Open Borders project gives fresh insight into Alps-Adriatic border region during Cold War
Koper, 8 December - Europe's history during the Cold War is quite different when we look at it from the Alps-Adriatic border area rather than from atop the Berlin Wall, says Borut Klabjan, a historian at the Koper Science and Research Centre. This is also one of the conceptual premises of the centre's Open Borders project, Slovenia's first recipient of the European Research Council (ERC)'s Advanced Grant in social sciences and humanities.
"The aim of the project is to rethink Europe's history during the Cold War and to look at it from a different perspective to the one that has spread in recent years, one which says that after World War II ended, Europe was a divided continent. We want to include an Adriatic perspective and encourage reflection on our recent history. How is it that cooperation was possible at a time when the West and the East were on opposite sides of a global division?" Klabjan wonders.
Officially titled Open Borders - Cold War Europe Beyond Borders: A Transnational History of Cross Border Practices in the Alps-Adriatic area from World War II to the present, the project was put forward to the ERC's Study of Human Past grant panel and chosen as one of 13 projects out of 85 applications in April.
The application process took several years. Competition was tough and the differences in the final project scores were small. "I think that in the end the panel was not convinced by a single word, or a properly placed sentence, but this surely helps. I believe that the idea itself was the deciding factor, because the project will help the European Commission to encourage outside-the-box thinking, which is something our research group can offer," Klabjan said.
The Alps-Adriatic area as a space for cooperation and reaching beyond borders
The project focuses on the Alps-Adriatic area encompassing north-eastern Italy, Austria's south, along with Slovenia and Croatia as ex-Yugoslav countries. Klabjan sees this as an integrated area that fostered cooperation in Europe and reached beyond the borders long before the fall of the Berlin Wall.
When British Prime Minister Winston Churchill coined the concept of the Iron Curtain in 1946, spanning from Szczecin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, he co-authored the narrative of an airtight division between countries in the West and the East which still prevails to this day.
The history of cross-border cooperation in the Alps-Adriatic region offers a different, more nuanced narrative, even in the shadow of World War II atrocities. That this area was integrated was evident in everyday life; people from Yugoslavia would buy washing machines in Italy, Italians would celebrate their children's confirmation in Yugoslavia, and Austrians would cross the border to buy Slovenian sparkling water.
The project will specifically focus on hiking as a form of cross-border cooperation, and on mountains and mountain lodges as meeting points.
The triborder area of Austria, Italy and Slovenia will be highlighted as an example of best practice with its annual hikers' meet-up, which has been an ongoing tradition since the 1970s. This is also in direct contrast to the mountains often being talked about as a place of exclusion and fight for national identity in the past.
"The Alps-Adriatic region is not a completely isolated case of cross-border cooperation in Europe. The first to do so were the Benelux countries, Poland, Germany and others. The region was however specific because it included countries with different political, military, and economic systems into a single, integrated area. In this sense, it is proof that cooperation was possible regardless of conflicting political systems," Klabjan says, adding that this is a good starting point for talks on current international issues.
A EUR 2.5 million project
Established by the European Commission in 2007 as the first European institution for financing state-of-the-art, ground-breaking research, the ERC allocated EUR 2.5 million to the project for the next five years. Project partners plan to publish three monographs, 15 research papers, and organize a number of public events with the aim of reaching out to the public and going beyond the academic sphere.
"Those working on the project are mainly historians who have various approaches to the topic and combine them with research interests such as anthropology, sociology, diplomacy, and politics. These are essentially all different ways of viewing historiography," Klabjan said and noted that they have managed to attract the young and highly-skilled generation as well as established researchers.
"It is a blend of approaches based on revising different types of archives, varying from personal correspondence found in an attic, letters left behind by a descendant, to archive materials, such as those at the Foreign Affairs Ministry. We will also include personal stories we recorded during interviews with people who took part in cross-border cooperation, ranging from former ministers and consuls general to ordinary people who were part of this cross-border cooperation."
The project will officially get underway next year, and according to Klabjan, the knowledge they accumulate will answer some questions while raising others.