The Pursuit of Polish Homogeneity following World War II

We are proud to publish here the fourth post of our “Minorities in Contemporary and Historical Perspectives” series, which looks at majority-minority relations in a multi-disciplinary and diachronic perspective. Today’s contribution, by John Kulczycki (University of Illinois at Chicago), looks at the efforts of post-WW II Poland to homogenize the population of the so-called Recovered Lands in the west of the country. The series is a collaboration with H-Nationalism.

At the Potsdam Conference in 1945, the three Great Powers had the task of demarking Poland’s western border. During the plenary session on 21 July, President Harry Truman decried that the Soviets had already handed over eastern Germany to the Poles.[1] On his insistence, the conference communiqué stated that “the final delimitation of the western frontier of Poland should await the peace settlement.” Yet, a provision approving “the transfer to Germany of German populations” undermined this caveat.[2]

Polish nationalists claimed eastern Germany on historical grounds as part of the Polish kingdom during the tenth to fourteenth centuries.[3] Government officials referred to the territories collectively as the Recovered Lands (Ziemie Odzyskane), an unconscious part of ordinary speech even after the fall of communism.[4] Polish nationalists also claimed the area on ethnic grounds. As the Polish ambassador in Moscow informed his British and American colleagues on 10 July 1945, “Fairly large territories with a preponderating Polish element were not included within the boundaries of Poland in the years 1918-1939.” “[S]he has to return to her primordial lands, and to continue the old political tradition . . . as a national state.”[5] Integration of the Recovered Lands required the “transfer” of Germans, but the retention of “autochthons,” i.e., indigenous German citizens of Polish origin.

Identifying Autochthons

 How to recognize Polish elements who lived under German rule and cultural influence for centuries? Many residents of the Recovered Lands identified primarily with their religion and region and were nationally indifferent or without an irrevocable attachment to a nationality despite the nationalizing efforts of the Nazi regime during the war, when national or ethnic identity could mean the difference between life and death.[6]

 On 19 February 1945 an organization of enthusiasts of westward expansion, the Polish Western Union (Polski Związek Zachodni), advocated “nationality verification” based on a variety of criteria: active participation in the struggle for Polishness and membership in a Polish organization, knowledge of the Polish language and its usage in daily life, and evidence of Polish origin, such as a Polish-sounding surname and Polish family ties and traditions.[7]         

Lacking guidelines from the central government, regional authorities pursued their own approaches.[8] On 22 March 1945 Silesian Governor Aleksander Zawadzki directed officials to protect “Polish souls” by issuing provisional affidavits of Polishness to applicants who “unquestionably belong to the Polish nationality.”[9] These “Polish souls” had to present a document certifying membership in a Polish organization or the testimony of three individuals of unquestioned Polish nationality. A further directive on 7 April 1945 added the use of Polish in the home and in prayer as well as the ability to read and write in Polish and ordered the formation of special commissions of local individuals “of undoubtedly Polish nationality” to decide who should receive Polish citizenship.[10]

In Mazuria, however, Plenipotentiary Jakub Prawin on 24 April 1945 called on Poles of local origin to register for provisional affidavits of membership in the Polish nation.[11] On 26 May 1945 his deputy instructed officials that a lack of documentation of Polish origin, such as a Polish-sounding surname, or an absence of Polish national consciousness, as when applicants declared themselves to be Mazurs, should not prevent certification as members of the Polish nation. Officials could also waive the requirement of a minimal knowledge of Polish in exceptional cases for individuals connected to the Polish nation. Nevertheless, officials were to examine an applicant’s past so as not to protect “foreign elements, enemies of the Polish Nation, or those encumbered with anti-Polish activity.”[12] If approved by a local Polish Nationality Committee, the applicant received a permanent affidavit of Polishness.

Whereas elsewhere the initial directives meant that whoever is not Polish is German, in Mazuria the authorities recognized as Polish all who were not German, requiring little more than a declaration of loyalty. This took into account the region’s unusual character. Mazurs spoke an archaic form of Polish, but unlike most Poles, they were overwhelmingly Protestant. The Nazis classified them as “racial Germans” without a process of individual verification. Indeed, Mazuria was a hotbed of Nazi support. Therefore, Polish activists in Mazuria favored a preemptive collective recognition of Mazurs as Polish citizens instead of individual verification, excluding solely those individuals unquestionably German.[13]

Because of a rigid definition of Polishness as well as the perception of Mazurs as Germans, officials balked at carrying out the directives. On 7 June 1945 Prawin threatened officials with sanctions, admonishing them:

Let the Polish citizen remember that the Kashub, Pomeranian, Warmiak, Mazur—we all, despite these or other religious, political, or social beliefs, are children of one blood of fraternal clans and Polish tribes, and this without regard to whether our closer or more distant compatriots are today conscious of their Polish origin or not. . . . I categorically direct you to register as Poles . . . all individuals identifying themselves as Kashubs, Pomeranians, Warmiaks, Mazurs without demanding of them additional declarations in this regard and to recognize those so registered as Polish citizens.

Revocation of citizenship could only occur after its bestowal: if “it is proven in an administrative and legal way that someone himself consciously of his own criminal instinct acted against Poles and Poland, then of course the Polish citizenship granted him will be withdrawn.”[14]­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­

On 20 June 1945 the Minister of Public Administration, who had jurisdiction over the Recovered Lands, addressed the issue of nationality verification, authorizing governors and plenipotentiaries to issue provisional three-month affidavits of citizenship pending verification to those who inhabited the territory before the war and “belong to the Polish nationality” following a declaration of loyalty. But he did not define the criteria for membership in the Polish nation, except for specifically excluding former members of the Nazi party and “fascist-Nazi criminals.” On 23 June 1945 the director of the Legal Department of the provisional parliament, argued that the criteria should be left to administrative and public security organs, which had the necessary information to separate Poles from Germans, and any regulation should await the peace treaty between Germany and the Allied powers.[15]

Obstacles to Differentiating Germans from Poles

Initially, Governor Zawadzki advocated recognizing only those who “unquestionably belong to the Polish nationality.” By October 1945 he admitted, “No paragraphs and no directives clearly reveal who should be regarded as a Pole and who as a German—in such cases the Polish conscience must decide.”[16] But the officials responsible for verification came mostly from prewar Poland and had no knowledge of conditions under German rule. Furthermore, their competence and integrity frequently declined the lower one went down the administrative hierarchy. Many simply regarded the autochthons as Germans and often targeted for expulsion those with homes and farms that officials could confiscate for themselves or others from prewar Poland. As a result, the mass expulsion from the Recovered Lands that reached its apogee in 1946 included many who qualified for Polish citizenship.

