History is a nag. All that moralizing about being condemned to repeat the past if we don’t remember it, when we all know history is a set of agreed-upon lies written by the winners. Not to mention the reason it’s called history and not herstory. So why, praytell, should we crack open another of those far too long books about old wars and dead men, when many of us are still recovering from the trauma of high school history class. It seems James Joyce had it about right in Ulysses when he wrote, “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.”
Now that we got that out of our system, meet historian John Connelly, and prepare to learn a little something about the fascinating patchwork of ethnicities populating Europe’s central and eastern regions—Slovaks, Bosnians, Poles, Serbs, Hungarians, and scores of others—and why the idea of national autonomy for any of them has caused such conflict over the centuries.
Jeff Fleischer gave John’s latest book, From Peoples into Nations: A History of Eastern Europe, a glowing review in the January/February issue of Foreword, alerting us to the importance of this project in helping readers understand the recent rise in nationalism around the world. With the help of Princeton University Press, we connected John and Jeff for this thoughtful discussion.
Jeff, take it from here.
Given your extensive experience studying Eastern Europe, how did you form the specific idea for From Peoples Into Nations? What was the genesis of this book?
The simple answer is that we have lots of excellent focused studies on single countries or on parts of the region (the Habsburg empire, for example, or Poland), usually in limited time frames, but no overarching study that might tell the region’s story as a whole, from the dawn of modern nationhood to the present.
The absence of such a book was unfortunate because the East European region is a place that has been of continued importance to world history. It gave us WWI, and in a sense, the twentieth century: it’s the place where ideas were formed of ethnic nationhood; where we find the earliest anti-colonial struggles as well as a testing ground for the utopian fantasies of Nazism and Stalinism. East Europe is also a region where twice in the past century the United States supported efforts at making democracy, thus showing what works and does not. In recent years it’s the place where local strongmen have advanced ideas of illiberal democracy; that is, democracy without the checks and balances that we consider second nature. Over the past century, it has opened up possibilities for the future that people did not anticipate, but that people themselves made.
Despite globalization, how people experience history differs depending on where they live on the map. In Eastern Europe, we have an unusual case of a variety of cultures and languages, but at the same time, an extraordinarily similar basic historic sensitivity: people remember that their nations have been subjected over centuries to the designs and often depredations of foreign powers. Therefore, Eastern Europe is a place imbued with a conviction that cultures and languages are not to be taken for granted, but precious things that must be protected. This is a way of looking at history that is almost incomprehensible for the average citizen of the US or UK. In East Europe, history is not something distant or abstract, but a continuing player in people’s lives, itself a person imbued with a will and specific desires: history actually does things to people, visibly shapes their individual lives.
East Europe has unusual coherence as a region of small nations between great powers that causes us to think more carefully about questions of identity—ethnic and social—than perhaps any other place on Earth.
The book addresses the myriad qualities that came to define these nations, from language to ethnicity, in ways that weren’t always the case. Why was the situation ripe for these qualities to form into national identities?
There is no simple answer. It’s incorrect to say—as textbooks often do—that the idea of nationhood dates from the French Revolution and its spread from the advent of modern schooling and rise of modern means of communication. In fact, significant portions of the Polish, Hungarian, or Serb peoples had a distinct sense of themselves as members of nations long before the eighteenth century.
The Serb case is especially interesting but poorly understood. Among Serbs, a set of epic poems was developed (no one knows the authors) from the fourteenth century onward, telling of a lost glorious history; the poems were sung in the privacy of people’s homes, telling them “who they were:” they were Christians, once subjects of their “own” native kingdoms, which had been violently suppressed by a foreign empire, in this case, Ottoman. The epic songs told them they as a people would recover independence and glory. Ultimately, this early nationhood, like all nationhood, was a story a people told itself about its past and future. When chances arose in the late eighteenth century to break free of Turkish-Ottoman rule, there was never a shortage of Serb men and women willing to do so through armed insurrections, and then efforts at building Serb statehood.
Similarly, Poles living under the rule of foreign powers from the 1790s recalled a supposedly glorious past, and when chances arose to assert Polish national rule in the generations that followed, there was never a lack of Poles willing to make enormous personal sacrifices. Here, too, a sense of nationhood was not new, but had been passed down over time in the memories and tales of Polish-speakers about once-strong Polish states, where their ancestors had lived lives of freedom and dignity, not subordinate to the will of foreigners. Again, identity was a story a people told itself about its past and future.
A requirement for the solid forming of premodern national identities was thus a clear sense of standing as one people—say the Serbs or Poles—against another—Turks, Russians, or Germans. For Germans, who are part of my story, the crucial event causing a mass solidifying in the modern age (after about 1800) of a previously vague sense of national identity was the lengthy occupation of much of Germany by French troops in the late eighteenth century, extending to Napoleon’s defeat.
