Contested Minorities in the ‘New Europe’: National Identity from the Baltics to the Balkans, 1918-1939

This article is part of the TRAFO series “Emerging Topics. Insights from ‘Behind the Scenes’”. Today, we put the spotlight on the workshop „Contested Minorities in the ‚New Europe‘: National Identity from the Baltics to the Balkans, 1918-1939“ that will take place on 1-2 June 2019 at the Birkbeck College, University of London. We interviewed its conveners: Olena Palko and Sam Foster.

Please find the Call for Papers (open till 14 January 2019) here.

Olena Palko, you are one of the organizers of the upcoming workshop “Contested Minorities in the ‘New Europe’: National Identity from the Baltics to the Balkans, 1918-1939”: How did you come up with such an approach to the history of the interwar period?

Parade of the Polish Army in Lviv (interwar period), unknown author, Wikimedia Commons

Olena Palko (O.P.): The conference’s central theme is closely aligned with my own post-doctoral research, currently being conducted at Birkbeck, University of London and funded by the Leverhulme Trust. My project, entitled Contested Minorities: A Transnational History of the Polish-Soviet Borderlands, 1918-1939, explores differences in treatment, and opportunities available, for the interwar Ukrainian and Belarusian minorities in Eastern Poland when compared to the Polish minority across the border in western Soviet Ukraine and Belarus. In general, the study can be classified as an analysis of Polish-Soviet relations through the lens of the minorities issue. What motivated these governments to promote ethnic identification of various ethnic and national groups within their borders and how did they use ethnic mobilization for achieving these strategic goals?

Researching Polish, Ukrainian and Belarusian minorities in the Polish-Soviet borderlands, prompted me to start looking for similar experiences elsewhere in Eastern and South-Eastern Europe before the Second World War. This is how the idea to hold this conference came about.

How does your approach to East European minorities in the interwar period differ from previous research?

Sam Foster (S.F.): When planning the conference, we anticipated that significant attention would, in the UK at least, gravitate towards the established meta-narrative and reinforce existing assumptions among non-specialists. While minorities, cultural, religious and sexual as well as ethnic, tend to feature prominently in this sort of explanation, they are frequently cast as homogenous groups facing persecution by authoritarian regimes. This is often framed in political or legalistic terms and through a ‘top-down’ perspective that privileges the role and view of elites and Western observers. Eastern Europe is essentially characterized as existing in an almost perpetual state of upheaval, invariably beginning with the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 and supposedly foreshadowing Hitler, the Holocaust and the Second World War.

Sam Foster (photo: private)

While it may sound slightly clichéd, we want to broaden and complicate this picture by focusing on developments from a ‘bottom-up’ perspective that foregrounds the minority communities and their lived experiences. Yes, the impact of certain events or developments might appear obvious when viewed in their broadest historical context, but how did people react to them at the time? Did every minority define themselves entirely around this group status or were things more nuanced? If resistance, or attempted resistance, did occur how did it actually manifest? By the 1930s, state repression had certainly become widespread, with democracy having been superseded by a series of authoritarian dictatorships, with the exception of Czechoslovakia. Most people, however, didn’t respond by resorting to armed struggle or through campaigns of direct subversion. Indeed, some minorities even strove to ingratiate themselves into these newly established state or, as in Poland, where even encouraged to embrace distinctive identities; it’s these wider communities whom we wish to examine.

Why do you think your topic is of importance in current times?

O.P.: We believe that learning about the past can help us better understand current conflicts and misunderstandings in the region. The relationship between independent Poland, Ukraine and Belarus, although relatively amicable since 1991, presents numerous unresolved historical problems and conflicting national narratives. In light of the recent steps taken by the Polish Parliament to class the ethnic cleansing of Poles in western Ukraine in 1943 as genocide, there is an urgent need for a historical explanation of the biases and preconceptions that underpin current Polish-Ukrainian relations.

S.F.: As illustrated by the collapse of Socialist Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, this is even more pronounced in South-East Europe. Long before Austria-Hungary collapsed in 1918, Italy and the independent Balkan states were laying claim to vast swathes of territory based on ethno-linguistic assertions that deliberately obscured localised social context. The consequences of this remain evident in today’s Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Greece and Serbia, alongside recent nationalist attempts at sanitizing Bulgaria and Croatia’s own histories of ethnic cleansing.

Olena Palko (photo: private)

O.P.: In a more contemporary sense, we also feel that our focus on minorities, national identity and ethnic and cultural diversity remains political relevant. The conference’s opening keynote lecture, presented by Professor Cathie Carmichael from the University of East Anglia and entitled “Herzegovina and the End of War in 1918”, will be open to the wider public. The attending audience will be encouraged to draw parallels with a range of issues prevalent in modern current affairs, including social cohesion, multiculturalism and attitudes towards Muslim communities in a European context traditionally associated with Judeo-Christian culture.

S.F.: November 2018 will mark the end of the First World War’s centennial commemorations, raising questions as to its impact and legacy both in Europe and internationally. As a historian of the Great War myself, I now recognize that it wasn’t some calamitous break with an idealised past but a catalyst for various pre-existing trends. I think the conference presents an opportunity to remind academics and the wider public that history isn’t simply a series of sudden events but a protracted process of change: what was occurring in the 1920s and 30s hadn’t just sprung into exist in 1918 but represented an amalgamation of developments reaching back into the previous century. This is especially important today where history is often presented in a highly solipsistic manner without any proper context.

O.P.: Our conference will also invite participants and the audience to reflect on “the Century of Internationalisms” that opened with the founding of the League of Nations in 1920. As the first permanent multilateral organization set up to maintain peace and collective security, its key aim was to promote a new stable and prosperous international order while protecting the rights of minorities worldwide. Yet, despite this admirable commitment, the League ultimately failed to prevent the rise of militarised nationalism in Eastern Europe and the outbreak of the Second World War.


Olena Palko is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at Birkbeck College, University of London. She is the author of several publications on early Soviet cultural history in Ukraine. Her current project Contested Minorities: A Transnational History of the Polish-Soviet Borderlands, 1918-1939 investigates the minority policies of the Polish and Soviet governments in the Polish-Soviet borderlands during the interwar period.

Samuel Foster is a visiting academic in the University of East Anglia’s School of History, where he received a PhD while serving as project manager for the John Corsellis Archive. His research focuses on the First World War in the (pre-)Yugoslavian Balkans on which he has written and presented extensively including contributions to the BBC and the International Encyclopedia of the First World War.


Citation: Olena Palko, Sam Foster, Contested Minorities in the ‘New Europe’: National Identity from the Baltics to the Balkans, 1918-1939, in: TRAFO blog – Blog for Transregional Research, 01.11.18, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/?p=14576&preview=true.



Forum Transregionale Studien

The Berlin-based Forum Transregionale Studien is a research organization that promotes the internationalization of research in the humanities and social sciences. The Forum provides scope for collaboration among researchers with different regional and disciplinary perspectives and appoints researchers from all over the world as Fellows. In cooperation with universities and research institutions in Berlin and the rest of Germany, it carries out research projects that examine other regions of the world and their relationship to Germany and Europe systematically and with new questions.

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