A report on 2 June 1947 of the Department of Inspection of the Ministry of Recovered Lands went to the heart of the matter: “The greatest difficulty in asserting whether a given individual is of Polish origin or not is the lack, or even the impossibility of creating an objective criterion that would differentiate a German from an autochthon.” Furthermore, the decisions concerning verification varied widely. “For some the fact of having a Polish name is enough, and for the authorities to acknowledge the Polishness of others, knowledge of the Polish language and, say, one witness confirming the applicant’s Polish origins is not enough.” “Especially dangerous is the fact that at times individuals already verified are suddenly deprived of their certification of Polish nationality because of a denunciation that the autochthon speaks German at home or has postal contact with Germany and therefore is a German, not a Pole.” Many autochthons “prefer to leave as Germans bearing their Polishness in secret rather than as spurned to whom the right to Polishness was denied and to whom is pinned the mark of treason in the eyes of their fellow Germans.” In addition, “unregulated matters of property” prevent an autochthon deprived of his property from applying for verification: “in practice the greatest number of denunciations is inspired or directed by the current Polish occupants, who in case the autochthon is verified would have to return this property.”[17]

The End of Mass Expulsion

In July 1947 the British refused to accept the last 50,000 Germans that the Poles wanted to expel to the British zone of occupied Germany. In October 1947 the Soviets announced that mass resettlement to their zone would end in November 1947.[18] The imminent halt to mass expulsion focused attention on autochthons who refused to apply for nationality verification. 

In 1947 Silesia, with the largest concentration of autochthons, saw the most vigorous campaign of “re-Polonization,” based on the assumption that autochthons were essentially Polish. Yet, troubling signs of German influence and incomplete re-Polonization persisted. The Ministry of Public Affairs blamed primarily German machinations and falsifications during verification.[19] In the last months of 1947 nationality commissions reversed 1,062 decisions affecting individuals verified as Polish, and 14,650 cases were pending. Contrary to the law, the commissions revoked citizenship without the approval of local officials. The governor, however, saw the expulsion of Germans as more important.[20]

With the end of mass expulsion, the authorities faced the problem of thousands of autochthons not yet verified as Polish. In Olsztyn province, formerly Mazuria, Governor Mieczysław Moczar resorted to repressive measures in the so-called “Great Verification.” On 8 January 1949, he declared, “We desire with all our strength not to lose a single Pole, but we must be very severe in relation to those who are espousing pro-Nazi propaganda,” a reference to those defending Mazurs or resisting verification.[21] The administration mobilized local cadre together with the militia and security forces to target over 20,000 autochthons with various forms of pressure, including physical force.[22] Indeed, on 30 March 1949 the International Committee of the Red Cross informed the Ministry of Public Administration of an increasing number of complaints, mainly from Mazuria, of German citizens forced to request Polish citizenship.[23]

Superficially, Moczar made progress. A report on 1 April 1949 claimed that nearly 19,000 natives were verified in the previous three months.[24] But the use of force and repression strengthened the aversion of Mazurs to Polish officialdom and their existing situation, and they generally continued to identify as Germans.[25]

The Epilogue

Too late for most Mazurs, declarations of regional and national identities became officially possible when the 2011 census allowed inhabitants to indicate one or two national-ethnic identities. No Mazurs identified themselves as such, but 44.4 percent of those who declared a Silesian identity gave it as their sole identity as did 30.4 percent of Germans. Superficially, the postwar nationality policies succeeded: 94.8 percent of Poland’s population declared Polish as its sole identity.[26] This success came in part through the more or less forced departure and alienation of many who could have been loyal citizens contributing to Poland’s reconstruction after the war had these policies and their implementation been different.

John J. Kulczycki is Professor Emeritus in the Department of History of the University of Illinois at Chicago, where he taught East European history and the history of nationalism. His research and publications have focused on Polish-German relations in the 19th and 20th centuries. His most recent publication is Belonging to the Nation: Inclusion and Exclusion in the Polish-German Borderlands, 1939-1951 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016), which was awarded “Honorable Mention” as the best book in Polish Studies by the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies in 2017.

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.

Scholars interested in contributing to the series can contact:

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

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


[1] United States, Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States, Diplomatic Papers [hereafter cited as FRUS]: The Conference of Berlin (The Potsdam Conference), 2 vols.(Washington, D.C: United States Government Printing Office, 1960), 2:208-213, 216-221.

[2] Ibid., 357, 480, 1151. The Polish nationalist leader Stanisław Grabski credited Stalin and Molotov with Poland receiving “fully that what we sought,” repr. in Stanisław Kirkor, “Listy Stanisława Grabskiego (1941-1949),” Zeszyty Historyczne 19 (1971): 70.

[3] FRUS, The Conference of Berlin, 1:757-777.

[4] A young Polish historian at the International Congress of Historical Sciences, Montreal, 1995, admitted that he used the term as a matter of habit without being conscious of its political implications.

[5] FRUS, The Conference of Berlin, 1:762, 766.

[6] Recent studies on Central Europe question a natural, progressive nationalization of a people. Most relevant is James E. Bjork, Neither German nor Pole: Catholicism and National Indifference in a Central European Borderland (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2008). Tara Zahra lists other studies, “Imagined Noncommunities: National Indifference as a Category of Analysis,” Slavic Review 69, no. 1 (Spring 2010): 94n2.

[7] Tadeusz Baryła, Warmiacy i Mazurzy w PRL: wbόr dokumentόw: rok 1945 (Olsztyn : Ośrodek Badań Naukowych Im. Wojciecha Ke̜trzyńskiego, 1994), 4-6; Czesław Osękowski, Społeczeństwo Polski zachodniej i północnej w latach 1945-1956: procesy integracji i dezintegracji (Zielona Góra : Wyższa Szkoła Pedagogiczna im. Tadeusza Kotarbińskiego, 1994), 90; Grzegorz Strauchold, Polska ludność rodzima ziem zachodnich i północnych. Opinie nie tylko publiczne lat 1944-1948 (Olsztyn: Ośrodek Badań Naukowych im. Wojciecha Kętrzyńskiego, 1995), 17, 19, 34; Zenon Romanow, “Kształtowanie się polityki władz polskich wobec ludności rodzimej ziem zachodnich i północnych w latach 1945-1946,” unpublished paper [1996?], 1-2.

[8] Grzegorz Strauchold, Autochtoni polscy, niemieccy, czy–od nacjonalizmu do komunizmu (1945-1949) (Toruń : Wydawn. Adam Marszałek, 2001), 37, 45.

[9] Quoted in Romanow, “Kształtowanie się,” 3.

[10] Ibid.; Jan Misztal, Weryfikacja narodowosciowa na Ziemiach Odzyskanych (Warszawa : Panstwowe Wydawn. Nauk., 1990), 192-193, 201; the quote is on 201.

[11] Wojciech Wrzesiński, “Proces zasiedlania województwa olsztyńskiego w latach 1945-1949,” in Problemy rozwoju gospodarczego i demograficznego Ziem Zachodnich w latach 1945-1958, ed. Bohdan Gruchman and Janusz Ziólkowski (Poznań: Instytut Zachodni, 1960),” 177.

[12] Baryła, Warmiacy, 36.

[13] Quoted in Leszek Belzyt, Między Polską a Niemcami: Weryfikacja narodowościowa i jej następstwa na Warmii, Mazurach i Powiślu w latach 1945-1960 (Toruń: Wydawnictwo Adam Marszałek, 1998), 83.

[14] Baryła, Warmiacy, 37-38.

[15] Ibid., 42-44; the quote is on 42.

[16] Quoted in Ingo Eser, “Niemcy na Górnym Śląsku,” in Niemcy, ed. Borodziej and Lemberg, 2 324.

[17] Excerpt, Boćkowski, Niemcy, 403-404.

[18] Włodzimerz Borodziej, “Wstęp: sprawa polska i przemieszczenia ludności w czasie II wojny światowej,” in Niemcy, 1:97-98.

[19] Excerpts, Borodziej and Lemberg, Niemcy, 2:501-503.

[20] Piotr Madajczyk, Przyłączenie Śląska Opolskiego do Polski, 1945-1948 (Warsaw: Instytut Studiów Politycznych  PAN, 1996), 216-217.

[21] Quoted in Belzyt, Między Polską a Niemcami, 163.

[22] Strauchold, Autochtoni, 168; Belzyt, Między Polską a Niemcami, 163-164.

[23] Borodziej and Lemberg, Niemcy, 1:346-347.

[24] Belzyt, Między Polską a Niemcami, 163-168; Claudia Kraft, “Wojewodschaft Allenstein,” in Die Deutschen, ed.Włodzimierz Borodziej and Hans Lemberg, vol. 1, Zentrale Behörden. Wojewodschaft Allenstein, ed. Borodziej and Kraft (Marburg: Verlag Herder-Institut, 2000), 475-476.

[25] Leszek Belzyt, “Zum Verfahren der national Verifikation in den Gebieten des ehemaligen Ostpreussen 1945-1950,” Jahrbuch für die Geschichte Mittel- und Ostdeutschlands 39 (1990): 262; Andzrej Sakson, Mazurzy – społeczność pogranicza (Poznań: Instytut Zachodni, 1990), 128-129.

[26] Główny Urząd Statystyczny, “Przynależność narodowo-etniczna ludności—wyniki spisu ludności i mieszkań 2011,” Materiał na konferencję w dniu 29.01.2013 r., 3, http://www.stat.gov.pl/cps/rde/xbcr/gus/Przynaleznosc_narodowo-etniczna_w_2011_NSP.pdf.

Sovereignty, Nationalism and Homogeneity in Europe between the Two World Wars

The Myth of Homogeneity Workshop, IHEID Geneva, 27-28 February 2020

The years around the Great War were crucial for both nationalism and democracy. While at Versailles national self-determination was branded as the main principle to be followed in the resolution of territorial conflicts, domestically, several European states introduced universal suffrage or considerably lowered property requirements thus entering the age of mass politics. In such a context of rising nationalism and expanding democracy (although often fragile democracy), majority-minority relations acquired an unprecedented relevance.

The aim of this workshop is to bring together historians with different geographical expertise and using varied approaches to draw the main lines of a European comparative and transnational history of relations between national majorities and minorities during the interwar years. The workshop will explore the nexus between popular sovereignty and cultural homogeneity, inquire into why minorities became a ‘problem’ after the Great War, examine minority issues within and across state borders, and question the strength of national allegiances among ordinary people.

View the Programme.

The first day of the conference will be closed by a public lecture by Eric Weitz entitled A World Divided: The Global Struggle for Human Rights in the Age of Nation-States.

The workshop is organised by The Myth of Homogeneity Research Project with the collaboration of the Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy and the support of the Swiss National Science Foundation and the Pierre du Bois Foundation.

The Jewish Minority in Inter-War Poland

We are proud to publish here the third post of our “Minorities in Contemporary and Historical Perspectives” series, which looks at majority-minority relations in a multi-disciplinary and diachronic perspective. Today’s contribution, by Professor Yoav Peled (Tel Aviv University), discusses the difficult situation of the Jewish minority in interwar Poland. The series is a collaboration with H-Nationalism.

Q – “What is Bolshevism?”

A – “A conspiracy by international Jewry against Christian nations.”

Q – “What have the Bolsheviks given the worker?”

A – “The rule of Jewry.”

Q – “What do the communists want from Poland?”

A – “To turn her into a Russian province ruled by Jews appointed by Moscow.”

                            (“A Bolshevik Cathechism,” Gwiazda Poranna, 1921.)

Since its inception in 1918, the Second Polish Republic had to face two daunting tasks: forging a state and a nation out of disparate ethnic elements and solving the country’s acute economic problems. Catholic ethnic Poles made up only 70% of the population of the newly emergent state, with Ukrainians comprising 14%, Jews 10%, and smaller numbers of Byelorussians and Germans making up the rest.[1]

Its 1921 constitution declared Poland to be the state of the Polish nation, with Polish as the sole official language. But it also established a democratic republic, with universal suffrage, a bicameral legislature, and semi-proportional representation. The constitution guaranteed freedom of religion, with the Roman Catholic faith as first among equals. Ethnic minorities were to enjoy equal citizenship rights and the right to organize autonomous institutions, including their own school systems.

Respect for the rights of ethnic minorities was forced upon Poland by the Minorities Treaty it had to sign as part of the Versailles peace agreements. The Allied Powers insisted on this treaty in view of the widespread anti-Jewish pogroms that accompanied the various battles to determine Poland’s eastern borders in 1918-1919 (and again the Polish-Soviet war of 1919-1920), and the treaty included two articles relating specifically to Jews: Article 10 guaranteed autonomous Jewish control over Jewish-language primary schools that were to be set up and paid for by the state, and Article 11 guaranteed that Jews would not be forced to violate their Sabbath, and that no elections would be held on that day. The limitation of Polish sovereignty by the treaty, and the role played by Jewish organizations in bringing it about, were a sore point for Polish nationalists. In response, as long as the right-wing National Democrats (Endecja) were in power, the state dragged its feet in regularizing the citizenship status of non-ethnic Poles, particularly Jews, who resided in territories annexed to Poland from Russia, Germany, and Austria. This delaying tactic ended only in 1930. In 1934, after signing a non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany, Poland unilaterally abrogated the Minorities Treaty.

Polish politics in the inter-war period fell into three main tendencies: the Endecja, headed by Roman Dmowski; the centrist Sanacja (cleansing), led by Marshal Joseph Piłsudski, the founder of modern Poland; and the Left, centered on the Polish Socialist Party (PPS). The Endecja advocated an aggressive nationalizing policy towards the ethnic minorities, pressuring the Slavic minorities to assimilate and the Jews and the Germans to emigrate, while the Left favored allowing the minorities to develop their own cultures within the Polish nation-state. As for the Jews, the Endecja advocated exclusionary policies, up to and including physical expulsion from the country, while the Left advocated equal protection and uncoerced assimilation.

Piłsudski assumed state power in a coup d’état in 1926. He and his Sanacja successors (Piłsudski died in 1935), who held state power until 1939, gradually came to adopt the aggressive nationalism of the Endecja.  Thus, whether under the Endecja or under the Sanacja, “the Poles were determined to make Poland a homogeneous state in the shortest time possible.”[2]

Of Poland’s ethnic minorities, only the Jews could neither plan to establish their own state on Polish territory nor wish to unite with any foreign country. (Most of them, however, demanded collective rights within the Polish state.) Still, the Jews were viewed by all political tendencies, except the Left, as most threatening, suspected, inter alia, of being Communist agents. This perception placed the Jews, together with the Germans, in the category of inassimilable minorities. However, while assimilation of the Germans into Polish society was seen as unlikely, assimilation of the Jews was seen as undesirable.

The 19th century Polish national movement included two ideological undercurrents with regard to the Jews: an exclusionist, anti-Semitic undercurrent, and an integrationist undercurrent that considered Jews to be part of the Polish nation. The latter view was captured in the slogan of the nineteenth century uprisings against the Romanov Empire, “our freedom and yours.” Moreover, “the most important post-1863 school of Polish social thought … the Warsaw Positivists, condemned and rejected anti-Jewish beliefs, at least until the first decade of the twentieth century.”[3]  

In the inter-war period, the anti-Jewish stance gradually gained the upper hand. One major reason for that was the stunted development of the Polish economy. Dmowski, the most prominent integral Polish nationalist and anti-Semite, set the tone for the public discussion of the national and Jewish questions. In 1934, he wrote: “Even if Jews were morally angels, mentally geniuses, even if they were people of a higher kind than we are, the very fact of their existence among us … is for our society lethal and they have to be got rid of.”[4] To counter this lethal danger, Dmowski called, already in 1912, for an economic boycott against the Jews, and his political program was centered on the need to Polonize the urban economy and induce the Jews to emigrate.

In 1925, Dmowski stated: “The economic and financial crisis is the axis of our present-day politics …”[5] One indication of the crisis was hyper-inflation. The rate of exchange between the Polish mark (in effect until the introduction of the złoty in 1924) and the US dollar was 1:186 in July 1920 and 1:20,000,000 by the end of January 1924.[6] In most areas of industrial and agricultural production the levels of output reached by the end of the inter-war period were lower, in physical terms, than they had been in 1913.[7]

The crux of Poland’s economic problems was in agriculture, which sustained two-thirds of the population. In 1921, 1% of landowners owned close to 50% of Poland’s arable land while almost two-thirds of all farms had less than the minimum required for subsistence – five hectares. In spite of two land reform bills, passed in 1920 and 1925, by 1939 only 15% of the farmland had been reparcelled. The urban economy was not developing nearly fast enough to absorb the surplus rural population, and emigration became increasingly difficult as the inter-war period progressed.

Poland’s economic policies favored agriculture over trade and industry and large farms over small ones. Since Jews held a prominent position in trade and (small) industry, and, in the countryside, depended on the economic fortunes of the peasants, they suffered disproportionately from those policies. Fewer than 6% of the Jews were engaged in agriculture, while in the cities they numbered between one-quarter and two-thirds of the population. In 1921 over 40% of them were engaged in commerce and 34% were engaged in industry, mostly as artisans and handicraft workers. Jews constituted over 60% of all those engaged in trade and commerce, 56% of the medical doctors in private practice, over 40% of the teachers, and one third of the lawyers.[8]

Independent Poland moved quickly to dismiss Jews from their public sector jobs in the formerly Austrian territories, the only areas where Jews had been employed by the state. By 1929, only 1% of central and local government employees were Jews. In 1928, there were only two Jews among the 4,000 workers of the municipal tram system in Warsaw, a city that was 35% Jewish. In addition, Jews were excluded, as employees, suppliers and distributors, from state enterprises, which enjoyed monopoly status in such traditional Jewish industries as tobacco, alcohol, matches and salt. Moreover, unlike their Polish counterparts, few unemployed Jews received any assistance from the state.

In 1919, Sunday was designated by law as a mandatory day of rest for all businesses. This meant that Jews had to either violate their Sabbath or remain idle two days a week, contrary to the spirit, if not the letter, of the Minorities Treaty. Small businesses, which were predominantly in Jewish hands, were discriminated against both by the government’s tax policy (Jews paid between 35% and 40% of Poland’s tax revenue) and by the credit policy of the state-owned banks. These administrative steps were accompanied by a popular economic boycott and occasional bursts of violence against Jewish-owned businesses. Moreover, “ethno-nationalist papers … frequently stressed that ‘eight million Poles are forced to live outside their homeland, while four million Jews occupy Poland’, and that ‘polish peasants, instead of emigrating to foreign countries in search of bread and work, should find such bread and work in towns and cities in their homeland’ [in place of the Jews].”[9]

These measures, however, failed to dislodge the Jews from the urban economy. Between 1921 and 1931, the share of Jews among those active in trade and commerce declined from 62.6% to 52.7%, in industry from 23.5% to 20%, and in public service and the professions from 14% to 13.4%.[10] Jewish petty traders managed to stay competitive throughout the Depression as well, and “apart from a few fanatics, most Polish consumers ignored all other considerations, including pastoral letters instructing them to boycott Jewish traders,” and continued to patronize them.[11]

In 1936, the Sanacja Prime Minister officially endorsed the economic boycott against the Jews, as long as it was carried out without violence. In the same year a bill to outlaw Jewish ritual slaughter (shkhite), modeled after a law initiated by the Nazis in Bavaria in 1930, was introduced in the Sejm. The prohibition of shkhite would have breached the guarantee of the Jews’ religious freedom and undermined their equal status as citizens. For unlike the Sunday rest law, that gave Jews the option to still observe their Sabbath at an economic cost, the shkhite law was intended to forbid them to perform one of the most basic and indispensable rituals of their religion. Incredibly, this issue took up about half of the parliamentary time in the fateful years of 1936-1938, more than any other issue then on the agenda. But the efforts to forbid shkhite were unsuccessful until the German occupation authorities forbade it in October 1939.

In summarizing the dynamics of the Sanacja government (1926-1939) in relation to the Jewish minority, Prof. Jerzy Tomaszewski has concluded that,

The most important changes in the legal status of the Jewish population occurred after the May [1926] coup d’état, when the authoritarian regimes were able to break the resistance of the nationalist right-wing … and purge the local administrative apparatus of its supporters and followers … [However,] at the end of the 1930s the same authoritarian government was able to ignore the democratic opposition and adopt some elements of the nationalist conceptions. Although, before September 1939, Poland avoided the establishment of any openly discriminatory laws, some initiatives born at the beginning of 1939 might well have led in this direction (Tomaszewski 1994:127).[12]

Yoav Peled is Professor Emeritus of political science at Tel Aviv University. He is author of The Challenge of Ethnic Democracy: The State and Minority Groups in Israel, Poland and Northern Ireland (Routledge 2014), co-author, with Horit Herman Peled, of The Religionization of Israeli Society (Routledge 2019), and co-editor, with John Ehrenberg, of Israel and Palestine: Alternative Perspectives on Statehood (Rowman and Littlefield 2016).

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. For more information, please visit: https://themythofhomogeneity.org/

Scholars interested in contributing to the series can contact:

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

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


[1] For detailed references please see my The Challenge of Ethnic Democracy: The State and Minority Groups in Israel, Poland and Northern Ireland, 2014.

[2] Stephan Horak et al., Eastern European National Minorities 1919-1980: A Handbook, 1985.

[3] Joanna Michlic, Poland’s Threatening Other: The Image of the Jew from 1880 to the Present, 2006.

[4] Cited in A. J. Groth, “Dmowski, Piłsudski and Ethnic Conflict in Pre-1939 Poland,” Canadian Slavic Studies 3:69-91, 1969; original emphasis.

[5] Cited in Anthony Polonsky, Politics in Independent Poland, 1921-1939: The Crisis of Constitutional Government, 1972:97.

[6] F. Zweig, Poland Between Two Wars:A Critical Study of Social and Economic Changes, 1944.

[7] Z. Landau and J. Tomaszewski, The Polish Economy in the Twentieth Century, 1985:121.

[8] Mendelsohn, Ezra, The Jews of East Central Europe Between the World Wars, 1983:23-29; R. Mahler, The Jews of Poland Between the Two World Wars: Socio-Economic History in Light of Statistics, 1968 (Hebrew).

[9] Michlic, op. cit:88.

[10] Mahler, op. cit:109, 137, 157.

[11] Joseph Marcus, Social and Political History of the Jews in Poland, 1919-1939, 1983:245.

[12] J. Tomaszewski, “The Civil Rights of Jews in Poland, 1918-1939,” Polin 8, 1994:115-127.

The Nationalists’ Dilemma: Minorities, Revolt and Violence in French-Occupied Syria


We are proud to publish here the second post of our “Minorities in Contemporary and Historical Perspectives” series, which looks at majority-minority relations from a multi-disciplinary and diachronic angle. Today’s contribution, by Joel Veldkamp (Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva), looks at the nationalists’ dilemma of how to include minorities in their national project through the case of the Great Syrian Revolt of 1925-27. The series is a collaboration with H-Nationalism.

The “Great Syrian Revolt” of 1925-27 was the largest and bloodiest uprising against European rule in the interwar Middle East. The leaders of this uprising, nearly all of whom were Sunni Muslims or Druzes, strove determinedly to include other religious groups in their coalition. These efforts largely failed, as did the revolt itself. In this article, I explore the reasons for that failure.

In February 1926, Fawzi al-Qawuqji was feeling frustrated. He had already served as a military officer for two defeated states – the Ottoman Empire, vanquished in World War I, and Amir Faysal’s Kingdom of Syria, which had been destroyed by a French invasion just a year and a half after it was born. Afterwards, Qawuqji had reluctantly joined the French Syrian Legion as a cavalry captain. In July 1925, however, an uprising against French rule had begun in Syria’s Druze region, an uprising which quickly scored some stunning victories and gave hope to erstwhile nationalists like Qawuqji. That October, he and his men mutinied and joined the revolt. But the momentum of the revolt had stalled over the long winter, and Qawuqji had been reduced to fighting a bloody guerilla war in the Damascus countryside. From his headquarters on Mount Qalamoun, Qawuqji sent an angry letter to the leaders of Salamiyya, a village inhabited mostly by Ismaʿili Shiʿite Muslims:

I would never have believed that the Ismaʿilis, our brothers in religion, nationality and soil, would carry the arms of the enemy to fight their Syrian brothers and walk down the path of the Armenians… I pity enormously those who will, in our country, have a fate similar to the Armenians in Turkey. …If you don’t want to join us, then at least be neutral.[1]

This letter (unearthed by Laila Parsons in her indispensable biography of Qawuqji), and its clear, disturbing reference to the recent murder of over a million Armenians by the Ottoman State, calls for close examination. Although he was a pious Sunni Muslim, Qawuqji was no religious extremist, nor is there any evidence that he was prejudiced against Shiʿites. On the contrary, as this letter shows, he wanted the Ismaʿilis to join him. Moreover, the revolution itself had been launched by leaders from another religious minority group, the Druzes in southern Syria. The leader of the Druze forces, Sultan Pasha al-Atrash, proclaimed that Druzes, Muslims and Christians were “brothers in nationality”[2] and said, “We make no distinction in religion or sects, as our only aim is to obtain our legitimate rights, which are for all the sons of the Syrian nation, regardless of class or sect.”[3] For the leaders of the revolution, the liberation of Syria was and had to be an ecumenical project.

Why, then, this outpouring of sectarian venom in Qawuqji’s letter? I argue that it stems from the “nationalists’ dilemma” – the inability of nationalists to persuade minorities to forget their past alienation and join the national cause without using means that were in themselves alienating.

At the time of the revolt, even more so than today, the lands of Syria were home to an array of religious and ethnic groups – Sunni Muslims, Ismaʿilis, ʿAlawis, Druzes, Yazidis, Christians, Jews, Arabs, Kurds, Turks, Armenians, Circassians, and more. Although Sunni Islam had been the politically supreme religion in the region for nearly a thousand years, in 1925, only 56% of people in the French-ruled territories in Syria and Lebanon were Sunni Muslims; only 49% were Arab Sunni Muslims.[4] France perceived this diversity as Syria’s all-defining political feature, and often sought to use religious and ethnic minorities as a wedge against a potential resistance movement led by Syria’s Sunni Muslim elites. Among other policies, they created five distinct administrative regions in Syria for Christians, ʿAlawis, Druzes, Sunnis and Turks,[5] recruited Armenian refugees to fight against rebels in the region, patronized Catholic leaders and institutions, and distributed weapons to Christian villages.

The classic descriptor for these colonial tactics, both in the academic and popular literature, is “divide and rule.” While accurate in many ways, in other ways this phrase masks the scale of the challenge Syria’s nationalists had taken on. They were not simply trying to unite and liberate a nation – they were trying to create one. Despite the decisive rejection of “methodological nationalism” by historians in recent decades, it is still all too easy for modern historians to receive the rhetoric of the rebels of 1925 uncritically, to accept that they were fighting for the independence of a preexisting entity called “Syria,” a real whole that the French were trying to “divide.” But in 1925, “Syria” had never existed as an independent nation-state. (Indeed, since the rebels’ vision of “Syria” included Lebanon, Palestine, and Alexandretta, it arguably still has not.) Not even the borders of the Ottoman-era provinces in the region could be claimed as a precedent for the creation of such a state. Thus, when Qawuqji addressed the Ismaʿilis as “brothers in nationality,” he was, as Benjamin Thomas White observes, “not reflecting the actual existence of such a whole, but rather attempting to bring it into being.”[6] He was, as it were, trying to create a “myth of homogeneity.”

The rebel leadership clearly understood that sectarian divisions could be their undoing, and that the French would exploit that possibility. The rebels acted accordingly. Michael Provence cites an August 1925 letter from Sultan Pasha al-Atrash to the Greek Orthodox Patriarch in Damascus, “apologizing for rebel misdeeds, promising to compensate losses, guaranteeing security in the name of the insurgent government, and pledging to eliminate further problems.”[7] When Fawzi al-Qawuqji tried to seize Hama in October 1925, he designated a special unit to protect the city’s Christian neighborhoods.[8] A remarkable American diplomatic report from 1926 says, “Four men from the Bab-Sharki section of [Damascus] were kidnapped on March 25th but were allowed to return when it was found that they were Christians. …The rebels apparently are eager to avoid all signs of a religious struggle.”[9]

Unfortunately for the rebels, this solicitousness rarely motivated religious minorities in Syria (other than the Druze) to support them. Their gospel of a homogenous “Syrian nation,” in which sect would not matter, was simply not believed. One month before receiving Qawuqji’s letter, the Ismaʿilis of Salamiyya wrote to the French authorities, asking for support to form a 200-strong all-Ismaʿili cavalry unit to fend off attacks by rebels (and raids by Bedouin tribes who did not believe the gospel of Syria either).[10] While some Christian intellectuals supported the revolt, and some Christian villages like Saydnayya gave it material support (under varying degrees of duress), Christians who actually took up arms for the armed revolt appear to have been few in number indeed. (In my research, I have found three individuals.)[11] Overall, the reaction of a Christian jeweler in the village of al-Ruhaybah north of Damascus appears to have been representative: “We were warned on October 14 that the Druzes were coming to attack the region,” he told French investigators in September 1926, “and as I was the only Christian in the village, I left my home and came to seek refuge in Damascus.”[12]

These incidents testify to the enduring ways in which sectarian categories structured the thought and rhetoric of political actors in Mandate Syria. If Qawuqji did not have sectarian goals, he did have a sectarian vision. He perceived the Ismaʿilis as acting as a group against the revolution, he addressed them as a group, and he threatened them with the fate of another ethnoreligious group. Qawuqji took it for granted that the Ismaʿilis should be addressed as Ismaʿilis, just as the Christian jeweler of al-Ruhaybah took it for granted that his religious identity would make him a target for the rebels. And just as Qawuqji carried the memory of the extermination of a troublesome ethnoreligious group by the empire he had once fought for, so members of minority religious groups in Syria carried the memories of past large-scale violence against them.

During the mid-19th century, for reasons that scholars continue to debate, the lands of Syria witnessed unprecedented communal violence, culminating in the massacre of thousands of Christians by Druze fighters in Mount Lebanon, and the subsequent murder of thousands of more Christians by Sunni rioters in Damascus. The killings triggered a French military expedition to Mount Lebanon, which forced thousands of Druzes to leave their homes and relocate to southern Syria, where their descendants and coreligionists would launch the Great Syrian Revolt 65 years later.  Throughout the Revolt, Christian publications in Syria and Lebanon drew parallels between it and the 1860 violence. In August 1925, the second month of the revolt, the American consul in Damascus reported that after a minor quarrel between peasants outside of Damascus, “The sound of shooting aroused the Christian quarter, the inhabitants of which became panic stricken believing that the Druses had arrived in Damascus to massacre them” [13]  (again).

Rebel solicitousness towards religious minorities, and the rebel gospel of a non-sectarian Syria, were thus working against a long and complicated legacy: a religious hierarchy created by more than a millennium of Muslim rule in Syria, a colonial-era practice of Western intervention on behalf of Christians and other minorities, and powerful memories of large-scale communal violence.

Nevertheless, the rebels could not tolerate the minority groups’ reluctance to join them. The assertion that the revolution was for all “Syrians” regardless of sect would be meaningless if only “Syrians” from certain sects embraced the cause. The success of the rebels’ national vision required the enthusiastic assent and cooperation of groups which would be religious minorities within the nation they planned to create. If the rebels could not win their cooperation by solicitousness, they would have to try to compel it.

Qawuqji’s threatening letter to the Ismaʿilis is one of an entire genre of letters written by rebels to religious minorities. Elizabeth Thompson cites a rebel leaflet which charged Christians in Lebanon with being “complicit with foreigners against your brothers,” and urged them to “abandon resignation, which is sterile, and run for your sword.”[14] Provence documents a demand sent to “a prominent Greek Orthodox Christian” in December 1925, for either 800 Ottoman gold pounds or fifty rifles and thirty Greek Orthodox men to join the uprising. “The unmistakable impression,” Provence concludes, “is that [this rebel leader] sought men more than money and wanted to include Christians among his rebels.”[15] The American consul in Damascus reported in April 1926 that a Christian leaderin Damascus had received another rebel demand for money or men for the fight, “saying that so far, although the rebel cause was likewise theirs [the Christians’], they had done nothing to aid it.”[16] Qawuqji himself, in leading an assault on the Christian mountain town of Maʿalula, demanded that twenty men from the town join his rebel force in exchange for breaking off his attack.[17] The demand, like most, possibly all, of the others, was refused.

The effortless toggling in these letters between embrace and menace, between hailing religious minorities as “brothers in nationality and soil” and accusing them of treason and threatening them with genocide, exemplifies the nationalists’ dilemma. The rebel leaders felt compelled to resort to coercion to bring minorities into the fold. But the inherently threatening nature of this coercion made minorities even more loath to cooperate. The result was a spiral of exclusion and self-exclusion that imprinted a violent alienation onto minority status from the very birth of the Syrian nation-state, an alienation which resonates in Syrian political culture to this day.

In the event, the rebels’ attempts to coerce Christians into joining the Revolt often drove them further towards the arms of their ostensible protectors – the French. At the same time, the refusal of Christians to join the revolt strengthened the already-present perception among the rebel rank-and-file that the Christians were pro-French, and numerous incidents of anti-Christian violence ensued. Maʿalula was besieged repeatedly. Across southern Syria and Lebanon, thousands of Christians fled or were pushed out of their homes. When the Druzes arrived in al-Ruhaybah, the Christian jeweler’s Muslim neighbors burned his house down and looted his belongings. Events like this created new memories of violence, to which Christians and other minorities would return again and again. When France entered into negotiations over Syrian independence with Syrian nationalist leaders in 1936, leaders from religious minority communities across the Mandate territory wrote to the French authorities and to the League of Nations, warning of the dangers they would face as “minorities” in an independent Syria. They often cited the 1925 violence as an example.[18] 

Much recent scholarship has emphasized the historical novelty of “minorities” as a political category. This scholarship has tied the emergence of this category to the emergence of the modern nation-state in Eastern Europe and the Middle East after the destruction of the Ottoman and Hapsburg empires in World War I. The reasoning goes that it was only with the establishment of states whose raison d’être was to embody the will of a majority that the concept of “minorities” made sense. The modern nation-state, we are led to conclude, changed everything.

But in highlighting the novelty of minority politics and the nation-state, historians also should attend to the ways in which people’s experience of the past informed the way they integrated these new ideas into their politics and life experience. This calls for attention to historical continuities as well as novelties. The identification of Arabs and Sunnis as “the majority” and of Christians and Druzes as “minorities” within the “nation” of “Syria” might have all been new, but the way that Syrians received these new concepts was to a large extent determined by memories of past violence. That very process of reception, in turn, engendered more violence. Under French colonialism, the Syrian national state had a long and painful gestation, and the “minority” category in this state was marked from the beginning by violence and exclusion – not as a consequence of the functioning of the modern state, but because of the past’s long shadow.

Today, Syria is once again passing through a revolution. And once again, despite concerted efforts early on by the revolutionaries to create cross-sectarian bonds of solidarity against the regime, strikingly few religious minorities have been willing to shed the regime’s protection, and fewer still to make common cause with the rebel movement, which has become increasingly sectarian and extreme over time. The sobering power of these historical continuities should be a subject of reflection for historians.

Joel Veldkamp is a PhD student at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva, where he is writing a dissertation entitled “The Politics of Aleppo’s Christians and the Formation of the Syrian Nation-State: 1920-1936”. His research interests include modern Middle Eastern history, the history of sectarianism, U.S.-Syrian relations, and the history of Christianity.

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. For more information, please visit: https://themythofhomogeneity.org/

Scholars interested in contributing to the series can contact:

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

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


[1] Laila Parsons, The Commander: Fawzi al-Qawuqji and the Fight for Arab Independence, 1914-1948 (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016),83.

[2] Secret Despatch No. Pol/306/4 from Colonel G.B. Symes to the Secretary of State for the Colonies, 4 September 1925, [FO371/10851]. Original text not available; quote is from a (poor) British translation. Reprinted in ed. Bejtullah Destani, Minorities in the Middle East: Druze Communities, 1840-1974, (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Archive Editions, 2006),399

[3] Keeley to Kellogg, Despatch 295, December 3, 1925, 890d.00/328, 1910-1929 CDF, RG 59, USNA. Letter from Sultan al-Atrash enclosed.

[4] N.E. Bou-Nacklie, “Les Troupes Speciales: Religious and Ethnic Recruitment, 1916-46, » International Journal of Middle East Studies, 25:4, (Nov 1993), 646

[5] The State of Greater Lebanon, the State of the ʿAlawis, the State of Jabal Druze, the State of Syria and the Sanjak of Alexandretta, respectively. The latter was annexed by Turkey in 1939, the former still exists today as the Lebanese Republic; the others were eventually absorbed into the Republic of Syria.

[6] Benjamin Thomas White, The Emergence of Minorities in the Middle East: The Politics of Community in French Mandate Syria, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2011), 83

[7] Michael Provence, The Great Syrian Revolt and the Rise of Arab Nationalism (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2005),62

[8] Parsons, Commander, 72

[9] Keeley to Kellogg, Despatch 351, March 29, 1926, 890d.00/378, 1910-1929 CDF, RG 59, USNA

[10] White, Emergence of Minorities, 89

[11] Two Christian officers from Fawzi al-Qawuqji’s unit in Hama, and a mysterious figure named ʿUqla al-Qitami, a village leader from the Druze region who some French officers insisted was the bastard son of a Druze leader. See N. E. Bou-Nacklie, “Tumult in Syria’s Hama in 1925: The Failure of a Revolt,” Journal of Contemporary History 33, No. 2, (April 1998), 286, note 48; Provence, Great Syrian Revolt, 61

[12] Enquête du Colonel Raynal, 3ème Partie : Damas, Dossier de Procès-verbaux à Témoins, September 10, 1926, Levant, Syrie-Liban 1918-1940, Vol. 237, #156, Centre des Archives diplomatiques de La Courneuve.

[13] Keeley to Kellogg, Despatch 267, August 15, 1925, 890d.00/202, 1910-1929 CDF, RG 59, NA

[14] Elizabeth Thompson, Colonial Citizens: Republican Rights, Paternal Privilege, and Gender in French Syria and Lebanon, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000), 47

[15] Provence, Great Syrian Revolt, 119

[16] Keeley to Kellogg, Despatch 355, April 12, 1926, 890d.00/384 1910-1929 CDF, RG 59, USNA

[17] “Al-Thawra fii Jabaal al-Qalamoun,” [The revolution in the Qalamoun mountains] Al-Maҫarrat, No. 16, (July 1926), 419-429

[18] For example, on March 7, 1936, the bishops of Aleppo for seven different denominations wrote to the French High Commissioner, copying in the League of Nations’ Permanent Mandates Commission, to express their concern over the treaty negotiations: “In 1925, during the revolt in Syria, the Armenians of Damascus and the peaceful Christian farmers of Syria and Lebanon were pillaged and massacred.”

“PETITIONS, au nombre de 98, en six catégories, relatives à L’UNITE SYRIENNE,” May 28, 1936, p. 83, Syria: General,  Carton 4097, Jacket 4, 6A-4892-1469, UN Archives

Some Thoughts on the Origins of the Post-WWI Minorities Regime

We are proud to publish here the first post of our “Minorities in Contemporary and Historical Perspectives” series, which looks at majority-minority relations in a multi-disciplinary and diachronic perspective. Today’s contribution, by Professor Laura Robson (Portland State University), provides some considerations on the origin, nature and purpose of the Minorities Regime established by the Great Powers at the end of the First World War. The series is a collaboration with H-Nationalism.

