J. Connelly: From Peoples into Nations

From Peoples into Nations. A History of Eastern Europe

Connelly, John
VIII, 956 S.
$ 35.00; € 35,15
Reviewed for Connections. A Journal for Historians and Area Specialists by
Lidia Zessin-Jurek, Masaryk Institute and Archives, Czech Academy of Sciences, Prague

All 27 chapters of this formidable volume by John Connelly revolve around nascent, declining and revived national ideas and societies of Eastern Europe, presented in a comparative perspective. The reader may be stricken by the seemingly fortuitous nature of many of the events that were later to determine the fate of the region. Nevertheless, the author opposes the view recently presented by historians of the Habsburg Empire that the region was not in fact doomed for national states and could have as well followed the path of multiethnic states. To demonstrate the inevitability of the path towards mono-national states, Connelly unfolds an impressive and rare panoramic view of the region, while daringly unveiling cause and effect relationships going a long way back in history.

The book’s general argument unfolds in five major sections. The first one, called “The Emergence of National Movements”, is Connelly’s attempt to get as far as the early origins of the multitude of national identifications in this part of Europe. His analysis of culture, ethnicity and political citizenship places the main focus on the significance of linguistic diversity (“Linguistic Nationalism”). These phenomena would alternately escape a peculiar vise characteristic for this part of the Old Continent, i.e. pressure from several regional powers (Russia, Turkey, Prussia and Austria). These powerful players competed for control over the local cultural communities, trying to make them fall in line with their imperialist agenda. It is as if the multidirectional energy generated from this pressure turned inwards, thus producing injustice, legends and heroes of colonised peoples. The remoteness from the continent’s outer boundaries did not confine Eastern peoples to the peripheries of Europe with which they are commonly identified; on the contrary, argues Connelly, it put them at its main intersection where neither creative nor destructive activity could be externalised or stopped.

Consequently, national ideas of a particular nation could be conceived by people born elsewhere and working in yet another place. This is how identities of the first advocates of East Central Europe’s national ideas were to be forged. Contrary to Western Europeans or Russians, their successors would not shake off the fears of extinction, oblivion and being absorbed into larger powers. What is less present in Connelly’s argument on the multitude of local national ideas and the inevitability of the emergence of nation states in this part of Europe, is the unprecedented multiethnic mix of populations sharing the same territory and the resulting need to define and defend one’s own identity that gave birth to this plurality of national projects.

The second part of the book begins with a description of the liberal revolutions of 1848, followed by the Austro-Hungarian 1867 Compromise and the 1878 Berlin Congress. Then, Connelly comes up with an intriguing reflection on the origins of national socialism. He traces it back to the fin de siècle’s predicament of Germans living in Habsburg Austria and Bohemia and the related national conflict, as well as – here one is naturally tempted to draw parallels with the present – to “liberalism’s agnosticism on the national question and failures in liberal economic policies of the laissez-faire doctrine.” (p. 265) This part of the book also contains an interesting comparison of the personalities and motivations of the national movements’ key representatives, like Tomáš G. Masaryk, Józef Piłsudski, Stjepan Radić of Croatia and Aleksandar Stamboliiski of Bulgaria.

The narrative picks up the pace in the third section, which provides a compelling analysis of the reasons behind the dramatic challenges that national ideas and their political representatives had to tackle in the interwar period. On top of dealing with issues concerning the parliamentary system and economy, the so-called “mini Habsburg empires” that emerged after the First World War were again confronted with external pressure from powerful neighbours and ideologies. At the same time, they were faced with the challenge of inventing a new system adapted to their multinational nature. This is where “the failure of long awaited national self-determination” (p. 362) originates from (though Czechoslovakia managed it best, as the author argues).

This part is founded on Connelly’s recurring belief that pre-war Eastern Europe did not lean towards fascism, a view that puts him at odds with some of today’s American commentators. A reader may want to seek parallels with the ongoing struggle between de facto anti-democrats and liberals, presently competing in the region to rule peoples’ hearts and minds. What was to “hold back fascism” (pp. 389, 410) in most of Eastern Europe according to Connelly were local “strong men” like Masaryk, or Piłsudski, traditions of self-rule, and the geopolitical fact that the countries that embraced fascism were at the same time contesting the existence of Poland, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia etc.

The fourth section dealing with “Eastern Europe as Part of the Nazi and Soviet Empires” is the longest of all, which is probably down to the fact that Connelly perceives East Central Europe as “a space where more of the twentieth century happened – for good and for bad – than anywhere else on the planet.” (p. 3) In the first chapters of this section, Connelly zooms in on the differences among local models of the Nazi administration imposed on various Eastern European areas, Poland being the only country without any native administration, but turned into a “Generalgouvernement,” which was referred to as “Gangstergau”, or Gangster colony. While showing the inconsistency of Nazi rule vis-à-vis Eastern European (mostly Slavic) nations, Connelly brings out the notorious exception of the Jews. He also takes note of considerable differences in approaches of Eastern European societies and their decision-makers towards their Jewish neighbours, and examines the reasons for that.

