Nation and Nationalism in Central and Eastern Europe

Chris Hann. The Sage Handbook of Nations and Nationalism. Editor: Gerard Delanty & Krishan Kumar. 2006. Sage Publishing.

In an age strongly marked by both the rhetoric and realities of Europeanization, primarily in the context of the expansion of the European Union, it is easy to forget that Europe is a construction. The idea that the western section of the world’s largest landmass comprises a continent, separate from Africa to the south and from Asia to the east, illustrates only the extent to which we are still in thrall to the symbolic constructions of the Ancient Greeks.

Central and Eastern Europe is also a construct, but of much more recent origin (see Cornis-Pope and Neubauer, 2004). It is itself a product of the era of modern nationalism, and it has a distinctive place in the nationalism literature. The term Mitteleuropa underwent a curious revitalization in the last decade of socialism, when groups of intellectuals in Budapest and Prague sought to convince the world that it was a mistake to classify their countries, or rather their nations, in a binary schema which subordinated them to the jurisdiction of Moscow (Schöpflin and Wood 1989). The rediscovery of this German term was no accident, since German was the dominant political language in a vast zone of largely Slavic settlement until well after the collapse of the Habsburg Empire in 1918. Even today, scholarship in Germany and Austria makes (rather imprecise) use of the term Ostmitteleuropa. The Balkans are usually excluded from its remit. For the purposes of this chapter, Central and Eastern Europe includes the Balkans, but the discussion will focus on those regions which formerly belonged to the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. The pragmatic justification for this focus is that the core territories of the other major imperial powers of Eastern Europe in the era that preceded the domination of the nation-state are the subject of separate entries in this Handbook. Germany belongs here, as do peripheral zones of German expansion such as the eastern Baltic; but the latter regions, and all those East Slavs who did not come under Habsburg influence, will not be considered in any detail. We shall concentrate on populations which, though considered eastern in the nationalism literature, nonetheless fall within the boundary of western Christianity, considered by some scholars to be a civilizational boundary (Huntington 1996). We shall return to this ambiguity below. In any case the purpose is not to pinpoint geographical or cultural boundaries but rather to question them, by emphasizing their contingent, constructed character. We shall see that, contrary to some simplifying stereotypes, Central and Eastern Europe has been a home to many quite different forms of nationalism and ethnicity; some continue to flourish there, even as the region is gradually incorporated into the European Union.

General Historical Overview

This chapter will be divided into three parts. This first section provides a historical overview. It will be convenient to follow this with a detailed presentation of the work of some of the most celebrated theoreticians of ethnicity and nationalism, whose roots are in Central and Eastern Europe. Prague alone is home to some of the greatest contributors to twentieth-century debates, among them Hans Kohn, Karl Deutsch, Ernest Gellner and Miroslav Hroch. In the final section I shall review contemporary developments and assess the extent to which nationalism and ethnicity remain important political and sociological factors in contemporary Ostmitteleuropa.

The locus classicus for an intellectual declaration of an ‘eastern’ model of nationalism is the oeuvre of Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744-1803). In his Outlines of a Philosophy of the History of Man (1784) and elsewhere he elaborated the idea that each and every ‘nation’ or Volk possessed its unique Geist or spirit. Each nation was not merely analogous to an organism but an element in God’s historical design. Herder is deservedly viewed as a precursor of what came later to be known as cultural relativism in anthropology. The contemporary message of the Sturm und Drang movement was that Germans should celebrate their own language and literature, and give up their attempts to emulate the French philosophes. Herder countered the individualist-universalist rationalism of Enlightenment France by asserting the importance of a collective identity given by cultural endowments. According to him, the spirit or soul of the nation is expressed above all in its language. Herder was more humanist cosmopolitan than political nationalist. He extolled the folksongs of the Slavs and his work was held in high esteem by Eastern European nationalists throughout the nineteenth century.

