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LEONIDAS DONSKIS

Remembering a friend of the Baltic States

Rugsėjo 05, 2012

John Hiden, an eminent British historian and a dedicated friend of the Baltic States, passed away on August 10, 2012.
Professor John Hiden (1940-2012) was one of the most eminent British historians of the Baltic region. In addition to his deeply original and valuable work on modern Eastern and Central European studies and the history of British diplomacy, Professor Hiden’s monographs on the emergence of the Baltic States and their turbulent political story in the twentieth century will long be remembered as one of the strongest contributions that British and European historians made to Baltic studies.

He set up the first Baltic Research Unit in the UK and all over Western Europe. Founded at Bradford University, this academic center, whose head Professor Hiden had been, shaped the work of his colleagues pioneering in the study of minorities and cultural autonomy in the Baltic States, a unique, albeit little known and appreciated in the West, aspect of Baltic intellectual, political and cultural experience. Professor Hiden’s colleagues, first and foremost Bradford University historians Martyn Housden and David Smith, challenged and enriched Baltic studies in many ways.

When the Baltic Research Unit stopped functioning at Bradford University after an early retirement of Professor Hiden, it moved to Glasgow University, where Professor Hiden worked as a Senior Visiting Fellow and where Dr. David Smith was in the lead allowing the center to continue its work. A bright and multi-talented academic, and also a prolific scholar and writer, John Hiden was at home everywhere where there was room for Baltic studies and creative dialogue with his fellow historians.

Professor Hiden appears to have been the most famous researcher and biographer of Paul Schiemann, a pre-war Latvian-German journalist, liberal-minded, anti-totalitarian intellectual who was to become a prophet of modern political and moral sensibilities related to minority issues. Small wonder, then, that Hiden’s excellent and groundbreaking book, Defender of Minorities, caused many historians to pay greater attention to the minority policies of the Baltic States and cultural autonomy research.

The German journalist and human rights defender Paul Schiemann (1876–1944) was only recently discovered by historians as a unique public and political figure in pre-war Latvia and, in fact, all of Europe. He was born in Jelgava and spent most of his life in Riga. Though belonging to the German minority and identifying himself with it, he was totally loyal to the newly-independent Republic of Latvia. An equally implacable critic of both totalitarian regimes, Schiemann, earlier than anyone else, saw the equal threats that the Nazi and Communist regimes posed to the small European nations and to Germany’s and the Soviet Union’s neighbor states.

Schiemann deeply believed that minorities in Europe had to create institutions designed to strengthen their mutual relations and to justify the peaceful co-existence of multiple cultures. He expounded his ideas in the German-language Riga paper Rigasche Rundschau, and he was the first in Europe to organize a Congress of Nationalities, joining together representatives of European ethnic and cultural minorities numbering dozens of millions.

Interestingly enough, it is precisely in the Baltic Region, from Immanuel Kant through Johann Gottfried Herder to Paul Schiemann, that we see a logical continuity: the development of an essentially liberal idea that nations should not deprive one another of their specific identity, but should search for an open and rationally corrigible form of political life that would help the culture of each to flower in opposition to imperial domination and the forcible assimilation of the smaller nations and minorities by larger ones.

In Hiden’s view, Western European countries nowadays face the same challenges (stemming from migration and the emergence of large new ethnic and cultural communities) that Lithuania and the other two Baltic States experienced well before World War II. Therefore, the cultural autonomy of Lithuanian Jews, and Latvia’s and Estonia’s experiences with minority policy, deserves to be closely studied in the West.

There are probably not many historians, political scientists and scholars in the world who would claim that the Baltic States possess political experiences not had or understood by the West and that, therefore, the latter should learn from the Baltics precisely because the Western world now experiences something akin to the permanent condition of the Baltic countries, even when they were independent: a steady sense of uncertainty, of a lack of security, of the need to establish, assert, and preserve oneself, a sense not felt by powerful Western countries but always present to Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia.

Needless to say, John Hiden was an atypical academic and historian. If he weren’t such, he would neither have developed an interest in the Baltic region and its twentieth century saga, nor devoted his entire professional life to studying them.

Baltic academics have lost a precious colleague, a beloved friend, and a talented scholar. He will be greatly missed.           

 

Leonidas Donskis