Conference reports Male historians in exile. Constantly relating to their background

After World War II, researchers in a number of scholarly fields, particularly literary criticism and history, have investigated the various activities of emigrant and exile groups. Leading scholars of East European history have long sought to direct their focus to the decisive importance of exiled intellectuals in 20th century East European history-writing and nation-building. It is gratifying that this research area has become the subject of a conference, “East and Central European History Writing in Exile — International Dissemination of Knowledge”, held December 3–5 at Södertörn University, arranged by CBEES, within the framework of the research theme “cultural theory”.

Published on balticworlds.com on februari 24, 2010

Inga kommentarer till Constantly relating to their background Share
  • Facebook
  • del.icio.us
  • Pusha
  • TwitThis
  • Google
  • LinkedIn
  • Digg
  • Maila artikeln!
  • Skriv ut artikeln!

Modern Western culture is in large part the work of exiles, émigrés, refugees.” The words are Edward Said’s, taken from his book Reflections on Exile and Other Essays (2000). The words stress the special importance exile has had in the development of cultural expression in the 20th century. Said is, however, far from alone in emphasizing exile as a key to understanding our time. Exile as a poetic and existential trope is as old as Western history itself. Homer’s epic work Odysseus might be interpreted as one of the first narratives of exile.

During the Renaissance, Francesco Petrarca on his part described exile as an emotional state, existentially comparable to death.

However, the exile to which Said refers is of a different, more immediate kind. As is well known, during the 1900s millions of people, including thousands of academics and artists, were forced to flee violent political upheavals. After World War II, researchers in a number of scholarly fields, particularly literary criticism and history, have investigated the various activities of emigrant and exile groups. The mass emigration from Germany has attracted most attention. Ehrhard Bahr’s study Weimar on the Pacific: German Exile Culture in Los Angeles and the Crisis of Modernism (2007) is an interesting contemporary example of this kind of research. The 20th century mass flight of intellectuals from the Soviet-dominated areas has, in comparison, received far less attention.

Leading scholars of East European history have long sought to direct their focus to the decisive importance of exiled intellectuals in 20th century East European history-writing and nation-building. It is gratifying that this research area has become the subject of a conference, “East and Central European History Writing in Exile —

International Dissemination of Knowledge”, held December 3–5 at Södertörn University, arranged by CBEES, within the framework of the research theme “cultural theory”.

Over a period of three days, presentations were given by close to twenty academics from different parts of Eastern

Europe, each of whom had a particular approach to the subject. Special attention was paid to historians in exile from the Baltic States, Poland, Russia, Ukraine, and the former Czechoslovakia. One of the three principal objectives of the conference, besides illuminating the particular conditions of exile and the innovative thinking to which it can lead, was to examine how knowledge is disseminated. In his opening presentation, Stefan Berger from the University of Manchester emphasized that exile historians had tended to focus primarily on their home countries’ deficiencies, in order to gain a critical overview. At the same time, Berger argued, being in exile meant that the historians were suddenly placed outside their home countries’ institutional networks.

This, in turn, made great claims on their ability to adapt quickly to the social and professional demands of their host countries. Here, language skills played an important part, but different academic cultures and stylistic codes might likewise be decisive for whether an article is accepted by a journal or a book is published. Berger further directed attention to an important difference between historians who had fled Nazi Germany and those who fled the Soviet Union. In contrast to the formers’ generally critical, Western-influenced attitude towards older German historiography, which they blamed, to some degree, for the success of Nazism, the community of ex-Soviet historians took an anti-liberal stance, a stance which was, in time, to give rise to so-called Eurasianism. Jaan Undusk, from Tallinn’s Under and Tuglas Literature Center, gave a presentation discussing the historian Vello Helk (born 1923) which could be taken as a case-study of an exile historian’s achievements. After having been forced to enlist in the German army in 1944, Helk made it to Denmark in 1945. He quickly laid the foundation for a long academic career as a Danish-Estonian historian. Undusk described Helk’s case as an example of a particularly “successful” exile, as Helk rapidly established himself professionally in his new country. It had always been Helk’s ambition to stay in Denmark, to become a “good Dane”, an ambition that is reflected in his decision to publish many of his studies in Danish — amongst these a work on Estonia’s history, Estlands historie (1993). Helk studied many geographical areas, but he was always particularly interested in the Nordic nations and in Germany. German was Helk’s preferred second language for publishing purposes. In this context, one should mention his study Die Jesuiten in Dorpat 1583–1625: Ein Vorposten der Gegenreformation in Nordosteuropa (1977). Writing in German rather than Danish made it of course easier for Helk to gain international recognition for his work.