Germany itself remained politically fragmented until unification was achieved by Bismarck in 1871, but the idea of a unified German Volk gained ground steadily after Herder’s death. Eloquently set out in Fichte’s Addresses to the German Nation (1807-8), it came to suffuse every realm of culture, from the fairy tales of the Grimm brothers to the music of Richard Wagner and the sociology of Max Weber. Among the political consequences of German nationalism were the two World Wars of the twentieth century. Whether German understandings of the nation and the ‘blood’ basis of national identity changed significantly after the catastrophe of National Socialism is a question to which we shall return.

The other leading power of Ostmitteleuropa throughout the nineteenth century was the Habsburg Empire, with its capital in Vienna. After withstanding the revolutions of 1848, the empire was restructured as a Dual Monarchy after the 1867 ‘Compromise’ with Hungary. This political entity differed sharply from the case of Germany, even if the dominant language was the same. In Germany, no matter how great the local variation, for example, in terms of religion or dialect, it could be maintained that all citizens could acknowledge a common Hochkultur. But the Habsburgs were a dynasty which had, since the early sixteenth century, ruled over millions of Slavs (of very different types), not to mention Magyars, Romanians and many other smaller minorities and splinter groups. The structural conditions were utterly different from those prevailing in Germany, not only in terms of political and administrative machinery but also in terms of socio-economic development. The Vielvölkerstaat could boast extraordinary creativity in almost every realm of culture; but this culture could not possibly be reduced to a national culture, nor could it be incorporated into a grossdeutsch union with Germany. The plaintive statement of Gustav Mahler, son of a village tavern keeper, exemplifies the predicament to which this situation led by the turn of the twentieth century: ‘I am thrice homeless, as a native of Bohemia in Austria, as an Austrian among Germans, and as a Jew throughout the world.’

A closer inspection reveals significant differences in policy in the later nineteenth century in the two halves of the empire. Budapest controlled a territory in which ethnic Hungarians amounted to less than half the population. The Magyar elites set out to raise this proportion through policies, mainly through the privileging of Hungarians in the educational and administrative systems, which created strong incentives for non-Magyars (especially Jews) to assimilate. The populations administered from Vienna in the later nineteenth century were still more diverse, from the Western Slavs of Bohemia to the East Slavs of Galicia and the South Slavs of Slovenia and Bosnia and Herzegovina (in the latter case including large numbers of Muslims); some of these groups were perceived in the capital to be more ‘Oriental’ than European. The subjects of the Emperor were all expected to be patriotic Austrians at one level; but below this they were allowed to cultivate their separate national identities. In some cases, notably that of the Ruthenians (who by the end of the nineteenth century were beginning to adopt the new designation Ukrainian), considerations of imperial ‘divide and rule’ led the centre to support the consolidation of a national movement (in order to counter the power of the Poles in the province of Galicia).

In the last decades of the Empire, group identity was increasingly ‘ethnicized.’ The various Völker of Emperor Franz Josef became increasingly conscious of their distinctive national cultures. Their demand for a political entity congruent with the cultural identity was partially met when the Empire collapsed at the end of World War I. Ostensibly the Vielvölkerstaat was now replaced by the nation-state, epitomized in Woodrow Wilson’s principle of ‘self-determination for nations.’ The practical outcomes were inevitably still fuzzy. While Vienna and Budapest now became the capital cities of radically truncated states, populated overwhelmingly by German and Hungarian speakers respectively, the violent aftermath of the post-war settlement at Trianon left the new Polish state with a population of which approximately one-third was not ethnically Polish. The new federal entity of Czechoslovakia in fact comprised three ethno-territorial entities, once it was decided to attach Subcarpathian Ruthenia to the new state. Of course the Czech, Slovak and Ruthenian lands all contained substantial minority groups, notably the Germans of the Sudetenland and the Hungarians of southern Slovakia, not to mention more dispersed groups such as Roma and Jews.

