Introduction (special issue on „Elite Formation in the Other Europe”, Historical Social Research, Köln)


Our workshop on ’Elite formation, Modernisation and Nation Building’ was explicitely dedicated to Eastern and Central Europe, addressing one of the crucial issues in the social history of the vast region between Russia and Western Europe over close to a century since the decline or the fall of feudalism in the second half of the 19th century up to Sovietisation occurring after 1945. This was I believe for the first times that an appeal was launched to all scholars in or outside the region, involved in the study of local elites in this geo-politically intermediary sector of the European continent, to contribute to the available topical wisdom on the problem area. ’Intermediary’ would refer here to European societies establishing themselves lately, since the last quarter of the 19th century, mostly after the I. World War in varying patterns of independent statehood between Russia and the West on the one hand, between the Baltic Sea and the Mediterranean, on the other hand.

Beyond its not strictly delimited territorial scope our scholarly agenda included another type of limitation, or rather, preferential option. We tried to win the participation of social scientists – independently by the way of their disciplinary specialisation as historians, sociologists, political scientists or even demographers – who would propose experimental studies based on the exploitation of prosopographical data banks (collection of standardised biographies) on elite groups. The convener was particularly satisfied by the fact that the gathering attracted such outstanding Western scholars in the field like Christophe Charle from Paris or Heinrich Best from Köln, together with a distinguished quorum of mostly East Central European researchers, among them some promising young ones.  

Our success of failure can be measured by the fact that the workshop could mobilize students doing prosopographically grounded elite studies in most large territorial units of the region – with the notable and regrettable exception of Poland among major would-be nation states with in part new elites in post-feudal times, but comprising Austria, Bulgaria, the Czech Lands, Estonia, Finland, Greece, Hungary, Norway, Romania, Russia, Serbia, Slovakia. It also attracted in the perspective of problematic but heuristically revealing comparisons Dutch colleagues, together with two other scholars engaged in research on elite change in colonial or post-colonial countries of the Third World (Algeria and Brazil). The convener of the workshop considers thus our entreprise as a first partially successful attempt to organize a network to promote socio-historical research in this matter. Follow-up gatherings are being planned already as well as cooperative research projects are in the making with partners drawn from several territories of the Baltics, the Balkans and the Carpathian Basin.[1] 

The emergence and transformations of new elite clusters was, obviously enough, strongly determined by local-territorial circumstances. One can identify though a number of more general and in part common features – rather variables or factors – operating in the formation of modern elites. One is certainly linked to the different nature of the three multicultural Empires – the Russian, Habsburg and Ottoman states - dominating the whole intermediary region of Europe during most or part of the long 19th century. A second relevant aspect had to do with the position and the capacity of reconversion of traditional power elites (the nobility) within their given system of economic stratification and political rule. Thirdly the ethnic and confessional set-up of the population (and the institutional relations of influence, prestige and authority among the Churches, attached to it) was exceptionally important, since ethnicity and religion provided a peculiar source of symbolic capital giving rise in the age of ’nationalisation’ to often conflicting movements of nation-building as well as implementing dispositions and forms of collective agency liable to promote or to hinder modernization and mobility towards elite positions. Moreover, the relatively autonomous functions of the educational provision must be taken into account, since this was a direct instrument of modernisation via alphabetisation and the general expansion of instruction as well as a leverage in support of processes of assimilation of alien or non dominant minorities via ’national education’. Finally all these emergent societies under scrutiny were united by their geo-political status as backward and economically underdeveloped – as compared to their earlier established Western counterparts -, generating in their ruling elites an effort to catch up with the West, to adopt Western ways and follow Western models of modernity.

The exposés presented in our workshop do not cover systematically all these major socio-historical issues, but each of them has been in one way or another touched upon in our discussions, so that they can serve as convenient topical themes for an overview of our achievements.

The relationship with the imperial powers that be or the legacy of empires in new nation states belonged to quasi-permanent innuendoes, topical accompaniments or underpinnings implied in several if not all studies offered. Peter Dhont’s essay openly broaches the subject of ’ambiguous loyalties to the Tsar’ when analysing the social functions performed by the two universities of Dorpat/Tartu and Helsinki in the Eastern Baltics under Russian rule. Part and parcel of an imperial academic network, they could accomplish with ups and downs in some historical junctures significant contributions to the training of local elite groups. A very close problem was raised in Lea Leppik’s study on career patterns of Estonian intellectuals in the Russian Empire, which – may be paradoxically - could develop more dynamically outside than inside Estonia proper, because of the quasi monopoly of regional elite positions maintained by the traditional local Germanic ruling class as well as the relative indifference of the Russian imperial bureaucracy as to ethnic selection, at least when Christian candidates to elite posts were concerned. The recruitment of the Hungarian officer corps of the national Honvéd Army, as opposed to the ’Common’ imperial Army in the Dual Habsburg Monarchy following the 1867 Compromise (Ausgleich), owes a lot, in Tibor Hajdu’s analysis, to the fact that the latter was conceived as a supra-national institution of a liberal imperial confederation of sorts where, contrary to the Russian Empire - inventing and more and more enforcing its Russian national nature since the outgoing years of the 19th century -, could remain open to ethnic and social outsiders (even to Jews) and reject pressures for nationalisation (like in Hungary), except for the technically indispensable use of German, as the language of command. Fanny Colonna’s study tackles a similar but quite different situation, the slow and difficult process of autonomisation of a national elite in Algeria under French colonial domination.    

