Sovereignty and Homogeneity, 1919-1939

Majority-Minority Relations in Interwar Western Europe

At the end of last June, the Council for European Studies of Columbia University held its annual meeting at the University Carlos III of Madrid. Luckily, the theme of the Conference—Sovereignties in Contention:
Nations, Regions and Citizens in Europe
—was in line with our wider research; hence, we did not have to twist our abstract too much in order to be admitted to this very important gathering of Europeanists. The conference offered a great opportunity to show some preliminary findings from our comparative research on majority-minority relations in Belgium, Italy and Spain.

Authors’ elaboration.

A few elements of context, before going into detail. At the end of the Great War, minority treaties were imposed on the countries arising from the dissolution of the Eastern empires. That involved the guarantee of individual rights such as the right to life and liberty, non-discrimination and religious freedom, as well as some collective minority-specific educational and cultural rights to a series of minorities in about 15 countries. The most salient features of this system of treaties were that the rights protecting minorities were guaranteed by the League of Nations and that the system only concerned the Eastern part of the continent. Was this ‘asymmetry’ between Eastern and Western Europe due to the fact that there were no minorities in Western Europe? Not at all.

As Table 1 above shows, although the share of national minorities in Eastern European states was much higher on average than in the West of the continent, there were still sizeable minority groups in European countries that were not subjected to the League’s system. The data is especially significant if one considers that concerning Belgium only the German-speaking population of the Eastern cantons was taken into account in the table. Below, on the contrary, we will consider the Flemish inhabitants of Belgium as a sociological minority.

Overall, there were about 32 million people belonging to a national minority in interwar Europe and approximately 8 million lived in the West, that is outside the jurisdiction of the minority system of the League of Nations. There are several reasons why the system was not extended to all members of the League. On the one hand, the Great Powers wanted to avoid the application of the minority clauses to their own territory (and their colonies). Second, there was a widespread assumption that Western European countries were more homogenous than Eastern European ones and, in any case, better able to deal with these groups without threatening the just re-established peace. Such civilisational hierarchy, whereby Eastern European countries were seen as more backward and immature, was at the core of the asymmetry of the minority protection system.

A first question that we tried to answer—although only superficially for reasons of scope—is whether Western European countries did treat their minorities better than Eastern European ones, as it was widely believed at the time. Belgium, Italy and Spain experienced prolonged periods of majority-minority strain during the interwar years and are therefore an interesting acid test to evaluate state policy towards minorities.

Authors’ elaboration.

Table 2 above provides a quick comparison between our case-study countries and some selected Eastern European ones. Western European states did not necessarily fare better than their Eastern colleagues. For instance, being heavily influenced by the terrible record of the Fascist regime, Italy treated its minorities worse than probably any other country in the table (with the exception, possibly, of Poland during the 1930 ‘pacification’ of Eastern Galicia). Spain’s profile oscillates between the harsh persecution carried out by General Primo de Rivera and the very liberal regime of the Second Republic. However, as the latter lasted only about 5 years (excluding the Civil War period), the overall balance is probably more in line with Poland’s performance than with the more liberal policies adopted by Estonia and Czechoslovakia. Finally, in Belgium, state policies did follow liberal principles, although, as we will see later, one can still see in-built tendencies towards some forms of assimilation of minority groups.

The literature on Eastern Europe highlights three domains of social and political life that were especially conducive to majority-minority conflict: the attribution of citizenship to members of the minority group, the use of language in the education system, and economic relations. We therefore decided to look at those same dimensions in our cases. Additionally, and more generally, we considered the presence of forms of overt violence and persecution.

Citizenship was potentially an issue for those national minorities that found themselves living in a new state after the War. This was the case with the German-speaking populations of South Tyrol and the Eupen-Malmédy district in Italy and Belgium respectively, as well as with the Slovenian and Croatian speakers annexed to the Italian Kingdom. While in some Eastern European countries the procedure of attribution of citizenship gave room to episodes of overt discrimination, this was not generally the case in Belgium. Similarly, Italian authorities tended to respect guarantees in line with those established in the minority treaties, but the archives reveal a quite disturbing attitude on the part of then liberal elites towards the so-called re-deemed Italians of South Tyrol. The attribution of citizenship involved different procedures according to the specific profile of the new inhabitants of the Kingdom. In most cases, citizenship could not be rejected (what changed was whether this was automatically given or whether the individual had to apply for it). However, one specific procedure, called elezione, required the evaluation of the application on the part of a commission and the application could be rejected. For a number of reasons, about 200 German-speaking South Tyrolean teachers applied for citizenship following this bureaucratic path. Eying the possibility to gain some jobs, the Association of teachers of the neighbouring province of Trento asked the Ministry of Education to remove the South Tyrolean instructors from their position while the evaluation of their application was pending. The fact that the Ministry seriously contemplated dismissing these, speaks volumes about the little sensitivity of then liberal Italian elites towards minorities.

