How is national identity determined when political borders change?
February 11, 2014 7:21 PM   Subscribe

I always thought my maternal great-grandparents were Austrian. Maybe they are not?

We recently found some papers my grandfather had kept relating to the arrival of our family in Canada. I previously had been told that Grandpa's parents were Polish and Grandma's parents were Austrian. It turns out from these papers that Grandma's parents were from a place that WAS Austria at the time, but is now part of Poland. So...what does that mean exactly? Can my mom say she is 100% Polish now or does the fact that at the time it was Austria mean they are Austrian even if that would no longer be true?

I am curious because my significant other is 100% Polish, and of course it doesn't matter to him at all what my ancestry is in this regard (actually, he is more impressed that I actually know the names of people that far back since most of his family history was lost in the war). But I am curious just how 'Polish' I might be. If we had kids, would they be considered 100% Polish ancestry, or is the detail that is wasn't Poland at the time negate that?
posted by JoannaC to Grab Bag (32 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
In my experience, it will largely depend on how your grandparents 'identified' themselves. My people emigrated from an area that was part of Russia, but they most definitely were Polish (and that was part of why they emigrated). I consider myself of Polish descent because my grandparents felt that they were Polish, regardless of where the border had moved to at the point they left.
posted by Tandem Affinity at 7:26 PM on February 11, 2014 [5 favorites]

Unless you are asking for the purposes of some form of birthright identity (f.ex. getting your citizenship based on your ancestry), my view would be whatever they considered themselves, as Tandem Affinity says.

If you are asking for those Call a consulate.
posted by Lemurrhea at 7:33 PM on February 11, 2014

The concept of nationality isn't the same in all locations and all times. In the US nationality is pretty much defined as your country of residence. In other parts of the world your nationality can be considered some combination of your parents heritage and your primary language. If you have a Polish-speaking village that suddenly finds itself in Germany (or Russia) because someone won a war and the diplomats changed the borders, the people living there would probably still consider themselves Polish and tell their grandchildren in the US that they are descended from Poles.
posted by alms at 7:34 PM on February 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

Grandma's parents sound Polish to me. Read Michner's "Poland" for his take on the situation.
posted by notned at 7:36 PM on February 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

I would want to know what language they spoke at home. If they were speaking Polish at home despite nominally living in Austria, I would say they were Polish.

It's pretty artificial, though, however you slice it, because if you look further back into your heritage, you may discover that we are all African, but few are 100% anything.
posted by Bentobox Humperdinck at 7:36 PM on February 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

My father's family is German, even though the part of Germany where he was born (Silesia) is Poland now. They were German speaking, and considered themselves German and the family moved to German territory after WWII treaties gave Silesia to Poland.

Some consider the slavic Silesians to be an ethnic group unto themselves, distinct from the Czechs, Poles and Germans who also inhabit that region, but my father's family history is Germanic, thus they consider themselves German even if that region no longer is.
posted by jacquilynne at 7:37 PM on February 11, 2014

If they lived there when it was Austria as Austrians, and identified as Austrians, I think you owe them their historical agency to say who they were for the record. It would be cool to look into what happened with respect to the Austrians that lived in the Polish territories that stuck around at the time, and to learn more about why your family made that life change, too. Genealogy is hard, but ultimately one of the most important things you can use to really know your place in the world.
posted by oceanjesse at 7:37 PM on February 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

Can my mom say she is 100% Polish now or does the fact that at the time it was Austria mean they are Austrian even if that would no longer be true?

There are three related points here. One is that the borders have changed; another is that Austria-Hungary before its Versailles dismantling was a multi-national state that encompassed lots of different self-identified communities; the third is that central Europe had some of the largest population displacements in history during the 20th century on account of the redrawing of national borders around those self-identified communities and through warfare.

If it's just in terms of describing one's ancestry, and not the nitty gritty of potential claims to a second passport, then you go with your ancestors' self-identification.
posted by holgate at 7:37 PM on February 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

One possibility is for national identity to be determined by the person's mother tongue. If they know the language, some believe they are still part of that country no matter where they now live.
posted by 99percentfake at 7:38 PM on February 11, 2014

My grandfather was German. He was born in Silesia. He emigrated to Canada after WWII. Silesia is now part of Poland. My grandfather is not Polish.
posted by KokuRyu at 7:53 PM on February 11, 2014

Yeah, during the Habsburg Empire, this was largely shaped by how you identified ethnically/linguistically, as well as (or sometimes in opposition to) the part of the empire where you lived, regardless of the fact that technically everyone was a subject of Austria. (And even that wasn't quite so straightforward after the dual monarchy was established with Hungary in 1867, but that's a digression.)

