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Economic Change and the National Question in Twentieth-Century Europe

Author(s):Teichova, Alice
Matis, Herbert
Pátek, Jaroslav
Reviewer(s):Stanciu Haar, Laura N.

Published by EH.NET (March 2002)

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Alice Teichova, Herbert Matis and Jaroslav P?tek, editors, Economic Change and the National Question in Twentieth-Century Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. xvi + 433 pp. $74.95 (cloth), ISBN: 0-521-63037-1.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Laura N. Stanciu Haar, Manchester School of Management/UMIST.

This book represents a substantial collection of carefully edited conference papers, which investigate the relationship between economic development and nationalism in many European countries. It is a timely and ambitious effort to determine and analyze, by use of historical detail, the interdependence between countries’ economic progress and the nationalist tendencies of their people and/or governments. Timely, because until recently most contributions in economic history seemed to assume such relationship as being complex and important, without further analytical justification. Ambitious, because the very concept of the word ‘nationalism’ lends itself to a wide array of interpretations, depending on a specific context. A quick glance at the titles of these papers suffices to illustrate this point. What is ‘nationalism’ in Ireland and Italy becomes ‘national question’ in Portugal, Lusatia and Poland, ‘nationality problems’ in Belgium and Switzerland, ‘national identity’ in Austria, ‘national integration’ in Greece, ‘nationalist economic policies’ in Spain, ‘national development’ in Slovakia, ‘national minorities’ in Hungary; ‘national conflicts’ in Yugoslavia and ‘ethnicity’ in Estonia. Other authors relate to the concept of nationalism by looking at foreign trade patterns (the Finnish experience), competition (in inter-war Czechoslovakia) and entrepreneurship (the Russian experience). Although exploring the many facets of nationalism provides novel insights into the inter-play between such socio-political phenomena and economic activity, trends and circumstances, by encompassing such a broad definition of nationalism, one wonders whether the various papers are addressing the same subject matter.

In the estimates of the authors, the explanation to the national question across Europe is far from straightforward and/or all embracing. The reader is urged to take into account the social, economic and political transformation of each European country over time in order to understand the characteristics of its nationalistic behavior. In one way or another, it seems that every single European country experienced some degree of nationalism, even if in making this point, the authors are stretching the meaning of the word to encompass ethnic, religious and sovereignty aspects.

The papers presented in this volume vary considerably in scope and value. Among the well-argued and persuasive contributions are the following. Alan O’Day convincingly illustrates how political and religious divides have fuelled the nationalist movement in Ireland. Erik Buyst, analyzing the historical animosity between Wallonia and Flanders, successfully emphasizes how economic disparities can often lead to cultural and linguistic discrimination, while those less favored economically resort to political/nationalist movements in an attempt to restore the balance. The case of Switzerland, well-documented by Bruno Fritzsche, can be interpreted as the exception that confirms the rule: where economic development is relatively even, cultural and linguistic issues are less pronounced and consequently, there is lesser need for either French- or German-speaking population to engage in significant political representation. Similarly, Herbert Matis shows, among other things, how economic disparities within the Austro-Hungarian Empire, between the more prosperous West part and the semi-feudal East, led to rivalries at least in the short run. Along the same lines, Jerzy Tomaszewski underlines the difficulties faced by the inter-war Polish Republic as a result of significant economic and social differences among its various provinces.

In contrast, other papers, however, relate to the subject in a less successful manner. They involve countless classifications (see the paper by J?rg Roesler on Germany) and/or amassing historical data to such an extent that the main message is largely obscured (such are the contributions by Eduard Kubu on Lusatian Sorbs and by Montserrat Garante Ojanguren on the Basque question in Spain). Would it be uncharitable to observe that, in some cases, research on nationalism represented an opportunity for some authors to revisit well-traveled historical territory, adding only marginal insight through a new slant? Reviewing the less successful papers, it would seem that the value of such research might have been enhanced by the use of a theoretical framework, the rigorous presentation of propositions, and the delimitation of the relevant data. Otherwise, the ready criticism of historical argument, namely that any number of facts may be amassed in support of most assertions, could well be argued to ring true.

Among the less successful papers, we see the lack of a unifying theoretical perspective as the main drawback for the book considered as a whole. More broadly, all of the twenty papers presenting historical data on various countries and over different periods of time might have benefited from the use of a specific, relevant theoretical framework to enable the formulation of formal and testable propositions. The use of theory could have helped greatly in facilitating comparisons among countries as well as in delineating the particular from the general. By doing so, the book might have opened up new debates and, therefore, put the basis for further study on the subject. Instead, historical events are often presented to illustrate assertions with minimal consideration of alternative constructs. One would have expected some clear propositions, hypotheses and/or assumptions to be tested or explained in a critical manner. Unfortunately, the lack of a consistent effort in conceptualizing the issues related to nationalist manifestations across Europe and their relationships to economic phenomena, leaves the reader confused and little persuaded about the value of future research with regard to the subject matter herein analyzed.

Dr. Stanciu Haar has published articles on multinational investment in the inter-war East Central Europe in journals such as Business History, Financial History Review and Storia e Imprese.

Subject(s):Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII