Was there a ‘Wilsonian Moment’ in Western Europe?

A tale of enthusiasm, disappointment and the wild haggis!

Original photo by the US Signal Corps

Over the past few weeks, our team has been on the move, visiting Scotland, Belgium, Finland, England and Spain in just two months. The first destination of our ‘European Tour’ was Edinburgh, where Mona and Emmanuel presented a paper at the 2019 General Conference of the Association for the Studies of Ethnicity and Nationalism (ASEN). Usually held at the London School of Economics, this year’s ASEN Conference addressed the topic of self-determination in both a historical and contemporary perspective. Now, some of you are probably wondering: wouldn’t this be a perfect occasion to present some preliminary results about the impact President Wilson’s rhetoric of self-determination had on Western European minority movements? Well, you’re right! That’s exactly what we did.

If you have ever read Erez Manela’s The Wilsonian Moment: Self-Determination and the Origins of Anti-Colonial Nationalism, you probably know that by ‘Wilsonian Moment’ Manela means the months between the Autumn of 1918 and the Spring of 1919, when

‘the American president became for millions worldwide the icon and most prominent exponent of the vision, which many others shared, of a just international society based on the principle of self-determination. His name, and in many cases also his image, came to symbolize and encapsulate those ideas, and Wilson appeared, for a brief but crucial moment, to be the herald of a new era in international affairs’.

Manela’s is a story of enthusiasm and disappointment. Anti-colonial leaders seized the opportunity to capitalise on the new legitimacy acquired by self-determination in international politics to bolster their claims for autonomy or independence. However, before long, it became obvious that the reluctance of European empires to divest themselves of their colonial possessions outmatched Wilson’s zeal for a world of free, self-determining nations. In other words, the American President had committed to a principle whose larger implications he was not ready to accept (and that he had not fully anticipated). This bred resentment and, in following months, radicalisation among many an anti-colonial movement.

The main point of our paper was to apply Manela’s framework to the Western European post-Great War context. In what ways did local minority leaders harness the language of self-determination to advance their own calls for autonomy or independence? Did they follow events in other territories characterised by sub-state national mobilisation? Did they send petitions to Paris? And, in the face of the Great Powers’ refusal to take their demands seriously, did Western European regional leaders radicalise their agendas?

We presented our paper in a panel entitled ‘The influence of Wilsonian self-determination in the interwar period’ where Volker Prott, from Aston University (Birmingham), explored the ways in which the principle of self-determination can fuel violent homogenising drives against minorities and Charles-Philippe Curtois, from the Collège militaire royal de Saint-Jean (Quebec), proposed to consider the years 1919-1920 as a new major turnaround in the history of Quebec nationalism, as important as the much more studied Quiet Revolution of the 1960s.

Our paper examined how Catalan, South Tyrolean and Flemish nationalist actors (mostly organisations claiming to represent the minority) reacted to Wilson’s promotion of self-determination.

In the Autumn of 1918, in Catalonia, Wilson was hailed by many as a symbol of a more just international order and as a guarantee that Catalan demands for autonomy (which had already been voiced before the war) would be heard. As a result, Catalan nationalist parties (headed by the Lliga Regionalista) launched a massive campaign for the autonomy of the region. Catalan demands eventually did not meet the favour of the Spanish Parliament, which in a heated debate held in December 1919 made vague promises of administrative devolution. Strangely enough, this failed mobilisation did not lead to immediate radicalisation, although it did strengthen some separatist fringes within the wider nationalist movement.

A 1918 issue of the Catalan magazine El Messidor picturing President Wilson as a symbol of international justice.

In South Tyrol demands for self-determination went along with efforts to influence the Great Powers negotiating the future of the region at Versailles. South Tyrolean representatives sent several petitions to Wilson, asking him not to allow the separation of North and South Tyrol. Tyrolean nationalist actors were willing to discuss different solutions (from an independent state, to joining Austria or Germany, to even becoming an autonomous region within Italy) in order to keep the unity of the area. While at the beginning of the Wilsonian moment, the American President was portrayed as a Messiah in the Tyrolean press, he rapidly fell into disgrace when it became clear that he was ready to condone Italy’s annexation of South Tyrol. At the same time, after the Treaty of St. Germain had been signed, in September 1919, South Tyrolean leaders quite pragmatically initiated talks with Italian authorities to obtain autonomy within their new Kingdom. No signs of radicalisation were to be seen in the immediate post-war period.