Undusk traced the reason for Helk’s many successes — Helk was awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Order of the Dannebrog and was also appointed vice archivist at the Danish National Archives — to his adaptability and his unremitting loyalty to Denmark. It appears, however, that it was easier for Estonian academics to establish themselves in Denmark than in, for example, Sweden. Because Denmark, contrary to Sweden, did not have a sizeable Estonian community, Helk was perceived as an individual rather than as a member of a marginalized group. According to Undusk, this allowed Helk to demarcate himself more clearly. Furthermore, until his retirement, Helk avoided political stances and involvement in controversial issues. This section’s subsequent three lectures focused less on individuals than on fairly large associations of exile historians, categorized according to pre-exile nationality. Andrejs Plakans from Iowa State University discussed his ongoing project, the mapping of Latvian historians exiled after 1945. After fleeing Latvia, most of these settled in North America, Sweden, and Australia. Plakans follows a group of 25 individuals, spread over three generations. Of this group, only about ten were established historians when they fled Latvia in 1944. The third generation of historians, some of whom were not even born in 1945, is, together with the second generation, the group that has contributed most to the dissemination of Latvian history. At the same time, as Plakans was careful to point out, it is doubtful whether these second- and third-generation historians fit the definition “exile historian” to the same degree as the first generation. In his presentation, Mirosław Filipowicz from the Catholic University of Lublin focused on the first generation of Russian exile historians in the USA. From the Russian revolution until World War II, Russian exile historians settled primarily in European capitals such as Prague, Berlin, and Sofia. However, this changed in 1941, when the military alliance between the USA and the USSR led to a marked increase in American interest in the Soviet Union. American universities expanded their

Russian studies programs, and both Harvard and Columbia universities opened Russian research institutes. Emigrant intellectuals from Russia were, thus, in great demand.

Finally, Volodymyr Kravchenko, Karazin National University in Kharkiv, described his research on Ukrainian exile historians. He is particularly interested in the third wave of Ukrainian emigrants, those who arrived in the USA during or immediately after World War II. Up to the late 1960s, Ukrainian exile historians were in the periphery of the American academia, and had difficulties establishing a dialogue with other exile groups. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, however, a series of important academic institutions were established (e.g. the Ukrainian Research Institute at Harvard) which gave the subject prestige and legitimacy. All the same, there still existed clear, ideology-tinted opposition between Ukrainian historians and researchers in Slavic, Russian and Soviet studies. Ukrainian Studies were, it was felt, tainted by extreme nationalism and insufficient objectivity. Meanwhile,

Ukrainian historians accused Western intellectuals of being influenced by Soviet nationalistic historiography. This situation changed dramatically with the collapse of the Soviet Union, when Ukrainian Studies finally became an established part of mainstream West European academia.

The speakers had, in spite of their different research areas and foci, one striking similarity: the picture of the exile historian given was exclusively male. Unfortunately, the question raised during the concluding discussion, concerning the existence of exile women historians, was laughed away by some loud-voiced participants. The fact that two of those who had taken the initiative to arrange the conference were women historians with exile backgrounds, Anu Mai Koll and Maria Zadencka, seemed to have been missed by most of the attending male historians. Latvian historians Lidija Svabe, Mirdza Baltais and Zigrida Runcis, the latter first archivist at the Swedish National Archives, the company also managed to ignore. We can only hope that future generations of historians specializing in this set of problems will be capable of seeing beyond anti-intellectual gender barriers. ≈