So (for example) if your grandmother's parents spoke German and lived in certain parts of Silesia, it's more likely that they identified as Austrian than if they spoke Polish and lived in Galicia. Do you might posting where exactly they lived and/or what their surname was?
posted by scody at 7:56 PM on February 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: The city on the document is listed as Pomerzany. I have no clue where that is :) But my grandfather had all sorts of fascinating old papers and I am very curious to learn more about this.
posted by JoannaC at 7:59 PM on February 11, 2014

I think it depends on a lot of factors that have largely already been mentioned -- language, as well as geography, in particular.

Having said that, my maternal grandmother's mother was originally from Sicily before she and her family came to North America. My great-grandmother apparently spoke the dialect of Italian that was popular in her area (according to accounts from my mother and my grandmother) but always considered herself Sicilian, not Italian, despite the fact that Sicily became part of the Kingdom of Italy before my great-grandmother was born.

When I talk about my own ancestry, I do say that I'm 1/8 Italian, because it's easier than going into the whole "Sicilian" thing, but also because, technically, she did live in a region of Italy.

I think if your great-grandparents considered themselves Polish and spoke Polish even while living in was was technically Austria, you can consider yourself Polish, the way my great-grandmother considered herself Sicilian. But again, I think it depends largely on what those individuals used to self-identify. :)
posted by juliebug at 8:00 PM on February 11, 2014

What language did they speak at home?

(I have a similar background, what was then Poland is now Ukraine, but nobody in my family ever spoke Ukrainian and it wouldn't occur to me to think of our ancestry as Ukrainian.)
posted by fingersandtoes at 8:09 PM on February 11, 2014

My great-grandmother apparently spoke the dialect of Italian that was popular in her area (according to accounts from my mother and my grandmother) but always considered herself Sicilian, not Italian, despite the fact that Sicily became part of the Kingdom of Italy before my great-grandmother was born.

Similarly, my partner's grandparents came from the Piedmont region of Italy, and while their nationality certainly was Italian, they identified as (and spoke) Piedmontese.

The city on the document is listed as Pomerzany.

Hmm, could it be Pomorzany? There are a few different Pomorzanys in Poland, the main one being a municipality that was absorbed into what is now Szczecin, but which was called Stettin in the 19th century and was actually part of the Pomeranian region of Prussia, which would have made it part of the German (not Austrian) empire.

In any case, I agree that knowing what language they spoke at home (which you could take a guess at based on their surname, in the absence of any other evidence) would be the main clue.
posted by scody at 8:15 PM on February 11, 2014

So, in Lousiana there is this little micro-region called "The German Coast". There's even a town there called Des Allemands, which loosely translates to Germantown in French. The people who settled there arrived in the mid-eighteenth century and were (and still are) known as Germans. They brought a lot of German cultural elements to Louisiana, notably within Cajun music.

However, the people who settled there were almost certainly not from Germany, the modern nation state. My "German" ancestors are actually Alsatian, and I'm pretty sure that nowadays they would be considered French.

And yet, we continue to consider ourselves "German Cajuns". So I feel like, firstly, your mother should consider her ancestry to be whatever she's most comfortable with, and secondly, if anything it's probably better to err on the side of what it was when she was born/growing up rather than assuming a new identity due to a border shift.

All bets are off if you are looking to establish Polish citizenship, though. In that case, refer to the relevant laws and probably consult an immigration lawyer.
posted by Sara C. at 8:17 PM on February 11, 2014

Can my mom say she is 100% Polish

She can say what she likes. Won't change her passport.

In terms of 'saying': with my ancestor-from-a-contested-area, I say he was from Schleswig (though he might've said Slesvig...), ie the relevant sub-national entity, and people can take from that what they want.
posted by pompomtom at 8:24 PM on February 11, 2014

I googled "Pomerzany" and got a lot of Ellis Island hits for people with German surnames.

It also asked if I meant "Pomorzany", which is a suburb of Szczecin, Poland, formerly known as Stettin, Germany. Could that be the right place? Szczecin is unfortunately not that close to Austria, though.

(FWIW I have run into a lot of European point of origin dead ends in trying to research my family, possibly because of some kind of intercontinental game of telephone, or possibly because the villages in question just don't correspond to any modern place.)
posted by Sara C. at 8:33 PM on February 11, 2014

Ethnic purposes - your choice, whatever language they spoke and cultural accoutrements they carry.

For consulate / citizenship purposes, I've found this website helpful in navigating the laws of Polish Citizenship.

