An answer to the Bernd Henningsen report on identity

in Debate, News

Don´t try to stop the discussion about a common identity for the Baltic Sea region. Keep on amplifying the dialogues and involving everyone from students to elderly people. That´s a sincere call from Prof. Jörg Häckmann, University of Szczecin, who opposes the report of Prof. Dr. Bernd Henningsen.

“The report leaves the reader confused as to whether there is a specific feeling of belonging, of shared traditions in the Baltic Sea region or whether the notion is only a chimera created by some politicians and writers.”

Prof. Jörg Häckmann will not give up the search for a common identity. And he finds Prof. Henningsens report too negative because it narrows the narrative of Baltic history to one authoritative master story upon which a common identity can be built. Instead he want to broaden the space for discussions and dialogues on an online platform:

“With such an open approach, discussions on history may contribute to enhancing a Baltic identity that exceeds national boundaries”.

Does history pose an obstacle to Baltic identity?


By Jörg Hackmann

Publications on the history of the Baltic Sea region have increased significantly since the fall of the Iron Curtain. This is hardly a coincidence; instead, it reflects a common desire to see the new ties and relationships established after 1989 not only as a phenomenon ex nihilo. If common traditions and interests can be revealed in the past, so goes the argument, this could underscore contemporary co-operation. Such debates about common history and culture in the Baltic Sea region emerged long before Björn Engholm’s well-known initiative in the mid-1980’s for a “New Hansa”. Usually such discourses on history and cultural traditions are framed today as searches for an identity whose nature is collective, national, or regional.

We should have these debates in mind when looking at the initiative of the Baltic Development Forum to explore the opportunities for a regional branding of the Baltic Sea region.

For this purpose, a report was commissioned from Bernd Henningsen, former director of the Northern European Studies Department at Humboldt University in Berlin. His report “On Identity – No Identity” (with a more complex and scholarly subtitle – “An Essay on the Constructions, Possibilities and Necessities for Understanding a European Macro Region: The Baltic Sea”) was presented at the 2nd Forum on the EU Baltic Sea Region Strategy in Gdask in October 2011.

Somewhat surprisingly, the title of the report calls into question the very purpose of the report and frankly states the author’s conviction that there is no such thing as a Baltic identity. In Henningsen’s words, a Baltic identity discourse is “an exaggerated, faux-scientific discussion”. His hypothesis would have implied either that the report be very brief indeed or not have been carried out in the first place. Henningsen’s main argument is that there cannot be such a thing as collective identity and that therefore, a Baltic identity does not and cannot exist. Nevertheless, the Henningsen does acknowledge the possibility of what he calls a “we-feeling”, and points to things than can contribute to it, such as nature, architecture, church organs, novels, and many more.

The report leaves the reader confused as to whether there is a specific feeling of belonging, of shared traditions in the Baltic Sea region or whether the notion is only a chimera created by some politicians and writers. Thus, the report raises several critical issues. Leaving the question aside whether Henningsen’s claim for the non-existence of collective identity is supported by sociological and psychological research, two further aspects need to be addressed: do historical conflicts between classes, nations, or empires render impossible an understanding of interactions or shared experience that are not based solely on conflict? And second, should we reject the claims for showing recent co-operation to have a historical foundation by revealing that they are, in the words of Eric Hobsbawm, inventions of traditions? If we accept Henningsen’s argument, we would quickly run into historical fatalism, as conflicts in history would lead into a vicious circle, where former clashes must necessarily provoke new conflicts; the early modern wars between Sweden and Poland, for instance, would make any Polish-Swedish talks about commonalities impossible.

In fact, such a negative view of history is quite common: many are convinced that we should not look back, but keep our eyes only directed towards a better future. Bearing in mind Walter Benjamin’s renowned image of the angel of history, which was pushed forward while looking backwards into the past, one may doubt whether such an understanding of human existence without considering history is possible at all. Even beyond this philosophical notion there is a problem in agreeing to the argument that the “mare balticum” was in fact a “mare bellicum”. Our perception of the region would then be reduced to conflicting national interests and world views. But as we have known for decades, nations are not natural forms into which mankind is organized, but are outcomes of historical developments and thus subject to further development and change. This leads to the second argument, that historians may unmask recent visions of Baltic history as cultural or political constructions. Such deconstructions of the Hansa, the Vikings or the Soviet notion of a “sea of peace” do not imply, however, that we can get rid of such constructions entirely.

The idea that history can be unveiled and depicted “as it really was”, was abandoned already some 150 years ago. Even Henningsen’s references to Baltic nature as identity producing features are nothing more than cultural constructions, and rather recent ones at that.

What follows from these critical remarks? First, there is a broad international quest for perceiving the Baltic Sea region as a historical entity with common cultural features. Second, this quest for a non-national, trans- or supra-national perspective on Baltic history should not be rejected as false consciousness qua flashback of Leninism. Third, the idea should be abandoned that there is only one authoritative master narrative of Baltic history upon which a common Baltic identity can be built – this seem to be the windmill at which Henningsen is tilting.

And this leads to a fourth point: we should look at the history of the Baltic Sea region through a prism of multiple perspectives – one aspect alone, be it that of the Hansa, Gustav II Adolf, or tsarist rule – may generate different and partly contested visions. The research on collective memory has already paved the way: in making different and even contested visions visible, they become subject to dialogue.

With this theoretical framework in mind, a Baltic history project initiated by Academia Baltica in Luebeck, in co-operation with historians from Szczecin, Riga, Tartu and other universities, was launched in 2010 and declared one of the priorities during the German presidency of the Council of the Baltic Sea States.

The project shall make use of history for exploring commonalities and differences in the Baltic Sea region; this means discussing the history of the region not by imposing answers ex cathedra, but by exchanging views from varying parts from the region held by everyone from students to elderly people, and by moderating these views on an online platform.

With such an open approach, discussions on history may contribute to enhancing a Baltic identity that exceeds national boundaries.

Jörg Hackmann

DAAD Alfred Döblin Professor of East European History, Dept. of History and International Relations

University of Szczecin, Poland