Where to Look for the Baltic Sea Region Identity?
By Karina Pētersone, Director, Latvian Institute
People say that a person is what he eats. Paraphrasing this I would say that a person is what he reads. My childhood bookshelf had books by Andersen, Brothers Grimm, Astrid Lindgren, Latvian and other fairy tales on it. This reading has shaped me as personality with a strong sense of the regional, not only national identity. These two identities have never been in conflict, they have entwined and enriched each other.
The Baltic Sea region has existed as a territory without fixed borders since times immemorial, however, institutionalization of it as a territorial cohesion initiative has happened only recently. Also, recent historical political changes have added a new dimension to the region and its identity.
The honeymoon feelings which blossomed at the end of the Cold War and during Velvet and other kind of revolutions in the Central and Eastern Europe unfortunately are long since gone. During early 1990ies, the lost diplomatic, economic and cultural ties with neighbors across the Baltic Sea were being actively re-built, and aspirations in the newcomers towards the community-based and well-functioning models of the Nordic societies were running high. However, after that the nations around the Baltic Sea retuned back to their routines of state building and were busy joining the EU and other influential international nation-clubs.
Currently, the region countries are looking at each other again and are busy shaping a European macro-region – the Baltic Sea Region – the Strategy of which is a political initiative knitting it together within the EU.
Part of it is an attempt to brand the region, and for that matter the question: whether there is a common Baltic Sea Region identity, has been posed and debated over the last 20 years.
Director of the Baltic Development Forum, Hans Brask, in his Foreword to the Identity Report of the BSR of 2011, writes: “…the concept of a common identity in the Baltic Sea Region is the most difficult and the most demanding to apply. To speak about a common identity one has to have strong shared values and a clear sense of belonging. (…)Is it at all possible to speak about a common identity when one of the most striking features of the region is heterogeneity?”
Professor Bernd Henningsen, the author of this Report 2011, in his essay “On Identity – No Identity”, asserts that “the Baltic Sea Region is a history of co-operation and conflict” and looks for a common identity in history, landscape and climate, trade, architecture, art and culture, education and science, eating habits, as well as in the presence of the sea, to conclude that to look for a common identity leads one to a trap: “How can a region have something in common – “an identity” – or be regarded as homogeneous, when nine different languages are spoken within it, it contains more than nine ethnicities, uses eight different currencies practices three different forms of Christianity,…, and last but not least, which fosters relatively different political cultures.”
He states that “…all previous attempts to understand the Baltic Sea region through its history, culture, language (…) have failed”, however he identifies several elements that “…cause people around the Baltic sea to develop a “we-feeling”. “The Sea, its coastlines, its weather and climate, seasons, summer vacations, yearnings for freedom, remnants of architecture and culture, city life, (…), let alone first hand or passed down memories of the wars, which people waged against each other.” And therefore he suggests that we should refer to this “we-feeling” rather than look for a common identity.
I dare suggest that in our search for a common identity for the region we look for inner and outer denominators. Apart from those that create the “we-feeling” mentioned by B. Henningsen, I propose to look at archetypes. The best place to look for them is the mentioned fairy tales, common to the region, which very seldom have happy endings. The morale is: an individual should rely on himself and not on some magic, besides – sadness is enlightening and it is advisable that one is compassionate and feels solidarity.
However, if we find it difficult to describe the Baltic Sea Region as identical to itself, which is the case with the multitude of cultures and economic circumstances, then probably we have to use the relative method and look for denominators outside trying to construct the regional identity by method of defining what the region is not in order to see its strengths. A good method is that of juxtaposition:
1) BSR vs the South, is Northern – we have the change of seasons, snow, seasonal fruit and vegetables, tourism opportunities; hardships have made the people creative and resourceful;
2) BSR vs tyrannies – is democratic, it respects the rule of law, property and human rights;
3) vs the East there is lots of green, unspoiled land, educated work-force, financial and legal systems in place that allow for cooperation and even coordination of policies;
4) vs countries that experience difficulties in balancing their spending with earnings, the BSR countries have demonstrated resilience, solidarity and discipline.
Here I would like to follow professor Henningsen’s thesis that identity often is not itself center of discussions or programs, it is a purpose for political, cultural or scientific interests. (p.22) Therefore I suggest that we look for the Baltic Sea Region identity from the angle of the European Union Strategy for the BSR, which is a result of political agreement, expressing the will of all the nations of the region to cooperate, build networks and engage all possible actors for the purpose of enhancing the region’s prosperity, increasing its accessibility and attractiveness, as well as enabling a sustainable environment and ensuring safety and security in the region.