A summary of the most important memorandum sent by South Tyrolean leaders to President Wilson in February 1919, Landesarchiv Tirol, Referat S, 24/16 Kampf um Südtirol B/1

Hence, in both Catalonia and South Tyrol, we do see a Wilsonian moment, but also a quite superficial one, in the sense that both nationalist movements seemed to come to terms with the failure of their drives for self-determination and to seek alternative peaceful strategies to reach their goals in the longer term. Some forms of radicalisation did occur later (especially in the 1930s and without leading to violent struggle), but such radicalisation was driven by other factors.

Where we do not see a Wilsonian moment is in Flanders. There, after the war, the mainstream nationalist movement fought for the so-called minimum programme formulated by the Catholic Flemish leader Frans Van Cauwelaert, which involved equality in law and practice between French and Flemish in the administration, education, the courts and the army. This nationalist programme notwithstanding, the movement did not call for autonomy or independence and did not make use of Wilson’s rhetoric. Only a tiny minority of radical nationalists who collaborated with German authorities during the War, the so-called activists, resorted to the language of self-determination to build their case for Flemish autonomy within the Belgian state. Yet, their claim was not representative of the wider movement (although calls for autonomy and even independence grew stronger and more widespread in the 1930s). The ambiguous minority nature of the Flemish nationalist movement in the interwar years (a movement representing a non-dominant demographic majority speaking a low-status language in a state still dominated by francophone elites, and therefore acting in many context as a sociological minority) most likely accounts for this major difference with regard to the other cases.

The cover page of the published version of the petition sent to Wilson by Flemish ‘activists’ in 1919.

The Conference was also the occasion to meet new and old colleagues, plan future collaborations and get a taste of Scottish culture and cuisine. It is in this context, that our visit to Edinburgh turned into a hunt to find the fascinating and elusive wild haggis: a mysterious being supposedly inhabiting the harsh and beautiful Scottish countryside. Our quest was unsuccessful, but, luckily, we did profit from somebody else’s fortune and got to savour the haggis’ exquisite meat. At some point, during dinner, some questioned the existence of this shy, introverted creature, even suggesting that having merely been invented by the good-humoured Scots to poke fun at gullible foreigners. An awkward silence followed, broken by loud laughter at this implausible idea.

The mysterious wild haggis.

All our thanks to the organisers of the conference for the wonderful work they did!

The Battle for the Italianisation of Space

The Italian assimilation of South Tyrol did not only mean the transformation (or for the fascist regime rather the ‘redemption’) of the local German-speaking population into ‘true’ Italians, but also the Italianisation of the space. It thus comes with little surprise that, as shown in the public announcement pictured below, one of the first measures undertaken by the fascists consisted in prohibiting the use of the German terms Süd-Tirol, Deutschsüdtirol, Tirol, Tiroler and equivalent. The Italian appellation Alto Adige (Upper Adige, from the name of the river crossing it) was imposed instead. The main issue was not so much the language used to name the region, since, albeit only as a ‘temporary’ measure and for reasons of ‘tolerance’, the German equivalent of Alto Adige, Oberetsch,was allowed. It was rather a matter of perspective.

The imposition of the term “Alto Adige”, the temporary tolerance of the terms “Oberetsch” and “Etschländer” as well as the prohibition of the use of the names “Süd-Tirol”, “Deutschsüdtirol”, “Tirol” and “Tiroler” are highlighted in red. The document is held in Archivio Storico Diplomatico, Affari generali 1919-31, Austria, Box 835.

Imposing the name of Alto Adige meant enforcing the Italian view of the province as inherently Italian, since it visually stressed the stretching of Italian territory from South to North along the river Adige and therefore emphasised the continuity of Italian ownership of the land. At the same time, forbidding the use of the name Süd-Tirol aimed at severing any link between North and South Tyrol, thus erasing by fiat several centuries of common history of the two areas on each sides of the Alps.

The measure was consistent with fascist thinking about the region. South Tyrol was considered as being historically Italian. The German-speaking population inhabiting it was the result of the ‘wicked’ Germanisation policies of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Hence, German-speakers had to be brought back to their Italianness, restored to their original ethnic state. As Mussolini asserted in a speech in Parliament in May 1927:

up there [in South Tyrol] there is a minority of Italians who speak a German dialect as their language of use, and they have been speaking it only for a century…we have established the province of Bolzano in order to more quickly Italianise that region. No other policy can be adopted. This does not mean that we have to oppress the inhabitants of Alto Adige, whom we consider as Italian citizens who must rediscover themselves’.

Mussolini, B. (1963). Opera omnia: 27 maggio 1927 – 11 febbraio 1929. 23: Dal discorso dell’Ascensione agli Accordi del Laterano (2a ristampa). Firenze: La Fenice.
Above in red are the total number of hectares (8,933) and farmsteads (325) acquired by the Ente per le Tre Venezie. These were later attributed to 245 families (also in red). The document is to be found in Archivio Centrale dello Stato (ACS), PCM, Gabinetto, 1940-43, Ente Tre Venezie, CMCI, Box 2940, folder 3-1-1.

