Verslag: (Re)constructing communities in Europe, 1918-1968. A Venture into the discursive practices of community building
From 18 to 20 December 2013, an international conference on the discursive practices of community was organised by Stefan Couperus, Universiteit Utrecht and Harm Kaal, Radboud University Nijmegen. Since the seminal work by Benedict Anderson (1983) on Imagined Communities, a wide range of studies in historical and social sciences have analyzed the discursive construction of national communities. In the international conference organized at Ravenstein nations as discursive constructions were viewed side by side with other levels of community building ranging from local neighbourhoods to transnational expert communities. The presentations demonstrated the high importance given to the notion of community in the discourses and practices of inter- and postwar reconstruction. Reviving and readjusting the idea of community was considered urgent in the midst of war-torn landscapes and societies.
As noted by Harm Kaal (Nijmegen), the processes of producing inter- and postwar communities were “high modernist in nature”. The efforts to build communities were unwavering in their belief in progress, and reliant on the growing body of technocratic experts – planners, architects, social scientists. The notion of community was a product of a truly transnational discourse, and one that was accepted across very different kinds of political systems. Liesbeth van de Grift (Nijmegen) pointed to reconstructing communities through inner colonization as a common practice in interwar Europe both in democratic and non-democratic countries. The “trans-political” nature of community was also illustrated by David Kuchenbuch (Giessen) in his account of the re-establishment of the metaphor of ‘human scale’ in urban planning during the 1930s and 1940s.
As argued by Stefan Couperus (Utrecht), in the immediate postwar period the many intertwined discourses of community came together in the planning of neighbourhoods. The neighbourhood unit was promoted as an ideal socio-spatial entity but also as a body political, aiming to forge decentralization and regeneration of urban democracy. The short-lived postwar experiment of neighbourhood councils (wijkraden) in Rotterdam, however, shows the difficulty of turning the all-encompassing community enthusiasm into feasible policy schemes.
Kenny Cupers (Urbana-Champaign) pointed out the ambiguous nature of community idealism in the postwar city: the ideal inner-city neighbourhoods were ‘discovered’ by sociologists and planners as an ideal-community-like social fabric at the very same time as they were cleared on the way of new communities to be built. Another ambiguity, between the idea of community and the reality of community, was addressed by Jon Lawrence (Cambridge) in reference to the traditional working class neighbourhood Bermondsey in London. While it became apparent that in the postwar period the old Bermondsey was changing along with its rapidly altering tenant population, the local Labour party politicians continued to cultivate an understanding of Bermondsey as an unchangeable community. Expert knowledge and politics became intertwined at all levels of community construction.
Community that never really ‘was’
However, as emphasized especially by Rosemary Wakeman (Fordham), constructing communities in the postwar era should not be seen merely as a result of a top-down modernizing force of the State and the experts. People had an active role to play in the performances of community and in successful postwar reconstruction, even though the community they cultivated was not necessarily the same as advocated by the authorities. Wakeman also elaborated on the nature of community as “a phantasmic utopian concept”, something that only existed somewhere other than in the present.
This nature of community “just out of reach” was prominent in several presentations focusing on the construction of transnational communities. Marleen Rensen (Amsterdam) focused on the efforts of pacifist circles of European intellectuals in the interwar period to overcome the wartime antagonisms by restoring the notion of the ‘Republic of Letters’. Sustaining this intellectual community in the world of ideological divides proved difficult. A similar “paradox of transnationalism” was pointed out by Anne-Isabelle Richard (Leiden) in relation to Europeanist organizations in the interwar period.
Languages of nation
After the Second World War the concept of national community as a primary level of identification lost some of its appeal, especially in West-Germany, and was replaced by local and regional sentiments. Still, despite the competing trends of localism and transnationalism, in the interwar and postwar periods the language of community often equaled the language of nation. Stefan Berger (Bochum) offered a broad treatment of national history writing in Europe from the end of the First World War to the 1960s, and showed the enduring use of the languages of community by historians. With the example of anti-communist rhetoric Matthew Grant (Essex) argued how in Britain, after 1945, the national community, unity and citizenship, no less discursively constructed than elsewhere, formed a central cultural narrative, largely uncontested in the public discourse.
Along with ‘identity’, ‘community’ is a concept that is constantly used, and sometimes abused, in research literature. The presentations at the Ravenstein conference did not abuse the term in an empty fashion. Rather, they illustrated how important it is to analyze how contemporaries at each moment in history have used, and abused, the concept for their own purposes.
Tanja Vahtikari (School of Social Sciences and Humanities, University of Tampere, Finland)