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  • “National Indifference” as a Political Strategy?
  • Alexei Miller (bio)

The “national indifference” concept (or metaphor, depending on one’s point of view) made its way into historians’ vocabulary at the turn of the 20th and 21st centuries. Scholars studying the history of Bohemia under the Habsburgs in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were the first to use the term. Bohemia was the ideal setting for exploring how large groups of people resisted attempts to draw them into a confrontation between two mobilized nationalisms—Czech and German. Jeremy King wrote about a local identity (Budweisers), which resisted the corrupting influence of nationalist confrontation, and used the notion of “national indifference” in this context.1 Pieter Judson spoke about “national indifference” as opposed to national activism, which sought to turn heterogeneous imperial borderlands into national property. He showed how census data about “native language” and maps drawn on that basis distorted and simplified the real situation.2 Tara Zahra spoke about the nationalists’ battle for control over children, especially orphans, and included the phrase “national indifference” in her title.3 She soon followed the book with an article that attempted to impart a conceptual nature to “national indifference” by regarding it as part not only of the late imperial period but also of any situation involving nationalist mobilization.4 Zahra argues that we should look for the notion of “national indifference” among nationalists who use [End Page 63] it and similar words to express their disappointment with the unwillingness or inability of “ordinary people” to provide active support for their efforts and with their unreadiness to unconditionally identify themselves with the national community, which the nationalists offer as an object of exclusive loyalty. In this sense, “national indifference” occurs when nationalist activism becomes part of the general situation. The focus is kept on “ordinary people” and on how previous pre-nationalist identities and structures of interaction “resisted” new times. In most cases, “national indifference” is used to describe either a situation in which a nationalist movement struggles to mobilize “ordinary people” or one in which two groups of nationalist activists compete, while “ordinary people” try to stand aside from the logic of this confrontation, which presupposes the destruction of “neutral” social spaces. As critics of the concept rightfully point out, the notion of “indifference” evokes an association with passivity, which may not always carry the right connotation.5 Zahra believes that “national indifference” describes three types of behavior: (1) “national agnosticism,” “complete absence of national loyalties as many individuals are identified more strongly with religious, class, local, regional, professional, or familial communities”; (2) “nationally ambivalent, opportunistic side-switching”; and (3) adherence to bilingualism and openness to marriages transcending ethnic borders.6

After the publication of Zahra’s article, the notion of “national indifference” seeped into literature dealing with other parts of Austria-Hungary as well as the German-Polish and German-French borderlands.7 In my opinion, the notion of “national indifference” cannot be viewed as an analytical category or an integral concept and should rather be used as a metaphor. This does not mean that we shall never have such a concept. However, since Zahra published her article, we have witnessed a significant expansion in the term’s use but not much conceptual clarification. The conference “Nations and Nationalism from the Margins,” held in Prague in the autumn of 2016, [End Page 64] attempted to do exactly this. It confirmed that efforts at conceptualization are being made, but also that much has to be done before we get to the endpoint.8

Nevertheless, the metaphor has proven quite useful, because it draws our attention to various means of avoiding nationalist mobilization and suggests new ways to overcome national narratives when studying identity politics in Eastern and Central Europe in the second half of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries. Some scholars, like Andrei Cusco, accept the notion of “national indifference” only with reservations (7); others, like Karsten Brüggemann or Katja Wezel, offer alternative concepts that they regard as more appropriate, such as “national ambiguity,” “anationalism,” or “hybridity” (42). Their articles in this issue of Kritika focusing on Bessarabia and the Baltic provinces are among the...