Therefore, for political reasons and for the benefit of the peoples who inhabit the region, our identity search has to be forward and not backwards directed, its pivot should be the political will to act in accord, use the rich potential, the above strengths, in order to lessen the differences in living standards, political habits, levels of energy security, infrastructure durability and accessibility of territories within the region by land, air, sea and rail routes.
For branding purposes the BSR can lean on its sectorial priorities, the 5 “e”-s, as emphasized by Former president of the Baltic Development Forum Uffe Elleman Jensen: Economy, Ecology, Energy, Education, Euro. However, the Baltic Sea Region Strategy is an ownership of participation, where the potential lies in 5 “c”-s: Cooperation, Competition, Coordination, Communication and Creativity.
Estonian president Lennart Meri has once added to the debate saying that the axis of the region is the Sea itself.
With the new political commitment the axis of the region has pivoted from the Sea itself to the Strategy itself.
The Latvian Institute:
The Latvian Institute promotes knowledge about Latvia abroad and works closely with international media professionals in developing a wide variety of communications projects.
Is a common identity an essential precondition for regional co-operation?
Some remarks on Jörg Hackmann’s summary
by Prof. Dr. Bernd Henningsen
If we no longer understand the complex relationships between political, social, and cultural realities, we declare them to be ‘multi-faceted’, affected and altered by equally ill-defined ‘forces’. The inarticulateness and speechlessness of such expressions can be seen in the contemporary example of the term ‘multi-culturalism’ – no one knows for sure what it means, but it is a first-rate fighting word. ‘Identity’ is another such word; as we all have one (or at least assume so), we must apply it to all parts of life: not only people have identities, but so do ethnic groups, products, automobiles, banks, universities, countrysides… Karl Kraus coined an aphorism for this terminological diversity: ‘The closer the look one takes at a word, the greater distance from which it looks back.’
Since the end of the clash of political ideologies, a regional identity has been postulated for the Baltic Sea Region (Björn Engholm and his Lubeck crew were somewhat ahead of this development). Region creators – diplomats, politicians, and experts in the field of branding in particular – worked with the term ‘Baltic Sea identity’. However, work on the Baltic Sea identity suffered, from the outset, from the irritating fact that no one could clearly state what it actually was – what the essence of the Baltic Sea identity was (Karl Kraus would have been pleased). Most of all, no one could provide convincing proof that such a regional identity was actually lived and experienced, and that people in this region viewed themselves as members of a collective entity with a specific identity which distinguished them from the collective entities of other regions.
This was the starting point for my investigation, upon which it was my task to shed light.
I have called attention to the fact that there exist libraries dedicated to national, collective, and regional identity. I have also pointed out that, in the serious literature, concerns are always raised concerning identity (-construction) as it refers to the theoretical concept, i.e. is based on the mere (colloquial) establishment of identity, when attempting to capture ‘identity’ in a scientific manner. My suspicion was that, on the battlefield of identity in an era of interdisciplinarity, no one looks beyond their own field; no one takes note of what people just around the corner think of this problem; instead – as Aleida Assmann phrased it – identity is ‘armed’, politically instrumentalised and has become a de facto weaponised term. In this respect, it is (not only) my theory that there is no such thing as collective identity (nor can there ever be), but a broad consensus exists in social science literature on the scientific uselessness of regional, national, or collective identity.
Concerning Jörg Hackmann’s submission, if I understand him correctly, I would like to pose two additional questions: do I need a (regional/national) identity to make sense of history? Do I need one in order to lay the foundation for co-operative political (and economic) interactions? The latter question is easy to answer: for co-operation, one in fact needs no common identity; the necessity of co-operation is based on the senselessness of past acts – the price of wars and partitions is simply too high. This necessity springs from political and economic interests, not from a sense of togetherness derived from a common identity. Contrary to commonly held views (which I cite), Baltic countries did not pursue entry into the European Union (and desire to join the Eurozone) because of neighbourly sentiment for their Western European neighbours, but for political and economic benefits. This is legitimate!
Inserting identity into the search for historical meaning – the first question – is not only in error, but also dangerous (key word: weaponisation). This dangerousness can be seen in contemporary right-wing populist and right-wing radical movements – all of which argue against the other with national feelings of identity. History may awaken feelings, but makes no sense per se, and certainly not as it pertains to a collective identity, unless I construct it – it is (it was!). The symbolic archaeology of regions has, after two hundred years of excavations in the field of Nordic co-operation have shown, lead to little of use – especially as it pertains to its use as an opposite position to the European community during recent decades. However, they have always been successful when in the service of political interests, economic uses, or segregating oneself from the other. 150 years ago, Erik Gustaf Geijer, the Swedish historian, provided a memorable summary of this: Nordic co-operation is an action, which could have been a good idea…
Historical interpretation on the basis of a constructed (as always) regional identity has something of a teleology, and it is – as we have seen with the Romantics – a backwards oriented one. We have had enough of this. In this respect, fatalism has a definitive appeal. This notional opposition between teleology and fatalism can only occur when political actions are conceived without human beings and without interests.
