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Inventing Germanness in the Baltic

1 November 2013

Conference report by Anna Ripatti:

Debating German Heritage: Art History and Nationalism during the long 19th Century. Intensive seminar of the Graduate School of Culture Studies and Arts, 27–28 September 2013, Institute of Art History, Estonian Academy of Arts, Tallinn.

The Baltic countries have a long and complex history of occupations. A large territory called Old Livonia, that is present-day Estonia and Latvia, was colonized by Germans at the beginning of the thirteenth century. In the nineteenth century, a significant part of the educated elite and the nobility living in the Baltic provinces of the Russian Empire identified themselves as Germans. In 1881, when the first census was organized in Estonia, 5.4% of the inhabitants declared themselves to be native German speakers. The Baltic Germans formed a highly influential, but small, minority not only in Estonia but also in other Baltic provinces.

The two-day symposium organized by Kristina Jõekalda and Krista Kodres at the Estonian Academy of Arts in Tallinn gathered together scholars from different academic fields and backgrounds to discuss the construction of German heritage and identity mainly in the Baltic provinces but also elsewhere in Europe through art, architecture, literature, art history and history writing during the long nineteenth century. This short report presents themes discussed in this interdisciplinary symposium. All the papers presented here are not in the order they were presented during the symposium.

The first key note speaker Winfried Speitkamp (University of Kassel) presented a survey of the history of preservation movement and a panorama of the most significant restored buildings that were considered to be German national monuments in the nineteenth century. Besides cathedrals he concentrated especially on castles in the Rhine valley as well as on two spectacular castles that were reconstructed during the nineteenth century: Hohkoenigsburg (Haut-Koenigsbourg) in Elsass and Marienburg in Prussia. The presentation showed clearly how the construction of sites of history and national landscapes were aimed to create an image of a triumphant nation with a glorious past especially in borderlands, and how the construction of heritage evolved from early regional associations through the so called Heimat movement at the end of the century to the devastations of the First World War. The dynamics between national and regional identities, but also the aesthetics of landscapes and growing tourism industry were all crucial components in this process. Especially connections between preservation movement and tourism and, on the other hand, connections between historical monuments and landscape evoked a vivid debate. Deeper and more detailed analysis of those connections would be of great interest.

A complementary view concerning the Baltic provinces in the Russian Empire, concentrating on the history of preservation and architectural restoration of the most significant historical monuments in Courland and Livonia, was presented by Mārtiņš Mintaurs (University of Latvia, Riga) in his paper entitled ‘A Heritage for the Public? The Gesellschaft für Geschichte und Altertumskunde in Riga and the Protection of Architectural Monuments in the Baltic Provinces, 1834–1914’. The Society of History and Antiquity Research was founded in Riga in 1834 by Baltic German scholars. Since then, it was the organization responsible for preserving local heritage. It is worth noting that any state run institution or legislation concerning the protection of historical monuments, independent from the Russian ones, did not exist in the Baltic provinces in the nineteenth century. Mārtiņš Mintaurs argued that the Baltic Germans who were active in the Gesellschaft für Geschichte und Altertumskunde were not just promoting German heritage, but their aim was to create an ensemble of local Baltic monumental and intellectual heritage. Similarly to Finland, where the Fenno-centric nationalists were searching a great Finnish past in the scholarly fields of folklore and archaeology, Latvian nationalists concentrated on ethnography while the local Russian community cherished the memory of Peter the Great. The simultaneous processes of creating identities for different ethnic communities (Latvians, Baltic Germans, and Russians) with conflicting views on history constitutes a fascinating field to research.

The concept of heritage, the most central concept of the symposium, and the use of heritage in creating communities were the subjects of Hubert Locher’s (Philipp University of Marburg) key note paper “The Canon of Art and the Idea of ‘Cultural Heritage’”. He reminded the audience that the German concept of Kulturerbe and the French patrimoine have other connotations and historical backgrounds from the English term, and subsequently, he called for a more profound understanding of how terminology is imbued with a certain cultural and historical context. In addition, he was concerned about the marginal role of art history in current heritage studies. Hubert Locher’s paper offered a concise history of the idea of world heritage, originally works of art belonging to the (educated) humanity. In addition, he demonstrated convincingly that the idea of heritage, with connotations of belonging, appropriation and possession, has often been embedded with feelings of loss, poverty and inferiority.

