAZU, Ljubljana) began by discussing the process through which “Gypsiness” was developed as an ethnic and legal category in the Habsburg Monarchy and its successor states. Zooming in on interwar Yugoslavia, Zalar showed how Habsburg legal precedents, which tended toward the criminalization of “Gypsiness,” were incorporated into the multi-layered Yugoslav legal framework, extending a pernicious Habsburg legacy after the empire had expired. Finally, Ivan Jeličić (Univ. of Rijeka/NEPOSTRANS) dissected the complicated loyalties of Italian-speaking elites of Fiume and Liburnia in the immediate post-war transition. While conceiving of themselves as “Italian,” these people’s sympathy toward their Habsburg past proved to be just one source (among others) of friction with their purported Italian co-nationals, complicating notions of a smooth integration into the Italian Kingdom across the Adriatic.
The closing discussion that brought the conference to an end pulled at thematic threads that ran across panels, and suggested methodological questions pertaining to further research. Participants pointed to the continued need to connect ethnicity to other categories of self-understanding or affiliation, such as class, confession, and sub-national imagined entities. A common refrain, especially in light of the broad geographical sweep of the presentations, was the resonance of the Crownland or the region as a key site of loyalty in the post-imperial transition, one which was often strengthened through the war. Speakers also noted the need to continue to see ethnicity, especially at the individual level, as a flexible process. To this end, presenters emphasized the usefulness of biographical portraits and of collecting seemingly anecdotal traces in the archives that, when taken together, point to how the nation, as an organizing concept, was a project of trial and error.