The settlement of Trianon proved short-lived and much more radical moves towards the ideal of the nation-state were accomplished during and immediately following the Second World War. The Holocaust removed from Central and Eastern Europe the great majority of those whose continued existence was inconsistent with nationalist frenzy. The redrawing of borders and forced population movements of the type later to be called ‘ethnic cleansing’ brought state and nation into greater harmony than ever before. Poland, for example, became as a People’s Democracy one of the most homogeneous states of the region, thanks not only to the new borders imposed by Stalin but also to massive expulsions of Germans and East Slavs. Many cities that had been multicultural for centuries, such as Vilnius, Prague or Bratislava, lost that diversity. It was replaced by a new monoculture, primarily the product of socialist urbanization and industrialization. Germany itself, by contrast, was now divided. Czechoslovakia survived, but Subcarpathian Ruthenia was detached and allocated to the Soviet Ukraine, where it became the Transcarpathian Oblast.

The ultimate triumph of nationalism throughout this region was ushered in with the collapse of socialist power in 1989-90. Whether nationalist sentiments contributed significantly to the making of these revolutions is debatable; but it seems clear that the nation was for many the only secure identity available to them in the turmoil of the post-socialist years. Within a few years not only was Germany miraculously united but the Czechoslovak and Yugoslav federal states were replaced by new entities based on the national principle. While Czechoslovakia experienced a ‘velvet divorce,’ ethnic violence plagued the western Balkans for approximately a decade. Only the interventions of the ‘international community’ have established a fragile peace in Bosnia, Kosovo and Macedonia. In the eastern Baltic region Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania regained their independence as nation-states, as did Ukraine (with its Transcarpathian Oblast). We shall address some of the factors which continue to complicate this apparently tidy picture later in the chapter. First, let us turn to consider some of the theories which influential intellectuals have put forward in accounting for the phenomena of ethnicity and nationalism in Central and Eastern Europe over the past two centuries.

Local Theoretical Models

It surely cannot be a coincidence that numerous pathbreaking attempts to provide general explanations of nations and nationalism (we shall focus on these terms and neglect ethnicity because the latter is not prominent in the work we shall be discussing) have been made by scholars whose roots lie in Mitteleuropa. Of course the work of each individual scholar is influenced by personal biographical details as well as the wider social and intellectual context within which he worked. Lack of space prevents a comprehensive analysis of these factors here.

Hans Kohn (1891-1971), whose early publications in his native Prague were influenced by Zionism, devoted much of his later distinguished career in the United States to the study of nationalism. For Kohn, nations were the given basic units of history, as they were for Herder (Kohn 1944). He traced the idea of nationalism back as far as the ancient Hebrews, but he also developed a distinction, which is still highly influential, between two variants of modern nationalism within Europe. Whereas the western variant was rational and emancipatory, the eastern variant of nationalism, rooted in Herder’s notion of theVolksgeist, emphasized cultural (ethnic) identity over civic identity. This was politically problematic, as exemplified in the aggressive imperialism developed by German nationalists, some of whom perceived the entire zone of Slavic settlement as a German Kulturraum, at least potentially. The dichotomy between western and eastern forms of nationalism, popularized by Kohn, has had considerable influence on later authors (see, for example, Sugar and Lederer 1969; Brubaker 1992). Only recently, in the post-communist era, have scholars begun to draw attention to the extent to which it misrepresents nations and nationalism in both East and West (Kuzio 2002).

Karl Deutsch (1912-1992) was also born in Prague, where he grew up as a member of the large German (Sudeten) minority before following Kohn’s path to the United States. Like Kohn, he too was a Jew, at least by the criteria of the Nuremberg laws, but his upbringing was entirely secular. Unlike most Germans and Jews in Bohemia, Deutsch was fully at home in Czechoslovakia and taught briefly at the Charles University. Whereas Kohn worked primarily as a historian, Deutsch found his main disciplinary base in political science and influenced work in several other branches of the social sciences. His major work on nationalism approached it not in terms of a civic versus ethnic dichotomy but in terms of a general theory of ‘social communication’ relevant in principle to all modern states (Deutsch 1953). He was among the first scholars to address the role of the media in modern states, which made possible new forms of centre-periphery relations and ‘social mobilization.’

