von by Martina Steber Original aufOriginal in German, angezeigt aufdisplayed in English
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    A region is a medium-sized spatial unit characterized by its relative indeterminacy and fluidity. It requires a reference value and is therefore defined in relation to smaller spatial units, such as cities, as well as to larger spatial units, such as the nation-state. Based on a sociological understanding of space, which conceives it as a "relational (arrangement) of social goods and people (living beings) in places" (Martina Löw), the new regional history emphasizes the ongoing process of the construction of regions and thus accentuates their historical dimension.

    InhaltsverzeichnisTable of Contents

    What is a region? A clarification of terms

    A "region" is defined as a space of medium size when it is characterized by a condensation of structural spatial formations, which are consciously perceived by contemporaries. A variety of factors can contribute to region formation: power structures as well as the penetration of the space with institutions and mechanisms of pre-modern as well as modern statehood, economic relations and production regimes, consumption orientations, transport networks, family relations, geographical features (rivers, mountains, valleys, etc.), political, social, or religious networks, etc. In this context, communication proves to be a basic prerequisite for the formation of regions.1 It is apparent that regions form independently of sovereign or (national) state structures, but that these, in turn, can also have a region-forming effect.

    The densification  and networking of a medium-sized space into a region is also promoted by cognitive-emotional appropriations of the space. The region as a mental reference point on individual and collective mental maps reflects, on the one hand, structural processes of region-building and, on the other hand, ideas of regionalism can stimulate such processes or give them a certain direction.2 Like nations, regions are "imagined communities,”3 which communicate about themselves through historical narratives, the reactivation of traditions, symbolism, character attributions, and myths. These discourses on the region are as fluid as the structures they originate from and that influence them. Consequently, they can be forgotten or even absorbed into other spatial discourses.

    The so-called constructivist theory of regions thus emphasizes the structural and cognitive "madeness" of every space and, accordingly, the processuality and potential for change inherent in all spatial formations.4 Following such theories, which define spatial formations as active processes, the new regional history privileges the category of agency and inquires about the agents of regionalism, about their interests, their social background, and the worldviews guiding their actions.5

    Although this constructivist view of the concept of region gained acceptance in the 1980s, historical scholarship and especially Landesgeschichte (regional history focused on the German federal states) had previously been characterized by an essentialist understanding of the term. Political as well as economic and social history assumed fixed delimited spaces, whose spatial component was only of interest insofar as it provided a framework for study.6 However, the new approaches influenced by the “cultural turn” and by intensive discussions in geography and sociology were also able to draw on more dynamic spatial concepts that had already established themselves around the turn of the century. They had reached their ambivalent climax in in the Annales school and in in the geopolitically and völkisch influenced cultural area research (Kulturraumforschung) of the interwar period.7 The "return of space,"8 also known as the “spatial turn,” thus also led to a rethinking of region in recent decades.9

    Questions about the construction of regions, about their meaning and function in economic, societal, social, or political terms can be posited for any epoch. Whereas for medieval and early modern history attention has so far been paid especially to structural regional formations, historiography on the 19th and 20th centuries has concentrated on the tensions between nation and region. The latter was significantly animated by the process of European unification starting in 1945, whose space-creating power is not to be underestimated. The idea of a "Europe of the Regions", which aimed at pushing back nation-states, subsequently emerged, while region-building processes were set in motion across national borders which could often tie into historical spatial formations.

    Regions in pre-modern and modern times

    At the beginning of the early modern period a process of "regionalization of politics" began,10  which was based on a "spatially condensed neighborly cooperation in the economic and political sectors."11 Co-operations of imperial citiesHansestädte im Jahr 1554 IMG, peace-political alliances, administrative units of the , like the Imperial CirclesReichskreise um 1512 IMG established in the early 16th century or the imperial jurisdiction, trade networks, patronage and clientele systems, or noble and patrician marriage circles allowed medium-sized areas to become tangible spheres of action, which took form through communication.12 Moreover, as has been shown for the southern Upper Rhine or Nördlingen IMG, economic factors such as similar production conditions, markets, and products led to the growth of regions with a matching regional consciousness.13 Often, cities acted as motors of regional networking by permeating their surrounding areas in economic and political respects or by jointly acting with neighboring cities.14 Such regionalizations were of particular importance for those areas that were able to escape the pull of early modern territorial statehood, as was the case, for example, in the south of the empire. This early modern territorialization can likewise be interpreted as a specific form of regionalization in its creation of administrative and political spaces.15

