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European Border Regions in Comparison: Overcoming Nationalistic Aspects or Re-Nationalization?

0 Comments 🕔04.Dec 2014

In modern national master narratives, borders are represented as being natural and immutable. However, they developed into their current form of nation-state borders only in late medieval and early modern times, when a functional shift occurred from the demarcation of overlapping spheres of religious or aristocratic influence to the delimitation of national distinctiveness and exclusive state authority. Starting from this observation, the volume European Border Regions in Comparison, edited by Katarzyna Stokłosa and Gerhard Besier, and published in the Routledge Studies in Modern European History series, critically engages with the notion of borders demarcating national communities and territorial authority. It convincingly shows that borders have always been contested, negotiated, and disputed – despite or because of the pressure emanating from national master narratives on everyday lives. Apart from the editors’ introduction, it contains 19 case studies investigating a varied range of European border regions both in historical and contemporary perspectives.

The aim of the book is to present “a comparative approach to what remains an international phenomenon” (p. 4). A convincing comparative framework for border regions in Europe is in fact highly needed, and has been on the research agenda since the 1990s and Martinez’s suggestion of a classification of borderlands depending on the dynamics of border interaction. At the moment, studies of border regions are mostly situated either on the level of micro-studies or on the level of abstract theoretical reflection. An edited volume with a convincing comparative framework applied to a number of case studies would be a considerable step forward in border-studies literature. In terms of research design, the editors’ introduction convincingly argues, in line with current literature, that border regions are highly relevant case studies to engage with wider questions of national identity formation despite the fact that they concern only a restricted number of people. As border regions are the space where two spheres of state influence meet, and possibly clash, binary oppositions between “us” and “them” become more apparent at the border and translate either into contestation or conformity with the national master narrative. For these reasons, border regions are spaces where national master narratives are highly salient, and where different grouping mechanisms can be compared.

The edited volume is divided into four thematic sections of different length engaging with the different aspects of nationalism in border regions. The 19 case studies are written by a wide and diversified range of scholars, so that the volume does not only talk about crossing borders, but also fosters border crossings among disciplines. Contributions are drawn from border and border region studies, history, comparative politics, European studies, anthropology, international relations, psychology, and the humanities. Apart from academic contributions, the volume also includes authors with on-site experience in the fields of development, evaluation, and curation. The case studies paint a varied picture of European border regions, highlighting the complex interplay between institutions and agents, between central and peripheral forces, between encounter and misunderstanding, and between the stability and fluidity of borders. The quality of the different contributions varies greatly and ranges from well-designed comparative studies, to purely descriptive contributions lacking conceptual clarity.

The first section deals with Territorial Disputes and Questions of Identity. It investigates how international conflicts about borders affect the lives of those living near the border. All of the contributions are detailed accounts of how the enactment of state capacity at their outer peripheries affects borderland populations at the micro-level, be it through the imposed reorganization of trade flows, as in the case of the Spanish-Portuguese and the Catalan border regions, or patterns of collective and individual identification, as in the case of the Schleswig and Carinthia border regions. The very convincing empirical analyses of Danish and German national propaganda preceding plebiscites in Carinthia and Schleswig (Nina Jebsen) and the division of Schleswig (Steen Bo Frandsen) respectively show states’ efforts to nationalize peripheral populations. They are among the rare examples in the volume that avoid idealizing the regions they investigate and positing cooperation as a normative goal. The two following contributions focus on the European Union’s outer borders and engage with the Latvian-Russian border and the relations between Morocco and Spain as they crystalize at the border. The last contribution, by Cathal McCall, focuses on cross-border cooperation in Ireland, and might therefore have fitted better into the next section about cross-border cooperation.

The second section answers to the first section’s hypothesis of borders as places of conflict with the hypothesis of Cross-Border Cooperation. Paula Godinho shows on the example of the Northern-Portugal/Galicia border that cross-border cooperation does not necessarily revive an historical region such as Galicia. Andrea Varriale provides a well-written account of the historical development of the Tyrol region. She shows that mechanisms producing regional patterns of identification are similar to those producing national narratives. The underlying normative assumption of all contributions is the need for increased cross-border cooperation in order to lower conflict potential – a claim which needed to be put into question at least since Frederick Barth’s work on ethnic groups and boundaries. The section replicates the European Union’s discourse on cross-border cooperation instead of critically engaging with it. In fact, as Adriansen shows in the volume’s last contribution, oblivion in the name of placidity engenders homogenization rather than commemoration of the cultural landscape.