Ernest Gellner (1925-1995) came from a similar Prague background. He developed his theory of nationalism on a similar foundation of Enlightenment universalism in the course of an academic career pursued primarily in Britain in the disciplines of philosophy, sociology and social anthropology. Gellner insisted that nations were not the given antecedents of national movements, waiting to be ‘awakened’; they were rather the product of such movements. His most influential work (Gellner 1983) provides a strong ‘constructivist’ view of the nation, vividly demonstrated with an ideal-type description of ‘Ruritania,’ an imaginary territory somewhere in the eastern realms of an entity he calls ‘Megalomania.’ Gellner injects an element of political economy into this caricature of the Habsburg Empire by emphasizing uneven economic development, rather than the dissemination of a political doctrine per se. We can expect a national movement to emerge when the elites of a zone such as Ruritania conclude that they stand to gain more from the creation of a new political unit under their domination than from attempting to assimilate into the elites of the imperial centre.

Gellner preferred schematic models to close-up historical analysis. He accepted Kohn’s basic dichotomy between East and West, and he offered a more suggestive materialist explanation than Deutsch to explain the process of nation-building. According to this view, East European nationalisms developed as a result of the exogenous stimulus of industrialization in regions lacking both a long history of statehood (on the model of France and Britain) and a language-based high culture to serve as a foundation for political unification (on the model of Germany and Italy). In an essay published posthumously (1997), Gellner replaced the Kohn dichotomy with four ‘time zones’ in Europe: he first distinguishes the German path from that followed further west (zones 1 and 2); this is followed by the typical East European plasticity of ‘Ruritania’ (zone 3); the fourth zone is comprised of entities formed only under Soviet rule.

Although Gellner’s insistence on material conditions was an important correction to the idealism of earlier theories and although his theories have proved extraordinarily fruitful in international discussion (see Hall 1998), neither he nor his predecessors offer typologies and tools that furnish a comprehensive explanation of national phenomena in Central and Eastern Europe. Poland, for example, with its long history of statehood in the pre-industrial period, bears a closer resemblance to the Atlantic seaboard cases of Gellner’s ‘zone 1’ than to its Ruritanian neighbours. Moreover, when one looks more carefully at Ruritania-candidates, that is, ‘nations without history’ such as (sub-Carpathian) Ruthenians, Galician Ukrainians or Slovaks, it seems clear that the growth of national movements in the nineteenth centurypreceded the impact of industrialization and can hardly be attributed to its dissemination. It might be possible to salvage Gellner’s functional model by substituting a more diffuse notion of modernization for industrialization, which would take account of changes introduced by the Habsburgs in provincial administration and education.

But as a descriptive model of this region Gellner’s model is simply too far removed from the realities on the ground: for example, it cannot help us to explain why such different policies were pursued in the two halves of the Empire after 1867.

Unlike the three Prague émigrés considered so far, the fourth scholar I wish to discuss, the Czech historian Miroslav Hroch, did not need to migrate to the West to achieve fame as a theoretician of nationalism. Since the publication of his key works in German and English (Hroch 1985) he has been deservedly regarded as one of the most influential contemporary scholars of ‘nationalist movements,’ as he himself prefers to term his principal subject. Hroch’s perspective is in some respects more rigorously materialist than that of Gellner: reflecting the ideological currents of the socialist republic, he offered an account of the spread of nationalism that drew explicitly on the historical materialism of Marx (always anathema to Gellner); he was open to the possibility that, in certain circumstances, a class identity could be more significant than a national identity. Yet he was never satisfied by dogmatic assertions that attributed the rise of nationalism to the emergence of a bourgeoisie. Hroch’s typology of national movements begins with a Phase A, in which small numbers of intellectuals, many of them priests, the largest literate social grouping, begin to discover the distinctiveness of ‘the national culture,’ to collect folk songs, and to standardize the language. In Phase B, the phase to which Hroch himself paid most detailed attention, these intellectuals are either joined or pushed aside by larger numbers of secular activists, for example, journalists, who spread the nationalist message through new media, notably the press. Phase C is that of mass mobilization: intellectual midwives must now give way to a new political class and, through the education system, eventually even the populations of isolated rural districts will internalize the conviction of possessing a national identity.