    To date, the research has not yet reached consensus on the way in which contemporaries perceived these spaces. Humanist discourses on landscapes, to which certain characteristics were assigned,16 and regional references in elite discourses clearly indicate that the region as a mental category was present in the pre-modern period.17 Studies on early modern spatial perception have attempted to prove that it differed from the modern notion of the homogeneous, isotropic spatial container influenced by Euclidean geometry. While the late medieval perception of space still reflected an "island-space structure", which was marked by the idea of different, unconnected spatial fragments (mainly cities),18 travelogues of the 16th and 17th century already depict movement in a homogeneous space. They tried to survey the spaces and assigned places or localities to political spaces, which, however, did not acquire any deeper historical dimension. It was concluded that the early modern perception of space was based on a "succession of points lacking extension"; the "in-between" was filled by distances and "at least secondarily spatialized" by "the political attribution of the respective localities." These were, first and foremost, small-scale power relationships.19 The structural regionalization of politics via communicative networks was thus reflected in the perception of space, which conceptualized regions less by borderlines than by interconnected locations. In early modern travelogues, appeared as a multi-structured entity, characterized by small-scale political spaces and, above all, by their localities.20 However, other sources point to more "planar conceptions of space" that are already evident in the legal texts of the 15th century.21 Moreover, the systematic expansion of the postal networkEuropäische Postkurse 1563 IMG, which was accompanied by a steady acceleration of communication over great distances, provided for a broadening of spatial experience and also established new spatial structures that could both strengthen old regionalizations and lead to new ones.22 The dynamic changes in the perception of space, which were also driven by cartography as well as natural scientific theory,23 make the early modern period appear as an epoch of transition. Specifically, there was a shift from the medieval notion of island-space to the modern one of container-space, which gained wider acceptance from the middle of the 18th century in allusion to Euclid (ca. 360–ca. 280 B C)[Euklid (ca. 360–ca. 280 v.Chr) IMG].

    Due to a changed, positive perception of nature as well as trust in the controllability of nature by human reason, space has since become a category that can be appropriated cognitively and emotionally in a multifaceted way.24 Furthermore, the transition to modernity was characterized by a more intensified and dynamically driven structural penetration of space. Nature was to be made economically exploitable, the modern (nation-) states of the 19th century sought to grasp and control their space, industrialization accelerated transport infrastructural development and economic rationalization, the new communication technologies enabled relatively rapid exchange over great distances, and fundamental politicization contributed to the formation of political areas of different sizes.25 In the course of the 19th century, the densification of spaces was accompanied by a further expansion of the understanding and experience of space, which also affected the middle tier between the local and the national.

    The spatialization of thought also became a feature of modernity. In this context, spaces could become metaphors of cultural and political notions of order, so that the respective attributions were sometimes hotly contested. Spatial designs of order conveyed meaning and helped contemporaries to structure the increasingly complex world. Although they bore the potential for politicization, they did not necessarily have to assume a political function. The category of space thus became engrained in the collective and individual identities of modernity. This was especially true for the nation, as well as for the Länder (federal states) and regions. Regionalization and nationalization are thus to be understood as parallel, interrelated, and genuinely modern processes.26

    The region in modern times: research approaches between modernization theory and constructivism

    It is therefore no coincidence that recent research on the history of regions in modernity has developed in critical engagement with research on nation building grounded in modernization theory. The latter assumed that, in the course of the modernization process, a homogenization took place in the European nation-states that leveled regional differences and aligned regional structures to a high degree. This applied both to a political history focused on (national) statehood and to social and economic history. In the latter case regional approaches provided a manageable analytical tool for uncovering general structures and developments through the study of individual cases.27 But this was also true for German Landesgeschichte, which worked with equally essentialist concepts of region, most of which were based on a statist understanding of historical development.28 In contrast, a stronger sensitivity for the historical dimension of spatiality emerged in French historiography in the wake of the Annales school, although the emphasis of its paradigms was also on the nation-state.29

