Hinterlands and Hypertrophies: Assessments of the Viability of Empires and Nation-States in Central and Eastern Europe, 1900 - 1930s

Lead Research Organisation: University of Birmingham


The proposed project analyses the origins, development and impact of the concept of "viability" and its practice in the early 20th century. Viewing a state through the lens of "viability" (from German: Lebensfähigkeit, literal translation "the ability to live") meant interpreting it as a living organism. Transnational expert networks disseminated this approach to statehood throughout Central and Eastern Europe. States whose "viability" was doubted, resisted and adapted to the concept which in turn altered international approaches to "viability". We want to investigate how the circulation of knowledge and practices associated with "viability" lent the concept a dynamic character that changed over time. We will examine how claims to scientific objectivity associated with the concept of "viability" contributed to a broader international "science" of statehood that influenced international politics, economies, and state building over the 20th century. We examine networks of practitioners focused on Central and Eastern Europe and base our analysis on a broad range of published and archival sources.

We maintain that "viability" emerged over the late 19th century to become a central principle of statehood in the 20th century, especially during and after the First World War. The assessment of a polity's "viability" meant subjecting it to an allegedly rigorous scientific analysis that interpreted state, nation and territory as organisms. Due to their underdeveloped economies, their supposedly low degree of state power over incoherent territories and the allegedly low level of education and social stratification of their populations, the Russian and Habsburg Empires as well as their successor states were criticised as failing or "unviable" organisms. The project aims to investigate the impact such assessments on the basis of "viability" had on state dissolution and formation, modernisation projects, population policies, international investment, and international politics.

The analysis focuses on the discourse of "viability" and its interaction with state building projects. Transnational networks of practitioners, such as academics (geographers, economists and sociologists), politicians, journalists and businessmen, will be at the centre of attention. "Viability" emerged alongside social science disciplines, particularly political geography, sociology and political economy. These disciplines provided many of the experts within the network that deployed the concept of "viability" to assess states. The project investigates the boundaries of participation in the debate, how networks and expertise requirements changed, and how experts positioned themselves vis-à-vis the geopolitical order.

"Viability" experts questioned the survivability of empires and the durability of newly created nation states. These "experts" emphasized that coherence in a social, political, and ethnic sense, not territorial expanse, determined state power. World War I raised the profile of these experts. From the perspective of state assessment, the years of intense political turmoil from 1917 to 1923 do not constitute a break, but a point of increased flow and interchange that linked the fates of empires and their successor states.

The project will be based on sources in libraries and national archives in Central and Eastern Europe, the UK, and USA. The sources include writings of social scientists, political economists and geographers, as well as reports from the public and private sector that guided economic, demographic and infrastructural projects and transformed "viability" into policy.

An examination of "viability" in Central and Eastern Europe promises insights that will resonate beyond the historical project. It will provide insight into the origins of contemporary debates on "failed states" and nation building that shape international politics today.

Planned Impact

The project will reach beneficiaries in the public sector and disseminate research results in Central and Eastern Europe in cooperation with these. It will be of particular interest to people working in institutions of the heritage sector that have a distinctly transnational approach. We will work in collaboration with the Thomas-Mann Cultural Centre in Lithuania and the Foundation Flight, Expulsion, Reconciliation in Germany to provide an interface for public engagement in the form of exhibition activities, panel discussions and publications for a broad audience. Particularly with regards to the Thomas-Mann Cultural Centre, the project has the potential to directly impact working practices, as the centre has a track record of working with academic partners from literature studies, but this collaboration is its first to draw directly from historical research. The project will also add a state-focused dimension to the way the Foundation Flight, Expulsion, Reconciliation presents the history of displacement in Europe, which hitherto focuses mostly on the experience of displacement. Both collaborations are intended to be cornerstones for long-term impact collaborations of the University of Birmingham with public sector institutions in Central and Eastern Europe.

Through public engagement, the project is well-timed and poised to generate impact. Its completion in early 2019 will coincide with the centenaries of the First World War's conclusion and of the emergence of independent nation states in East Central Europe. Due to the significance of national historical narratives in East Central Europe, impact is expected to be the highest here, as the project provides an innovative counter-narrative that emphasises the contingent roots of independent statehood and shows how international constructs like "viability" undermined empires, both establishing and impeding post-war nation-states. The project's impact activities will raise awareness of the themes explored and thus encourage non-academic audiences to reconsider ubiquitous and widely accepted assumptions, such as the naturalness of both nation states and borders, as well as the stability of geopolitical concepts and international law. The project thus has the potential to increase public understanding of how historical constructs, contingencies and international approaches to "correctly" functioning states shape contemporary discussions of states in the region.

