- Cities and Identity, War, and Memory in the Baltic Region
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Historical studies of the Baltic littoral have grown more numerous lately in what may perhaps be called the second wave, following publications that greeted the independence of the three Baltic states in 1991. No longer pressed to respond to that momentous event—still less to celebrate it—current research takes advantage of the distance to achieve a more detached scholarly perspective. I propose in this essay to review some of the new literature on the Baltic in English, French, German, and Russian, focusing on what I see as its main thematic clusters.1 I begin with studies on cities and identity, in which the two subjects are often linked, continue with the contested interpretations and memory of World War II, and conclude with approaches to Baltic history that offer an alternative to nation-based research.
Cities and Identity
Baltic cities are very much at the center of recent studies.2 Villes baltiques: Une mémoire partagée, a 2010 issue of the Paris journal Revue germanique internationale, gathers contributions on the history of Kaunas, Klaipeda, and Vilnius, all of these in contemporary Lithuania; Mitau (now Jelgava) and Riga in Latvia; and Tartu and Tallinn in Estonia. Vilnius and Riga both receive attention from more than one contributor. The journal’s ambit is the history of German cultural transfer, and the editor’s introduction emphasizes the importance of the Baltic (German Ostsee) in this respect. However, the articles constituting the volume do not necessarily approach their subject from a German viewpoint. Other ethnic communities receive due attention, with much on Jews (especially, although not exclusively, in connection with Vilnius), Russians, and Poles, in addition to the “titular” peoples of the contemporary Baltic republics—Lithuanians, Latvians, and Estonians. Indeed, the issue of multiculturalism—or, to cite another term the authors use, “pluriculturalism”—in Baltic cities is raised early on: in his opening article on cultural diversity, Jörg Hackmann notes that before 1900, this was characteristic of the region he defines as Northeastern Europe. The region’s inhabitants did not see the mixture of ethnicities, religions, and languages as an asset. Hackmann argues that it was, rather, a characteristic of local life that all sides regretted; the elites considered it a relic of the past, ultimately to be effaced by modernization.3 These “mosaics of ethnicities” and “cultural [End Page 622] mosaics,” as the blurb for Villes baltiques calls them, were doubtless there at the turn of the century: in the concluding paragraph of an article on Jewish Vilna in the 18th and 19th centuries, notable for its expert use of Hebrew sources, Jean Baumgarten describes the metropolitan cities of Eastern Europe as “hybrid, heterogeneous spaces, formed by the agglomeration of microsocieties which coexist without necessarily mixing; an entanglement of spaces, an assembly of cultures, and a combination of languages.”4 On the next page, Theodore R. Weeks starts where Baumgarten left off, opening his study of the same city (Vilna for the Jews, Wilno...