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Probing the Nexus of the Nation-State and Democracy in the Baltic

CBEES Advanced Seminar “Probing the Nexus of the Nation-State and Democracy in the Baltic: Kurt Stavenhagen’s Political Phenomenology in Context” with Eva Piirimäe, Professor of Political Theory, Johan Skytte Institute of Political Studies, University of Tartu

Speaker: Eva Piirimäe, Professor of Political Theory, Johan Skytte Institute of Political Studies, University of Tartu

Discussant: Per Bolin, Professor of History, Södertörn University, and the Director of the Centre for Baltic and East European Studies (CBEES)

Chair: Lelde Luik, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, the Centre for Baltic and East European Studies (CBEES)

Abstract: The paper will explore the political ideas of the prominent Baltic German phenomenologist and philosophy professor at the Herder-Institut in Riga, Kurt Stavenhagen (1885-1951). Stavenhagen is primarily remembered for his penetrating studies of the feelings of respect and solidarity and the ideas of the linguistic-cultural nation (Volk) and Heimat. He was also an authoritative commentator on the cultural philosophy and philosophy of history of Johann Gottfried Herder as well as one of the first readers and respondents to Martin Heidegger’s Sein und Zeit. However, Stavenhagen was also active in defending the rights of the German minority in the Baltic states, publishing widely on what he saw as the challenges of contemporary politics as well as participating in international organisations like Deutscher Verband der Volksgruppen . While there is a growing interest in his political phenomenology, Stavenhagen’s contributions to contemporary political debates in the Baltic as well as in Europe would merit further study. Positioning his ideas in relation to his better-known contemporaries like Paul Schiemann, Werner Hasselblatt, or Ewald Ammende would enble us to draw a more nuanced picture of the Baltic German ideas on the legitimacy of, and theoretical alternatives to, the new nation-states created in 1918.
The paper will advance this kind of contextual analysis. It will argue that Stavenhagen developed a complex account of the relationship between the nation-state and democracy, adopting much of the cultural critique of his era and walking a fine line between the social liberalism of Schiemann, on the one hand, and the evolving (neo-)conservatism of Hasselblatt and Ammende, on the other. Distancing himself from all major ideologies of his time (liberalism, conservatism, socialism, and nationalism), Stavenhagen was committed to defending the value of historically grown, but voluntarily accepted bodenständige Gemeinschaften (also characterised by him as Körperschaften) in Central and Eastern Europe. In so doing, he innovatively applied the phenomenological approach to analyze the ways in which such historical Körperschaften shape the individuals’ values, beliefs, and goals. These Körperschaften, Stavenhagen suggested, should be able to organise their cultural lives independently, agreeing mutually on issues of common interest. Only thereby, a truly democratic way of life, one substantially different from a merely mechanical majoritarian democracy, would be guaranteed. In Stavenhagen’s view, the founding fathers of the Baltic states, by contrast, had adopted fundamentally ’foreign’ political models of ’nation-statehood’ and democracy, which supported not only the atomisation of society, but also the government’s active interference into the lives of non-national citizens. Thus, established patterns of domination were only reversed, not eliminated. This was also detrimental to international peace, supporting the rise of national chauvinism and irredentism. In contrast to Schiemann, Stavenhagen was thus fundamentally critical of the modern state as such (apparently not even granting special recognition to Estonia for its adoption of the Law of Cultural Autonomy of 1925); while being (like Ammende and Hasselblatt) also receptive to the idea of a German ’Gesamtnation’ as taking responsibility for its smaller regional units. At the same time, Stavenhagen (like Schiemann and unlike many conservative Baltic German thinkers) consistently rejected the Nazi rhetoric with its distinctive concepts of ascriptive (Blut und Boden) nationality, race and the national state.

Eva Piirimäe (Ph.D. University of Cambridge, 2006) is Professor of Political Theory at the Johan Skytte Institute of Political Studies, University of Tartu. She has held visiting positions at Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies at Harvard and at The Whitney and Betty MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies at Yale. Piirimäe's research interests include Enlightenment moral and political thought, the intellectual history of the self-determination of peoples and human rights as well as historical and contemporary theories of patriotism, nationalism and cosmopolitanism. She has also published articles on Estonian intellectual history. Piirimäe's monograph "Herder and Enlightenment Politics" has been published in "Ideas in Context" series at Cambridge University Press in 2023. She has also recently co-edited (with Liina Lukas and Johannes Schmidt) "Herder on Empathy and Sympathy/ Einfühlung und Sympathie im Denken Herders" (Leiden: Brill, 2020) and has published articles in journals such as History of Political Thought, History of European Ideas, Global Responsibility to Protect, Eighteenth-Century Studies, Review of Politics, Acta Historica Tallinnensia, Ajalooline Ajakiri, Keel ja Kirjandus and Vikerkaar. She is currently leading a research project "Self-Determination of Peoples in Historical Perspective" (2020-2024).

Time and place

20 May 2024, 13:00-14:30

Higher seminar

MA 796, find us


Arranged by

Centre for Baltic and East European Studies (CBEES)



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