A flyer promoting a summer school in Catalan organised by the Generalitat (the autonomous government of Catalonia) in 1932.

Education was probably the main field in which the ‘battle for the hearts and minds’ of members of minority groups was fought. In all our cases, national cleavages went along with linguistic differentiation. Hence, education in the mother tongue was key to the preservation of the language and culture of the minority population (or the non-dominant group in the Flemish case). A clear distinction can be drawn between liberal and autocratic regimes. Both Spain under Primo de Rivera and Italy during the Fascist dictatorship of Benito Mussolini pursued a policy of forced assimilation of national minorities that is not to be found in liberal regimes. Both governments outlawed teaching in the minority language and imposed Italian/Spanish as the only language of instruction. The assimilationist effort, of course, affected also the teaching of history and geography, which came to be coloured with a distinctively Italian/Spanish nationalist flavour. However, contrary to Mussolini, Primo de Rivera did not aim at the complete disappearance of the minority language. In Catalonia, for instance, the number of newspapers and books produced in Catalan in fact increased and the regime funded studies on the Catalan language. Yet, Primo de Rivera conceived of Catalan as a regional folkloric language that did not have to constitute an obstacle on the way of the Castillanisation of the masses.

Liberal regimes behaved better towards their minorities. Yet, one can see in-built tendencies to assimilation even there. Liberal Italy died too soon to give a clear-cut judgment on its policy towards minorities, also because the seven governments that were in power between the end of the conflict and the March on Rome often acted confusedly and inconsistently with their new citizens. Yet, especially in Venetia Giulia, there were clear early attempts at Italianising the area by closing down schools in the minority language and dismissing teachers of Slav origins. Monarchic Spain, up to the beginning of the dictatorship in 1923, did not allow teaching in minority language in public schools. Yet, the early interwar period was a time of experimentation during which the first schools in the local language were opened up, especially in Catalonia. The situation improved considerably under the Second Republic (from 1931 to the beginning of the Civil War in 1936) and with the creation of the Generalitat (the Catalan autonomous government). Primary public schools in Barcelona taught pupils in their mother tongue and state schools in the rest of Catalonia introduced professorships in the Catalan language. Also, a parallel educational network in Catalan (financed by the Generalitat) was set up, while Catalan was used as a language of instruction in universities. The German minority in Belgium quickly obtained a status that, at least in principle, ensured the preservation of local identity. As a matter of fact, the territory of the Eastern Cantons was divided in two parts: Eupen and St Vith, that were mostly inhabited by German-speakers; and Malmedy, which was majority francophone. In the first area, German was the main language of instruction and French had to be taught as a second language from the 5th grade. The opposite occurred in the second area. Yet, a clause allowed schools to introduce the second language already from the first grade and it was extensively used, citing as a reason the need to prepare pupils to higher education (which was offered exclusively in French). In 1920, the government declared primary and secondary school diplomas obtained in Germany or Austria invalid in Belgium to stop the outflow of children being sent to study in the area of Aachen, beyond the border (a habit that existed already before the annexation).

This poster announced a protest against the Nolf Bill that partially Dutchified the University of Ghent. Here, Flemish-minded student complain about the ‘half-Dutchification’ of the institution.

The most interesting case of problematic majority-minority relations with regard to the use of language is probably that of Flanders. First, this case is interesting because the borders between majority and minority become blurred. From a demographic perspective, the Flemish population of Belgium was a majority, but from a sociological point of view it was a minority, since the state was dominated by francophone elites and French was the high-status language in the country. The interwar years are a time of transition in which the power imbalance between francophone and Dutch speakers came to be partially redressed. This appears clearly in the establishment, in 1930, of the first Dutch-speaking university in Ghent. Although one would struggle to find signs of deliberate attempts at the Frenchification of Flanders, the fact that the campaign to obtain state-funded university teaching in the language of the majority of the country lasted more than three decades, bears witness to the strong resistance opposed by francophone elites to the recognition of equality between French and Dutch in the country. Furthermore, while equality could have meant bilingualism throughout the country, regional monolingualism (Dutch in Flanders, French in Wallonia), with the exception of Brussels, prevailed. In other words, in the face of a situation in which no linguistic group could impose its own language on the other, segmentation along linguistic lines won over to the disadvantage of linguistic minorities in each region (the francophones in Flanders and the Flemings in Wallonia). Regional homogeneity was the price to be paid for unity and equality between Flemings and Walloon at the state level.

This apparently innocuous group of Italian engineers was making measurements in the area of Bolzano where an industrial zone designed to provide jobs for (pure) Italian workers would arise on land expropriated from German speakers.

