Project: Esperanto & Internationalism, c. 1880s-1930

Blog written by Dr Bernhard Struck. Dr Struck is a Reader in Modern European History and founding director of of the Institute for Transnational and Spatial History at St Andrews. His research interests include the history of Germany, Poland and France in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, transnational and comparative history, the history of travel and cartography, and now Esperanto.

Ču vi parolas Esperanton aŭ vi estas muglo? Do you speak Esperanto or are you a muggler? (AKA a non Esperanto-speaker) Esperanto is an easy language to learn. Its grammatical rules are simple and few—in fact, there are only sixteen in total! It can be learned in 30 minutes (seriously, compare that to Czech or Russian). The vocabulary is built on a blend of Romance and Germanic languages (mainly), some Slavic and a logical structure of Latin-based suffices and affixes. Linguists say the effort to learn and converse in Esperanto is about 1/5 compared to French. So why not learn Esperanto?

The Aberdeen Esperanto Society, 1919
Part of University of St Andrews Special Collections

That question may have been on the mind of some 40 Esperantists that we see in a photo taken in Craibstone near Aberdeen in 1919. We do not know much about these 40 individuals, yet the photo is a microscopic lens into the fascinating and multi-faceted Esperanto world in the early twentieth century and into a new interdisciplinary and collaborative project “Esperanto and Internationalism, c.1880-1930”.

The Esperanto society in Aberdeen was founded in October 1904 at a time when clubs mushroomed across Europe: in Dundee, Montrose (and elsewhere in Scotland), in Pardubice, Kutné Hoře, and Prague in Bohemia, in Saxony, in Warsaw and western Tsarist Russia, in Finland, Catalonia, in the English Midlands, and rural Bavaria, as well as in the US, in China and Japan. The movement bridged generations, it brought together women and men, it attracted Jews, Catholics, Protestants, and Free Thinkers. It attracted teachers, scientists, engineers, doctors, and later on workers and civil servants.

The language was created by the Polish-Jewish doctor, Ludwik Lejzer Zamenhof (1859-1917). He grew up in Bialystok (today’s Poland) in Tsarist Russia. In the 1870s in Bialystok, with a large Jewish population, he would have heard Polish, Russian, Yiddish, Hebrew along with another handful of languages and dialects. As a young medical student in Warsaw the young Zamenhof witnessed the anti-Jewish pogroms in 1882/83 that raged across the region. It was against this backdrop of rising ethno-nationalist tensions, at a time of globalisation, internationalism, and nationalism, that Zamenhof published his first two Esperanto manuals, Unua Libro and Dua Libro in 1887/88, first in Russian, and swiftly translated into other languages. With Esperanto, Zamenhof and his many followers hoped (Esperanto translates as “the one who hopes”) to give the world a neutral, non-national communication ground for a better, peaceful future of mankind.

The photo of the Esperanto group from Aberdeen provides the backdrop to the research questions for our new project hosted in the School of History and at the Institute for Transnational and Spatial History (ITSH): How did the movement spread? Who learned the language? How was Esperanto lived and organised at a local, regional, and transnational level? How did Esperantists live and communicate in Esperantoland a far-reaching, organised, yet non-territorial language community as teachers, engineers, and doctors, as Scots, Bohemians, Germans, Fins, and French? Were they internationalist, affiliated with other international organisation and attending the Universal Esperanto Congresses, or were they rather local-internationalists who did not attend congresses, but preferred to exchange postcards in Esperanto between Dundee, Bohemia, India, and Oslo?

The Esperanto project group. From left to right: Marcel Koschek, Manuela Burghelea, Pilar Requejo De Lamo, and Dr Bernhard Struck

Currently, the projects brings together four researchers with distinct, yet interrelated topics. Marcel Koschek joined us in September 2019 with degrees in History and Political & Social Sciences from the University of Würzburg and Bonn. He is working a PhD project “Local Internationalists. Polish and Central European Esperantist Networks between the local, national and global, 1880-1920s”. The projects aims to showcase how Polish Esperantists interacted in different spheres and examines their personal backgrounds, professions and interest.

Pilar Requejo De Lamo came to St Andrews in 2018 for an MLitt in Intellectual History and with a degree in International Relations from King Juan Carlos University in Madrid. Her PhD is entitled “Early Esperanto Communities in Spain: Tensions between Local, Regional and National Organisations”. The aim of this PhD is to bring into discussion the development of the artificial language in 20th-century Spain, and particularly in Catalonia.

Manuela Burghelea joined the Esperanto-Project at St Andrews as a continuation of her Master research on Esperanto between universal ideals and local cultural practices. She holds a joint MA degree in Intercultural Mediation (Lille) and a Bachelor degree in Philology (Bucureşti). Manuela conducted European volunteer work in Esperanto associations in France and in the Netherlands and is currently administrating the online citizen media translation community Global Voices Esperanto. Her project is entitled “Wandering Language: Senses of Place and Belonging among Esperanto Millenials”. In a socioanthropological and historical perspective, the project analyses motivations, aspirations, and agendas of young Esperanto speakers in current day Rio de Janeiro.

Working on a monograph on Modern Europe. A Transnational History, 1760s-2000s (Bloomsbury) Bernhard Struck started reading around the Esperanto movement and fell in love (academically). Taking an explicit local and regional starting point, his own research focuses on Scotland, the Midlands, Saxony, and Bohemia in the early twentieth century. Beyond the transregional focus around these four Esperanto regions, his current interests revolve around Esperanto experts as ‘epistemic communities’ by looking at doctors, architects, city planners in the Esperanto movement.

QGIS map of all international congress visitors across Europe 1904-1913.
Photo courtesy of the Esperanto project

While research on Esperanto exists, the movement as such has never been studied as what it truly was: a cross-border, translocal, transregional, and, in fact, global community. While all of our projects follow discrete questions and local and national particularities, they follow an explicit transnational perspective: a spatial and scalar perspective that starts from the local and individual and builds outwards to the regional, national, and transnational. The project builds on a complex linguistic and far-spread archival base from local and private archives, to city archives, museums, and national archives. It has a spatial and Digital History component by data mining of sources and visualisation of local memberships, journal publications, and international congress participation.

We would like to thank a number of sponsors of the project: the University of St Andrews, the German Academic Exchange Service, (DAAD) the Fritz Thyssen Foundation, the CEDIES (Luxembourg), ESF (Esperantic Studies Foundation).

About standrewshistory
With over forty fulltime members of staff researching and teaching on European, American and Asian history from the dawn of the Middle Ages to the present day, the School of History at the University of St Andrews has one of the finest faculty and diverse teaching programmes of any School of History in the English speaking world. The School boasts expertise in Mediaeval and Modern History, from Scotland to Byzantium and the Americas to South Asia. Thematic interests include religious history, urban history, transnationalism, historiography and nationalism. The School of History prides itself on small group teaching, allowing for in-depth study and supervision tailored to secure the best from each student. Cutting edge research combined with teaching excellence offer a dynamic and intellectually stimulating environment for the study of History.

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