    The problem of what happened to feudal elites in modern times, essentially the nobility, should have been a central issue in elite change of the three national societies – Croatia, Hungary, Poland – with the largest proportions of the gentry within the population in a European country. The topic was indirectly addressed in the workshop under various disguises, due also directly in at least two exposés centred, one, on the new political role assumed by the nobility in the building of the nation state, the other, the internal transformation of the cluster as to its exclusivist reproduction. The first issue is the target of Milos Reznik’s study on the reemergence of sectors of the nobility in the Czech Lands as a nation-building cluster in the 19th century, split though between imperial loyalties and political brackets of Czech nationalism. This was a historic resumption of political agency, making to forget the consequences of the traumatic experience of Counter-Reformation in the early 17th century. Jaap Dronkers’ essay is a richly documented piece of empirical survey on the declining homogamy – that is partial opening up – of an erstwhile stricktly closed social caste in three large national environment : the Netherlands, Austria and Germany. Other papers also referred heavily but more indirectly to the problems of the landowning nobility, like Afranio Garcia’s study on Brasil, especially as concerned the inter-war years, Julie Disson’s on the privileged educational provision of the Russian gentry in the 19th century or Tibor Hajdu’s presentation of the transformations of the officer corps of Hungarian background, due among other things to the progressive withdrawal of noblemen from the armed services.

  Ethnicity and religion have been permanant factors in nation building elites, often closely connected since the basic division of Western Christian Europe after the Peace of Westphalia into a Catholic and a Protestant geo-political zone with absolutely dominant religious majorities everywhere, except a few local societies (like Hungary, Latvia, the Netherlands or the Swiss Confederation), but with very entangled ethnic-linguistic mixtures in several large regions of Eastern and Central Europe. Ethnicity as a nation-building force and reference for national legitimation was certainly a focal point in the exceptional success of Czech nation-building, facing the counter-power of the established German bourgeoisie in Bohemia, Moravia and (even more radically) in Silesia. The issue is essential in Milos Reznik’s treatment of the Czech nobility, but also in Andrea Pokludová’s meticulously grounded local survey on the transformation and modernization of the educated professional clusters in a number of Czech provincial towns confronted with the challenges and chances of industrialisation (Moravska Ostrava, Opava, Olomouc, Mistek, Vitkovice). One can find here a first reference to the extraordinary professional mobility of modernizing Jewry in Central Europe, one of the central topical areas of my own long term research as well as those of my close associate Peter Tibor Nagy on the alterations of elite recruitment in Hungary during the whole post-feudal and pre-socialist Old Regime. Peter Tibor Nagy offered to our workshop an overall presentation of his special research on ’reputational elites’ in Hungary, based on a large biographical data bank of 26000 of those individuals having entries in one of the national encyclopaedias published since the outgoing 19th century (Pallas Lexikon) to the recently completed representative Hungarian Great Encyclopaedia (2005). He has expanded on some details of this study in his work focused more specifically here on students of the Faculties of Arts and Sciences of the second Hungarian university in Kolozsvár/Cluj 81872-1918). As to my own exposé, attempting an overview of our enormous survey of graduates and students of all institutions of higher education in Hungary, within its changing historical borders in the long period of 1867-1948 (probably the first ever attempt at an quasi-exhaustive prosopography of all educated elite groups in the framework of an entire nation state),  its fundamental analytical tools related to selection processes consisted precisely of ethnicity (defined both by mother tongue and the national character of surnames) and religion, besides regional origins, gender, nobility, etc. Ethnicity (or ’nationality’ as it was alluded to in the 19th century) and confession were central categories for the classification of people in the only multi-cultural would-be national society in Europe (or elsewhere in the world, for that matter) typified by the absence of both an ethnic or a confessional majority within the population during its formative period (before 1918).


[1] The SCOPES project, funded by the Swiss Foundation For Scientific Research, has supported since 2006 empirical studies on elite groups in Romania, Serbia, Bulgaria and Russia. I have made a recent application to the European Research Council for the study of culturally composite local elites in the first half of the 20th century (from post-feudalism till Communism) in the framework of their appeal to ‘Advanced Team Leaders’. The project, if accepted for funding, would mobilize scholars from Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Romania, Serbia and Slovakia. Besides this, my personal research project, carried out with Peter Tibor Nagy, on elites in modern and pre-modern Hungary is also benefits from contributions of Romanian, Slovakian and Serbian partners, since it concerns some territories of pre-1919 Hungary now belonging to these successor states. See for preliminary quantified results