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Omer Bartov, Eric D. Weitz, Shatterzone of Empires

Luba Jurgenson
Traduction de Sarah Voke
p. 193-196
Référence(s) :

Omer Bartov & Eric D. Weitz (eds.), Shatterzone of Empires, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 2013, 543 p.

Cet article est une traduction de :
Omer Bartov, Eric D. Weitz, Shatterzone of Empires

Texte intégral

1The title Shatterzone of Empires announces from the start the approach Omer Bartov and Eric D. Weitz chose. The “shatterzone” of the four empires, which broke up after the First World War into modern nation states, is a notion of space. Spread over a number of scales – empires or States, regions (Galicia, Upper Silesia, Carpathian Ruthenia), towns (Vilnius, Krakow), small towns (Buczacs), the space of the borderlands should be understood according to the various meanings of the term: borderlands, marches, frontier zones. Documenting the ethnic, cultural and religious diversity of these territories as well as the local violence that erupted in the course of the 20th century supposes therefore the inclusion of the findings within this “spatial turn”. Since the 1980s, new epistemological frameworks have emerged within humanities generally and more specifically in historiography and history, a discipline which is vastly represented by the contributors to this volume. The idea of a study specifically on borderlands arose some time ago already, within interdisciplinary works in Europe and in the United States. In France, in 2005, the idea namely sparked an edition of Cultures d’Europe centrale, La destruction des confins [Cultures of Central Europe, The destructions of borders] (followed up by two other articles, Voyage dans les confins and Le Mythe des confins, published respectively in 2003 and 2004), under the supervision of Delpine Bechtel and Xavier Galmiche. In regards to this pioneering initiative, the volume we presently have in our hands widens the question. Indeed, the integration of the Ottoman Empire within the shatterzone was a way of constructing a diachronic and comparative vision of the genocidal violence of the 20th century. If the present book surprisingly makes no mention of this work (whereas Omer Bartov was one of its contributors), the writers however take a critical stance from the very first pages of the introduction on another study of the violence which adopts a spatial approach: Bloodlands, Europe between Hitler and Stalin by Timothy Snyder, published in 2010 by Basic Books (New York). Indeed, the violence within European borderlands cannot only be attributed to the conflict between the USSR and Nazi Germany, for it had been simmering beforehand in these regimes, often caused by internal situations rather than imposed from the outside. Unlike Bloodlands, Shatterzone of Empires therefore proposes a detailed exploration of imaginary and symbolic constructions as well as political and economic configurations.

2This exploration of the borderlands also takes into consideration another historiographic turn, namely, the possibility of including sources that used to be considered as peripheral, such as speeches, perceptions, imaginaries, subjective memories, in short, elements that were situated in the margins of great narratives. The periphery is here much more than merely a notion of space, it is also to be understood epistemologically. It is about rethinking, within the concerned geographical and political space and similarly to the hierarchy of knowledge (between great History and microhistory, for example), the relation between centre and periphery. The borderlands, which even the most centralized or dictatorial powers do not totally control, are thus a metaphor for new approaches. The legitimization of tools which historians are traditionally suspicious of, is nevertheless subjected to critical reflection. Omer Bartov’s article, which concludes the fourth part on the violences in the borderlands, is thus based on personal stories relating a local genocide at Buczacz, in Eastern Galicia, between 1941-1944. As a result, the consideration of personal testimonies seems arguably necessary to write a “three-dimensional” history, using tools derived from microhistory and the history of daily-life, as well as being attentive to the complexity and contradictions which disappear as soon as one privileges a more global analysis. The specific study of these documents allows a view into the communities as well as jumps into the past, often overlooked by historians of violences. However, it is not about yielding to the illusion of grasping the logic behind the violences “at the source”. A diachronic study of the borderlands from the dawn of nationalism at the end of the 18th century until today, supposes a dynamic approach to social processes. One cannot escape the theoretical danger of researching the origin, but also an interpretation of the violences as a simple exacerbation of the exclusion or segregation practices established previously. Suffice to say that everything is done so as to avoid a mythical reading of the borderlands and their destruction.

