This new Manchester-based Centre promotes interdisciplinary work on the history and politics of identity in modern Europe. It seeks to unite recent trends in political history, notably a focus on citizenship, liberal governmentality and mechanisms of political exclusion, and cultural history, with a focus on imagined communities, memory and the symbolic representation of belonging. Through a range of international research projects and publications, the Centre seeks to elucidate what, if anything, is specifically European about the layering or ‘hybridity’ of different strands of identity, such as the triad of local, regional and national. Taking its cue from the ‘spatial turn’ in the humanities, it will problematize the idea of Europe, paying equal attention to both the divisive and the consensual elements of European citizens’ entangled identities as they unfolded over the past two centuries. This process is examined from a range of disciplinary viewpoints, including historical, literary and political studies.
On 10-12 March, the Centre hosted its inaugural conference, which focused on the spatial dimension of identities in modern Europe, from the onset of what is commonly regarded as the big modernization push around 1850 to the present. We analyzed how the municipal, regional and national were configured in terms of ‘hard power’ – modes of political decision-making, participation and entitlements – and ‘soft power’, such as subjective claims and perceptions of ‘identity’. On the basis of particular geographical expertise, speakers were asked to comment on the following questions:
‘Municipalism, Regionalism, Nationalism: Ideas and Ideologies’
The first session on ‘Municipalism, Regionalism, Nationalism: Ideas and Ideologies’ began with a paper by Julian Wright (University of Durham), who used the example of the French Félibrige to demonstrate how this nineteenth-century association of poets and writers imbued a folkloristic or aesthetic regionalism with political meaning. In doing so, he challenged the association of the central French state with modernization, and the concomitant categorization of regionalist movements as ‘merely cultural’ and backward-looking. He also demonstrated how elements within the Félibrige movement saw the regional as transcending the national, and forming the basis of PanLatinist identities.
‘Citizenship and the Tiers of Political Identities’
‘Citizenship and the Tiers of Political Identities’ was the theme of the second session of the conference. Andreas Fahrmeier (Universität Köln) challenged the assumption that citizenship is a privilege and duty conferred exclusively by the nation-state. Drawing on a wide range of examples from the nineteenth century to the present, he argued that legal and social entitlements are often tied to documents issued by regions or municipalities, using quite different criteria from those employed by the state. He also explored a new trend by which large-scale corporations have been granted some collective representation in municipal government – a return to ancien régime practices of citizenship under the auspices of globalization.
‘Borders, Minorities and Hybrid Identities’
Timothy Baycroft (University of Sheffield) opened the next section on ‘Borders, Minorities and Hybrid Identities’ with an ambitious model of hybrid identity formation in European border regions. Using Peter Sahlins’ model as a starting point, Baycroft argued for a conceptual distinction between multiple and hybrid identities, where only the latter involve a synthesis of the different spatial tiers into a new whole. His paper generated much debate on how useful the notion of hybridity was in relation to identity formation.
‘The Role of History in Negotiating Identities’
The fourth session examined ‘The Role of History in Negotiating Identities’. Christopher Duggan (University of Reading) argued that the emergence of a historical narrative conducive to nation-state formation in Italy was hampered not so much by strong regionalisms, but rather by the lack of coherent regional or even municipal building-blocks for wider identities. In this situation, federalism was widely perceived as dangerous, as Italy already seemed excessively fragmented. Instead, a strong state was needed to cope with the traditional Italian vice of factionalism and to purge Italy of its historic decadence through the revival of military values to produce more virile and disciplined Italians.
‘Local metaphors? Locality, municipality and the nation’
The penultimate session on ‘Local metaphors? Locality, municipality and the nation’ was opened by Alon Confino, who considered the longevity of the Heimat idiom in German history. He used the GDR as a test case for the hypothesis elaborated in his earlier work, which suggested that in imperial Germany, the locality came to be used as a lens through which the abstract entity of the nation could be imagined. Using a series of official posters printed between 1945 and 1961 as evidence, Confino pointed out how SED propagandists consciously or unconsciously built on the imagery of Heimat established in the nineteenth century. He concluded that Heimat was not tied to a particular ideology, but that it could be appropriated by any regime to promote the national through a generic symbolism of the local that suppressed spatial particularity. The following three papers considered the potentially more problematic relationship between nationalism and the municipality.
