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    Last der Geschichte? Kollektive Identität und Geschichte in Osmitteleuropa: Belarus, Polen, Litauen, Ukraine

Harry Louis Roddy, Jr.

 Edited by Zdzisław Krasnodębski, Stefan Garsztecki, and Rüdiger Ritter. Hamburg: Verlag Dr. Kovaã, 2008. 493 pages. ISBN 978-3-8300-2108-7. Paper. In German.

Last der Geschichte is an encyclopedic contribution
to the study of the historiography and contemporary political history in what the editors term the East-Middle-European countries (Ostmitteleuropa). This volume consists of thirteen essays by the three editors and contributors Tomas Stryjek, Grzegorz Motyka, Arūnas Bubnys, Leonid Zaškil’njak, Henadz’ Saganovič, Vytautas Berenis, Zahar Šybeka, Vladimir Golovko, and Wilfried Jilge. It originated in a 2004 workshop held in Warsaw in which questions of historical formation of national identities and the diachronic evolution and transformation of these identities in Belarus, Poland, Lithuania, and Ukraine were considered. I believe Last der Geschichte will prove to be an invaluable resource for scholars of this region in the coming years.

The content is divided into three major sections that include a treatment of historiography and foundational myths in Ostmitteleuropa; a consideration of identity formation via internal historical development and foreign and colonial influences; and the politics of history in the post-Soviet era. Krasnodębski concludes the volume with a section titled Vergangenheit und Politik (The Past and Politics).

In the foreword, the three editors lay the groundwork for this volume with a consideration of history’s central role in the construction of collective identity. They point out that the current debate on identity formation in these countries represents a confrontation between communist legacy and historical traditions, a debate that revolves around the question of which will be more prominent in forming collective identity. They also establish the logic of considering these four states, namely their historical commonalities, and that the history of the one must necessarily take that of the others into consideration (11).

The opening section explores foundational myths of the countries under consideration and the crucial roles these myths play in societal cohesion, as well as the pivotal role the Second World War played in the construction of historical memory in East Middle Europe. In his essay exploring the centrality of foundational myths in Poland and Lithuania, RŁdiger Ritter defines such myths as “event complexes” that contribute to explaining how and why things are the way they are in a nation (24). As such, they must be believed, otherwise they are pointless. Commemoration strategies are thus developed in different nations by which the historical narrative and the myths upon which they are based are anchored in the collective national memory (24). In this essay he explores how this process has taken place in Poland and Lithuania.

In the second essay of this section, Tomasz Stryjek examines how the historical reception of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Polish Rzeczpospolita have shaped the syntheses of national history in the work of contemporary Ukrainian historians. The heart of his essay is a consideration of how these two events shaped the traditional, post-Soviet and revisionist historiography, and examines how these strains can be synthesized in a common historical approach. This first major section also includes essays on the role played by the Second World War in the Ukrainian-Polish historical memory (Motyka) and the Lithuanian historical memory (Bubnys).

The second major section of the book focuses on how collective identity is forged through the confrontation of national historical identity with foreign and colonial influences. This section begins with an essay by Za‰kil’njak on Polish and Russian influences on Ukrainian historical identity. In this essay Za‰kil’njak argues that historical identity is formed by the counterpressure of historical memory and social identity (191). He addresses the specific challenges posed by the formation of a Ukrainian national identity, namely Ukraine’s efforts to establish strong diplomatic ties to Western Europe while at the same time not alienating Russia, and the still-decisive influence of the Soviet historical identity.

In this second section Stryjek addresses contemporary constructs of Ukrainian national identity, Saganoviã writes on Belarusian historiography vis-à-vis its neighbors, and Berenis contributes an essay on Lithuanian national ideologies of the nineteenth century and perspectives on post-Soviet Lithuanian history. In his essay on Ukrainian national identity, Stryjek illustrates the central problem in the construction of this identity: that there is no “consensual history” on which all parties agree (233), but rather the national myth is based on three conflicting paradigms: the folkish (volksnah), the ethnic, and the cultural constructivist (235). All efforts to forge a unified Ukrainian national identity depend on the outcome of this conflict. In his essay on Lithuanian national ideology of the nineteenth century, Berenis traces the roots of Lithuanian national consciousness back to Polish Romanticism and shows how this consciousness has affected the writing of history in the post-Soviet era. Unlike Ukraine and Lithuania, Belarus does not have a historically developed consciousness of national independence. Efforts to form a national identity rest on the processes of justifying and legitimizing Belarus’s existence as an independent nation. Nevertheless, as Saganoviã points out, these processes are heavily influenced by an enduring pro-Russian provinciality (303).

Last der Geschichte ends with discussions of the evolution of political history in these countries during the post-Soviet era. Garsztecki addresses contemporary Belarusian and Polish discourses of the past, while ·ybeka contributes an essay on contemporary political history in Belarus. These topics as they relate to contemporary developments in Ukraine are taken up by Golovko and Jilge. Krasnodębski concludes the book with a consideration of the neonationalism unleashed in these four countries by the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Krasnodębski cites Ewa Thompson in indicating that the Russian culture that had dominated the politico-cultural sphere of these four nations for so long was often “an expression of imperial projections” (474). As such, the nascent period of decolonization has created a vacuum in which nation-building in Poland, Lithuania, Belarus, and Ukraine is influenced by the postimperial mentality of the subaltern (477). This situation has been exacerbated by the acceptance of Poland and Lithuania into the European Union; the appearance of an “imperial model” with Paris-London-Berlin (instead of Moscow) at the center has created misgivings within Poland and Lithuania, while Belarus and Ukraine became further separated from the European center (487). It will be interesting to see how the tensions created among the Western orientation in these four nations, Russian assertions of strength and influence, and Lithuanian and Polish ambivalence regarding Western European imperial designs play out. With this volume Krasnodębski, Garsztecki, and Ritter have provided a valuable aid to scholars of this region as they analyze and interpret these unfolding tensions in the coming years.  Δ

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