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Remembering Minorities Amid Eastern Europe’s Centenaries

The nation-building wave of 1918-1920 restored sovereignty to some peoples but meant loss of homeland and forced migration for others. From The Conversation. by Alexandra Liebich 10 April 2019

Over the past year, states across Central and Eastern Europe have been celebrating the 100th anniversary of the creation or re-creation of their countries.

 

Some will continue to do so through 2019 and 2020 as they mark 100 years since maps were redrawn and nation-state status was granted to groups that were formerly part of vast, diverse empires.

 

Amid the festivities and fanfare, let’s not forget to include minority views and voices in the dialogue. A centenary is an important moment for these states, no doubt. It is also important for citizens – including minority citizens, many of whom remember the events of 1918 to 1920 from a different perspective. What they tend to remember of those years are grievances, losses of status, forced migration and changed homelands.

 

Different Memories

 

During my field work in the region, speaking with minority and majority groups, I learned that minority members tend have different interpretations and contrasting memories of the events of 1918-20, many of them painful. So they were not likely to participate in the centenary celebrations. More often, they were celebrating occasions of national and cultural significance to their particular group.

 

There are about 400 minority communities in Europe today, comprising more than 100 million people. “Minority” refers to groups that are distinct in ethnicity, culture and language from the group that is numerically dominant in the state. They are also in a politically non-dominant position within the state.

 

Some of these groups became minorities through displacement and forced migration amid the upheaval of war. Some became minorities through the arbitrary redrawing of lines on maps, meaning they suddenly found themselves living in another country as “accidental diasporas.” In other words, minorities can arise when people move across borders, or when borders are redrawn around people.

 

The First World War brought about the collapse of large multi-ethnic empires and the formation of several nation-states in their wake.

 

Recognition of these new states was based upon the famous, or perhaps infamous, idea of self-determination, promoted at the Paris Peace Conference and in postwar treaties. Recognition was also based on the principle of nationality, which advocated and justified the notion of states created of and for particular nations. The logic was: one ethno-cultural group per country, one nation per state. In reality, none of these states was entirely homogeneous.

 

Stately Celebrations

 

For Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Romania, the events of 1918-20 signify the recognition of statehood. The years 2018-2020, therefore, mark the centenary of this stately occasion. The governments of these countries have put a lot of time and resources into the celebrations.

 

There are countless special events and programming such as “100 Years” walking tours, speeches, concerts, flag and firework displays, museum exhibitions, patriotic parades, youth marches, military tributes and bonfires.

 

The national colors of each state are visible in public squares and streets, and at night they light up historic buildings and landmarks. National anthems are played, and national poetry and literature recited, as each nation-statehood is observed.

 

Pope Francis visited the three Baltic states in September 2018 in a gesture seen to acknowledge their struggle for independence. There have even been Twitter hashtags, 100 Year playlists on Spotify and restaurants serving centennial meal specials. It’s the spectacle of a national holiday but amped up several times.

 

What About the Minorities?

 

The fanfare is exciting for the dominant groups in these states. But what about the groups that are not dominant – the minorities? Where do they fit in all of this? Are they celebrating?

 

In Romania, members of the Hungarian minority view the 100th anniversary of Romania’s “Great Unification” as more of a division – as a historical tragedy rather than triumph. The 1.2 million Hungarians in Romania today are there mainly because lines on the map were redrawn.

 

In 1920, Hungary was carved up by the Treaty of Trianon, and some Hungarians suddenly found themselves living in the new state of Romania. The Hungarian minority now constitutes 6.5 per cent of the population of Romania, concentrated in the northwest in the region of Transylvania.

 

This community tends to celebrate Hungary’s annual National Day over Romanian national days, and to partake in Hungarian Cultural Days.

 

An anniversary that may resonate for Romania’s Hungarians in 2020 is the proposed and very political Trianon Memorial Year. Trianon resulted in Hungary losing two-thirds of its territory and population. Today, many Hungarians still view the Trianon “dismemberment” as a violation of Hungary’s sovereignty and national integrity.

 

It remains one of the most traumatic events in Hungary’s collective memories, and a recurring issue in Hungary’s domestic politics and regional relations.

 

In Lithuania, members of the Polish minority associate the years 1918-20 more with the re-emergence of the Polish state than the restoration of the Lithuanian state. Poland experienced three territorial partitions, in 1772, 1793 and 1795, and effectively disappeared from the map until 1918.

 

Similar to Hungarians and Romanians, Poles and Lithuanians have had a long and contested relationship over borders, history and identity. The Polish minority constitutes 6.6 per cent of the population in Lithuania, concentrated in the southeast in the Vilnius region.

 

This community strongly celebrates the annual Polish Diaspora and Poles Abroad Day with a ceremonial march through the streets of Vilnius. Though the parade is a sea of red-and-white Polish flags, the red, yellow and green of the Lithuanian flag can be seen as well. There are celebrations on May 3, the day when the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth proclaimed a Constitution in 1791, and also Polish Culture Days in Vilnius.

 

The Russian-speaking minorities in the Baltic states haven’t had much of a presence at the centenary celebrations. These groups have different memories of the years following the First World War. Russia withdrew from the war in 1917 and then civil war broke out between the Bolsheviks and the White Guard.

 

Amid these grand celebrations in places like Bucharest, Riga, Tallinn, Vilnius and Warsaw, let’s look for whether and how minorities are celebrating. Their voices and perspectives are an important part of the story. Just as the armistice is commemorated differently in Western Europe and Eastern Europe, the years 1918-1920 mean different things to different national groups across the continent.

 

 

Alexandra Liebich is a Ph.D. candidate and teaching fellow at Queen's University, Ontario.

 

This article originally appeared in The Conversation.

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