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
Department Name: History and Cultures

Abstract

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.

Publications

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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...