    The modernization theoretical model was undermined on four fronts. First, research on industrializationThe fellow 'prentices at their looms IMG – inspired by modernization theory – worked out large regional differences and pointed especially to the role of early and densely industrialized regions. It was concluded that the path to industrial modernity was neither universally homogeneous nor did it have a levelling effect that started from the center. Instead, it was propelled by individual pace-setting regions.30

    Second, a new perspective on the significance of the region in modernity was stimulated by nation studies that were inspired by cultural history and dealt with the discrepancies, contingencies, pluralism, and fragmentations of the nation-building process.31 Regionalism became the focus of attention, as this made it possible to uncover the complexities of collective identities. Contemporaries did not inscribe themselves into the modern nation-state by substituting regional offers of identification with national ones. On the contrary, they discovered the supposedly typical national in the regional. They created alternative models of nationalism and thereby contributed to its plurality.32 This was true not only for late nation-states such as or Germany,33 but also for long established nation-states such as France.34 Such an inspired regional history is particularly interested in border regions between nation-states, in "in-between spaces," where regional identities were fractured by conflicting offers of national belonging, borders were repeatedly redrawn in times of nation-state conflictsVerwaltungsgrenzen unter deutscher und sowjetischer Besatzung IMG, and hybrid identities evolved.35 But it was not only there that nationalization was not as cut-and-dried as modernization-theory-inspired nation studies assumed. Plural mental maps condensed in a variety of ideas of the region also existed in central spaces of the emerging nation-states.36 In addition, “regional world relations” (regionale Weltbeziehungen) have recently become the focus of historians, who hence draw attention to a further dimension of modern regionality.37

    Third, the dynamic force of regionality in the age of nationalism became evident in the study of political culture, especially of the 19th century. The plurality of regional political cultures was also highlighted in this connection, which ran counter to the thesis of political homogenization within the nation-state framework. Instead, recent studies characterize regionality as an integral part of modern political culture and emphasize the interdependence of nation-state and regional politics.38

    Fourth, the modernization-theoretical model was challenged by the political developments of the 1970s and 1980s.39 In , regionalist movements shook the body politic, especially in , France, and the . Flagge der autonomen Region Baskenland IMG, , and separatists demanded state autonomy for their regions or, as in the case of Northern Ireland, annexation to a neighboring state. Occasionally they showed their willingness to use extreme violence.40 The interdependence of nationalization and regionalization processes as well as the similarity of national and regional identity formation became clear to the European public on a daily basis. While from the perspective of the nation-state they were regionalist movements, the separatists defined themselves as representatives of a specific "nation" and thus negated identity ascriptions from the outside. Finally, at least the British understanding of nationhood is based on the idea of several "nations" under the unified umbrella of the United Kingdom.41

    However, alongside these regionalist flashpoints, which were characterized by conditions approaching civil war, regional political claims advanced within the democratic framework also posed a challenge to West European nation-states. France, for example, met the demands with a targeted decentralization policy in the 1980s.42 In the United Kingdom, devolution was not consistently implemented until the end of the 1990s and thus accommodated Scottish and Welsh demands for greater independence.43 In the Federal Republic of Germany, the Länder secured more extensive rights for themselves under federalism, thereby shifting the constitutional framework.44

    This regional impulse was strengthened by the possibilities of European networking. It found its expression in the "Europe of the Regions" concept, which aimed at a political strengthening of the regions within the scope of the EC or at the expense of the nation-states.45 This political concept was the starting point for the Council of the Regions of Europe, founded in 1985 (since 1987 the Assembly of European Regions), an independent association of European regions that furthers the cause of promoting the regional, sub-national levels. In addition, following the Convention of 1980, so-called "Euroregions" were fostered that transcend national borders, frequently linking up with older regional formations and creating new regions. Lastly, the regions were institutionally anchored by the Treaty of of 1992 in the context of the "European Committee of the Regions". Their role was bolstered by the establishment of the principle of subsidiarity as well as by the opening of the Council of Ministers of the EU for regional ministers.46 Regionalism was further encouraged by the experience of upheaval in 1989/1990 in , in the course of which regional, sometimes historical attributions were updated.47