Hroch’s typology of the main phases of national movements and their critical agents is designed for application in Central and Eastern Europe, where it works rather well for peoples such as the Slovaks and the Ruthenians (Ukrainians). It has also proved useful in analysing ethnonational movements in other parts of the world and in this sense it has general analytic value. Compared to the models of Kohn, Deutsch and Gellner, Hroch offers a helpful set of tools with which to explore concrete cases. Unlike Kohn and Gellner, he is not concerned to argue for a geographically distinctive eastern or Ruritanian type. He does not claim that his model can be applied in the same way to all the movements of the region: on the contrary, we can expect significant differences in the case of ‘historic’ nations such as Hungary and Poland, and the Czech case is evidently quite different from the Slovak. In sum, Hroch’s work teaches us that Central and Eastern Europe is a rich laboratory for the study of nations and nationalism—but not because it features phenomena not found elsewhere. Rather, this region is characterized by great diversity. Let us now turn to consider some examples of how this diversity is playing itself out in the early twenty-first century.

Contemporary Patterns

The recent history of Central and Eastern Europe has been decisively influenced on the one hand by the end of the Cold War and on the other by the eastwards expansion of the European Union, which by 2004 included all countries in the sphere of Western Christianity, with the exception of Croatia. Whereas the collapse of socialism led to an increase in the number of sovereign states, EU expansion involves new forms of supranational integration. The tensions between these contradictory trends render this a highly instructive region in which to observe a wide range of beliefs and behaviour pertaining to nationalism and ethnicity.

The unification of Germany in 1990 appears to have resolved ‘the German Question’ once and for all: the Oder-Neiße boundary with Poland is no longer questioned by any significant political forces in Germany. The question of the strength of German national identity remains, however, complex. The unique legacies of this population have been illustrated in the controversies that have surrounded the decision to transfer the federal capital to Berlin, in painful discussions about how best to commemorate the Jewish component of German history—and even in recurring debate over the national holiday. It seemed self-evident in 1990 that Germany, like every other nation, should have such a holiday. The night on which the Berlin Wall was breached, November 9th, seemed the most obvious candidate. But there was a problem: this was also the date of the Kristallnacht in 1938, a decisive moment in the trajectory which culminated in the gas chambers. Eventually it was decided to celebrate the nation on October 3rd, but this holiday has not been accompanied by much ceremony or symbolic investment. It seems not to have ‘caught on,’ leading some to suggest that Germany is now definitively ‘post-nationalist.’ Yet when the government brought forward proposals in 2004 to save money by holding the holiday not on a working day but always on the first Sunday of October, there was an immediate public outcry, by no means confined to the conservative parties. In 2005 the election of Joseph Ratzinger as pope was not celebrated as Karol Wojtyl’a’s election had unified and mobilized the vast majority of Poles a quarter of a century earlier, but national pride was expressed at every level (including the tabloid newspaper that pro claimed simply ‘We Are the Pope’). This suggests that the arguments of Jürgen Habermas, probably the country’s most influential intellectual, on behalf of Verfassungspatriotismus, that is, a ‘constitutional patriotism,’ in which the citizens celebrate their loyalty to a political structure rather than to an ethnic identity, do not grasp the actual strength of German patriotism today. Recently the German government has introduced new laws to make it easier for millions of non-ethnic Germans to become citizens, but the social integration of some groups remains problematic, especially Muslims. The political potential of the appeal to the historic forms of nationalism is regularly exploited by conservative political parties (for example, in widespread opposition to the admission of Turkey to the European Union, a sentiment asserted strongly even by some left-leaning intellectuals).

It seems indeed that some of the energies which once fuelled German nationalism have been transferred to the European level: Europe is conceived as a unique value-based community (Wertegemeinschaf i), but it is das Abendland (the West) in the sense of Weber, and not the continent as a whole; the territories shaped historically by Islam and Orthodoxy are excluded (a special case is made to permit the inclusion of Greece). At the same time, populist rhetoric invoking older national ideals has by no means disappeared entirely. Support for extremist ‘neo-Nazi’ parties has been conspicuous in parts of the former German Democratic Republic; it is especially strong among young people, including unemployed casualties of the economic dislocation brought about by unification.