To determine if you are eligible for Polish Citizenship Confirmation you must first understand the basics that govern Polish Citizenship. First of all, Polish Citizenship is passed through blood line (Jus Sanguinis), NOT place of birth (Jus Soli). For example, just being born in the territory of Poland does not make you a citizen, however having ancestors that were Polish might give you the right to citizenship.

Secondly, your Polish blood line must be unbroken from your Polish ancestor to you. In other words, each ancestor must have been Polish in order to pass it to the younger generation. If one of your ancestors had/have lost their Polish citizenship then the blood line is broken and you did not inherit citizenship. An example of a broken blood line: great-grandfather (Polish citizen) > grandfather (lost Polish citizenship) > father (not Polish) > you (not Polish). There are three Polish Citizenship Acts (1920, 1951 & 1962) that will determine if your ancestor was/is Polish and able to transfer citizenship or if they had/have lost their citizenship.

What information/dates will I need to collect in order to determine my eligibility?
You will need the birth dates of you and all your ancestors beginning with the first person that emigrated from Poland, information on any foreign citizenships accepted by you and your ancestors (including date these citizenships were issued) and information on military service in any foreign (non-Polish) military army of you and your Polish ancestors.

If your ancestor emigrated from Poland before 1918, then your ancestor was NOT Polish. Your ancestor had to be living in Poland at the time when the Second Polish Republic was created in 1918.

If your ancestor left Poland after 1918 you will need to navigate through the Polish Citizenship Acts of 1920, 1951 and 1962 and determine your eligibility.

You can read more about those acts on the website I've linked.

I know this because I am in the process of reclaiming my Polish citizenship.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 8:38 PM on February 11, 2014 [3 favorites]

Wikipedia suggests that if your ancestors left what I'm assuming was Galicia while it was still part of Austria-Hungary, it's very unlikely that you would qualify for actual Polish citizenship on that alone. (I'm not an immigration lawyer, that wouldn't be your final source, etc. etc. etc.) That might or might not be something you care about.

This link mentions that Austro-Hungarian censuses recorded 'language' for each person, but not ethnicity directly. I'd expect genealogy forums would have more links and info if you'd want to explore that route.

Personally, if it were me, and grandmother's maiden name were Polish--I'd go with Polish.
posted by gimonca at 8:39 PM on February 11, 2014

Further info from the website I linked:

Example: Grandfather was born 1902, in an area that would become Poland, emigrated to the US in 1923 and had two children. Grandfather was Polish when he left and had the ability to transfer citizenship, provided he did not break any other 1920 rules.
--> This person is considered Polish; his descendants are considered Polish.

Basically being Polish is like Hotel California - once you're Polish, you can never leave.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 8:41 PM on February 11, 2014

For whatever it's worth, my dad's family are from the Burgenland, which is one of these regions that bounced between Austria and Hungary. They were German speakers and initially left (they bounced back and forth to the US a few times) at a time they would have been part of the German-speaking minority in Hungary. They have always been described to me as Austrian.

As I understand it, the notion of nationality in Austria-Hungary was tied to language, like scody said. (IIRC people did have 'nationalities' on paper, which, in most cases, amounted to what language you spoke.)

Sara C.: " It also asked if I meant "Pomorzany", which is a suburb of Szczecin, Poland, formerly known as Stettin, Germany. Could that be the right place? Szczecin is unfortunately not that close to Austria, though."

Szczecin is where you end up if you decide to take a day trip to Poland from Berlin. It's Pomerania and I think we're talking about Galicia.
posted by hoyland at 8:41 PM on February 11, 2014

Pomorzany could conceivably be the Pomoriany which is near Lviv aka L'vov aka Lwów aka Lemburg: it was Austrian before 1918, then Polish, and is now part of Ukraine. See this Yahoo Question which talks about Ellis Island records; also, contemporary English-language reports of the Great War use 'Pomorzany' to refer to the now-Ukrainian place.
posted by holgate at 8:43 PM on February 11, 2014

Hoyland, yeah, that's why I included the note about "city of origin" tending to be a bit of a dead end in studying genealogy. There's always a chance something was misspelled, someone misunderstood, that's a village in Galicia that coincidentally has the same name as a suburb in Pomerania, said village no longer exists, etc etc etc.