Following dinner, the Swiss Ambassador to the United Kingdom, His Excellency Alexis P. Lautenberg, addressed the conference on the subject of how the relationship of municipalism, regionalism and nationalism would play out under conditions of Europeanisation. His optimistic assessment of the future of the Europe of the regions sparked a lively debate.
‘Municipalism, Regionalism, Nationalism: Past, Present, Future’
The final substantive session of the conference discussed ‘Municipalism, Regionalism, Nationalism: Past, Present, Future’. Michael Keating (European University Institute, Florence) argued that most contemporary claims to sovereignty are rooted in historical accounts. In this field, the nation-state narrative holds no monopoly claim to universal, liberal and democratic credentials. Regions and stateless nations, according to Keating, have based doctrines of limited sovereignty on narratives about plurinationality and accommodation, which effectively challenge the modernist teleology that informs much of social science writing today. They can also help recover political pluralism without losing democracy.
The final discussion of the conference focussed on three core arguments that emerged from the debates. First, the question was raised whether a hierarchy of spatial identities was still a valid proposition. Most delegates agreed that the fluidity of identities and the manner in which they were mutually constitutive renders such hierarchisation non-sensical, although several speakers pointed out that at various decisive historical junctures, the nation-state had been more successful than other spatial identities in subsuming both sub- and trans-national identities under its own auspices. This not only applies to moments of intense political mobilization that have characterised nation-building in Europe. In the longue duree, the nation-state’s greater ability to incorporate rival spatial identities has been well established in studies of the stylisation of the locality as a national ‘Heimat’. Speakers at the conference pointed to analogous developments in municipalities and regions, for example when the Franco regime appropriated a topology first developed to articulate separatist regionalisms, especially in the Basque Country, for the new iconography of the nation. We agreed that such transfers and projections merit closer investigation.
Second, the special role of trans-national configurations in shaping the triad of municipalism, regionalism and nationalism was highlighted. Delegates pointed to numerous examples where references to supra-national projects – notably Empire-building in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and the discourse of Europeanisation thereafter – enabled sub-national units to legitimate their ‘special status’ within the nation more effectively. More research on the role of the trans-national dimension on centre-periphery relations within Europe was called for.
Third, we discussed methodological problems in exploring ‘characteristic’ spatial identity formations in relation to the notion of hybridity. To date, the historiography of nationalism has tended to focus on moments of crisis and rupture. Supposing that different identities exist in a hierarchical relationship, historians have argued that nationalism can be most clearly grasped when actors are forced to prioritise one identity over another in situations of violent conflict or crisis. Thus, an underlying truth about the significance of national loyalties is revealed: war is the ultimate test case for nationalism. Some delegates at the conference argued that this model could usefully be adopted to shed light on the relative significance of multiple identities, too. Others suggested that hybrid spatial identities were better understood in conditions of ‘normality’ than during dramatic moments of change. The interrelationship of different tiers of spatial identity, these scholars suggested, was shaped by the longue durée. While it was constantly reconfigured in response to specific situations and to suit particular interest, this flexibility could best be grasped if studied, first and foremost, in periods of relative stasis, which, in spite of the historian’s traditional obsession with change, was more characteristic of most people’s day-to-day experience than dramatic change or rupture. Such an analysis could be further advanced by the use of visual evidence. The built environment, in particular, can be decoded as a way in which the different component parts of spatial identity, whilst still recognisable in their particular iconographies and materials, could be synthesised into a single, ‘hybrid’ image.
The Centre for Research on the Cultural Forms of Modern European Politics at Manchester plans to use the issues thus raised to develop a research agenda for years to come. We are hoping to build on the dialogue initiated by the conference to create an international network of scholars, who will work together in elucidating these problems through further trans-national research on modern Europe. Those interested in participating in future events of the Centre are warmly invited to contact one of the organisers.