Of course similar political expressions of right-wing nationalism can be found in many other parts of Europe. The most notorious politician to base his appeal on such sentiments is Austria’s Jörg Haider, whose Freedom Party rose to share power in the splendid ministries with which the Habsburgs endowed Vienna when it was still their imperial capital. Then as now, Vienna was a city unable to reproduce itself endogenously. Many immigrants in Habsburg days also tried to preserve their religions and cultural identities in the new metropolis, and in this sense there is nothing new in contemporary multiculturalism. Yet somehow the presence of large numbers of Muslims seems to activate more sensitivities than Hungarians and Slavs generated in the past, and these sentiments have been exploited by the populist right (Pelinka and Wodak 2002).

Socialist rule ensured that the impact of new forms of multiculturalism in Budapest and other central European cities was long delayed. The confrontation with a ‘Chinatown’ (which actually began in the 1980s in the last years of socialism) came as a shock for most Hungarians, though it has not inhibited them from patronizing the new markets, shops and restaurants in which these immigrants specialize. Hungarian national identity continues to pose some distinctive issues, if only because of the distinctiveness of the Finno-Ugric language. Herder did not expect the Magyars to be able to hold on to their main cultural characteristics, but later developments in the nineteenth century proved him wrong. The large Hungarian minorities created at Trianon are still there today, outside the borders of the Hungarian state, and this continues to have a strong bearing on policy-making in Budapest. With only small numbers of indigenous minorities as a result of assimilation pressures in the past, Hungary has introduced a generous system of local councils and minority educational provisions for all ethnic minorities, including Roma. Hungarian politicians then insist on similarly liberal measures for the much larger, compact groups of Magyars in neighbouring states. They assert that it is their duty to represent the interests of ethnic Magyars wherever they happen to reside. Their efforts to grant privileges to co-ethnics who were citizens of Romania led to much controversy in the years when Hungary was negotiating to join the EU and, economically as well as politically, adjusting much more successfully than its neighbours to the challenges of post-socialism. The emotions raised by the ‘status law’ suggest that, at least among elites, the card of nationalism is still highly significant in electoral politics (Stewart 2003). Yet a referendum on the issue in Hungary failed due to low turnout, and in many mundane contexts it is clear that the extent of solidarity with co-ethnics is limited. Some Hungarian citizens are openly critical of the large numbers of seasonal immigrants who pour in from Transylvania, irrespective of their ethnic identity.

Transylvania is one of the areas of mixed population in central and eastern Europe where the impact of the ethnic cleansings of the twentieth century was less dramatic. The large-scale disappearance of Saxons, Jews and other smaller groups can be attributed to protracted processes of cultural repression. Yet, in spite of large-scale Romanian immigration into the region, cities such as Cluj (Kolozsvár-Klausenburg) have maintained a large Hungarian minority. Apart from a burst of unrest in 1990, this region has remained stable, in sharp contrast to the western Balkans. It seems that an accommodation has been reached between the elites that allows Hungarians a very high degree of autonomy, for example, in the organization of their own cultural life, political party and even universities. Although there is little ethnic segregation in terms of settlement patterns in large cities like Cluj, for some sections of the population one can almost speak of parallel societies. Yet the further away one moves from the national elites, the less important national (ethnic) identity seems to be in shaping everyday interaction (Feischmidt 2003).

More generally, it is clear that international concern to protect ethnic and cultural minorities has had considerable impact on post-communist states wishing to ‘join Europe.’ In both Romania and Bulgaria, expected to join the European Union in 2007, but also in Slovakia, which was admitted in 2004, the political parties representing the most numerous national minorities have played an active role in government coalitions—indeed, their political influence has been disproportional to their electoral support, and it seems likely that this has been a major factor in mitigating conflict. In the more homogeneous case of contemporary Polish society, the internationalization of minority rights has been conducive to more generous recognition of groups with whom Poles had very troubled relations in the past, including Germans, Ukrainians and Jews. However, even the most liberal legislation is insufficient to guarantee the practical take-up of rights in the case of those minorities which lack a powerful state to support diaspora rights: Poland’s Belorussian minority is a case in point (Fleming 2002).