The third section, Perceptions of Borders and Border Regimes, focuses on the impact of the Cold War and its border regimes on everyday life. Olga Ilyukha opens the section with an investigation of the Finnish-Soviet borderland. She develops a methodological framework based on autobiographical childhood memories, and concludes that the Finnish-Soviet border played a crucial role in the collective definition of Soviet values. The contribution by Ktarzyna Stokłosa is interesting from a methodological point of view, too. She investigates the German-Polish border by conducting narrative interviews in order to understand the perceptions and daily experiences of this Cold War border in the inhabitants’ memories. She corroborates recent findings that personal encounters rather than rational calculation shape border perceptions. Corneliu Pintilescu and Lavinia Snejana Stan show how the border between contemporary Romania and Yugoslavia became a resource for the inhabitants of the region during late Socialism. Their contribution shows how cross-border cooperation is not only an instrument encouraging cross-border flows, but also an instrument of political control. Elżbieta Opiłowska investigates the influence of European integration on the German-Polish border region and evaluates how far the concept of Europeanization can be applied to this border. The section closes with an examination by Monica Andriescu of the presence of borders in twentieth-century public discourse and its influence on identity politics in Romania and Hungary.

The volume ends with a section on Prejudices, Stereotypes, and Nationalism. It puts forward the methodological argument that border areas are highly relevant spaces to study processes of othering, as they favor the encounter between different national groups. The section opens with a contribution by historian and psychologist Besier, who reviews the mechanisms of the process of stereotyping on the examples of German and Polish nationals. Davide Mauro Artico and Brunello Mantelli’s historical account of political developments in South Tyrol since the inter-war period does not fit well in the section, as it does not deal with stereotyping, prejudices or nationalism more specifically than any other contribution in the volume. It also raises the question of why the volume needed a second contribution on South Tyrol besides Andrea Varriale’s well-researched and interestingly written account of the Tyrol region in the second section. The section closes with a reflection on the function of memorials in forging national narratives by Inge Adriansen, which complements Steen Bo Frandsen’s contribution on Schleswig in the first section, who argues that Schleswig “exemplifies how a border region can become a pawn in a political game of chess, where regional interests are clearly subordinated to national interests that are defined somewhere else” (p. 80). Adriansen closes not only the section, but also rounds off the volume by observing that the removal of monuments by German and Danish authorities in Denmark and Germany respectively has “contributed to making both sides of the border more mono-cultural, and have promoted the placidity and tolerance that are closely linked to a lack of visibility” (p. 354).

Despite the rich accounts of border regions, the edited volume does not fulfill the promise made in its title and the goal set out in the editors’ introduction. First, in their introduction the editors fail to suggest a comparative framework allowing for the classification of different types of borders and border regions. Second, the different contributions do not systematically follow the concepts suggested in the editors’ introduction. There is therefore no general comparative conclusion to be reached from the volume. Some contributions convincingly develop their own conceptual framework, while others fail to do so and provide rather descriptive accounts. Apart from testing a comparative framework set out in the introduction on different case studies, a second imaginable way to design an edited volume that sets out to compare European border regions would have been to design comparative case studies and evaluate different comparative frameworks at the end of the volume. With a few notable exceptions, the contributions are not designed comparatively, and remain isolated case studies. In sum, the editors’ introduction and several contributions are helpful if one aims to understand the dynamics in one specific border region in Europe. However, the reader is unable to find the glue holding together the different contributions.

The second flaw of the volume lies in conceptual vagueness and contradiction between the different contributions. The editors acknowledge in their introduction that the conceptual difficulty in working with borders lies in the fact that borders are closely associated with nations as closed cultural, political, and social areas, whereas border regions are spaces of hybridity, exchange, and transnationalism. However, they do not suggest how to overcome this conceptual difficulty. The book’s core concept, the “border region,” is not used coherently throughout the volume, and the different contributions introduce further concepts such as “border area,” “space of boundaries” or “border zone.” Despite a review of common uses of “border” and “frontier” in the introduction, the editors therefore fail to provide a conceptual framework for border regions as contact zones. Consequently, the contributing authors respectively use the terms “border” and “frontier” interchangeably, and further introduce new concepts such as “frontier” or “passageway.” While there is confusion in the field of border studies about the conceptualization or theorization of these terms, one would expect an edited volume with the aim of suggesting a comparative framework to generate its own approach and defend it throughout the contributions, which would have meant a step forward in streamlining border studies.

In sum, the volume manages to show the variety and complexity of European borders and border regions, but fails to reduce this empirical complexity by suggesting a coherent comparative framework. Though most of the contributions are well-researched and detailed accounts of historical, political, and cultural developments in different border regions, the volume lacks coherency and analytical rigor. Salient research questions – for instance, what makes identities in border regions specific in comparison to other regional identities, or what makes Europe specific in comparison to other places – remain unanswered. Unfortunately, most contributions follow the naïve assumption that national borders are malicious and therefore need to be overcome. Despite the high quality of some – but not all – individual contributions, the feeling remains that this volume is yet another group of insulated case studies on borders, taking note of the variety which exists, without, however, generating an overarching framework.

Review by Sophie Schram, Universität Trier

European Border Regions in Comparison: Overcoming Nationalistic Aspects or Re-Nationalization?
edited by Katarzyna Stokłosa and Gerhard Besier
Hardback / 380 pages / 2014
ISBN: 978-0-415-72598-9

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