Sovereignty, Nationalism and the Quest for Homogeneity in Interwar Europe is Out

The volume is available in hardback and in open access online

Were European empires ‘prisons of nations’? Did minority questions exist exclusively in eastern Europe during the interwar years? How did ordinary people in minority regions navigate conflicting forms of national identification? How did minority representatives mobilise support for minority rights transnationally? In fourteen chapters, Sovereignty, Nationalism and the Quest for Homogeneity in Interwar Europe answers these and other questions.

Proposing an unusual juxtaposition, the first part of the volume examines three empires (Austria-Hungary, the United Kingdom, and the Ottoman Empire) that, although on different scales, experienced crisis and partition at the end of the Great War. Pieter Judson shows how imperial forms of governance in the Austrian part of the Habsburg Empire gave more space to people to speak their preferred language and to embrace a wider array of self-understandings than the nation-states that followed. The United Kingdom is often examined as a nation-state rather than a union state. By contrast, Alvin Jackson considers it as a composite monarchy and dissects the centrifugal and centripetal forces that led to Britain’s partial break-up, but also to its survival after the First World War. Erol Ülker closes this first part of the volume by examining majority-minority relations in the Ottoman Empire from 1908 to 1923. He concludes that Turkish policies toward non-Turkish minorities were more complex and varied than recognised by traditional accounts.

The second part of the book studies comparatively minority policies in interwar Europe. It demonstrates that minority questions were debated throughout the continent and that the allegedly ‘civilised’ West did not treat minorities more liberally than the supposedly ‘backward’ East. Volker Prott compares violence in Alsace-Lorraine and Asia Minor. He highlights how a temptation to coercively homogenise populations was inherent in the post-war international order, but also identifies factors that restrained large-scale violence. Then, Mona and Emmanuel consider Belgium, Italy, and Spain as nationalising states. They show how these countries adopted homogenising policies with varying degrees of coercion and thus debunk some lingering myths of populations’ homogeneity in interwar western Europe. Marina Germane examines minority policies and mobilisation in Latvia, Poland, and Romania. Following German and Jewish representatives, she investigates the limits of domestic mobilisation and how disillusion pushed activists to move their activities from domestic arenas to the transnational sphere. In the last chapter of this part of the book, Sabine Dullin dissects the USSR’s double-edged nationality policy. She argues that the Soviets promoted national cultures throughout the Union, but also saw minorities as dangerous fifth columns and targets of collective punishment and forced displacement.

Part three of the book examines from the bottom-up processes of identification in different European contexts. It builds upon, but also challenges the national indifference framework. The chapter in this part emphasise how the space for indifference shrank in an increasingly nationalising interwar Europe. Olga Linkiewicz zooms in on rural conflicts in eastern Poland during the 1924 language plebiscite. She shows how peasants behaved in accordance with the principles of a vernacular cosmology that defies easy categorisation as either national indifference or full Polish nationalisation. Brian Hughes explores strategies of everyday resistance among loyalists during and after the Irish Revolution. He dissects the meaning of loyalism, as well as dynamics of integration and assimilation within an increasingly Catholic and Gaelic Irish Republic. Alison Carrol closes this part of the book revisiting Alsace’s return to France. She explores how different groups within Alsatian society pushed the state to adopt flexible policies of integration that created unexpected spaces for alternative understandings of identity.

Part four of the volume follows minority representatives across borders and gauges their efforts to lobby foreign governments, international organisations and the broader international community in favour of the defence of minority rights. Xosé Manoel Nuñez Seixas and David Smith map transnational networks of minority rights advocacy across Europe. They identify the emergence of a transnational nationality theory that, despite its failure, constituted an alternative to the model of the homogenous nation-state in interwar Europe. Jane Cowan explores the triangular, asymmetric and non-reciprocal relation between the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), Bulgarian and Macedonian female activists and the male-dominated League of Nations. She shows how, in their interactions, these actors navigated hierarchies of gender, class, race, and civilisation.

Omer Bartov closes the book with a broad-ranging coda on the ‘conundrum of national indifference’. National indifference, he argues, rightly reminds us to be sceptical of the arguments of nationalist zealots. The history of the 20th century, as well as the recent Russian aggression of Ukraine, equally reminds us that we downplay the power of nationalism at our own peril. As Bartov and many other contributors suggest, although nationhood was not the only form of identification in interwar Europe, or the most important, the space for indifference shrank considerably between the two World Wars, in Poland and Romania, but also in Italy, France and Ireland.

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Fascism, Minorities and Ambivalence

An article of the MoH Team in The Historical Journal

Source: Christoph von Hartungen, Fabrizio Miori, and Tiziano Rosani, eds., Le lettere aperte 1939–1943: L’Alto Adige delle opzioni (2 vols., Bolzano, 2006).

You have probably never heard of the 1939 Option Agreement between fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. Yet the agreement was the first population transfer agreement in western Europe. Emmanuel and Alessandro have decided to take a new look at this neglected event of interwar European history from the perspective of how the fascist regime conceived minorities and their assimilation in Italy.

Studying the 1939 Option Agreement offers a unique opportunity to shift the focus of the historiography on interwar minority questions from eastern to western Europe, thus challenging the lingering view of eastern Europe as a land of endemic ethnic heterogeneity and conflict. Furthermore, the 1939 Option illuminates a form of ‘consistent ambivalence’ that problematises dominant analytical frameworks concerning the management of ethnic differences. Indeed, Italian fascists consistently affirmed the inevitable assimilation, and therefore inclusion, of minorities within the Italian nation. At the same time, they also deeply distrusted the allogeni (the fascist term to refer to people considered as Italian citizens of non-Italian ethnic origin). This ambivalent attitude reached a climax in the 1939 Option. Hence in order to understand fascist behaviour during the implementation of the agreement, Emmanuel and Alessandro argues that we need to consider the longer history of fascist attempts to homogenise the new provinces since the onset of the dictatorship.

Three features structured these attempts: a belief that the assimilation of these minorities would be inevitable; the absence of means to carry out radical solutions; and a deep-seated distrust of the minorities. Fascist policy during the Option was simultaneously more ambivalent than the current historiography suggests and more consistent with the regime’s interwar homogenisation policies. The fascists, in wanting to include the populations living in South Tyrol and Venezia Giulia, believed that the minorities’ assimilation to the Italian nation was inevitable. However, the regime could not fully overcome its deeply rooted mistrust of the allogeni. Whereas assimilation was the declared and desired goal of Italian authorities, their distrust of the minorities living in the new provinces placed the latter in a liminal state of simultaneous forceful inclusion and latent segregation. Despite being coerced to adopt the cultural script of the majority, the allogeni were marginalised in a way that finds little echo in existing analytical frameworks on the management of ethnic differences.

Although the regime was not monolithic and there were disagreements between fascist officers about the approach to follow in South Tyrol and Venezia Giulia, the consistent ambivalence examined in this article reveals a patterned behaviour that was prevalent throughout the interwar period. In broader terms, the article challenges the traditional eastern European focus of the literature on the League of Nations, self-determination, and the rise of minority questions after the First World War. It shows that state authorities in the supposedly homogeneous and ‘civilised’ West did face minority questions and adopted harsh homogenising policies that, however, did not produce the expected results.

The article is available in open access at