Transnational Minority Actors and Global Spain

The converging and diverging trajectories of Joan Estelrich and Josip Vilfan discussed at a Conference in Santiago de Compostela

On 9-10 June 2022, the research project La España global: identitades españolas en prospectiva transnacional organised a workshop at the University of Santiago de Compostela to discuss transnational historical research involving Spanish actors, identities and processes. The event allowed presenting results from the Myth of Homogeneity project about the transnational activities of minority representatives in interwar Europe. More specifically, Emmanuel examined the converging and diverging trajectories of the Catalan-Spanish nationalist leader Joan Estelrich and the Slovenian-Italian minority representative Josip Vilfan, both prominent members of the interwar Congress of European Nationalities, as a prism to reflect upon the entanglements between the study of minorities and transnational history.

At the core of the concept of transnationalism there is an idea of border crossing. More often than not, the border that is being crossed is that of the nation-state. Emmanuel’s presentation did engage with cross-border activities that challenged state jurisdictions, but also tried to extend the notion of transnationalism to the trespassing of regional and identity boundaries. Coming from countries beyond the remit of the minority protection system of the League of Nations and acting, for a considerable part of their lives, within repressive authoritarian regimes, Estelrich and Vifan eagerly engaged in transnational minority networks as a way to promote an internationalisation and reinforcement of interwar minority protection. In many ways, their story is one of successful collaboration. Yet, from the mid-1930s, their trajectories diverged considerably. While Vilfan remained a staunch supporter of transnational cooperation and of the work of the CEN, Estelrich drifted towards domestic engagement within the institutions of the Spanish Republic first, and transnational activity on Franco’s side later. However, despite their apparent glaring differences, both Estelrich and Vilfan had to confront similar painful dilemmas of collaboration and betrayal generated by their minority advocacy that forced them not only to cross state borders, but also to redefine the boundaries of their reference communities and severe previous bonds of loyalty.

Beyond the relevance of Estelrich’s and Vilfan’s transnational trajectories for the history of minority-majority relations in interwar Europe, the paper proposed two broader reflections on the nature of transnational history and the state of the current historiography that centred on questioning both the trans and the national in transnational. To be begin with the national, most of the historiography focuses on the national as the nation-state. Yet any scholar familiar with the nationalism studies literature knows that the nation and the nation-state never coincide. This is all the more glaring when it comes to minority populations who do not identify with the state they live in. Hence, the presentation proposed considering the everyday life of people identifying as national minorities within their state of citizenship as a transnational experience in and for itself, even if this everyday experience does not involve crossing the border of any nation-state. Concerning the trans, the paper explored, although still in very tentative form, the possibility that the crossing activity implied in this term might actually occur in the mind of historical actors, rather than in their physical whereabouts. In other words, examining the many identification dilemmas, twists and turns in Estelrich’s and Vilfan’s lives, the paper proposed to explore the concept of transnational interior processes. Stay tuned for future updates.

Migration as a Tool of National Homogenisation

In interwar fascist Italy migration, both internal and external, turned into a tool of national homogenisation of borderland minority areas

On 7 June 2022, Emmanuel gave a lecture (whose video is available here) at the University of Neuchâtel within the framework of the Migration History Talks series co-organised by this university and the Swiss National Centre of Competence in Research—The Migration Mobility Nexus (NCCR on the Move). It was a great opportunity to present results from the Myth of Homogeneity project about the Italian case, notably on the nexus between homogenisation and migration.

Italy has historically been known as a country of emigration. The state’s laissez-faire approach
towards outward migration, as well as its diaspora policies, have widely been studied. However,
it is less known that during the fascist dictatorship (1922–43) migration was used as a tool to
promote the homogenisation of the minority populations inhabiting the provinces of South Tyrol and
Venezia Giulia. In this presentation, Emmanuel showed how, being unsure about the legitimacy of their sovereignty over these borderlands, fascist authorities promoted land colonisation, surreptitiously encouraged emigration among members of the Slovenian/Croatian minority, and in 1939 signed an agreement with Germany that forced Tyroleans to choose whether they wanted to become German citizens and emigrate north of the Brenner or stay in Italy and become ‘true’ Italians.

This escalation of coercive uses of migration to homogenise the borderlands annexed at the end of the Great War failed. For the historian, they are an unmistakable reflection of the ‘consistent ambivalence’ that marked the fascist approach to the country’s national minorities throughout the interwar years. On the one hand, fascist authorities shared a rhetoric whereby assimilation was inevitable. The Italian ‘civilisation’ was deemed to be so powerful that no minority group would resist its assimilative spell. On the other hand, the fascists fundamentally distrusted the members of the two minorities that it wanted to incorporate within the body of the nation. The allogeni, the term used by the fascists to indicate Italian citizens of non-Italian origins, were thus kept in a limbo of forced assimilation and latent segregation that further reduced the effectiveness of the assimilative measures adopted by the regime.

The Wilsonian Moment in Catalonia, Flanders and South Tyrol

Or how sub-state national mobilisation occurred, but it was more fleeting than minority nationalist leaders would have hoped for

On the 100th anniversary of the Paris Peace Conference, in 2019, Emmanuel and Mona presented a paper at the 29th Annual Conference of the Association for the Study of Ethnicity and Nationalism (ASEN) examining whether there was a ‘Wilsonian Moment in Western Europe’. A revised version of that paper has now been accepted for publication in European History Quarterly and it is due to appear online and in print in 2023. The paper entitled ‘Autonomy over Independence: Self-Determination in Catalonia, Flanders and South Tyrol in the Aftermath of the Great War’ (and available in pre-print here) fills an important gap in the historiography of self-determination in the immediate post-WWI period.

While the impact of the post-war spread of self-determination on the re­­drawing of Eastern European borders and on the claims of colonial independence movements has been extensively researched, the international historiography has paid little attention to minority nationalist movements in Western Europe. Focusing on three regions (Catalonia, Flanders and South Tyrol) that experienced considerable substate national mobilisation between the world wars, Emmanuel and Mona inquire into whether the leaders of Western European minorities and stateless nations shared the same enthusiasm as their anti-colonial and Eastern European counterparts for the new international order that self-determination seemed to foreshadow in the months following the end of the Great War. Since President Woodrow Wilson stood out as the most prominent purveyor of the new international legitimacy of self-determination, the article further examines how Western European nationalist movements exploited Wilson’s image and advocacy to achieve their own goals.

Emmanuel and Mona conclude that nationalist forces in Catalonia, Flanders and South Tyrol initially mobilised self-determination and referred to Wilson as a symbol of national liberation, but this instrumentalisation of self-determination was not sustained. Large-scale mobilisation occurred only in Catalonia and, even there, it disappeared almost overnight in spring 1919. Furthermore, substate nationalist movements in Western Europe tended to mobilise self-determination to gain regional autonomy, rather than full independence, thus pursuing internal, not external, self-determination. The willingness of these movements to privilege autonomy over full independence made them more receptive to compromise solutions and radical forces became stronger only in the 1930s, largely for reasons not directly connected to the post-war mobilisation around self-determination.

In other words, the wave of unprecedented international legitimacy for national self-determination claims inaugurated at the end of WWI did extend to Western Europe. It was not a uniform phenomenon, but a mix of different local attempts to mobilise the new language of self-determination that however did not last as long, and were not as powerful, as the leaders of Western European minority nationalist movements would have wished.