What did change qualitatively in the nineteenth century, when people had the radiant example of the French nation and French Revolution in mind, was the proliferation of nationalism as a coherent ideology, the central idea (taken from France) being that a nation must have bounded territory in order to live securely. That meant that as soon as an autonomous Serb principality emerged under Ottoman suzerainty in the 1830s, it systematized and standardized knowledge about the Serb past, but also future, including where Serbia would be located: only in the modern period does one encounter the absolute insistence on ethnic hold over territory (and the earliest ethnic cleansings, dating from the 1840s).
Nationalism as a fully coherent and prescriptive ideology spread to entire populations with the advent of modern technologies to communicate, and inculcate ideas that existed in loose but definite form in people’s minds for many centuries. Only under modern conditions could this idea spread as an ideology: as an organized set of ideas that could motivate sacrifice, including one’s own life as well as many others.
The First World War clearly played a major role in Eastern European states breaking out of old empires. Can you talk a bit about how crucial the war’s outcome was to that situation?
The war was crucial because it led to the collapse of the four empires that had ruled East European territory for centuries and suppressed demands for national autonomy. The Habsburg state, for instance, had rejected requests for nationally autonomous entities within its borders by Czechs, Slovaks, Romanians, or Croats. By 1918, the fourth year of a war that evidently served German interests, that state had exhausted its ability to tap the loyalties of its subject nationalities, and they were open to new ideas. The same was true further north, in the Polish lands, where German military authorities packed their bags and went home in the fall of 1918 (they had ejected the Russians during the war and occupied Warsaw from 1915).
As it happened, the leader of the US delegation at the Paris Conference that settled WWI, President Woodrow Wilson, represented the revolutionary new idea of “national self-determination.” His idea was that peoples should rule themselves. He took this to be a natural right, exemplified in his own country. Another word for this idea was simply “democracy.” His plan had an international dimension: states ruled by peoples would have no reason to go to war, because in war it was always the masses of the people that bore the brunt of the suffering.
Wilson and his government, therefore, not only watched the Habsburg monarchy toppling in 1918, they pushed it over, proclaiming that it stood against the wishes of its people to rule themselves and had made war possible.
What Wilson did not understand was that East Europeans had a very different understanding of what the peoples was than he did. In the US, “we the people” was a political community that had once broken away from Britain. The American people wanted to rule themselves rather than be ruled from London. In Eastern Europe, by contrast, the peoples were ethnic; they were Czechs and Serbs, Croats and Slovaks, united in a sense of common culture, and stories of a deep history, extending back before writing, when their ancestors (Slavic tribes) had settled the region. If 1776 was the beginning of the American nation, for Czechs, Poles, or Serbs (Yugoslavs), the declarations of independence in 1918 were a culmination, the crowning moment of many centuries of nationhood. They represented a historic right justified by the suffering and sacrifice of generations of ancestors.
Part of the reason Wilson did not understand this different meaning of nation, and peoplehood in East Central Europe, was that the leaders of the nationalities—of the Romanians, Czechs, Poles, or South Slavs—became adept at speaking a language he found attractive: the Czechs claimed to desire self rule from imperial Austria the way that American colonists had once desired self-rule from imperial Britain.
Another thing that Wilson did not understand was that there was no way to draw lines between the East European peoples; often several claimed the same space, for example, in Bohemia (Germans and Czechs) or Poland (Poles and Ukrainians). This interspersing of peoples speaking different languages with differing senses of history, often two or three in one village, dated back to settlement patterns of many centuries earlier, when East European ancestors had moved in (usually from further east) with no concern for ethnicity, theirs or anyone else’s. The idea of a modern nation state, representing one ethnicity, still lay far in the future.
The result in 1918 was that the supposed new nation states were often miniature Habsburg empires; Czechoslovakia, for example, consisted of five nationalities; Yugoslavia of at least eight; Poland of five. In conditions of democracy, the coexistence of many ethnicities produced many political parties with irreconcilable programs, and throughout the interwar most of these states wrestled with the challenge of creating stable governments and failed. This hypercomplexity was not necessary: had the US president been better aware of the dappled nature of nationality in the vast spaces between Germany and Russia, there might have been more attention in Paris to careful drawing of boundaries, and to requiring that the new states make provisions for the representation of national minorities.
The book thoroughly details how fascism and communism became important forces in Eastern Europe during the twentieth century. Can you talk a bit about the conditions that made the region susceptible to these influences?
The answers vary. The book shows that despite the political turmoil of the years between the wars, fascism did very poorly in most of Eastern Europe, remaining marginal in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, or Yugoslavia. Most East Europeans saw fascism as an alien force not in keeping with local political traditions
But the book does show something new about fascism in Europe as a whole: the two countries in East Europe where large fascist movements did arise, Hungary and Romania, had something in common: the governing elite, espousing liberal and democratic principles but occupying the state administration as if were a personal possession, had deeply alienated the masses of poor citizens, mostly living in villages; as city folk, this ruling caste had disdain and contempt for the poor and did very little to improve their lives. That left an opening on the right for forces to argue that the governing class, in their fine suits and speaking excellent French or English, were in fact enemies of the people, and that only they—the fascists—could protect and promote the people in a broad ethnic and social sense. (In Hungary, fascists were called Arrow Cross; in Romania, Iron Guard.) They claimed the governing liberal-democratic order stood opposed to the nation: its culture, its language, its life and needs.