3As zones of freedom within empires, the peripheries easily became places of instability during their fragmentation. Furthermore, the transition to Nation States is questioned throughout this volume as an emerging mode of a modernity which, by deeply modifying social configurations, destroys the balance of complex neighbour relationships. The construction of a problematic figure of the other, which progressively became an object of exclusion or even of extermination, is analysed in the first part of the book (article by Larry Wolf) through the prism of imperial imaginaries shaped by identity, from travel narratives in which we see Poles through the eyes of a German (Fichte travelling in 1791), Germans through the eyes of a Pole at the same period (Niemcewicz). These constructions were backed up by myths present in speeches and political practices. The Eastern borderlands of Germany were perceived for example as an entrance into a menacing territory and a wild land which needed civilizing (Gregor Thum). However, prior to becoming a hostile figure, the other could have an “invisible neighbour” like the Jews at Vilna-Wilno-Vilnius (Theodore R. Weeks) where, like in every multicultural city, coexistence did not necessarily only rest upon tolerance and mutual interest, but also on populations overlooking their otherness, as each considered the space as their own. In this same section, Dan Diner examines the situation of Jews “between empire and nation state” in the middle of the 18th century and concludes with their maladjustment to the new model. If, individually, the Jews were important actors of European modernity, as a community however, they followed pre-modern patterns. Confronted to identity aporias with a new conception of citizenship and an emerging national identity, these communities were swept toward disaster, the Holocaust being the ultimate manifestation.

4A multitude of factors, which can mainly be defined as the advent of modernity, is necessary to understand what triggered the beginning of violence. In the second part of the book, dedicated to imperial spaces, Gary B. Cohen, as well as Peter M. Judson, propose, following the Austro-Hungarian Empire example, to concentrate not on the nature of the nationalist movements and the decline of the empires that do not satisfy them, but rather to look at the relation between the State and society. The way in which the population in the borderlands entered into modernity is rethought generally. Frithjob Benjamin Schenk shows namely, by analysing travel narratives, how the railroads, which allowed the population of the Russian Empire to discover the ethnic and religious diversity of the borderlands (the zone of Jewish residency, as it happens), were also a tool in the hands of those who sought to shake the political situation (terrorist groups or perpetrators of pogroms). In theory a factor of social integration, trains were also a factor of violence and of disintegration.

5One original component of the book is that imperial ambitions are envisaged from the angle of colonialism. Both the second and third parts of the book are dedicated to the emergence of national speeches in the borderlands, as well as the fourth part, which specifically deals with the question of violence. Reference is made to Turkish colonialism (David Gound), with the extermination of Assyrian, Chaldean and Syrian Christians in the Ottoman Empire. This genocide is not well-known namely because of the difficulty of attributing a common identity to the population which, unlike the Armenians, was outside of the political arena. The subject of Russian colonialism is also broached (Peter Holquist), seen through the violence perpetrated by the army on the Ottoman territory and in North Persia (Urmia and Astarabad). This article is a reminder of the stake Caucasus played in the Russo-Turkish conflict and enlightens Russian military practices: control of the territory, punitive expeditions, massive requisitions, population displacements, practices which were fated to carry on after the revolution with the goal of integrating the zones of influence or of long-standing conflict to the new Soviet State, and then fated to become widespread during the Second World War. Reference is made to German colonialism, finally, which targeted the Ottoman Empire and led to a complicity with Germany in the genocide of the Armenians and Assyrians (Eric D. Weitz). Genocidal practices were incidentally tested by German military on the Herero people and the Namaqua in South-West Africa.