In the area of the economy, the distinction between liberal and autocratic regimes is not so meaningful as with regard to education. Italy’s fascist regime excelled in discriminating against German and Slav-speakers. It forced them to close down their economic organisations (that it saw as inherently pursuing irredentist goals) and expropriated land owned by locals in order to colonise it with Italians from the so-called old provinces. In Spain, however, one does not find much evidence of such economic discrimination. This was probably due to the fact that the two major minority areas, Catalonia and the Basque Country, were by far the richest and most industrialised regions of Spain. Also, an important part of the Catalan bourgeoisie (even the moderately nationalist one) in fact supported Primo de Rivera’s putsch for ideological reasons—they hoped that it would curb the rise of the workers’ movement in Barcelona. Similarly, there is no evidence of major deliberate discriminatory policies in liberal regimes. Yet, economic discrimination occurred at the social level without the government intervening to redress it (or not sufficiently). This was the case with monolingual Dutch-speakers in Belgium. Business life in Flanders (as well as in the wider country) was dominated by French, which meant that knowledge of this language was essential for career advancement. Flemish speakers, who represented the majority of the population, had to learn French if they wanted to break the glass ceiling hovering over their heads since their childhood. More generally, in a country in which speaking Flemish was associated with being uneducated and poor, while speaking French marked somebody as belonging to the higher classes, there was considerable social pressure on individuals of Flemish origins to switch to French.

A picture of the fascist assault to the Narodni Dom (the social and cultural centre of the Slovenian community of Triest) in July 1920.

If one excludes the exceptional period of the Spanish Civil War, violence did not reach excessive proportions with clear episodes of ethnic cleansing. Yet, autocratic regimes did make use of violence both on their way to power and once in office. Italian Fascists in particular carried out violent raids against Slovene and Croatian speakers in Venetia Giulia (and to a much lower extent against German speakers in South Tyrol) in the period 1919-1922. The fire of the Slovenian National Cultural Centre in Triest (Narodni Dom) is probably the most extreme instance of this wider campaign conducted by the black shirts against the Slav minority. There were no episodes of deliberate violence against minorities during liberal regimes, but there is abundant evidence of substantial pressure being exercised by Belgian authorities on the population of Eupen and Malmedy during the so-called consultation. The Treaty of Versailles had imposed a plebiscite without secret ballot in order to confirm Belgium’s annexation of these two districts. The consultation lasted between January and June 1920. During those six months the inhabitants of the districts could sign registers held in the municipalities of Eupen and Malmedy to declare their opposition to the annexation. Both German and neutral observers denounced widespread intimidations on the part of Belgian officials.

Authors’ elaboration.

In the concluding part of the presentation, we tried to visually represent the policies of different regimes towards their minorities using an analytical framework based on two main axis: inclusion vs. exclusion and homogenisation vs. recognition. The first axis pertains to the possibility that the minority be considered part of the wider (state) political community. If this is not deemed to be possible, one obtains a series of segregationist policies, while on the contrary assimilation or integration prevails. The second axis refers to the recognition (or not) of national/cultural difference. Republican Spain and Belgium managed to provide both inclusion in the wider community (although to different levels) and recognition of difference (in Belgium that evolved substantially during the period). That is also the case with Liberal Italy, although to a lower extent than the two regimes above. In this respect, one also needs to differentiate between the policies pursued in South Tyrol and in Venetia Giulia. These three regimes mostly followed an integrationist approach. Monarchic Spain and Primo de Rivera’s dictatorship, on the contrary, showed much less tolerance for difference and can be therefore considered as having pursued pure assimilationist policies (although the latter to a much greater extent than the former). The main difference between Monarchic Spain and Liberal Italy is that public education in minority language was allowed in the latter, but not in the former. Finally, Fascist Italy followed an inherently ambiguous policy. On the one hand, it rhetorically proclaimed that the inhabitants of South Tyrol and Venetia Giulia were redeemed Italians, thus making clear the possibility (even asserting the inevitability) of their integration. On the other, however, fascist authorities strongly discriminated against members of these two minorities in different areas of social life and deeply mistrusted even those Slav or German speakers who showed commitment to the fascist party itself.

The Supreme Court of Spain in Madrid. @M.Peinado

During the evenings and in the afternoon following the end of the conference we could also take advantage of visiting the city of Madrid. A walk in the wonderful Parc del Buen Retiro continued into a stroll in the nearby upscale neighbourhood of Salesas. Wandering around, from one street to the other, we eventually ended up in front of the Supreme Court of Spain (Tribunal Supremo), where a trial against the leaders of the Catalan independence movement had just been closed ten days before. It was a powerful reminder that strained majority-minority relations in Europe are not a thing of the past.

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