National Indifference and Instrumental Nationalism in Western Europe

The Myth of Homogeneity at the Po-His Seminar in Antwerp

Interwar European debates about national conflicts and the preservation of peace were awash with discussions about minority questions and the threat that their mismanagement posed to the preservation of the international order established in Paris. Does that justify treating majorities and minorities as homogenous entities in conflict, or at least in tension, during this period? Although it is clear that at the level of elite discourses and state and international policy there were minority questions in interwar Europe, does this allow us to conclude that European populations were neatly divided into self-conscious majorities and minorities?

On 20 April Emmanuel discussed issues of nationalisation, national indifference and instrumental nationalism in Belgium, Italy and Spain at a session of the weekly seminar of the Power in History (Po-His) research centre at the University of Antwerp. The paper entitled Within Minorities: Repertoires of Instrumental Nationalism in Interwar Western Europe is a draft chapter of the monograph on minority questions in interwar western Europe that Emmanuel is currently writing. The chapter challenges the homogeneity of minority groups in Belgium, Italy and Spain. It explores fluid identities among the populations living in minority areas, often caught between the opposing injunctions of state authorities and minority organisations. The chapter stresses how the boundaries dividing minorities and majorities were unstable and in flux. However, it also shows that in the interwar period, the ‘space’ for indifference towards questions of nationhood and belonging progressively shrunk.

The chapter builds upon and simultaneously moves away from the national indifference framework that since the mid-2000s has dominated studies on nationalism from below. It relies on a conception of nationhood as a property distributed with different degrees of intensity among the individuals of a specific population. While some individuals hold nationhood at the very core of their priorities and have a principled commitment to defending the national cause, others take more instrumental positions on the matter, which favour flexible patterns of behaviour that prioritise alternative, or compatible, forms of identification. Following a distinction proposed by Brendan Karch, the chapter inquires into the chasm between ‘“instrumental” social attitudes towards the nation and “value-driven” nationalism’. Instrumentally-minded actors ‘balanced national loyalties against a field of other commitments and values’, while value-driven activists pursued their national goals ‘nearly regardless of the means necessary to achieve them’.

The chapter applies this framework to different contexts in interwar western Europe. It first looks at the years immediately after the First World War and gauges the degree of mobilisation of minority societies in the context of the so-called Wilsonian Moment, when transnational activists attempted to lobby the great powers and other actors at the Paris Peace Conference in favour of their region’s self-determination, while hoping to rallying the local population in these areas behind their cause. It then moves the gaze to the defence of education in minority language at the regional level in democratic Belgium, especially in the late 1920s and during the 1930s, and in liberal and republican Spain, i.e. before the dictatorship of Miguel Primo de Rivera (in 1923) and during the Second Republic (1931-1936). The chapter examines how ordinary people’s behaviour often frustrated nationalist activists, who wanted to expand the use of minority languages within the school system. Finally, the chapter focuses on the very different context of Mussolini’s dictatorship in Italy and attempts to elucidate how people deemed to belong to minority groups in South Tyrol and Venezia Giulia navigated daily life in the fascist dictatorship through strategies of acceptance, acquiescence, and even enthusiastic collaboration.

Despite the absence of a unique pattern of mobilisation, interwar western European minorities were hardly self-conscious homogenous entities. Even if in most areas cultural and linguistic differentiation from the national majority supposed to identify with and control the state provided potential for national mobilisation, this never automatically translated into political activism. Ordinary people still had room for navigating between competing and complementary self-understandings, related to and beyond nationhood. Yet utter indifference to nationhood became ever more difficult in the radicalised climate of the late 1930s.

The paper received in-depth feedback from the participants in the seminar and Emmanuel is now working on a new version.