The following chapters are taken up by the analysis of how Eastern Europe, otherwise known as “the most anti-Communist territory on the continent” (p. 502), was brought under Soviet rule after the war. Connelly gives a compelling portrayal of a painful ethnic revolution that ran its course during this transition. He describes dramatic changes in areas such as political culture, social tissue, economy, and social psyche. Subsequently, he demonstrates the interconnections among political and social upheavals in Eastern Europe, all the way to the major chain reaction of 1989. At the same time, he offers powerful insights into the manifold use of the national idea by both the Communists and their opponents. The authorities reached for it whenever they wanted to use prejudice to play one group off against another (for example toxic nationalism in Poland, 1968) or used it for rapprochement with the West (for instance Romania). Dissidents pursued their own national agenda, as some of them had belonged to one patriotic “conspiracy” or another during Second World War and Communist times.

The last part of Connelly’s grand narrative, “From Communism to Illiberalism”, falls slightly short of the promise of its title. All in all, Connelly appreciates the pace of changes that took place in the region after 1989. With notable exceptions of Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, which both underwent processes leading to a breakup, these changes occurred largely outside of the national dilemma. Notably, the Hungarians, who continued to be ethnically dispersed across the region, were the first to grapple with national uncertainty, eventually turning towards illiberalism. However, it may be doubted if Connelly’s account provides readers with a comprehensive picture of what caused the mass-scale retreat from liberalism in other countries of the region.

From Peoples into Nations is a comparative study of Eastern European national movements which draws interesting parallels and differences between them, but does not delve much into the theory of nationalism. The following examples give a good sense of Connelly’s method. The author insists for instance that both Czech and Hungarian nation-makers considered a strong economic standing a necessary condition for their nationhoods; at the same time, he points to the differences in the social background of the early Hungarian (gentry) and Czech (lower class) patriots and explains how they affected the socially exclusive, or inclusive nature of their respective national movements. With regard to the diverging rationales of Eastern European national movements, Connelly presents Serbia (with its tradition of resistance via sung poetry) and Poland (with its tradition of independent statehood) as paradigmatic cases of anti-colonialism and “insurgent nationalism,” whose leading bards had reputedly always been ready to “lay down their pens to shoulder rifles.” (p. 131) This type of armed national struggle is then juxtaposed against the more gradual approach of Czechs and Slovenes, who managed to establish themselves as independent nations without compulsive risings. Importantly, Connelly applies this comparative method also to show the predicament of Jews in the midst of waves of national revolts. In doing so, he provides non-specialists with interesting insights into the less known and diverse reasons for the anchoring of local national movements in anti-Semitic prejudice.

Judging by the book’s title, a reader would expect the author to tackle the national cases of the Baltic States, as well as Ukraine and Belarus. However, Connelly did not include them in his analysis, as they fell under the rule of the USSR after the war. Given the impressive thematic range and time span under analysis, minor inaccuracies that may catch the attention of experts on particular states seem to be very rare.

In his final résumé, Connelly integrates his analysis of Eastern Europe – a region which never attracted much attention from Western theorists, but recently has been interestingly tackled by historians such as Pieter Judson, Tara Zahra, and Jeremy King – into more general reflections on nationalism. Based on his findings, Connelly challenges the arguments offered by Benedict Anderson and fills the gaps in the popular thesis on the nation-building role of modernisation of that classic author. In Connelly’s terms, Eastern Europe clearly proves that the role of modernisation in inciting national movements was also due to opposition frequently aroused by modernising projects. Contrary to the view held by Anderson, Hobsbawm and Gellner, and showing more affinity in this regard with Anthony D. Smith, Connelly insists on the importance of pre-modern conditions and local traditions of self-rule for the emergence of East-Central Europe’s nation-states.

John Connelly’s impressive narrative does not offer any easy diagnosis of what nationalism in Eastern Europe is about. Readers have to work out the answers on their own in the course of the study of this heavy volume. At times, the book may seem unfocused and lost in detail, but taken as a whole, those details have been eruditely selected and astutely weaved into a carefully structured narrative. Careful perusal of individual comparative chapters unveils a fresh regional perspective which could help bring about groundbreaking changes in didactics. Similarly to the multi-volume project on the history of modern political thought in East Central Europe compiled by a team headed by Balázs Trencsenyi1, the sheer volume of this book confirms the need to fill the blank space in historiography concerning Eastern Europe as a region – a daunting challenge that Connelly had the courage to tackle single-handedly.

1 Balázs Trencsenyi et al., A History of Modern Political Thought in East Central Europe, Oxford 2016–2019.

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