Is there a way out from the labyrinth of identifications? Everyday ethnicity and the history of nationhood in post-Habsburg Europe

How might we expand our understanding of processes of identification in post-imperial contexts, where borders change rapidly (sometimes repeatedly) even as novel, nation-state-centered political configurations struggle to find their place? In the fourth talk in our Sociobord lecture series, professor Gábor Egry engages with this meta-question via a sequence of sub-questions regarding the multifaceted processes of self-identification around the categories of nationhood and ethnicity in post-imperial contexts. What is a nation state at the aftermath of an empire which had supposedly collapsed because of its adversity to national aspiration? How can a multiethnic society be re-molded into the form of a nation through a state that promised to provide more freedom for national minorities than the predecessor state? What did it mean to become the citizen of a successor state – for individuals categorized as of majority and minority ethnicity?

Similar questions have guided historians’ research since the collapse of Austria-Hungary. Their answers often present these societies as neatly divided into ethnic groups (a structural perception constituting a continuity with the Habsburg state) rather than identifying those alternative logics that may also have structured social realities. More recently, the concept of ‘national indifference’ has attempted to loosen the inextricable link between nationhood, statehood and modern politics.

The aim of Gabor Egry’s talk is twofold. First, it engages with national indifference from a critical perspective, providing a redefinition of the concept as a subcase of “everyday ethnicity” – a situational interpretation of identification as interaction. Second, it uses examples from an ongoing research project on local transitions from Austria-Hungary to the successor states to demonstrate the analytical power of the concept of everyday ethnicity in revising dominant narratives of the story of transition as nation-state building. These new naratives highlight factors like localism, transethnic elite cohesion, common interests, etc. in defining practical statehood and its impact on alternative discourses of nationhood. Egry will argue that just as today, nationhood was internally heterogeneous and divided, statehood was uneven precisely because the normative idea of nation-state confronted a different social reality of ethnicity. However, while everyday ethnicity offers an effective tool for deconstructing the narratives of nation-states, it still faces the challenge of offering an alternative narrative based on new understandings of how identification processes work.

Gábor Egry is a historian, Doctor of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, director-general of the Institute of Political History, Budapest. His research interests are nationalism, everyday ethnicity, politics of identity, politics of memory in modern East Central Europe. Author of five volumes in Hungarian and several articles in European Review of History, Slavic Review, Hungarian Historical Review, Südostforschungen. His last monograph Etnicitás, identitás, politika. Magyar kisebbségek naconalizmus és regionalizmus között Romániában és Csehszlovákiában 1918-1944 [Ethnicity, identity, politics. Hungarian Minorities between nationalism and regionalism in Romania and Czechoslovakia 1918-1944] (Napvilág, Budapest, 2015) was shortlisted for the Felczak Wereszycki Prize of the Polish Historical Association.  He was Fulbright Visiting Research Scholar at Stanford University, recipient of fellowships from, among others, Imre Kertész Kolleg Jena, New Europe College, Bucharest, and the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. Since 2018 he is the Principal Investigator of the ERC Consolidator project Nepostrans – Negotiating post-imperial transitions: from remobilization to nation-state consolidation. A comparative study of local and regional transitions in post-Habsburg East and Central Europe.