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Federalism in the Baltic: Interpretations of Self-Determination and Sovereignty in Estonia in the First Half of the Twentieth Century

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image of East Central Europe

The objective of this article is to challenge the widespread interpretation of interwar East Central Europe as a hotbed of excessive nationalism, by establishing a longue durée of federalist thinking in Estonia in the first half of the twentieth century. By focusing on personal continuities from the founding years of the Estonian Republic into the 1940s, it is possible to detect a remarkable persistence of ‘idealist’ visions about intra and interstate federalism that had been internalized by Estonian statesmen before and during the First World War and earlier. Apart from establishing the continuity of federalist thought the article analyzes the political discourse in which the concept of national self-determination was picked up. The primary framework for Estonian thinkers on nationality was the debate that developed within the all-Russian socialist movement in the context of the nationality problems of the multinational Western provinces and Congress Poland. The discourse on territorial and cultural autonomy within a federative Russia, demands that came to the fore in 1905, developed only after the idea of self-determination entered the thinking of Estonian radicals. Until late 1917, asserting the right to self-determination by no means meant separation from Russia. Even after 1917 Estonian politicians imagined the future republic as part of a regional league or union relinquishing part of its sovereignty to a supranational authority, plans that foundered on the incompatibility of national interests by 1920. Although the experience had not been encouraging, Baltic politicians resuscitated federalist concepts in the early period of the Second World War, as they tried to envisage a new structure for a cooperative and autonomous East Central Europe, within a restored Europe.

Affiliations: 1: University of Tartu


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