Keynote Address: Tara Zahra (The University of Chicago)
The collapse of the Central, Eastern and South Eastern European empires and the ensuing peace treaties following the First World War produced more than just new borders and new nation states. It also marked a new world order based on the principles of nationhood: The peacemakers of Paris placed the focus on territoriality and citizenship, while insisting on clinging to their overseas territories, denying the populations there the same rights. The impacts of these treaties – from Versailles through Saint-Germain, Trianon, and Neuilly to Sèvres/Lausanne – are still disputed in historiography. Some view the treaties as a failure, as having been unable to ensure reconciliation, their shift from territorial to population policies having paved the way for forced population transfers, ethnic cleansing, and genocide; others highlight the opportunities these treaties provided.
Some of the latest historiographic approaches see the First World War as part of a series of conflicts that did not come to an end until the late 1920s. It was only in the course of these civil wars and especially after the ensuing peace that ‘the nation’ became the dominant form of state organisation. So, in a first step, clearly defined nations were created. But the transformation was not as swift and seamless as it is usually conceived; in fact, the process was conflicted and nationhood as the most important body of loyalty and form of belonging remained deeply contested for decades. The complex, dynamic, and dissentious social process of constructing new ethnic belongings and forging sentiments and loyalties towards the new nation states, especially in Central, Eastern, and South-Eastern Europe – but also in the West, as in Alsace-Lorraine or Ireland – were accompanied by warlike conflicts, border disputes, forced migrations, pogroms, and in some cases massive population exchanges. On the one hand, the integration of new territorialities meant the disintegration of earlier ones. On the other, however, concealed by the apparent ‘success’ of ethnicising, many cases show that on local levels the question of national belonging in setting up new borders and forging new identities and loyalties played a minor role and was overruled by economic or other interests.
The peace treaties – in a second step – can be seen as an attempt to bring about an order corresponding to the new realities of nationhood. Whether the peace led to new conflicts or not, the belief in the regime of ethnicity went hand in hand with the legal creation of minorities and majorities, nations and nationalities, inclusion and exclusion: Forging a clear ethnic or national identity allowed no shades of grey. Previously diffuse identities, sentiments, and loyalties now had to become definite. International regulations and institutions were intended to discipline and control this process.
But – in a third step – the experience of the new realities often involved forced choices. Even after the implementation of the peace treaties was concluded, the new states remained fragile, their often imposed democratic systems were destroyed mostly from within, while the new borders continued to be highly disputed. The idea of nation states became a nightmare for many minorities – religious, national, or ethnic groups. ‘New’ minorities, including Jews, were especially affected by these questions, either actively or passively. All of a sudden, they were obliged to define themselves ethnically or religiously, with internal self-identifications over-layered with external categorisations bearing the force of law, often facing state-controlled xenophobia or antisemitism or open violence – and the question of self-defence.
Finally – in a fourth step – amidst all this uncertainty, many reflected on the recent catastrophe, trying to make sense of the war experience and the promoted future. This rebuilding and reimagining included the process of constructing a lasting memory of 1912–1923 and of creating narratives about the conflict and the possible future, often seeking to engage entire societies in the formation of a new order, liberal and democratic or extremist – right or left. Not only the political elites but also academics and public intellectuals played an important role in ethnicising the new European order.
What was the long-term impact of the Paris Peace Conference in defining peoples as members of an ethnic, cultural, or national group, and in shaping their responses?
To what extent did the lengthy belligerent era and the prolonged process of pacification after the First World War influence the emergence of a specific ‘culture of violence’ in the twentieth century? Or was it a ‘natural’ accompaniment of the transformation, a consequence of war?
Did diffuse situations really become stable and to what extent was state violence, not only physical, involved in that process?
What facilitated, fostered, or generated violence? What made it so appealing and mobilising?
What was the interaction between processes of nation- and state-building in Europe? What role did intellectual elites play within such processes?
Were there alternatives to ethnicisation?
Are there any successful examples of post-imperial settlements, adjustments, and consolida-tions?
To what extent did the Paris Peace reflect the diversity of the area of Central and Eastern Europe or, inversely, create rigid categories of ethnicity in spaces where identity was much more fluid, hybrid, multicultural, or ambiguous than such categories would suggest?
What was the relationship of the concept of nation states to cultural diversity, de/colonisation, and democracy?
Was there any continuity or legacy between the controlled multiculturalism of the empires and the ethnic characteristics of the new nation states?
How were the boundaries of citizenship defined and how did the possibility of opting for one citizenship factor in this understanding?
To what extent did the pre-war persecution of Jews in Central and Eastern Europe act as an impetus for the Minority Treaties?
What were the meeting points, parallels, and overlaps of the minority protection established for Central and Eastern Europe and the regime of mandates established in non-European spaces?
The conference languages will be German and English. You are invited to enter either an individual contribution or a complete panel (no more than four contributions per panel).
The VWI will cover accommodation fees. The institute is also endeavouring to acquire separate funding for travel costs.
Applications should be written in German or English and include an outline of the topic of no more than 600 words, as well as a short CV and a list of publications. Please send your application by email with the subject “SWC 2020” to email@example.com no later than 13 December 2019.
A publication of conference proceedings is intended.