Luxembourg as a nationalised intermediate space: A short postscript to my doctoral thesis
In a recent episode of the series on contemporary history aired on the Luxembourgian public radio 100komma7, the historian Denis Scuto discussed the idea of Luxembourg as being more than a mere “intermediate space”. In his piece, he started off by mentioning my thesis in a positive light (which honours me) and a critical observation made by the German historian Rainer Hudemann concerning the concept of intermediate space during my defence. I am delighted to see that the discussion during my defence has led to further reflections. With the present postscript, I would like to contribute some brief thoughts of my own.
In his chronicle, Denis Scuto discussed an important aspect of Luxembourgish history: the search for models and ideas abroad, and, more importantly, their adaptation to Luxembourg’s context. The examples are legion, and Scuto has named some in his podcast. The cultural policy history of the Grand-Duchy also includes many instances in which the (political) elite sought inspirations beyond the national borders – especially in the neighbouring countries. I am by far not the only historian who has highlighted this feature in Luxembourg’s history, and I certainly won’t be the last one. Some historians who did are mentioned by Denis Scuto, among others Rainer Hudemann, to whom I am very grateful, as well as to the other members of the jury.
The concept of “intermediate space” (or Zwischenraum in the original German version), which I borrowed from the historian Philip Ther,1 plays a central role in my thesis. Ther introduced it to turn our attention to border regions as areas of transnational exchanges and entanglements, and offer another history that does not entirely focus on large nation-states. However, to describe more accurately Luxembourg’s situation, I adapted the concept by speaking of a “nationalised intermediate space”. Luxembourg has not been a mere border region, but it has also been, and still is, a nation-state (though, of course, the idea of nation is not immutable). My adapted concept should point to the particular situation of Luxembourg. Since the 19th century, and even more intensely after the First World War, the country’s elites have been pursuing a nation-building, from the creation of symbols over cultural initiatives to legislative frameworks (such as citizenship or immigration laws). My thesis includes many of these examples from a cultural policy perspective. The Centenary of Independence 1939 is probably one of the most protruding and memorable ones. At the same time, elites in Luxembourg have sought ideas and models abroad, such as legislative frameworks, and then adapted these to the Luxembourgish context. One example might be the first law on the protection of national monuments and sites (1927).2 The first draft was mostly copied from a French law of 1913, but the parliamentary debates later led to exchanges concerning the protection of mobile objects in churches. Due to the strong presence of the Catholic Church, this was not unsurprising in the Luxembourgish context at the time, but would be difficult to imagine in France as an officially secular country.
In hindsight, I might have missed the opportunity to include foreign actors living in Luxembourg and participating in its cultural life. They are a mostly invisible group in my narrative, with some minor exceptions. During my dissertation defence, this legitimate observation was made by one of the jury members, indeed. I think this is to a large extent a resultof the sources I used, most of which produced by the elites and state administrations. Immigrants and foreigners were excluded from national cultural policy for a long time. But it is not something that could not be analysed in the future. In fact, it had already been in the past.3
I can only agree with Scuto’s observations towards the end of his chronicle. Historians need to highlight the complexities of our past. They should point out the transnational exchanges, influences, inspirations whenever they can. As human beings we tend to think in clear categories, hoping to better grasp our world but often with obverse results. As much as we might want to believe that borders are impenetrable and unshakeable, that walls and fences keep people (and ideas) away: the reality is more complex. Historians and other researchers make an important contribution to society, because they show the absurdity of what the far right and nationalists would want us to believe: that “the” nation would be unchangeable, that its essence would be solid and remain immutable even throughout centuries. I have been confronted with such narratives in my sources. Yet, this is only an illusion. Over and over again, critical research shows who we are: human beings who create and mold identities; not identities that become personified.
For those who would like to read my thesis, Staging the Nation in an Intermediate Space: Cultural Policy in Luxembourg and the State Museums (1918-1974), it is open access and can be downloaded by following this link: http://hdl.handle.net/10993/44681.