The feelings of inferiority and poverty served also as a starting point for the nineteenth-century Baltic German scholars who aimed to create a specific Baltic identity. The discovery of ancient Baltic art and architecture and the role of history writing in constructing Baltic identity from the late eighteenth century to the first years of the twentieth century was the subject of Kristina Jõekalda’s (Estonian Academy of Arts) presentation. Her paper ‘Seeking Baltic German Art: Baltic Identity vs. German Heritage in 19th Century Art Historiography’ was based on an ongoing doctoral research on the history of art history writing in Estonia. The narration in which the locals were mainly depicted as receivers from a superior German culture was nevertheless slowly changing during the nineteenth century. The superiority of Germans was also a key message in Baltic German novel writing, analyzed in the paper of Liina Lukas (University of Tartu) who was not present in the symposium. Her paper was read and commented by Jaan Undusk (Estonian Academy of Sciences). Emphasizing the often neglected fact that the history of Baltic countries is a significant part of European colonialism, and approaching the subject from the point of view of postcolonial theory, her paper dealt with the most important myth in the Baltic history as it was depicted in Baltic German literature: the occupation of Old Livonia by Germans and the imagined cooperation and defence by the indigenous people.

In addition to history, the identity of Baltic Germans was bound to a highly emotional concept of Heimat. Ulrike Plath (Tallinn University) showed in an inspiring way how the ideas of Heimat (referring to local territories of Estonia, Livonia and Courland), Mutterland (that is cultural connections to Germany) and Vaterland (meaning loyalty to the Russian Empire) formed a conceptual triangle on which Germanness was constructed in the Baltic provinces. Ulrike Plath divided the construction of the imagined topography of Heimat in the categories of walking, narrating, visiting, playing, and teaching. The sites of memory and nature such as ruins of medieval structures and beautiful landscapes, as well as pedagogic walks and emerging tourism, were of importance in this process. Moreover, poems, songs, postcards, and games were used to create a feeling of belonging to the Baltic German Heimat

  Aristocratic Baltic German families visualized their own conceptions of German heritage in splendid manor houses. Kadi Polli (University of Tartu) presented her ongoing research project on art collections in the manor houses of the Baltic German nobility. Family portraits constituted the core of those collections and they played probably the most important role in the process of creating a sense of belonging to the community of Baltic Germans. Another major group of portraits depicted the tsar and other members of the Russian imperial family. Besides portraits of ancestors and rulers, those representing the great men of German art and culture, such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, were an essential part of the collections. Private collections of Baltic German nobility reveal in an interesting way how the ideas of Baltic Heimat, Russian Fatherland and German Motherland were embodied in portraits. A visit to the exhibition ‘When the Artist Met Clio: Historical Scenes from the 19th Century’ at the Kadriorg Art Museum completed the view concerning the role of paintings in Baltic German identity construction.

The question of how exhibitions and art history writing were used in constructing German identity and heritage were highlighted by Marta Filipová (University of Wolverhampton) in her paper entitled ‘Writing and Displaying Nations. Constructing Narratives of National Art in Bohemia and Austria Hungary’. According to the census organised in 1880, 62.5% of the inhabitants of Bohemia were Czech and 35.8% were German. These two nations competed in many fields, including art history. Marta Filipová argued that Czech and German scholars in Bohemia and Austria Hungary promoted their own nationalistic views on art and heritage through scholarly research and national and international exhibitions. Her paper enlarged the European sphere in which Germanness was imagined.   

The symposium in Tallinn presented a wide panorama of approaches to the ideas of German heritage and identity in general and Baltic Germans in particular. The close contacts between art history and history writing, preservation of historical monuments, nationalism, tourism, and identity construction were analyzed and approached from manifold angles during the two intensive days. A lively round table discussion conducted by Mart Kalm (Estonian Academy of Arts) ended the symposium. The use of terminology became the main subject of debate. One main conclusion of the discussion was the need for more profound research and sensitivity concerning concepts and terminology referring not only to heritage, but also for instance to colonialism.

The processes of constructing national identities and national art seem to be quite similar all over Europe during the nineteenth century. Respective voices and attempts by Estonians, Latvians and Russians were mostly absent during the symposium. They would have added an important element in the understanding of Baltic German heritage. There is evidently a need for further research on the ways in which art, architecture and art historical writing were involved and used in the political processes of identity construction not only in connection to Germanness but also in imagining other communities and nationalities. Research concerning the history of art history in Estonia has started, and more fruits of the project will be surely offered in the future.

Anna Ripatti, PhD, art historian and postdoctoral researcher at the University of Helsinki in the Department of Philosophy, History, Culture and Art Research, is working on several research projects on Finnish nineteenth-century architecture. She completed her PhD in 2011 on the restoration projects for castles in Turku (Åbo) and Viipuri (Vyborg) and the controversial discussions concerning Swedish heritage in late nineteenth-century Finland.

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