The Italianisation of the space also meant the conquest of the land. Although they were reluctant to admit it in public, in the early 1930s, fascist authorities began doubting the effectiveness of their assimilative policies, until then mainly pursued through educational policies. The transfer of land from owners of different ethnic origin (called allogeni in Italian) to ethnic-Italians therefore became, at least on paper, a government priority. To this effect, in August 1931, the government founded the Ente di Rinascita Agraria delle Tre Venezie, a body in charge of purchasing land from non-Italian-speaking owners to resell it to ‘true’ Italians. Yet, land acquisition was not very successful. A note to the Duce of October 1938, pictured below, summarised the results of the Ente’s work up to that date in 8,933 hectares of land, transferred to 245 families. That accounted for only 0.6% of the productive agricultural surface of the new provinces. As a comparison, by the end of the 1930s, the redemption of the Agro Pontino in Lazio, the main land redemption project managed by the CMCI, created 2,953 farmhouses and 64,666 hectares of farm parcels.

As shown in the text highlighted in red, the ONC’s Director in charge of the Castel Di Nova-Merano firm asked the management in Rome whether they could ‘look for a local family of allogeni‘ or whether the family to which the farm would be allocated had to come from the old provinces. The document is located in ACS, ONC, Servizio Agrario, Alto Adige, coloni, Box 10, coloni, disdette coloniche 

The Italian authorities had a hard time competing with local landowners and buyers, who were often supported by foreign German capitals. Furthermore, South Tyrolean farms were more capital-intensive than those elsewhere in Italy. Therefore, not only were they more expensive than the Italian average, but they also required specific skills that were hard to find in the old provinces. In addition, some of them were high-mountain farms that provided low margins and required being accustomed to the very harsh environmental conditions. Hence, it was not always easy to find settlers willing to run those farms, so much so that (as shown in the document below), in July 1938, the Bolzano branch of the Opera Nazionale Combattenti (ONC, a fascist organisation of former combatants that was running some farms in the area) asked the leadership in Rome whether they could give one of their high-mountain holdings to a family of non-Italian ethnic origins, which ran totally counter to the goals of the ONC’s farming scheme. Predictably, the answer was negative. The request is one of the many examples showing how the fascist assumption whereby the minorities in the new provinces will be easily assimilated was simply mistaken.

Minorities in Contemporary and Historical Perspectives

A series of blog posts in partnership with H-Nationalism

iStock image

The Catalan independence row, the persecution of the Rohingya minority in Burma, persistent problems for North-American indigenous communities to defend their lands, and violence against people of Baha’is religion in Yemen, all these and other similar situations bear witness to the still strained relationship between majorities and minorities in the contemporary world.

On the 100th anniversary of the Versailles Treaty, H-Nationalism and the Myth of Homogeneity Project organise a series of blog posts entitled ‘Minorities in Contemporary and Historical Perspectives’ that aims to examine the issue of minorities from a varied disciplinary, geographical and chronological perspective.

The Versailles Treaty is widely deemed to have enshrined self-determination as one of the main principles of political legitimacy in international relations. As, according to this principle, the political and national community have to be congruent, two opposite dynamics have been unleashed: within the majority, a tendency to either exclude or assimilate those deemed not to belong to the ‘people’; within the minority, a tendency not to fully identify with the parent state. Both democratic and authoritarian states are confronted still today with the difficult task to manage these conflicting forces.

By means of a series of theoretical and empirical pieces, the series will explore, among others, the relationship between minorities, nationalism and democracy; the history of the concept of minorities; the nature of minority rights and their resurgence in the 1990s; the impact of globalisation on majority-minority relations; the evolution of minority policies in several geographic areas and throughout time. It will also take into account specific linguistic, religious and gender aspects of national/cultural minority issues.

The pieces will be posted monthly in order to leave ample room for discussion on the forum. All posts will also be publicly-viewable on the web and will appear simultaneously on the website of the Myth of Homogeneity Project and on H-Nationalism’s Twitter page. Blog posts will be open for civil, moderated comments from our academic subscribers.  

Scholars interested in contributing can contact:

Emmanuel Dalle Mulle: emmanuel.dallemulle-at-graduateinstitute.ch

Mona Bieling: mona.bieling-at-graduateinstitute.ch

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights at Seventy: Juridical and Historical Perspectives

On December 5, 2018, the Myth of Homogeneity (MoH) Team at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, along with the Geneva Academy of Humanitarian Law and Human Rights, organised a seminar on the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).

