Ethnographic History

Identities In-Between: the Ethno-National Under Scrutiny – at the Romanian Cultural Institute, by Julia Secklehner


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L’viv, Ukraine

Identities In-Between was a panel of three presentations at the Romanian Cultural Institute, which considered different ways national and ethnic identities in East Central Europe could be explored. Jan Fellerer (University of Oxford) looked at the now Ukrainian city of L’viv, also known as Lwów in Polish and Lemberg in Germany, in the 1890s and the 1930s. He explored how the mixed population there created its own dialect, a mixture of Polish, Ukrainian and Yiddish/German elements, that could hardly be understood elsewhere. Fellerer found that this dialect was particular not only to L’viv, but also to a specific group in society: the lower working-class living on the outskirts of the city. Because these people were hardly affected by official ideas of nationalism, they thus managed to live in an ‘identity in-between’. According to place and need, they could choose to be Polish or Ukrainian or Jewish, defying the strict division of these nationalities recorded in official statistics. Fellerer used examples from popular culture to illustrate his ideas, a caricature from the satirical magazine ‘Zerkalo’ from 1893 and the Polish equivalent to Laurel and Hardy in the 1930s, highlighting that these mixed identities were present not only in everyday language, but also in the popular culture of the day.

Marius Turda (Oxford Brookes) focused his paper on Romania in the 1940s, where German and Hungarian ethnic minorities made an effort to preserve their identity with biological strategies. Rather than just emphasizing identity through language, they also devised medical screenings to detect their ‘healthy peers’ and stressed that reproduction should continue this bloodline, making marriage not a private but a public concern for ‘their nation’. But as a letter from 1940 shows, these strict regulations could backfire: through inter-marriage, the German population of Hermanstadt, also known as Sibiu in Romanian and Nagyszeben in Hungarian, began to suffer from genetic defects. The letter therefore asked for members of another German settlement, in Bukovina, to relocate in order to rejuvenate the population. Turda’s example thus showed that the forced preservation of minority groups (by themselves) through biological means wasn’t always successful or good for the particular ethnic group, and that such a rigid way of conserving one’s nationality could also backfire.

The changing map of Poland, 1938-1945

The changing map of Poland, 1938-1945

The final presentation was by Robert Pyrah (Oxford), a historian who interviewed members from the German minority in Wrocław and the Polish minority in L’viv, to discover how they saw themselves as a community living in a ‘foreign’ state. As most members of these minorities were displaced in the 1940s and 1950s, the question why some decided to stay made Pyrah’s project all the more interesting. Interviewing 30 people from each group, Pyrah wanted to find out whether their own definition of identity was the same as the one they were assigned officially. Intriguingly, the outcomes were different in Wrocław from those in L’viv. While the German minority in Silesia avoided defining themselves as German or Polish, and spoke more about their region – to avoid having to decide an identity along national lines –  Poles in L’viv made the conscious choice to define themselves as either Polish or Ukrainian, which Pyrah put down  the possibility of being ‘in-between’ no longer existing there.

What the three presentations shared was their new consideration of ethnic minorities in East Central Europe in the 20th century – not from an official perspective, but from ‘below’: how ordinary people defined themselves. This gave us an alternative view of history, and showed nationalism, which still defines the region, in a rather different light. These little histories were fascinating, even though most lacked historical context – seeming at times to gloss over some utterly traumatic events – the expulsion of the Sudeten Germans, say, which is only being addressed – and slowly – now.

The fact many people found themselves ‘in-between’ mediates the histories of nationalism that still define the way we see the region – particularly today, when nationalism is on the rise again. As such Identities-In-Between, despite focusing on the past, was of contemporary relevance.

This focus also creates some unease: it’s undoubtedly important to recognise that many people had – and continue to have – mixed identities. Yet what’s decided the course of history has been those nationalist ideas that violently displaced, killed and set people apart from one another.


The Romanian Cultural Institute’s Identities in Between was part of the ongoing cultural programme at the RCI, London. To read an additional current piece by Julia Secklehner – The Cityscape as National Battleground: Brno / Brünn and the Avant Garde – please click on the right-hand image below.

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