This appeal to the common people in their ethnic and social identities did not disappear with the fall of fascism in 1945: now we call it populism. Fascism is a form of populism.
But even in Hungary and Romania fascists did not come to power. The reason was that the detested elites who monopolized government and industry still commanded the police and army and could simply arrest fascist leaders—and that is precisely what happened in both Romania and Hungary. In 1938, Iron Guard leader Corneliu Codreanu was shot while trying to escape (in fact, he was garroted). What East Europe’s supposedly liberal (but, in fact, often deeply conservative) elites understood was that fascism was revolutionary and must be suppressed. They were savvy enough to use illiberal means to do so (the same had not been true in Weimar Germany, where fascists came to power legally in a scrupulously liberal system).
To explain communism’s spread across Eastern Europe after WWII, I point to three factors. First, Soviet imperialism—that is, the political and military expansion of historic Russia into space vacated by Nazi Germany after 1945 for the sake of its own security. The aggression of 1941 would not be repeated.
But second, Soviet power entered a moral and political vacuum. In 1945, it seemed apparent that the rickety liberal order Wilson helped establish had left the region open to fascist conquest and genocide. Many East European intellectuals therefore concluded that only communism could show a way forward, to a time when humans could live in peace and prosperity.
Third, communism responded to problems of economic development that the pre-1939 liberal regimes had been unable to address. The region was still overwhelmingly agrarian, with little industry and backward in terms of economic power (thus open to the predations of Nazi economic imperialism). What communism promised was to break through liberalism’s laissez faire stance and make concerted use of the state to build a modern society: with roads, electricity, schools, industries, cities. For many, perhaps most, East Europeans, the Soviet-type regimes established after WWII brought social and economic advancement, including literacy, urbanity, culture, and—for peasants, workers, and women—upward social mobility. It was not until the late 1970s that it became apparent this highly centralized economic model put a stranglehold on innovation, and left the region unable to keep up with forces of development in the global economy.
How do you consider the state of these relatively young nations today?
A few years ago, I would have spoken of confident hopes of further advancement to democracy, rule of law, and prosperity under the umbrella of the European Union. The EU had a very positive track record, having advanced the cause of liberal democracy in the 1990s, subduing populists who had usurped power in Bulgaria, Slovakia, or Romania. But recent years have caused a sobering among students of the region, as two countries who seemed frontrunners in the transition to democracy, Poland and Hungary, have fallen behind, with leaders and ruling parties trying to stifle pluralism and separation of powers.
The success of populism now is similar to that of the 1930s: populists claim a liberal elite is out of touch with the real needs and sentiments of the (ethnic and socially understood) “people,” and beholden to the interests of foreigners, now in Brussels.
The important thing in my view is for liberals not to abandon the field of contestation to the right. Liberals have to address their blind spot to the forces of ethnic nationalism; in the US, in particular, liberals tend to believe they have safely left ethnicity behind, when much of the world has not. For those interested in the health of liberal democracy, it is therefore prudent not to act as if culture, language, tradition, religion, and ethnicity were non-entities, somehow less substantial than supposedly measurable indices like economic prosperity. Liberals might learn from the experience of Western Europe, where in the decades after WWII Christian and Social Democrats showed that there can be social security, and prosperity, with rule of law, within the boundaries of nation states.
The history of Eastern Europe shows that the stability of liberal institutions guaranteeing the rights of the individual depends upon a social and political context that keeps the threat of populism at a remote distance.
They have to be embedded in western institutions. And those institutions have to be clearly devoted to principles of liberal democracy.
What do you most hope the audience comes away with after reading From Peoples into Nations?
I suppose the primary thing has to do with respect for diversity. Not everyone looks at the world the way people do in North America or Western Europe. A number of peoples whom we consider very close, partly because of huge émigré communities in the west, partly because of recent inclusion in western institutions, like NATO or the EU, look at the world in radically different ways than we do. They think of history not as some distant and anonymous force, let alone as a succession of dates and events, but almost as a personal entity that can intervene unpredictably and decisively in the story of one’s own family and community, destroying centuries’ old institutions in an instant.
Nothing made by humans is stable. In East Europe that fact places a huge premium on arguments for self-defense: the East European story is of small peoples. Without a strong patron, they can disappear. The region has produced more history—and been more touched by history—than other regions. Perhaps no place on earth concentrates so much that was new to humanity in the twentieth century: the region gave the world the terms genocide and ethnic cleansing and illiberal democracy. But it also fostered opposing movements and trends: people power, human rights, the worker trade union Solidarity (Poland), playwright Vaclav Havel’s notion of living in truth (Czechia). And more recently: the students in Belgrade who ousted Milosevic (Otpor), and in the past year a fascinating movement that emerged in the streets of Belgrade called simply For a Decent Slovakia.