Old Town Hall of Tallinn.

Old Town Hall of Tallinn.

Conference reports Spatial imagination and political notions of the Baltic Sea Region

Among many topics in the concluding discussion, there were some reflections from the participants on how to relate to the changing definitions and redefinitions of concepts like regionalism and nation as well as the relevance of these ideas in a period of speedy change. A suggestion was that that the populations in the Baltic Sea region perhaps practice regionalism in everyday life but think in nation-state terms when it comes to politics, and this is but one of many challenges for historians and political scientists to address in future research.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW 2019:1. Vol. XII. pp 50-51
Published on balticworlds.com on mars 7, 2019

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“Towards a New Baltic Sea Region? North-Eastern Europe at the End of World War I.” 9th International Conference on History and Culture in North Eastern Europe. Organizers: The Academia Baltica, Germany, Aue Stiftung, Helsinki; and the University of Szczecin. The Town Archive of Tallinn hosted the symposium in its medieval building in the Old Town.

Professor Seppo Zetterberg’s introductory keynote speech World War I and the People’s Spring formed the background to the detailed presentations during the symposium. It recounted how the Baltic Sea region became one of the most fateful theaters in Europe, with two great powers being truncated and several territories becoming nation states under both internal and external tensions. Zetterberg (University of Helsinki) gave the keynote speech in Estonian in the Old Town Hall of Tallinn.

The meeting started with lectures on concepts of the Baltic as a region. Michael North (University of Greifswald) took a long historical perspective, starting with Adam of Bremen and pointing to the different economic, political, and cultural interpretations and how their balance has changed over the centuries. Pärtel Piirimäe (University of Tartu) put an emphasis on the last 100 years of the Baltic region as an imagined space.

The role of Germany towards the “Baltikum” during the First World War 1914—1918 was highlighted by several lectures. Ron Hellfritsch (University of Greifswald) presented German politicians’ ideas of colonization and Germanization of Kurland, partly as an offer of land to its discharged soldiers. Eberhard Demm (University of Lyon) covered German attempts to influence the nation-building process of the different ethnic nations with ideas that ranged politically from die-hard annexationists among the military to adherents of a softer German hegemonic influence, particularly by industrialists and towards Lithuania. Mart Kuldkepp (Oxford University) spoke about the internal Baltic reactions to Germany’s “national policy” with different attitudes not only between the different nationalities, but also within them.

While Germany was relatively politically intact until the bitter end, Russian geopolitics towards the area differed for obvious reasons, even after the Bolshevik coup in November 1917. Karsten Brüggemann (University of Tallinn) pointed out Lenin’s sudden change from a Marxist theoretician to having to grapple with realities, not the least the clash between class and ethnicity (and its spatial consequences). “Let Finland, etc., go — they will soon join us anyway”. But some Baltic Marxists saw independence only as subjugation under imperialism.

Aspects of the “smaller nations” were covered by a number of participants. Jens Olesen (University of Greifswald) presented research on the burning geopolitical question of providing a hungry and politically unstable Finland with grain and the different deliberations made by possible providers. Anne Hedén (Södertörn University) covered the relations between Finland and Sweden, particularly the role of Swedish volunteers on the White side in the civil war, and their degree of support in Sweden. The Red side received no support from Sweden, partly due to instructions from their leaders who saw them as necessary for the revolution at home. While Sweden never tried any irredentism towards “Finland proper”, the Åland Island question was an important issue for activists from very different parties, shifting in intensity and actions from 1917 to the solution finally agreed on in 1921, as explained by Ralph Tuchtenhagen (Humboldt Universität Berlin).

For Latvia and Lithuania, just coming into being, territorial questions were important. Tilman Plath (University of Greifswald) presented the case of Letgallia squeezed between Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Russia from 1917 to 1920. Attempts at internal autonomy for Letgallia, including language rights, failed, as the area was finally annexed by Latvia. For Lithuania, according to Vasilius Safronovas (Klaipėda University) it was important to bridge the cultural gap between Catholics under Russian-Polish rule and Protestants under German rule, and to get access to the sea by annexing the Memel part of the latter. This fight over territories was carried out during the Paris Peace conference by official and unofficial representatives of Estonia and Latvia. Maps played an important role in the arguments, as demonstrated by Catherine Gibson (Università di Firenze).

After independence, Estonia (and to a limited extent Latvia) introduced cultural autonomy for national minorities. Olev Liivik (University of Tallinn) presented the consequences of such autonomy particularly for the most vociferous group, the Germans, who like all German minorities in Europe were supported by the Weimar Republic but felt badly treated in Estonia as principal victims of the land reform and by conflicts within the Protestant church. The Russians, by number the largest group, never managed to unite for a common cause, but their situation is under-researched.

Apart from the total “communalization” of land in Soviet Russia, the Estonian land reform was the most radical re-arrangement of land ownership in Europe, with the German gentry as the main losers. In 1925 about 70 percent of large estate land had been distributed, resulting in 41,000 new farms, but former landowners received very little compensation. Eli Pilve (University of Tallinn) provided this information but was unable to attend the conference because of cancelled flights.

Marco Nase (Södertörn University) related the political side of Baltic Sea research, especially the ideological battle between Polish and German research centers during the inter-war period to dominate the problem formulation and their attempts to include Swedish and Danish researchers on their respective sides. Related to the subject was Thomas Lundén’s (Södertörn University) presentation of some Swedish and Baltic geographers’ dream in the inter-war period of a “Balto-Scandian Federation” based on alleged cultural and natural physical similarities.

The post-Soviet situation as seen from the Russian discourse on Baltic regionalism was analyzed by Aleksander Sergounin (University of St. Petersburg) who pointed out that the transformations in Russian academic and expert communities had been rather receptive to the European concepts and models of regionalism, although in many ways elements of traditional thinking still remained even at the peak of the EU-Russian cooperation in the 1990s for the Kremlin, regional integration made sense only under certain conditions. However, Sergounin pointed to today’s general dynamic in the Baltic Sea region as grounds for cautious optimism.

Silke Berndsen (University of Mainz) covered the different attempts to create formal contacts between the three Baltic States after independence. Some of the incentives came from diaspora organizations and “Western” neighbors, but these efforts met with different obstacles.

The whole symposium was concluded with a lecture by its main organizer, Jörg Hackmann (Szczecin and Greifswald Universities) (together with Robert Schweitzer of the Aue Stiftung), entitled “History as Argument? Spatial imagination and political notions of the Baltic Sea Region since the 1980s” and by a final discussion. One of Hackman’s main points was the value and importance of developing multi-perspective views of the history of the Baltic Sea area, regardless of the current trends in security policies and the ebb and flow in the ongoing cooperation projects in the EU.

Among many topics in the concluding discussion, there were some reflections from the participants on how to relate to the changing definitions and redefinitions of concepts like regionalism and nation as well as the relevance of these ideas in a period of speedy change. A suggestion was that that the populations in the Baltic Sea region perhaps practice regionalism in everyday life but think in nation-state terms when it comes to politics, and this is but one of many challenges for historians and political scientists to address in future research.

The symposium brought several interesting issues to the table, and as usual contacts and coffee-break discussions added to the growth of knowledge. Hopefully the presentations will result in separate articles or perhaps even an anthology. ≈

 

 

  • by Anna Hedén and Thomas Lundén

    Anne Hedén is historian and journalist, focusing on political and social movements and currently affiliated to Arbetarrörelsens arkiv [Swedish Labour Movement’s Archive and Library] and Stockholm University. Thomas Lundén is Professor emeritus of human geography, CBEES, Södertörn University, with a focus on border studies and minorities.

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