The Baltic States and Their Region: New Europe or Old?

By David J. Smith | Go to book overview

Cultural autonomy in Estonia: one of history's
“curiosities”?

Martyn Housden

Writing in the 1980s, Ernst Gellner observed that an ethnographic and political map of the modern world resembles more a painting by Modigliani than one by Kokoshka. Its patterns show “very little shading,” “neat flat surfaces are separated from each other,” the beginning of one generally is clearly differentiated from the other, and there is little “ambiguity” or “overlap.”1 If such maps really look like this, they are not fair reflections of reality and probably never have been. This is particularly the case in respect of central and eastern Europe. No matter how hard politicians have tried over the years, it has proved quite impossible to establish an easy harmony between the political borders of that region and the geographical distribution of peoples who have been resident there for centuries. Unfortunately, the patent unfeasibility of a project to order the extensive and complex region according to a system whereby, for instance, a series of single states might correspond to the distribution of single nations, has not stopped attempts to realise either this or some comparably over-simplified and artificial aim. The unimaginative principle of human organisation, whereby a single nationality lays claim to a “space” as exclusively its own, too often has been associated with motives that are either determinedly doctrinaire or vengeful and has produced too many outcomes which testify to the worse capacities of mankind. Infamously, efforts to structure central and eastern Europe according to “neat and tidy” ethnic criteria have led to the persecution, displacement and even the attempted genocide of the region's inhabitants.

Understandably, a weighty and challenging literature continues to address in serious fashion the drama and suffering caused by these various kinds of ethnic persecution. No one can doubt the enduring impact attached to such grave injustices, whether they happened earlier in a living individual's life or to previous generations. Taking just one example of hardship, even a superficial reading of publications by groups of Germans who either fled or were expelled from central and eastern Europe after 1945 shows how this can be the case. A recent article concerning Germans from the mountain region of the Banat exemplifies the pain of removal from a homeland which happened several decades ago. It raises the sadness of a life partitioned by flight or expulsion and speaks of the impossibility of “amputating” the earlier, unsatisfied identity which an individual formed in his or her place of birth.2 A second article shows that those forced to leave a place are not the only ones to experience loss as a result. Reunion with a Romanian friend, unseen for half a century, can prove equally moving for both parties.3

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