    In the modern era, the meaning of regions and of regionality has varied greatly. While regionalism was apt to support nation-building and could have an integrating effect, it could also undermine these processes and fundamentally question established nation-states. When linked to democratic ideas, it could support democratization processes; at the same time, in Europe from the 1920s to the 1940s, new-right movements made use of regional models of order. Under the Nazi regime, for example, the regions in the form of "NSDAP-Parteigaue" (regional districts of the NSDAP) carried weight both culturally and power politically.48 Regionalist movements have emerged, and models of regional order gained credibility whenever the territorial order of the Europe of nation-states was challenged, e.g. after the two world wars and after 1989/1990 in Eastern Europe. Something similar could be observed when ideas of national belonging lost their legitimacy, as in France and Great Britain in the course of decolonization. Regionalisms here used the catchword "internal colonization."49 On the other hand, regionalisms also developed when nation-state centralization efforts gave rise to countermovements that were initially based on economic or cultural considerations only to eventually become politicized. This was the case, for example, in Spain in the 19th century or in the 1960s and 1970s in the Fifth French Republic, which was guided by planning concepts and maxims of efficiency.50 The concept of region therefore carries unique meanings in the European nation-states, fulfills different functions, is institutionalized to varying degrees, and has a specific relationship to the national in each case. This plurality of the regional in Europe is by individual processes of nation-building, political, economic and social development. It should therefore be understood as a complex phenomenon that shaped the European path to modernity.

    Consequently, linear models of development have been replaced in historical scholarship by dynamic notions of the region based on a constructivist understanding of spatiality. In the longue durée in particular, they open up new perspectives on contemporary European history, for example when alternatives to nation-state territorialization become visible, the space-forming dimension of Europeanization after 1945 is illuminated, or the role of regional political cultures is contemplated.