I have googled so many villages in Ireland/France/Sweden/Germany that either don't exist or are inexplicably located hundreds of miles from where my documents imply that they should be.
posted by Sara C. at 8:46 PM on February 11, 2014

Oops, didn't finish. The point about my dad's family is that they left now-Austria, then-Hungary(-ish) calling themselves Austrian. Where the border ended up certainly had massive ramifications for anyone living there in 1921 (when the border was settled), but isn't that important in terms of what they were calling themselves. (Though post-1918, there would have been political incentive for German speakers to call themselves Austrian, as I think they wanted to end up in Austria and that question wasn't settled).
posted by hoyland at 8:47 PM on February 11, 2014

It's Pomerania and I think we're talking about Galicia.

Yep. Three of the five Pomorzanys here are in Pomerania, which (in addition to being filled with adorable puffy dogs) was in Prussia, i.e., Germany. The other two seem to be in what was Galicia.
posted by scody at 8:49 PM on February 11, 2014

Response by poster: It is possible I spelled it wrong and the place you mention is the place. It said Galicia on the papers too, not Austria, and it was my uncle who said 'that's Austria.' Unfortunately the reason why we found the papers is that my grandfather passed away, so we can't ask him what language they spoke. I appreciate all the answers. I have no interest in establishing Polish citizenship, but I am just curious about how this all works...
posted by JoannaC at 5:08 AM on February 12, 2014

It's kind of weird. My cousin and I were talking about our family's national identities. For example, I'm 1/4 Hungarian, 1/4 Romainian and 1/2 Ukrainian. I know her grandparents on her mother's side were Czech and were in concentration camps in WWII. So I asked, "Are you 1/2 Czech, 1/4 Romainian and 1/4 Ukrainian, or 1/2 Ukrainian?" She was puzzled, "We're Czech."

Well...our people are from the Carpathian Forest region. depends on the year.

Interesting enough, I gave my parents and sister 23 and Me for Channukah last year. They just got the results back. We're 95% Ashkenazi Jewish, and a bit of Neanderthal. Our family tree is a stalk.

Weirdly enough, my Mother's info showed NO Hungarian DNA (they're a separate race), but, we know for a fact that her family lived there for a couple of generations. Sure they did, they just didn't inter-marry with any Hungarians.

So there's no hard and fast rule about these things.

Google Polish food and Ukrainian food. Marvel at the overlap.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:44 AM on February 12, 2014

The details are too complicated to get into here, but I was once filling out some paperwork abroad and was asked BOTH for my "nationality" AND my "ethnicity." The assumption was that they were not necessarily the same. Ie, you could have Romanian nationality but be ethnic Hungarian, and this had legal and bureaucratic implications in a way it simply does not in the USA.

One of my friends also has ancestry from Austria-Hungary. But ethnically he is Carpatho-Rusyn. On the other hand, his cousins stayed in the old country but instead of staying in what is now the border-region of Ukraine and Slovakia, ended up moving to Budapest for ther education, adopted the Hungarian language, and identify as Hungarian.

Galicia is actually that border region of Ukraine, Poland, and Slovakia. Ethnic identity exists on a continuum and only took on significance since WWI. If they were eastern rite catholic, they were Carpatho-Rusyn or Ukrainian, if they were Roman Catholic, they would now be regarded as Polish or Slovak. It's hard to tell. If they were Jewish, a lot of their national identity would depend on their dialect.

There are lots of people who came to America from the Austro-Hungarian empire before WWI and put "Austria" as their country of origin on their immigration papers. That could be a reference to any number of different ethnic groups.
posted by deanc at 6:11 AM on February 12, 2014 [4 favorites]

The important point here is that Austria-Hungary (aka the Habsburg Empire) does not in any way equate to the modern country of Austria; it was a huge multinational empire that happened to have been founded by a noble family from part of what is now the tiny country of Austria. To call someone from Galicia or Slovenia "Austrian" is like calling someone from Vietnam "Chinese" or someone from Korea "Japanese" because Vietnam was once ruled by China and Korea by Japan—it makes no sense. If your Grandma's parents were from a place that is now part of Poland and if they spoke Polish, then they were Poles (and would so have been considered at the time). If they spoke Ukrainian, they would probably have been considered Ruthenian. The point is that "Austrian" makes no sense as a term for anybody but a German-speaker from what is now Austria.
posted by languagehat at 7:21 AM on February 12, 2014 [3 favorites]

My family tree consists of the unoffical designation of "germans from russia." both of sides of my paternal family came from Russia, but considered themselves german in language, culture and heritage. As unoffical as it is, it was an important part of how they identified themselves.

I think for these purposes heritage trumps location, especially with the moving borders etc.
posted by domino at 8:38 AM on February 12, 2014

How is national identity determined when political borders change?

There's a difference between national identity, ethnic identity, and citizenship. The three don't have to match, and each one can have multiple aspects.
posted by yohko at 2:54 PM on February 14, 2014

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