During the interwar period, 1919-1939, many states in Central and Eastern Europe faced the dilemma of developing new states modelled on the Western nation-states while at the same time meeting the demands for cultural rights voiced by sizeable ethnic minorities.
In the Baltic States, measures of cultural autonomy were introduced, but of different scope and with different legal foundation. In Latvia, cultural autonomy was not included in the constitution, but separate school-systems for the ethnic minorities were implemented, creating a certain space of cultural autonomy. The main driving force behind the measures for cultural autonomy were the Baltic Germans, the traditional elite group, who saw these measures as a way to retain part of their otherwise eroding elite status. Marginalized politically, and largely bereft of their manorial lands, the cultural sphere became essential in the Baltic German endeavours to preserve their ethnicity, their Volkstum. Part of this project was to organize university education in German, in a private Hochschule: the Herder-Institut zu Riga. This was an area where the principles of cultural autonomy clashed with the agenda of the nationalizing Latvian state, promoting its own national university. Traditional Baltic German conceptions of being carriers of a superior culture clashed with national Latvian aspirations to elevate their own previously disparaged national culture. Consequently, the cultural field in the 1920s was marked by an underlying tension between these two contending elite groups: the ascending Latvians and the previously hegemonic Baltic Germans. Previous research has seriously underestimated these tensions, viewing the introduction of cultural autonomy one-sidedly in a very favourable light. This project fundamentally questions this assessment. Inspired by the theoretical framework of Nira Yuval-Davis and her conception of ‘politics of belonging’, we propose to scrutinize the complicated relationship between Latvians and Baltic Germans, and the complex problematics of citizenship, nationalization, and minority rights, in an entirely new way. Using a hermeneutical approach in order to understand the agendas of both Latvians and Baltic Germans, the project will provide new insights about the tensions and frictions that ensued in the attempt to harmonize a nationalizing state with ethnic minority rights.