Minorities in Contemporary and Historical Perspective: 1919-2020 and Beyond

The Minorities in Contemporary and Historical Perspectives Monthly Series comes to an end. Thanks to all our authors for their insightful contributions and to our readers for their attention.

In these days of looming confined holidays and mass vaccination campaigns, majority-minority relations might not strike as the topic of the day. However, several posts in our Minorities in Contemporary and Historical Perspective series suggest that cultural, linguistic and national differences in modern societies can still be a source of contention and often require setting up specific political arrangements to further positive inter-group relations. The first part of our series privileges an historical approach inquiring into the origins of minority questions and dissecting long-term trends in majority-minority relations.

Laura Robson starts off our discussion with a lucid piece about the establishment of the first minority protection regime by the League of Nations in 1919. Robson argues that, behind the smokescreen of minority rights, Great Power interest and colonial exploitation could be pursued under a veneer of international respectability. Hence, ‘new forms of informal authority and friendly client states’ were created at Versailles, which would eventually undermine the legitimacy of the League of Nations regime. In the Middle East, as well as in Eastern Europe, the transition from imperial sovereignties to the nationalist system sanctioned at the Paris Peace Conference unleashed strong homogenising dynamics. Focusing on the case of Christian minorities in French-Occupied Syria, Joel Veldkamp examines the ‘nationalist dilemma’ confronted by Syrian nation-builders. After having tried, unsuccessfully, to include Christian minorities in their nation-state-in-the-making project, these elites moved from persuasion to coercion, thus shattering any chance to build a cohesive Syrian nation (and generating a substantial amount of violence in the process).

As Yoav Peled shows, in Eastern Europe, Polish elites followed similar assimilationist templates. Confronted with a highly diverse country and willing to forge a cohesive nation-state, both dominant Polish parties (Endecja and Sanacja) ‘were determined to make Poland a homogeneous state in the shortest time possible’. Jewish and German minorities, among others, bore the brunt of this political programme, but ‘while assimilation of the Germans into Polish society was seen as unlikely, assimilation of the Jews was seen as undesirable’. Assimilation failed, but between 1939 and 1945 the linguistic and national heterogeneity of Polish society changed dramatically because of war, ethnic cleansing and genocide. Albeit much less diverse than in the previous two decades, at the end of the Second World War, Poland also acquired new territories formerly under German rule. John Kulczycki tells us how, in these putative ‘Recovered Lands’, Polish authorities set out to sort ‘true Poles’ from ‘Germans’. Recovering ‘Polish souls’ became a national priority, albeit one for which officers tasked with inquiring into the ethnic nature of the inhabitants of these regions received few guidelines. After about two years of mass expulsion, the Polish Ministry of the Recovered Lands had to recognise ‘the impossibility of creating an objective criterion that would differentiate a German from an autochthon’. As the Polish case suggests, in interwar Europe minorities became an ‘issue’ mostly because majorities felt insecure about the latter’s loyalty to the institutions of the state, which these majorities felt as their own. Chris Davis then historicises the minority question in interwar Romanian Transylvania as a ‘majority problem’, ‘namely that there were too few Romanians, living too far apart, in a region far too important’. To solve this problem, Romanian anthropologists and historians found a creative solution. Armed with presumably scientific data, they asserted that the sizable Hungarian-speaking population of Transylvania ‘possessed a Romanian ethnogenesis’ and had simply been ‘denationalised’ during centuries of Hungarian rule. Against the background of these theories, assimilation in fact became ‘renationalisation’ and minority rights could be all too easily ignored.

The second half of our series moves from historical analysis to contemporary affairs. Ferran Requejo illuminates the old and recent causes of the considerable rise of demands for independence in Catalonia since 2010. Discussing different factors, ranging from economic to identity variables, Requejo concludes that ‘lack of national recognition and accommodation shown by the Spanish state has played a decisive role in causing the predominant Catalan demands to shift from being regionalist or pro-autonomy towards secessionism’. Whatever the outcome of the current tensions between the Catalan and Spanish executive, the Catalan case constitutes an unavoidable reference for the study of self-determination processes in Europe. Adopting a similar mix of historical and political science analysis, Brian Girvin dissects 100 years of majority-minority relations in Northern Ireland. Girvin explains how, by undermining the very concepts of majority and minority, the Good Friday Agreement promoted consensus and cooperation between the Protestant and Catholic communities in Northern Ireland. It created a ‘consociational model for power sharing, political cooperation and conflict resolution’ that put the two nationalities on equal terms. Despite its remarkable success, however, demographic changes and Brexit risk unsettling the balance achieved at the end of the 1990s.

Our series concludes with three blogs stemming from a very fruitful collaboration with the Centre on Constitutional Change. Writing about Scotland, Michael Keating argues that Scots are not usually seen as a national minority identifying with a kin-state elsewhere but as a minority nation within a plurinational union. Keating explains that ‘Scottish politics have become more self-referential and detached from the British level’, with the COVID-19 crisis allowing the Scottish Government to occupy the main political space. Yet, Scottish independence is not inevitable. Even in the event of independence, Scotland would remain a small nation nested in larger systems of regulation and policy-making. Judith Sijstermans details how dominant strands of Flemish nationalism have incorporated populist narratives and how this populist turn has led to the adoption of an identitarian approach.  Sijstermans explains how, in Vlaams Belang’s rhetoric, ‘Flemish autonomy from the Belgian state is interwoven with an anti-elite search for autonomy from broader local and international “elite” who are portrayed as corrupt, anti-democratic, and in opposition to the Flemish volk (people)’. Finally, Patrick Utz dissects the complex and multi-layered nature of national identities in South Tyrol, suggesting that they underpin the success of its consociational institutional design. Utz explains that new forms of regionalism are allowing for a patchwork of identities that combine reinterpretations of historic elements with newly emerging alliances. The SVP offers an illuminating example: the party has become more vocal in portraying both Austria and South Tyrol as ‘motherland’ while promoting a ‘European Region of Tyrol’ as part of the European Union’s cross-border initiatives.

We hope that you have enjoyed the series and we encourage you to continue the discussion commenting on our posts. You will find a full list here.

We thank all our authors for their inspiring contributions; the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, the Centre on Constitutional Change, and the Swiss National Science Foundation for their support; H-Nationalism, in particular David Prior, for giving us the opportunity to run the series on their platform; and all our readers for their attention. A special thanks also goes to Mona Bieling, Alessandro Ambrosino and Davide Rodogno for their fundamental help.

Hoping that 2021 will be a less eventful and more cheerful year, we wish you all the best!

Emmanuel Dalle Mulle and Daniel Cetrà

The Minorities in Contemporary and Historical Perspective series is organized by the Myth of Homogeneity Research Project at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva, and the Centre on Constitutional Change at the University of Edinburgh.

For more information, please visit:

https://themythofhomogeneity.org/

https://www.centreonconstitutionalchange.ac.uk/

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