Ulrike von Hirschhausen. Die Grenzen der Gemeinsamkeit: Deutsche, Letten, Russen und Juden in Riga 1860-1914. Studien zur Geschichtswissenschaft. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2006. 430 pp. EUR 52.00 (paper), ISBN 978-3-525-35153-6.
Reviewed by James Bjork (Department of History, King's College, London)
Published on H-German (October, 2009)
Commissioned by Susan R. Boettcher
Multiethnicity and the Urban Milieu
Ulrike von Hirschhausen might raise an eyebrow upon seeing her recent study of late-nineteenth-century Riga reviewed in a forum devoted to German history. One of the premises of her book is that Riga in this period was not a "German"--or, indeed, "Latvian" or "Russian"--city, but rather an urban community defined by the interplay between a number of distinctive ethnic milieus. The relative weight of those milieus evolved significantly between the 1860s, where the book begins, and the First World War, where it concludes. At the beginning of the period, Germans were not only culturally and economically dominant but also the largest single demographic group, constituting over 40 percent of the city's population. Latvians, a solid majority in the surrounding countryside, and Russians, speaking the language of the empire of which Riga was a part, each accounted for less than a quarter of inhabitants, with Jews constituting about 5 percent. By 1913, the Russian and Jewish shares of the population remained roughly the same, but the proportion of Latvians had soared to over 40 percent, while the percentage of Germans had declined to just over 15 percent.
For Hirschhausen, however, what is most significant is the ongoing reality of multiethnicity--a situation in which no one group could imagine itself an unambiguous majority--and the distinctiveness of this dynamic compared to urban development in the nation-states-in-the-making of western Europe. The author's approach to her subject is more structural than narrative, with descriptions of transformation contained within a resilient system of ethnic taxonomy. Ethnicity, in this account, may have been transformed and politicized in the late nineteenth century, as demographic trends and fluctuating urban suffrage laws undermined the power of some groups and opened up opportunities for others, but the ethnic groups themselves are depicted as clear and coherent entities--indeed, as the book's central actors--from the outset. Even brief sections devoted to portraits of individuals clearly label them as representative of particular ethnic communities rather than as truly idiosyncratic, memorable players in the shaping of events.
This insistence on the priority of ethnicity is, in many ways, persuasive. While Baltic German elites had some success in portraying their ongoing leadership as conducive to notions of general municipal welfare and amenable to cooptation of new interest groups, Hirschhausen shows that ethnicity shaped political identities and fueled electoral mobilization--which was exceptionally high by the standards of municipalities in the czarist realm. "Voters," she concludes, "grouped together exclusively according to ethnic criteria and perceived urban politics less as a sphere for the regulation of local affairs than as a point of departure for national interests" (p. 372). Even ostensibly shared experiences of municipal commemoration--for example, the septicentennial of the city's founding; the erection of a statue of Peter the Great--ended up being used and interpreted in different ways by different ethnic communities. In a relatively brief but intriguing section, the author also dismisses the power of religious confession--in particular, the shared Lutheranism of most Germans and most Latvians--as an alternative form of cultural identification. Ethnic Latvians, she argues, were already alienated from the German-dominated Landeskirche, as demonstrated by mass mid-century conversions to Orthodoxy and to Protestant sects. Increasing pressure from the Russian state on the Lutheran church, far from rallying the kind of ardor that Olaf Blaschke has argued characterized central Europe's "second confessional age," was met with indifference by most Latvians, whose engagement with religious practice slid noticeably between the 1905 revolution and the First World War. "What divided people here," Hirschhausen reiterates, "was not confession but ethnicity" (p. 316).
These interesting findings are highly useful for the kind of trans-European urban comparisons that Hirschhausen (echoing Manfred Hildermeier) is keen to promote. She is appropriately attentive to recent studies of urban politics and culture elsewhere in late-nineteenth-century east central Europe, especially Prague. Unfortunately, these comparative gestures do not quite draw out some of the real--and potentially productive--tensions between this body of scholarship and Hirschhausen's own account. A key element of much recent work on Bohemia and Moravia (one thinks of Jeremy King's Budweisers into Czechs and Germans  or Tara Zahra's Kidnapped Souls ) has been an emphasis on the importance of nationally indifferent "amphibians" who were sorted along national lines only relatively late and often under duress. Such people are almost wholly absent from Hirschhausen's portrait of Riga. To the extent that anyone either moved between ethnic affiliations or acquired one for the first time, it seems to have happened quickly, quietly, early, and largely off the author's radar screen. A convincing case may perhaps be made for the position that floating free of ethnic categorization was not really a viable option in Riga, even relatively early in the process of national mobilization. Early modern distinctions of estate, after all, had an unmistakable ethnic, even racial, element. But Hirschhausen's case for smooth continuity from early modern ethnicity to late modern nationality would be more persuasive if elements of discontinuity and rupture were more fully acknowledged.
One nagging reminder that this portrayal may be a bit too tidy emerges from a quick look at census data. In 1867, the four communities that structure Hirschhausen's study constituted 97 percent of Riga's population; by 1913, they accounted for just over 82 percent. Poles and Lithuanians, overwhelmingly Roman Catholic, made up most of the remainder. Taken together, these latter groups now significantly outnumbered Riga's Jewish population and almost equaled the German population, yet they remain almost completely invisible in this study. No doubt Poles and Lithuanians (along with Estonians, Belarusians, Ukrainians, and others) were politically under- (if not un-) represented and may have remained only minimally organized in the city up through the First World War. But the spectacular growth of the "none-of-the-above" category does raise doubts about whether Riga's "multiethnicity" can be exhaustively analyzed as interplay among precisely four ethnic milieus. For, as the region's twentieth-century history has demonstrated, east central Europe's distinctive urban landscapes, defined by relatively stable balance between estate-derived ethnic groups, could shift quickly toward very different (but equally "western") models, whether national homogeneity or an open-ended, migration-fueled multiculturalism largely detached from any early modern precedents. This observation is, however, only to note the limits, not to question the value, of Hirschhausen's fine study.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-german.
James Bjork. Review of Hirschhausen, Ulrike von, Die Grenzen der Gemeinsamkeit: Deutsche, Letten, Russen und Juden in Riga 1860-1914.
H-German, H-Net Reviews.
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