I have nothing against terms such as ‘common traditions’, ‘shared experiences’, and ‘regional similarities’ (in architecture, countryside, food and drink…). One can break this down into local characteristics, at which point it makes sense. One must, however, be clear on the point that these terms – including the term ‘identity’ – exist in the context of Shmuel N. Eisenstadt’s observed profanation of the sacred in modern society. Where churches no longer serve as an organisation that provides meaning, where religion no longer holds a society together, then the experiences of social relations are transformed into new, profanated terms – even ‘identity’ or ‘nation’ (and, earlier, ‘race’ and ‘blood’). Their symbolic content, however, remains laden with sacral meaning; the unio mystica Baltica has become the Baltic Sea identity, the (profanated) baptismal with Baltic Sea water has become an act of transubstantiation.
Doubtless, there can be no argument against the fact that there exists space for historical, political, and cultural similarities and common histories of victimisation, which one may call a Baltic Sea space (some insist that this space can be further subdivided, such as into Northeastern Europe). Historical cohesion, the common denominators of co-operation and conflict, has for a long time had nothing to do with identity. More than ever, a regional identity cannot be deduced from this. The writing and telling of (hi-)stories is a human need – and is also very beautiful. To believe that a common, regional identity can arise from it is too much of a leap. This should be left to branding experts; it has nothing to do with science. The omissions and strategies employed in the field of marketing are very interesting and entertaining, not to mention intelligent, and so much money is spent on it, for example, in nation branding, that it is necessary to construct a position opposed to branding optimism: ‘Branding is the revenge of the losers’ (Morten Grønborg). Joep Leerssen once called this discourse the ‘zombie territory of collective identity’. Further back, Johannes Willms stated that ‘identity is something that zombies need’.
The hundreds-year-old discourse on a European identity has been sufficient to show that, from the telling of stories (or histories), and the writing down of myths, values, and models, no European identity has arisen. Even though clever contemporaries state that identity is never to be understood in an essentialist manner, and that it literally cannot be accurately determined – in the day-to-day, in branding, and even in libraries dedicated to this topic – it is understood this way. For Europe – and for our Baltic Sea Region – the endless debate on this topic will be ended not with the answer that the essence of identity is unity, but that it is diversity. Then, identity would not be the result, but the path. However, even this figure of thought drives us in circles; it is neither new nor particularly incisive – unless one wants to convince sponsors and foundations looking for justifications and who (must) have not noticed the aforementioned debate.
This is not to say that I believe that we should eliminate the term ‘identity’ – that would also be naïve. It is in the world and clearly belongs to that group of terms that we cannot live without, but about which, upon closer inspection, we can say little: the closer the look one takes at identity, the greater distance from which it looks back.
An answer to the Bernd Henningsen report on identity
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”.
The Latvian Institute
The Latvian Institute promotes knowledge about Latvia abroad and works closely with international media professionals in developing a wide variety of communications projects.
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.
DAAD Alfred Döblin Professor of East European History
Dept. of History and International Relations
University of Szczecin
A common identity – “The Emperor´s New Clothes”
Cutting through 20 years of discussions of constructing a common identity to build a macro-region in the Baltic Sea Region the honorable Prof. Dr. Bernd Henningsen, Humboldt University, Berlin, in an essay, has concluded: There is no common identity:
“Just as in the “The Emperor’s New Clothes”, Baltic Sea identity is paraded through the streets under a protective cover – it will take quite some time to ascertain that there is in fact nothing there… Ethnicity, history, language, religions, cultures, and ways of life differ so greatly along the coastline that it is impossible to speak of regional homogeneity, let alone a common mindset.”
Bernd Henningsen advocates for not using the word identity as a brand strategy for the Baltic Sea Region. Instead he finds it more honest to use the term we-feeling to go hand in hand with more substantial means of advertising the region (nature, landscape, history and culture) He strongly supports the EU policy of regionalization because he finds it effective and transparent – and because it leads to more of the type of decentralized government that operates close to its people:
“The strong sense of solidarity among people in the region is extremely helpful for achieving this efficiency:‘identity’ is not the right name, but perhaps it could be called a we-feeling”.