The event brought together historians and international lawyers discussing the background, main characteristics and legacy of the UDHR. The one-day seminar was closed by a public lecture by Philippe Sands on the ‘Individual and the group: the UDHR and the Genocide Convention at 70’.

The symposium was also the occasion to present some preliminary results from the MoH’s project. Emmanuel Dalle Mulle and Mona Bieling opened the day with a paper on ‘The Ambivalent Legacy of Minority Protection for Human Rights’, where they argued that the current literature on the history of human rights tends to paint too stark a contrast between the minority protection system of the League of Nations and the human rights regime put in place under the aegis of the United Nations after the Second World War. In this perspective, and mostly on account of its collective character, interwar minority protection is often portrayed as being incompatible with human rights—these latter being conceived of as having an exclusively individual nature. The paper develops three critiques of the current literature.

First, while it is correct to highlight the discontinuity between the League and the UN rights systems, this interpretation loses sight of the fact that the minorities treaties contained a hybrid bundle of rights mixing individual and collective provisions and extended some rights to the entire population of the countries concerned, while at the same time reserving others for members of minority groups. Hence, the minorities treaties were a pragmatic and sui generis scheme rather than a theoretically coherent whole, but one that, as other authors have noticed, allowed interwar supporters of human rights to see the universalist provisions contained in them as a model for the adoption of human rights instruments.

Second, authors focusing on the 1940s ‘triumph of individual human rights’ tend to overlook the fact that the first human rights instrument ever adopted by the General Assembly (a day before the UDHR) was the Genocide Convention, a legally binding treaty defending group rights that, although it did not openly mention minorities, was drafted with those in mind.

Third, the ‘triumph of individual human rights’ perspective fails to notice the continuing currency of some of the most distinctive elements of the minority protection regime during the negotiations of the Genocide Convention and the UDHR. As a matter of fact, the countries of the Soviet bloc, joined by a few others, strove to obtain the inclusion of an article on cultural genocide in the homonymous Convention, as well as of provisions on protection against assimilation within the Declaration. Although they did not manage to pass their amendments, and their commitment might have been more the product of incipient Cold War politics than a sincere dedication to the minority cause, their struggle is an unmistakable reminder that, despite the failure of the League’s system, some clauses of interwar minority protection still enjoyed support among a substantial share of state representatives in the late 1940s.

For a more extensive description of the event and the full programme click here.

The Myth of Homogeneity

Minority Protection and Assimilation in Western Europe, 1919-1939

‘The response of West European political and administrative elites to the issue of national and linguistic heterogeneity has for long been simply to ignore it’ – John Coakley

“The Myth of Homogeneity: Minority Protection and Assimilation in Western Europe, 1919–1939” is a Swiss National Science-funded research project hosted at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva. The aim of this research is to acquire a clear and in-depth picture of the history of the relationships between national minorities and majorities in Western Europe during the interwar years through the analysis of patterns of minority protection and/or assimilation. The project entails a multi-layered and multi-archival inquiry focusing on three case-study countries: Belgium, Italy and Spain.

The project revolves around three levels of analysis: government legislation concerning minority protection and/or assimilation and its enforcement; sub-state national minority mobilisation, or lack thereof; transnational and international interactions between state and non-state actors dealing with the issue of national minorities. It is multi-archival because it relies on a wide range of government, international organisations, and diplomatic archives as well as regional, international and transnational repositories. Moreover, despite including an analysis of the minority regime built around the League of Nations in the interwar years, the research will not be limited to that international organisation. This would be a gross mistake as Western minorities did not fall under the jurisdiction of the League’s Minorities Section and, in any case, the League ultimately enjoyed very limited latitude without the support of the Great Powers. For these reasons, other actors and repositories will be taken into account at different levels: government and civil society, centre and periphery, domestic and international.

The objective is to contribute to the existing literature revising the widely held assumption of national homogeneity in Western Europe during the period under study, an assumption furthered by the then prevalent tendency of Western governments to ignore their own minority issues while, at the same time, imposing legislative constraints concerning the protection of national minorities on the new states emerging from the dissolution of the Central and Eastern European empires. The goal is not at all to suggest that minority issues in Western Europe were the same as those in the Eastern part of the continent. It is rather to inquire into the specificities of minority-majority relations in Western European countries in order to provide material for a better-informed and scientifically grounded comparison with the situation in Eastern Europe. The relevance of the project goes beyond the academic need to fill a lacuna in the existing literature. At a time when Western Europe is confronted with strong separatist demands and centrifugal forces, it is necessary to question national homogeneity and to acquire a better understanding of the historical evolution of majority-minority relations.