Some Thoughts on the Origins of the Post-WWI Minorities Regime

We are proud to publish here the first post of our “Minorities in Contemporary and Historical Perspectives” series, which looks at majority-minority relations in a multi-disciplinary and diachronic perspective. Today’s contribution, by Professor Laura Robson (Portland State University), provides some considerations on the origin, nature and purpose of the Minorities Regime established by the Great Powers at the end of the First World War. The series is a collaboration with H-Nationalism.

The treaties of Versailles, Sèvres, San Remo, and Lausanne are sometimes conceived as the beginnings of a new kind of international rights regime, prefiguring the legal edifice of “human rights” that began to emerge after 1945 and eventually became a central aspect of Cold War internationalism. And indeed, the treaty arrangements of the postwar period did collectively produce a new language of international diplomacy that replaced a nineteenth century imperial discourse of “civilization” and “race” with a twentieth century discourse of rights: in particular, the rights of minorities, which came to stand as a representation of a new and theoretically more politically equitable global order. But this rhetoric did not actually signal the birth of a new political system. It served instead as a kind of code, intended to veil the old-fashioned militarism of this new form of extractive empire and to put in place procedures for reinforcing, without acknowledging, the racial hierarchies that underlay the system’s careful differentiation of sovereign rights across the globe. In other words, the peace agreements of 1919-1923 represented an attempt to appropriate an emerging language of national rights, and especially minority rights, for the purpose of maintaining an older imperial order. 

In 1919, the architects of the peace agreements who came together at Versailles faced a fundamental problem. They had spent the last four years fighting a war that was essentially in defense of more or less permanent imperial expansion, but whose trajectory had inadvertently led to a considerable strengthening of anti-imperialism across the globe – particularly in the Bolshevik sphere, where Lenin was making declarations of withdrawal from Russia’s imperial commitments as a way of winning adherents to his cause. So the question for the peacemakers – particularly representatives of Britain and France, who were absolutely determined to make their brutal four years pay dividends – was how to reconcile the anti-colonial feeling of the day with their undiminished imperial ambitions. Facing this difficulty, the political and diplomatic leaders of the old “Great Powers” began envisioning a new global order comprised of self-consciously modern, theoretically sovereign states under the continued economic and political authority of the old imperial powers.

The first “rights” frameworks to emerge were the multiple minorities treaties signed with the new states emerging out of the shatterzones of the Ottoman, Russian, and Austro-Hungarian empires. All modeled after the first treaty signed with Poland at Versailles in 1919, they called for equal rights for all citizens, the free exercise of religion and cultural practice, and some mechanisms for protecting cultural distinctiveness. Though they agreed on little else, representatives of the United States, France, and Britain all concurred that the League must not guarantee universal protections for minorities that would apply in their own metropoles; and so the treaties were limited to the “new or immature states of Eastern Europe or Western Asia” – thereby deliberately enshrining the idea that minority communities represented a legitimate site of external intervention into the affairs of theoretically sovereign but less “civilized” nations.[1] In other words, they deployed the emerging concept of minority as a new legitimization of an old practice: Great Power political, economic, and military intervention in the Balkans and beyond.[2]

Simultaneously and relatedly, the Allied architects of the peace treaties declared that the post-war project of drawing new maps would reflect national interests – thus hopefully appeasing nationalist sentiment while reserving the right to construct new states in ways that would support ongoing imperial ambitions. Arguments over the shape and demographic makeup of Poland, Hungary, and Romania – among many others – were cloaked in a rights-based language about self-determination and nationhood, but actually represented Allied efforts to isolate Germany and construct a cordon sanitaire between themselves and the Bolsheviks.[3] In the Treaty of Lausanne, signed in 1923, this imperially sponsored construction of nationality was taken to a new level. Lausanne formalized what was euphemistically called a “population exchange” between the new revolutionary Turkish government of Mustafa Kemal and Eleftherios Venizelos’ Greek administration, forcibly denationalizing approximately 1.2 million Anatolian “Greeks” and 350,000 Muslim “Turks” under the aegis of the League of Nations. This 1923 exchange confirmed the post-war Allied commitment to deploying a language of “national rights” and minority protection to support the political and, especially, economic interests of their own empires. Fridtjof Nansen expressed the combination of these criteria precisely in a statement to the Commission in 1922, saying that the “Great Powers” supported the exchange because “to unmix the populations of the Near East … is the quickest and most efficacious way of dealing with the grave economic results [of the war].”[4]

In other words, the appearance of a new discourse of minority rights – and its corollary, minority “exchange” – in the post-WWI treaties was almost entirely instrumentalist. Its primary rationale was not to protect minorities in Eastern Europe or the Ottoman sphere but to smooth the path for imperial powers to create new forms of informal authority and friendly client states for a new postcolonial era. As Mark Sykes – co-author of the infamous Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916 – wrote during the 1919 peace conference, “Imperialism, annexation, military triumph, prestige, White man’s burdens, have been expunged from the popular political vocabulary, consequently Protectorates, spheres of interest or influence, annexations, bases etc., have to be consigned to the Diplomatic lumber-room.”[5] Luckily, it seemed, the rhetoric of national – and especially minority – rights that was gaining such currency around the globe would substitute nicely.

Laura Robson is Professor of history at Portland State University in Portland, Oregon. Her most recent books are States of Separation: Transfer, Partition, and the Making of the Modern Middle East(University of California Press, 2017) and the edited volume Partitions: A Transnational History of 20th Century Territorial Separatism (with Arie Dubnov; Stanford University Press, 2019).

Scholars interested in contributing to the series can contact:

Emmanuel Dalle Mulle:

Mona Bieling:

[1] Albania, Austria, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Estonia, Greece, Hungary, Iraq, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Turkey, and Yugoslavia.

[2] And fitting into a much longer practice of international diplomacy that sought to formalize relations among the “three elements of the international legal order” identified by legal historian Nathaniel Berman: “(1) a substantively grounded international community … ; (2) sovereigns, whose ‘potency’ and ‘serenity’ are periodically reimagined; (3) those viewed as not full participants in the community of sovereigns, those ‘Vassals, Subjects, People.’ ” See Nathaniel Berman, Passion and Ambivalence: Colonialism, Nationalism, and International Law (Leiden: Nijhoff Publishers, 2012), 58.

[3] Carole Fink, Defending the Rights of Others: The Great Powers, The Jews, and International Minority Protection, 1878-1938 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 119.

[4] Great Britain, Parliamentary Papers, Turkey No. 1 (1923) Lausanne Conference on Near Eastern Affairs, 1922-1923 (Cmd. 1814) (London: HMSO, 1923), 117.

[5] Sykes, “Our Position in Mesopotamia in Relation to the Spirit of the Age,” FO 800/22. The full document is also reprinted in Helmut Mejcher, The Imperial Quest for Oil: Iraq 1910-1928 (London: Middle East Centre, St. Antony’s College, 1976), appendix 2.

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