6If the First World War offered a particularly rich field of observation for the violence nested in the borderlands, it does not however lie at the origin. Within these European and adjacent spaces, persecutions and deportations had already taken place during the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913. The radicalization of new discourses regarding Muslim Ottoman identity and the exclusion of non-Muslims within the national community which led to the genocide of the Armenians, must be understood as one of their consequences (Eyal Ginio). The emigration of Christian populations (especially Bulgarians) largely encouraged by the government after the defeat, was a step toward the idea of ethnic cleansing. Elke Hartmann shows with the example of the isolated Kurdish and Armenian provinces in Asia Minor how fragmentation and delegation of power within borderlands contributed to the escalation of violence, orchestrated by the States and often carried out by the population. Remaining within the field of the Balkan Wars, we shall address the massacres committed by the Greeks upon Bulgarian civilians (Keith Brown), as well as the anthropological value of the sources which attest to it (letters of soldiers) but are disputed by the Greek authorities.

7The perpetuation of the violence from one war to another brought about the pogroms of 1941 (Alexander V. Prusin), perpetrated by Poles and Ukrainians on their Jewish neighbours in Eastern Galicia, as a heritage of the First World War: pogroms and deportations committed by the Russian army in 1914-1915, plundering of abandoned houses by locals. The “Jedwabne syndrome” is considered, here again, through the prism of a modernization that intensified socio-economic and political rivalries.

8The execution of prisoners by the NKDV in Ukraine at the time of the Red Army’s retreat in 1941 served, as we know, as a pretext to spark anti-Jew pogroms. Drawing on the example of Krakivski visti, a Ukrainian daily newspaper published in Krakow, John-Paul Himka followed the international media coverage of these crimes in order to show the way in which both the victims and the criminals became ethnicized by Nazi and Ukrainian propaganda. This article is echoed by the one by Kai Struve, in the final part of the book, which deals with rites, symbolism and identity, and proposes a reading of Stalinist and Nazi violence based on the symbolic and identity investment of Galician space as well as the social changes brought with the Russian revolution. As a result, Jews, who had previously only had limited rights, gained access to the structures of the new power.

9The final part of the book raises questions which had remained in the margins of the four previous parts, such as the coastal borders in the East Adriatic (Pamela Ballinger); the Ukrainian and Jewish artistic revival in the borderlands brought by the Russian revolution and presenting a surprising synthesis of national and international aspirations. There is also the study of an exceptional case: the non-violent interethnic coexistence in Carpathian Ruthenia (Paul Robert Magosci). Finally, the last contribution, by Philipp Ther, is dedicated to regionalisms up until today. The example of Upper Silesia, germanized under German domination, polonized by force after the war, offers the opportunity to think of the regions not as places with defined borders, but as objects of discourses, therefore symbolic constructions in perpetual transformation.

10We would have wished to find, within this overview, a study of the Sovietization of the borderlands that followed the divide of Poland and Romania between the USSR and Nazi Germany in 1939 and which continued after the war. There is particularly lacking a study on Bessarabia, partially annexed by the USSR after the German-Soviet Pact, only to be later recaptured by Romania allied to Nazi Germany, of which one of its territories, Transnistria, became a zone of deportation and of extermination.

11Finally, if centripetal logic or, on the contrary, unifying logic, is mentioned through the notion of Pan-Germanism, there is also sadly lacking a study on Pan-Slavism which played an equally important role namely within the Habsburg Empire. The Russian Civil War, and consequently the Polish-Soviet War, both having generated large-scale pogroms, would also be worth including. However, the book does not claim to be exhaustive and above all, it aims to put new approaches into practise. Therefore it is a valuable and timely contribution to the field.

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Luba Jurgenson, « Omer Bartov, Eric D. Weitz, Shatterzone of Empires », Témoigner. Entre histoire et mémoire, 119 | 2014, 193-196.

Référence électronique

Luba Jurgenson, « Omer Bartov, Eric D. Weitz, Shatterzone of Empires », Témoigner. Entre histoire et mémoire [En ligne], 119 | 2014, mis en ligne le 01 janvier 2016, consulté le 24 avril 2017. URL :

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