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A connecting and dividing arc. The Carpathians as national imaginary, natural space and lifeworld in the 20th century

Hardly any natural space was and is as formative to East Central Europe as the Carpathian Mountains. The arch-shaped mountain chain crosses present-day Romania, Ukraine, Poland, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic, spans 1300 kilometers, and is home to people of diverse creeds and ethnicities. Throughout its post-imperial history starting after the dissolution of Austria-Hungary in 1918, changing borders divided the Carpathian arc and its inhabitants along a national logic. Unsurprisingly, the national dimension seems paramount to the understanding of the mountain chain: the Carpathians' polyethnic societies were incorporated into national imaginaries and subject to nation building projects, while mountain passes, forests, and rivers became objects of nation states’ desires and wars. Moreover, the Carpathians became an integral part of different national narratives – for example, Hungary conceived of the natural barrier as a bulwark (antemurale), protecting the realm, nation, and Christianity from invasion.

The Carpathians have been at the center of several historiographical studies in recent years. In tune with the deep impact of state policies in the region, they dealt with the subject matter from national perspectives, while other analyses have taken the Carpathians as natural space to the center stage. The panel connects to this state of research and asks how the different approaches to Carpathian history can be brought together and pushed forward. It elaborates on the contrasts that influenced the history of the mountain chain after 1918: national borders divided the mountain chain while climatic, topographic, and ecological conditions created a contiguous natural space and transcended national limits. Similarly, the endeavor to charge the Carpathians with national meaning, pursued mostly by urban elites in Budapest, Warsaw, Prague or L’viv, was challenged by the often-transnational lifeworlds of local mountain dwellers. Employing different foci, the presentations move in this tension field between the history of (national) ideas, environmental history, and a lifeworld-centered approach to Carpathian history.

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