The discussion so far has focused on nationalities whose name is linked to a state. In spite of globalization, Europeanization, the supermarket revolution etc., it is evident in this region that states remain effective agents in the buttressing of national identities. This seems to hold as true for ‘historic’ states with large populations such as Poland as for much younger and smaller entities such as the Baltic states and Slovenia. However, former Yugoslavia presents several cases in which the nation-state model has failed; at the time of writing in 2005, no long-term solutions to the problems of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo and Macedonia are in sight. Among the causes, religious differences are undoubtedly important; yet religion cannot be the only key factor. After all, Bulgaria too has a significant Muslim minority, yet despite severe economic dislocation this state has remained stable and peaceful. Nor can memories of inter-ethnic violence in previous generations be the decisive factor: if they were, then we should expect similar eruptions of violence in the Polish-Ukrainian borderlands, yet this region, despite being a ‘civilizational fault line’ in the sense of Huntington (1996), has remained stable. Rather than supporting simplistic theories of ‘primordial hatreds’ and monocausal explanations, the evidence from the Balkans suggests that we need to see nationalism as a modern phenomenon, the forms of which depend on highly complex local conditions (Carmichael 2002). It is not a question of ‘the’ modern sense of national identity being still unevenly disseminated throughout the region; we must recognize that, in some places, such a model of identity is unlikely ever to approximate the realities; thus, while Bosnia may now have its own national flag and football team, the meaning of national identity in such places is bound to differ from the content of national identity in established nation-states.

To close this survey, I turn to consider two further ‘awkward’ cases, in which a cultural and linguistic identity lacks the frame which the state-endowed groups can take for granted. Although they have been present in Central and Eastern Europe for centuries, the visibility of Roma and other gypsy peoples has increased following the forced population transfers that reduced the significance of other minorities in the course of the twentieth century. Always ‘on the margins’ of society, gypsies occupied specific niches in the social division of labour and, like the Jews (whom they in some ways resemble in their structural predicament), they seldom married outside their group. One difference from the Jews was the fact that the vast majority were visibly different from the majority population in terms of skin pigmentations, thereby making assimilation into gadze (non-gypsy) society more difficult if not impossible. Under socialism determined efforts were made in exactly this direction: gypsies were supposed to give up their old lifestyles and join the international proletariat, enjoying in return all the securities, including modern housing, enjoyed by other members of the ruling working classes. The contradictions and ultimate failure of this attempt to eradicate gypsy cultural distinctiveness have been carefully documented in the Hungarian case by Michael Stewart (1997). Stewart takes an optimistic view of the options open to this group in post-socialist conditions: he sees potential in their history of pragmatic adaptations, which should make it easier for them than for other, less flexible actors, to adapt to the new market conditions (2002). Others are less sanguine: there is abundant evidence that the gypsies are more marginalized than ever before, with very high rates of unemployment and illiteracy and resi-dentially highly segregated. In short, they fulfil the criteria for a classical ‘underclass’ (Szelényi and Emigh 2001).

For our last example let us return to Sub-carpathian Ruthenia, a territory which approximates as well as any other Ernest Gellner’s fictitious Ruritania. The homeland of the ‘Rusyns’ (the most common of the local self-descriptions) is nowadays divided between four states, Ukraine, Poland, Slovakia and Romania, while additional scattered groups are found in Hungary and Serbia. The history and current controversies over the ‘real’ identity of these East Slavs exemplify the plasticity of ethnic and national identities generally. As the historian Paul Robert Magocsi (1978) showed in his study of Subcarpathian Ruthenia between 1848 and 1948, many options were potentially available, some more attractive than others in different epochs.