To achieve this impact, the project includes four impact deliverables for the second year of the project duration. Two articles on historical assessments of statehood will be published in non-academic publications, one aiming at a broad international audience (Foreign Policy), and the other specifically at an East Central European audience (Polityka). An exhibition of selected visual material compiled over the course of the research and a reading of source extracts will be organised at the Thomas-Mann Festival in Lithuania, coinciding with the end of its five-year-cycle on the First World War. A panel discussion organised in collaboration with the Foundation Flight, Expulsion, Reconciliation will focus on the role of demography in state assessment.
Description The project's objective was to reconstruct early 20th cet. debates about what constitutes "viable" (i.e. successful) and "unviable" (i.e. failing) states, and the impact these assessments had on political developments - especially on international relations and on both the construction and disintegration of states before, during and after the First World War. Among the key findings, which have either been published already or await publication in 2020 and 2021, were the following:

1. In the early 20th century, there was a marked change in how political actors viewed successful states. Whereas the 19th cet. Great Power had been defined by territorial size and complexity, the new paradigm of "viable" states, based on both the experience of economic and infrastructural achievements and on scientific innovation, stressed rationality, homogeneity and complementarity. During the First World War, this change put considerable pressure on the European continental empires, making former Great Powers such as the Habsburg Empire and the Russian Empire suddenly seem failing and their disintegration desirable and irreversible. The project has shown the decisive impact this discursive framework had on the disintegration of the Habsburg Empire at the end of the war.
2. The concept of the "viability" of states had a significant impact on how the new, smaller states that emerged from the collapsed Austro-Hungarian and Russian Empire, were integrated into the international order post-1918. These "small states", such as Poland and the Baltic States, were accepted on the basis of the principle of national self-determination as proclaimed by US president Wilson. However, their economic and political weaknesses meant their "viability" was constantly doubted. This had a two-fold impact. Firstly, the "small states" were seen as disruptive elements that hindered a return to Europe's pre-war prosperity. This skepticism made it easier for Nazi Germany and other revisionist powers to destabilize and carve up the region. Secondly, this skepticism frustrated international investment in the "small states", making the negative assessment of their "viability" a self-fulfilling prophecy.
3. The post-1918 states would rapidly adopt these concepts of "viability" for policies of internal development. This wide-scale adoption contributed to a transformation of the character of interwar European statehood, aggravating trends towards authoritarianism and protectionism. "Viability", a concept developed in imperial contexts and stressing the emergence of ever larger political and economic blocs, proved highly disruptive for stability and prosperity on the continent as it began to guide policymaking in a Europe fragmented into a large number of "small states". At the same time, the realization of ambitious infrastructural projects to make these small states "viable", e.g. in the form of the construction of new ports and industrial districts, lastingly shaped our understanding of the transformative capacities of modern states.
Exploitation Route The project was based on the rigorous reconstruction of how discourses around the capacities of states affected policymaking and economic developments. Over the course of the project, we have subjected paradigms of assessing states to historical criticism and thus showed that these paradigms, which claimed rationality and scientific objectivity, were guided by both ideology and subjectivity. We believe that practitioners in international relations - be they of political or economic nature - can benefit from these insights.

The exhibition at the 2018 Thomas-Mann-Festival in Lithuania ("Freedom and Disintegration. Europe after the First World War) was highly popular and very rigorously prepared, but it was displayed to a very limited audience. A non-cost extension of the project was used to explore routes to show the exhibition to other audiences. The exhibition will be shown in a slightly expanded form at the Herder Institute in Marburg in autumn 2020, integrating visual material from the institute's substantial collections of historical maps photographs. Negotiations with additional venues are currently in process.

Scholars of state-building, international relations and political history can build on the substantial insights gained concerning the fundamental role normative concepts of statehood played in shaping the rapidly changing international order of the early 20th century. We believe there is particular potential in following this thread across the other big ruptures of the 20th century, especially the Second World War and the end of the Cold War.
Sectors Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