    Martina Steber



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    1. ^ Hoffmann, Kommunikation 2001; Geppert /Jensen / Weinhold, Verräumlichung 2005.
    2. ^ Cf. Schenk, Mental Maps 2002; Wollersheim, Region 1998.
    3. ^ Cf. Anderson, Imagined Communities 1983.
    4. ^ Cf. from the wealth of literature: Briesen / Reulecke, Einführung 1993; Reulecke, Landesgeschichte 1991; Kühne, Region 2000; Schönemann, Region 1999; with an emphasis on social history and a quite measured use of constructivism: Brakensiek, Regionalgeschichte 2000.
    5. ^ Cf. summarizing and providing a concise overview of the research Applegate, Europe 1999.
    6. ^ Cf. e.g. Hinrichs, Regionalgeschichte 1987.
    7. ^ Oberkrome, Volksgeschichte 1993; Raphael, "Neue Geschichte" 1997.
    8. ^ Osterhammel, Wiederkehr 1998.
    9. ^ Cf. Bavaj, "Spatial Turn" 2006.
    10. ^ Kießling, "Nachbarschaft" 1987; Kießling, Überwindung 1998.
    11. ^ Ullmann, Geschichte 2006; on the construction of political spaces in the early modern period, cf. Kümin, Space 2009.
    12. ^ Cf. et. al. Hoffmann, Kommunikation 2001; Wilson, Regions 2007.
    13. ^ Cf. e.g. Scott, Identity 1997.
    14. ^ Cf. Kießling, Stadt 1989; Jöchner, Räume 2003.
    15. ^ Cf. e.g. Klingenberg, Aufklärung 2001. For an overview, see Stauber, "Regionalismus" 2009.
    16. ^ Cf. Graf, "Land" 1992; Merten, "Landesbewusstsein" 2000.
    17. ^ Cf. et al. Scott, Identity 1997; Scott, Town 2005; Kümin, Space 2009. On medieval history, cf. Moraw, Identität 1992; Moraw, Raumerfassung 2002; on the English example: Holford, North 2007.
    18. ^ Cf. Jahn, Raumkonzepte 1993; Gotthard, Ferne 2007, pp. 131–134.
    19. ^ Gotthard, Ferne 2007, pp. 157–158.
    20. ^ Cf. Gotthard, Ferne 2007, pp. 152–155. The perception of space as the environment of a place thought of as the center is also pointed out by Schunka, Soziales Wissen 2000, hin.
    21. ^ Blickle, Land 1998, p. 137.
    22. ^ Cf. Behringer, Im Zeichen des Merkur 2003.
    23. ^ Cf. Dipper, Kartenwelten 2006; Schneider, Macht 2004; Beutler / Pulte / Gierl, "Raum" 2009.
    24. ^ Cf. Schmitz, "Gedachte Ordnung" 2010.
    25. ^ Cf. Geppert, Ortsgespräche 2005.
    26. ^ Applegate, Europe 1999; Umbach, Nation 2006.
    27. ^ Cf. Kiesewetter, Raum 1996; Zorn, Territorium 1986; Flügel, Regionalgeschichte 2000; a classic study for France: Weber, Peasants 1979.
    28. ^ Cf. Buchholz, Landesgeschichte 1998.
    29. ^ Cf. Applegate, Europe 1999, pp. 1160–1161; Raphael, Erben 1994, esp. pp. 296–314.
    30. ^ Cf. Pollard, Conquest 1981; Kiesewetter, Region 2000; Ebeling, Protoindustrie 1997. Current research also emphasizes the regionalizing effect of consumer culture, cf. et al. Siegrist, Regionalisierung 2003.
    31. ^ Cf. Anderson, Imagined Communities 1983; Langewiesche, Nation 1995; Haupt / Tacke, Kultur 1996; Haupt / Müller / Woolf, Regional and National Identities 1998; Storm, Regionalism 2003.
    32. ^ Cf. et. al. Applegate, Nation 1990; Confino, Nation 1997; Green, Fatherlands 2001; Storm, Painting Regional Identities 2009; Storm, Culture 2010; Núnez, Region 2001.
    33. ^ On Italy cf. Levy, Regionalism 1996; Broers, Myth 2003; by comparison: Cole, Paths 2007.
    34. ^ Cf. e.g. Ford, Creating the Nation 1993; Tacke, Denkmal 1995; Haupt, Konstruktion 1992.
    35. ^ Cf. e.g. from the wealth of literature: Ther, Bewegungen 2003; Duhamelle, Grenzregionen 2007; François, Grenze 2007; Lawrence / Baycroft / Grohmann, Degrees 2001; Schwara, Levant 2003; Ther, Grenzen 2001; Hirschhausen, Stand, Region, Nation und Reich 2001.
    36. ^ Cf. Steber, Gewissheiten 2010. For Great Britain: Payton, The Making of Modern Cornwall 1992.
    37. ^ Cf. Paulmann, Regionen und Welten 2013.
    38. ^ Cf. e.g. Retallack, Saxony 2000; Lässig, Modernisierung 1998; Steber, Gewissheiten 2010.
    39. ^ This impulse is particularly evident in Harvie, Rise 1994.
    40. ^ Cf. summary in Judt, Postwar 2005, pp. 464–469.
    41. ^ On Great Britain cf. et al. Colley, Britons 2005.
    42. ^ Cf. Gerdes, Regionalismus 1994.
    43. ^ Cf. overview in Harvie, Politics 2005.
    44. ^ Cf. Ritter, Föderalismus 2007. In addition, regional identities within the federal German states continued to have an impact: cf. e.g. Ditt, Ruhrgebiet 2007.
    45. ^ Cf. e.g. Hrbek / Weyand, Betrifft: Das Europa der Regionen 1994.
    46. ^ Cf. Börzel, States 2002. On the impact of European regional policy cf. e.g. Conzelmann, Räume 2002. For an overview, see Schmale, Geschichte, pp. 272–277.
    47. ^ Cf. Ther, Bewegungen 2003.
    48. ^ Cf. John, Die NS-Gaue 2007; Núnez / Umbach, Heimats 2008.
    49. ^ For Germany cf. e.g. Ditt, Regionalismus 1999; Klöckler, Abendland 1998. On the rhetoric of "internal colonialism" using the example of France, cf. Gerdes, Regionalismus 1994, pp. 395–399; for Great Britain: Hechter, Colonialism 1975.
    50. ^ On Spain cf. in an overview and citing the most important literature: Umbach, Nation 2006, pp. 74–78.


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