At the time Magocsi wrote, it seemed that the incorporation of this territory into the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic after World War II had sealed the long-term affiliation of this population to a Ukrainian national identity. Thanks to the collapse of the USSR, it turns out that other options for the Ruthenians can once again be freely explored under the exhilarating conditions of post-socialism. Magocsi himself has been an active participant in the World Congress of Rusyns, supporting a kind of cultural nationalism which calls for recognition of the Rusyns/Ruthenians as a distinct East Slavic people (see Magocsi 1999). No longer a distant scholar of Ruthenian history, Magocsi visits the homeland regularly and, for all practical purposes, plays the role of an ‘awakener,’ even a ‘mobilizer.’ A significant step was achieved in 1995 when agreement was reached on the standardization of Rusyn (in its eastern Slovakian dialect) as a fourth East Slavic literary language.

Is it possible to replicate the nineteenth-century model for nation-building at the beginning of the twenty-first? The Rusyn activists do not aspire to create a new state in their mountainous homeland, but they hope that Europeanization, for example in the form of ‘Euroregion’ initiatives to promote cross-border contacts, will enable at least a greater measure of cultural recognition than has so far been accorded by the nation-states of the region. Further successes have been chalked up; in the most recent Slovak census the number of Rusyns has risen significantly, apparently at the expense of Ukrainians. In Ukraine itself, however, where the great majority of potential group members live, there is little sign of mobilization. We see rather a pattern similar to that already identified in Transylvania. The activists’ cultivation of a distinctive language and organization of folklore festivals represent the most attractive side of nationalism—the celebration of human cultural distinctiveness. But the evidence seems to suggest that the great majority of those who attend the festivals (including those who come from North America) have, in Gellner’s terms, been well integrated into the states that issue their passports. As in Transylvania, it would seem that, for the large majority of ‘ordinary citizens,’ questions of national identity are no longer of burning significance; if indeed they ever were.


This chapter has questioned the most common stereotypical representations of Central and Eastern Europe in the literature on nations and nationalism. Many authors, both natives of the region and outsiders, have held this region to exemplify the illiberal face of the nationalist Janus, which envisages ethnicity rather than citizenship as the sole criterion of national belonging. The cases of ‘historic’ multi-ethnic states such as Poland and Hungary suffice, however, to show that this diagnosis is much too simple. Gellner’s model of ‘time-zones’ is a variant of a common tendency to view Eastern Europe in the nineteenth century as a prototype for certain patterns of nation-building and state formation in other parts of the world in the twentieth century. Such ahistorical comparisons are potentially misleading, especially when they rest upon exoticized constructions of the East (notably of ‘the Balkans’) and no less idealized models of a benign liberal nationalism predominating in Western Europe and North America. Closer inspection reveals that the national movements considered to be quintessentially Eastern European emerged in very similar forms elsewhere in Europe, in some cases at the very same time. Contemporary Central and Eastern Europe exhibits great diversity in the strength and forms taken by national and ethnic minority identities; even when the focus is restricted to the formerly socialist countries, there is little nowadays to distinguish these countries from phenomena found in other parts of the world.

This critique does not, however, invalidate all attempts to identify general patterns in the history of this fuzzy region, such as those resulting from structural similarities of political economy and empire in the pre-nationalist era, and those which created more homogeneous populations by means of ‘ethnic cleansing’ at various times in the twentieth century. Nor does the critique undermine the heuristic value of models such as that of Gellner for the analysis of nations and nationalism. I have adapted his vocabulary in arguing that, while nineteenth-century ‘Ruritanias’ such as Slovakia and Ukraine have recently succeeded in carving out their own states, Subcarpathian Ruthenia seems unlikely to succeed at this level. The reasons are complex: they include the mountainous location, the absence of cities and of scope to consolidate an infrastructure facilitating industrial development and communications. Failure, if indeed the Rusyn movement eventually fails, should not be attributed to size alone; after all, the populations of the Baltic states are no larger, let alone Luxembourg. This Rusyn/Ruthenian case thus illustrates the ultimate plasticity of group identities and the historical contingency of their forms.