Feature Story | 3-Jun-2024

How did transnational knowledge transfer between Eastern European cultures of history during the interwar period?

Estonian Research Council

To what extent can history, as a knowledge form, serve as an orientation in life? How can we, via a reconstruction of our past, form historical self-images that would simultaneously provide a guideline for future action? Fundamental questions like these tormented European historians and philosophers of history after the First World War, an event that radically altered the map of Europe following the collapse of the multinational empires. In the newly formed (nation-)states of East Central Europe, historians and philosophers of history were busy inquiring into the philosophical fundaments of history, drafting new historical self-images that would provide orientation for their national communities.

One of them was the German theologian and philosopher Ernst Troeltsch (1865–1923) who wrote a seminal work in the philosophy of history in the aftermath of the war: Historicism and its Problems (1922). He attempted to devise a blueprint of how to wrest philosophical orientation from European cultural history as a basis for resilient European postwar order.

The PhD project took Troeltsch’s work as a starting point for a transnational intellectual history, studying the transfer of Historicism and its Problems to interwar Eastern Europe. In national case studies, the way Troeltsch’s book was selectively incorporated into Soviet, Czechoslovak, Hungarian, and Romanian discourses of history and historical nation-building projects after 1918 was examined. What did Eastern European intellectuals make of the German philosopher’s work, and how did they fuse his ideas into their own projects of historical nation-building?

The study shows that Troeltsch’s book provided a theoretical inspiration that fueled theoretical discourses of history and practical historical nation-building projects everywhere in the European East: from the “struggle on the historical front” in the early Soviet Union, where historians were wary of Troeltsch as a “bourgeois” “reactionary” “Western” scholar, to the “struggle over the meaning of Czech history” in interwar Czechoslovakia where he was regarded as an “authority”.

The study showcases how Eastern and East Central European discourses of history and historical nation-building in the interwar period exhibited a distinctly transnational character. As self-centred as many of these national discourses might appear, they were all facilitated via transnational circulation of knowledge. These findings should stimulate further comparatively informed research on Eastern (East Central) European historical discourses. Moreover, the current ongoing Russian Federation’s aggression war on Ukraine has exposed a significant knowledge deficiency in Western and Central European societies when it comes to Eastern European cultures of history. Consequently, deeper knowledge of the Geschichtsbilder circulating in Eastern European societies, and their transnational interconnectedness, are still a pan-European societal and political necessity.

Johannes Walter Benjamin Bent defended the doctoral thesis "Ernst Troeltsch and Eastern Europe: Interwar Interpretations and Applications of a German Philosopher of History" on 3 June. Thesis supervisors were Liisi Keedus, Professor at Tallinn University and Gangolf Hübinger, Professor Emeritus at European University Viadrina. Opponents were Balázs Trencsényi, Professor at Central European University Budapest and Matthias Schloßberger, Professor at European University Viadrina.

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