URL http://www.neringosmuziejai.lt/lt/galerija/2018-m-/paroda-laisve-ir-skilimas-europa-po-pirmojo-pasaulinio-karo-/102
Description The Liminality of Failing Democracy: East Central Europe and the Interwar Slump
Amount € 200,700 (EUR)
Organisation Henkel 
Sector Private
Country Germany
Start 01/2021 
End 12/2023
Description Conference and Grant Proposal with Herder Institute for Historical Research on East Central Europe (Marburg) 
Organisation Leibniz Association
Department Herder Institute for Historical Research on East Central Europe
Country Germany 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution We organised a joint international conference to bring together experts on the topic of state viability and state assessment. At Birmingham, we conceptualised the conference and took the lead concerning the section of participants and on the conference programme.
Collaborator Contribution The Herder Institute (1) provided the venue and professional service staff, (2) arranged accommodation for participants and (3) organised catering and cultural activities.
Impact The collaboration has resulted in a joint grant proposal of Birmingham and the Herder Institute (HI) (AHRC-DFG funding initiative, 2019, unsuccessful, but will submit again with a different proposal in 2021). The conference itself has resulted in an ERC Synergy Grant proposal (2019). As a result of the collaboration, the Herder Institute has also agreed to host the exhibition created in connection with this project. A further output is a co-authored article of the PI (Klaus Richter) and the partner of the HI (Heidi Hein-Kircher), which sums up the results of the conference and will be published in the HI's "Zeitschrift für Ostmitteleuropa-Forschung", Germany's leading journal for research on East Central Europe.
Start Year 2019
Description Grant proposal with Herder Institute for Historical Research on East Central Europe 
Organisation Herder Institute
Country Germany 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution Based on the feedback received for the joint 2019 grant proposal, we have submitted a dramatically revised version of the proposal to the joint AHRC-DFG funding scheme. The proposed project is based on aspects of the research for "Hinterlands and Hypertrophies" that focused on the relationship between individual subjectivity and statehood. The proposed project explores this relationship further, focusing on land reforms in the Baltics across the 20th century.
Collaborator Contribution The Herder Institut represents the German team for this join German-British funding proposal. Apart from their intellectual contribution, the Herder Institut was instrumental in gathering a strong network of project partners for the proposal. The Herder Institut also provides its substantial digital outreach platforms for the project's impact components.
Impact Funding proposal on 'Subjectivities of Owning Land: Land Redistribution in the Baltics in the 20th cet.', submitted to the DFG on 23 Feb 2021
Start Year 2019
Description Research on the "viability" of European ports after 1918 
Organisation University of Florence
Country Italy 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution We have organised a joint panel at the conference "Reform and Revolution in Europe" in Tampere (2017), which focused on the interwar transformation of contested cities. Afterwards, we wrote a co-authored article summing up the results through the lens of the project's methodology.
Collaborator Contribution Dr Marco Bresciani of UniFi organised the panel with me and contributed to the co-authored article.
Impact Article "Masters with no hinterlands. Trieste, Danzig and the Reconfiguration of Europe after the First World War", co-authored by Klaus Richter and Marco Bresciani (currently under review with Journal of Modern History)
Start Year 2017
Description Exhibition "Freedom and Fragmentation" at the Thomas-Mann-Festival in Lithuania 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact The PI curated this exhibition, which took place on the Curonian Spit at the Thomas-Mann Festival in July 2018. The exhibition addressed the research project's topic and explained it by applying it to the post-First World War context. It looked specifically at the territorial disintegration of Central and Eastern Europe and how this shaped international views on the region. The opening of the exhibition was well attended given the size of the festival (ca. 40 persons from Germany, Lithuania, Poland, Russia, Israel, etc.). The exhibition ran for two weeks. Feedback both from the festival organisers and from the audience was thoroughly positive. The bilingual exhibition (German/Lithuanian) was subsequently shown at the public library in Klaipeda and will be shown this year at the Herder Institute in Germany.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL http://www.neringosmuziejai.lt/lt/galerija/2018-m-/paroda-laisve-ir-skilimas-europa-po-pirmojo-pasau...
Description Joachim-Lelewel Debate in Warsaw: '100 Years of Provisionality: Non-recognised States at the end of the First World War and after the Cold War" 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact The public debate was part of the prestigious 'Joachim Lelewel Talks' at the German Historical Institute Warsaw. Its title was "100 Jahre Vorläufigkeit. Nicht anerkannte Staaten am Ende des Ersten Weltkriegs und nach dem Kalten Krieg". Co-organised with Dr Felix Ackermann (GHI). The Lelewel Talks are usually attended by educated members of the Polish public. The panel, which consisted of the PI, Dr Felix Ackermann as well as Maciej Gorny (Warsaw) and Per Rudling (Singapur), discussed the emergence of new states in Eastern Europe after 1918 and compared these to the situation after the Cold War and to non-recognised states today. The discussion took place in German and Polish and was simultaneously translated. The panel particularly addressed the Belarusian émigré community in Warsaw by addressing the 100th anniversary of the founding of the failed Belarusian National Republic. The debate was extremely well attended and followed by a lively discussion which was continued more informally at a reception. Both Polish newspapers and the Belarusian television covered the event.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL https://belsat.eu/pl/news/historycy-z-calej-europy-rozmawiali-w-polsce-o-bialoruskiej-republice-ludo...
Description Public keynote lecture 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact The activity consisted of a public lecture delivered by Prof André Liebich (Geneva), who used the case study of East Central Europe to engage with the project's methodological framework and research questions. The public lecture took place in the Herder Institute (Marburg) on 3 July 2019 and marked the opening of the project's final conference.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
Description US Army College War Room 
Form Of Engagement Activity A broadcast e.g. TV/radio/film/podcast (other than news/press)
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact This was an interview with Colonel JP Clark from the U.S. Army War College for the US Army College War Room and it dealt with the question of military occupation, viability, and international law in warfare. We covered how military occupation intertwined with notions of viable states and international law in the late 19th century. We then traced how this relationship developed through 1949 and dealt with the implications of this for professional military officers as well as professional military education.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019