HEIKO DROSTE, Professor of History,Södertörn University
The conference moderator, Professor Heiko Droste, talks about how past and present connect on the Baltic coast.
Political changes since the early 1990s in Central and Eastern Europe resulted in a renewed interest in the Baltic Sea region, both as an important trade zone and as a historical region with a certain Baltic Sea culture. This culture, however, is not easy to define. Historians like to perceive the Baltic Sea in itself as a node and infrastructure, which for centuries enabled migration and encounters. The history of these encounters, however, is in many parts still to be written. We have pieces of a puzzle, but the cross-national and cross-cultural perspective does not come easily. On the contrary, after centuries of migration movements and encounters, the mental map of historians and societes alike is still shaped by the nation state. These nations are usually perceived as rather stable entities with homogeneous cultures and clear borders. Migration and cultural encounters have therefore mostly been discussed as disturbing and problematic. Two Swedish examples might illustrate this mental map.
Three years ago, the Swedish historians’ conference met in Gothenburg to discuss the guild’s understanding of its relation to the Swedish nation: ”Bound by the nation?” The question was rather rhetorical as the evident answer was: yes. Only few Swedish historians deal with non-Swedish subjects. Fewer still work on those foreign provinces and colonies that Sweden had during the so called great power era. There was also a debate on today’s historians’ language skills as a prerequisite to international and cross-border studies. There is a clear trend to a bilingual research culture, where English is not only the foremost foreign language in almost all countries. It tends to be the only one, due to a growing focus on other, more ”labour market” oriented subjects at school. This is by no way an exclusively Swedish trend.
In early April, Sweden was shook by a political scandal. The Social democratic party congress voted for a well known muslim, Omar Mustafa, to become a member in the party leadership. Omar Mustafa had just everything that made his entry meaningful from the party’s perspective. He was a young and successful immigrant; he had a long lasting engagement in public life and a background in the muslim community. Just a few days later, this election exploded right into the face of the very same party. It turned out that Mustafa not only was a muslim, he was religious. He was also less than clear in certain discussions concerning the equal rights for men and women, equal rights for homosexuals and the question of his alleged antisemitism. Mustafa explained himself poorly. However, the major problem seems to have been his engagement in a muslim community that did not concur with all those values and positions that the ethnic Swedish party organization deemed crucial. There was simply too much otherness, it would have meant too much trouble for the party to stand up for the right of immigrants in Sweden to disagree with the majority society’s values. The party was obviously washed with antimuslim sentiments both from within and outside of the party. A media hype had its share in a campaign that resulted in Mustafa’s forced retreat.
This case demonstrates that diversity even in modern democracies is not self-evident. On the contrary, the framework for what lies within the approved public discourse seems to be getting ever more tight. Several of the antisemites that Mustafa had invited for discussions and that were turned against him had previously been invited by other Swedish politicians, without causing a public uproar .
Whereas we often perceive cultural encounters as beneficial, part of migration movements diversity is often considered as a threat to prevailing ideas of national and cultural homogeneity in nation states.
The Baltic Sea region has since its historical beginnings been shaped by migration movements and cultural encounters. Some of its aspects have been understood as beneficial, not the least the trade in and out of the Baltic Sea region. Other aspects concerning cultural and political hegemonies, be it the Teutonic order and its heathen mission, which resulted in a predominant Baltic German culture for centuries, be it Danish, Swedish and Russian hegemonial positions due to warfare and oppression, are mostly deemed negative (with some interesting exceptions).
Our conference focuses on migration and cultural encounters in a long-term perspective with a starting-point in the middle ages. Historians from a range of different countries gather at Södertörn University in order to discuss different topics. Although most lectures clearly focus on specific subjects, they all open up for comparison. And comparison is needed, not the least as our mental maps seem to be hard to shake.
This conference is also part of a long series of Russian-Swedish historical conferences. The previous conference in Moscow in June 2011 opened this bilateral conferences for participants from other Baltic countries. The conference in Stockholm in 2013 took an even further step in this direction. The participants originate from Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Poland, Germany, the United States of America, Canada, and the not the least Russia and Sweden.
The Baltic Sea history is clearly in need of many studies on the perception of migration and cultural encounters. The political and economic aspects of this history are well analysed for the most part. What seems to be needed now is to examine, how societies reacted to change, how migrants and their culture were incorporated, transformed or rejected. The reactions to change often came from within society, with a limited influence from the part of the government. We also need more studies concerning the obvious fact that the national cultures we are used to think of are a conglomerate of different cultures. They, too, can be an expression for a majority culture that denigrated or neglected other, socially inferior cultures. The Finnish, Estonian and Livonian peasant societies of the early modern period are clear examples for that. There are many more.
The conference also showed that different perspectives are useful, combining economic, political, social and cultural aspects. The different lectures were often based on conflicts or forms of a cultural hegemony that in itself could be seen as an expression for political claims. In this respect, similarities and cross references between different lectures were obvious. Maybe, historians focus too much on conflicts – due to the simple fact that conflicts produce our source material. However, this focus possibly mirrors the prevalent negative perception of change in societies that tend to see themselves as stable.
A common Baltic Sea culture or ”identity” is not easy to grasp and shows itself most of all in the region’s important role for trade and commerce. Here, the Baltic Sea truely is a node, an infrastructure that connects. In cultural aspects, the Baltic Sea is probably more of a barrier. Communication s are often land – bound . In these matters, however, we need many more studies. We also need more conferences to gather and discuss these matters. I hope that this conference will be just one in a long line of discussions and meetings. We need to meet each other outside of our national communities, in order to experience those cultural encounters that shaped the Baltic Sea region in its long history. That these conferences most likely will have to be held in English – the modern lingua franca – might be perceived as ironic, with regard to the rather subordinate role of this language for the Baltic Sea countries until recently. It might also give all the participants a feeling for the problems of cultural encounters in previous societies. There was never just one language that all members of the society understood as its own.