Question of the Month: Recent Trends in the Study of National Awakening in East-Central Europe

Alexander Maxwell's picture

This post is about current trends in the study of so-called “national awakening” in East-Central Europe. It’s important to specify, perhaps, because the study of nationalism is not just a complicated problem, but a series of unrelated complicated problems going by the same name. Scholars who “work on nationalism” do not always have overlapping interests. This post is about history, it focuses mostly on the nineteenth century, and discusses scholarship on the Habsburg, Romanov and Ottoman Empires.


At present, the dominant trend in the study of national awakening in East-Central Europe, it seems to me, is to study something else, anything else. Scholars have rightly grown suspicious of teleological narratives of hero-awakeners who rouse their slumbering nations to freedom and political consciousness. Those narratives still dominate popular history-writing, and history-teaching in state-sponsored secondary education. Professional scholars, however, have been trying to break away from such narratives.


For some time now, scholars have looked at ethnic encounters in multi-ethnic spaces. Perhaps because research in towns is easier and more pleasant than rural area, the early 2000s saw numerous studies attempting to de-nationalize the city. The characteristic trend was for the title of an article or book to list the city’s name in all of its leading languages: Binder, Wendland, and Hrytsak’s work “Lemberg/Lwów/L’viv/L’vov” (2003) typifies the genre. Other notable studies, named for convenience by the dominant language of the current regime, include Babejová’s work on Bratislava (2003), Czaplicka on L’viv (2004), Mazower on Thessaloniki (2005), King on České Budějovice (2005), Brubaker et al’s on Cluj (2007), and Mick on L’viv (2016).


Other scholars have widened their gaze to write regional histories. Some scholars focus on a sub-national political unit, such as Kamusella on Silesia (2007), Wolff on Galicia (2012), Kirchner Reill on Dalmatia and Venice (2012), and van Drunen on Bukovina (2015). Others consider more amorphous regions, such as Brown’s superlative study on Volhynia (2005), Nemes on north-east Hungary (2016), or Shafiev on the south Caucasus (2018). Many such works place great analytical weight on the concept of “borderlands.”


Still other scholars have looked at the age of nationalism from the imperial perspective. The most obvious examples are Anscombe on the Ottoman Empire (2014), Judson on the Habsburg Empire (2016), and Vovchenko’s comparative Romanov-Ottoman study. Berger and Miller’s edited volume on “Nationalizing Empires” (2015) also deserves mention. Nevertheless, much recent work focuses on imperial institutions and their response to nationalism. Ash and Surman wrote about the nationalization of knowledge (2012) Cole on the nationalization of the Habsburg Army (2014), Deak on the Habsburg bureaucracy (2015), or Hirsch (2014) on nationalizing Soviet ethnographers.


I wonder, however, if all this work on alternatives to nationalism has lost sight of an important problem: how and why does nationalism arise in a particular society? Scholars have done terrific work on alternatives to nationalism. I suggest, however, that scholars interested in nationalism should try to write narratives of failed nationalism, or of competing nationalisms that take the failed nationalisms seriously. I challenge scholars unhappy with teleological narratives of national awakening to insert contingency into a case-study national awakening.

Categories: Blog Post

Dear Alexander,

If I can summarize the question as follows: "What's new in studies challenging the "heroic national awakening narrative" of 19th-century CEE people", what first comes into my mind are three directions.

One more general: 1) internationalization of study, contributing to a deeper understanding of cultural trends are transnational role models. Locus of this direction is the platform of the Encyclopedia of Romantic Nationalism in Europe -, also giving a new kick to comparative studies with tools of Digital Humanities.

And specific to Latvia and Estonia (i.e. Livland, Baltische Ostsee Provinzen of Russian Empire) 2) The genesis of alternative awakening - Baltic German nation cum colonial projects that were not mere conservative reactions to Latvian/Estonian awakenings, but that carried their own agenda (see Ulrike Plath at Tallinn University)

3) The "awakening before awakening" - studies on the impact of Hernhutian Brethren in forming future-oriented, emotional and self-organized peasant society by vernacular Christianity (like a kind of very late Reformation) that parallels better researched top-down managed Volksaufklarung (the latter inseparable from Orthodox Lutherism). Here the authority is Pavel Stoll from Prague.

Best regards,

Toms Ķencis
The University of Latvia Institute of Literature, Folklore and Art