Are modern Eastern Europe and Anatolia best understood as one large zone of borderlands? This tacit question underlies the deep and diverse scholarship in Shatterzone of Empires. One need only scan the table of contents to grasp the ambition of this edited volume: twenty-six contributions, many by leading scholars in the field, occupy [End Page 442] some 500 pages, spanning the mid-eighteenth century to the present, and covering (in today’s geography) western Poland to eastern Turkey. Rather than fruitlessly trying to summarize the many excellent contributions, this review will instead focus on the volume’s answer to the question posed at the outset.
How, exactly, do the authors here define “borderlands”? Editors Omer Bartov and Eric Weitz call them in the introduction “regions intersected by frontiers that separate states,” but also “places of interaction” and “spaces-in-between, where identities are often malleable.” They are peripheries, far from centers of power, and also “constructs of the political imaginary and products of ideological fantasy” (1). If this seems multifaceted, the contributors only broaden the scope. Some authors, such as Patrice Dabrowski and Pamela Ballinger, focus on geographic separators: the Carpathians and the Adriatic, respectively. Many stick to concrete political borders, such as Philipp Ther on Upper Silesia, Paul Robert Magosci on Sub-Carpathain Rus, and Eyal Ginio on Eastern Thrace. Yet even here, one period’s borderland can be another era’s core national territory. The definition uniting many (but not all) of these scholars is that borderlands were multiethnic spaces with the potential for national-territorial conflict. Yet this broad standard encompasses so much of the former Habsburg, Russian, German, and Ottoman Empires that it becomes hard to say which imperial zones were then not borderlands. Indeed, this expansive definition best approximates the editors’ own conception. The implication is that a “vast swath” (1) of Europe and western Asia can be understood through a borderlands lens.
What is the explanatory value, then, of the idea of borderlands? If the volume can be said to have a central claim, it is found in the title: the shattering of empires created zones of potential conflict where coexistence often gave way to violence. The outcome of this historical process—the creation of homogeneous nation-states through ethnic cleansing and genocide—is undisputed. Most of the contributors thus focus instead on causes. Here two broad schools of thought can be roughly distinguished. The first sees the multiethnic diversity of the borderlands itself as a source of potential violence; when subjected to the spark of aggressive nationalism, these zones reacted like lit powder kegs. Contributions by Gregor Thum on the German-Polish border, Alexander Prusin on Eastern Galicia, and Taner Akçam on the Young Turks most approximate this line of reasoning. These arguments tend to follow a long-established historiography in which nationalist forces shattered Europe’s old empires, in turn imperiling the multiethnic spaces that defied the logic of the modern nation-state. Cause and consequence are thus neatly tied together.
Yet such interpretations are overshadowed in this volume by new waves of scholarship that emphasize other causes for the “shattering” of empires: Great Game politics, state-legitimated invention of new national frontiers, military occupation cultures, imperial ambitions (both territorial and nonterritorial), or economic incentives. Here the causal frames embrace local contexts, specific contingencies, and the [End Page 443] social construction of differences, rather than any enduring national-social traits of the borderlands themselves. The chapter by Peter Holquist on Russian violence in eastern Anatolia during World War I is notable for its brief but effective framing of these competing explanatory models. As Holquist writes, early Anglophone literature on shatterzones was most vigorously deployed in the context of British or American conflict zones with Russia, often emphasizing a clash of worldviews or civilizations. The concept of a shatterzone has thus tended, per Holquist, “to reify historical conditions as near-permanent, quasi-geological features” and lead to “one-dimensional explanations” (335). In...