The treaties of Versailles, Sèvres, San Remo, and Lausanne are sometimes conceived as the beginnings of a new kind of international rights regime, prefiguring the legal edifice of “human rights” that began to emerge after 1945 and eventually became a central aspect of Cold War internationalism. And indeed, the treaty arrangements of the postwar period did collectively produce a new language of international diplomacy that replaced a nineteenth century imperial discourse of “civilization” and “race” with a twentieth century discourse of rights: in particular, the rights of minorities, which came to stand as a representation of a new and theoretically more politically equitable global order. But this rhetoric did not actually signal the birth of a new political system. It served instead as a kind of code, intended to veil the old-fashioned militarism of this new form of extractive empire and to put in place procedures for reinforcing, without acknowledging, the racial hierarchies that underlay the system’s careful differentiation of sovereign rights across the globe. In other words, the peace agreements of 1919-1923 represented an attempt to appropriate an emerging language of national rights, and especially minority rights, for the purpose of maintaining an older imperial order. 

In 1919, the architects of the peace agreements who came together at Versailles faced a fundamental problem. They had spent the last four years fighting a war that was essentially in defense of more or less permanent imperial expansion, but whose trajectory had inadvertently led to a considerable strengthening of anti-imperialism across the globe – particularly in the Bolshevik sphere, where Lenin was making declarations of withdrawal from Russia’s imperial commitments as a way of winning adherents to his cause. So the question for the peacemakers – particularly representatives of Britain and France, who were absolutely determined to make their brutal four years pay dividends – was how to reconcile the anti-colonial feeling of the day with their undiminished imperial ambitions. Facing this difficulty, the political and diplomatic leaders of the old “Great Powers” began envisioning a new global order comprised of self-consciously modern, theoretically sovereign states under the continued economic and political authority of the old imperial powers.

The first “rights” frameworks to emerge were the multiple minorities treaties signed with the new states emerging out of the shatterzones of the Ottoman, Russian, and Austro-Hungarian empires. All modeled after the first treaty signed with Poland at Versailles in 1919, they called for equal rights for all citizens, the free exercise of religion and cultural practice, and some mechanisms for protecting cultural distinctiveness. Though they agreed on little else, representatives of the United States, France, and Britain all concurred that the League must not guarantee universal protections for minorities that would apply in their own metropoles; and so the treaties were limited to the “new or immature states of Eastern Europe or Western Asia” – thereby deliberately enshrining the idea that minority communities represented a legitimate site of external intervention into the affairs of theoretically sovereign but less “civilized” nations.[1] In other words, they deployed the emerging concept of minority as a new legitimization of an old practice: Great Power political, economic, and military intervention in the Balkans and beyond.[2]

Simultaneously and relatedly, the Allied architects of the peace treaties declared that the post-war project of drawing new maps would reflect national interests – thus hopefully appeasing nationalist sentiment while reserving the right to construct new states in ways that would support ongoing imperial ambitions. Arguments over the shape and demographic makeup of Poland, Hungary, and Romania – among many others – were cloaked in a rights-based language about self-determination and nationhood, but actually represented Allied efforts to isolate Germany and construct a cordon sanitaire between themselves and the Bolsheviks.[3] In the Treaty of Lausanne, signed in 1923, this imperially sponsored construction of nationality was taken to a new level. Lausanne formalized what was euphemistically called a “population exchange” between the new revolutionary Turkish government of Mustafa Kemal and Eleftherios Venizelos’ Greek administration, forcibly denationalizing approximately 1.2 million Anatolian “Greeks” and 350,000 Muslim “Turks” under the aegis of the League of Nations. This 1923 exchange confirmed the post-war Allied commitment to deploying a language of “national rights” and minority protection to support the political and, especially, economic interests of their own empires. Fridtjof Nansen expressed the combination of these criteria precisely in a statement to the Commission in 1922, saying that the “Great Powers” supported the exchange because “to unmix the populations of the Near East … is the quickest and most efficacious way of dealing with the grave economic results [of the war].”[4]

In other words, the appearance of a new discourse of minority rights – and its corollary, minority “exchange” – in the post-WWI treaties was almost entirely instrumentalist. Its primary rationale was not to protect minorities in Eastern Europe or the Ottoman sphere but to smooth the path for imperial powers to create new forms of informal authority and friendly client states for a new postcolonial era. As Mark Sykes – co-author of the infamous Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916 – wrote during the 1919 peace conference, “Imperialism, annexation, military triumph, prestige, White man’s burdens, have been expunged from the popular political vocabulary, consequently Protectorates, spheres of interest or influence, annexations, bases etc., have to be consigned to the Diplomatic lumber-room.”[5] Luckily, it seemed, the rhetoric of national – and especially minority – rights that was gaining such currency around the globe would substitute nicely.

Laura Robson is Professor of history at Portland State University in Portland, Oregon. Her most recent books are States of Separation: Transfer, Partition, and the Making of the Modern Middle East(University of California Press, 2017) and the edited volume Partitions: A Transnational History of 20th Century Territorial Separatism (with Arie Dubnov; Stanford University Press, 2019).

Scholars interested in contributing to the series can contact:

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

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


[1] Albania, Austria, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Estonia, Greece, Hungary, Iraq, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Turkey, and Yugoslavia.

[2] And fitting into a much longer practice of international diplomacy that sought to formalize relations among the “three elements of the international legal order” identified by legal historian Nathaniel Berman: “(1) a substantively grounded international community … ; (2) sovereigns, whose ‘potency’ and ‘serenity’ are periodically reimagined; (3) those viewed as not full participants in the community of sovereigns, those ‘Vassals, Subjects, People.’ ” See Nathaniel Berman, Passion and Ambivalence: Colonialism, Nationalism, and International Law (Leiden: Nijhoff Publishers, 2012), 58.

[3] Carole Fink, Defending the Rights of Others: The Great Powers, The Jews, and International Minority Protection, 1878-1938 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 119.

[4] Great Britain, Parliamentary Papers, Turkey No. 1 (1923) Lausanne Conference on Near Eastern Affairs, 1922-1923 (Cmd. 1814) (London: HMSO, 1923), 117.

[5] Sykes, “Our Position in Mesopotamia in Relation to the Spirit of the Age,” FO 800/22. The full document is also reprinted in Helmut Mejcher, The Imperial Quest for Oil: Iraq 1910-1928 (London: Middle East Centre, St. Antony’s College, 1976), appendix 2.

The Myth of Homogeneity Podcast Series

Episode 1 – The Ambiguities of Assimilation: Minority-Majority Relations in Italy under Fascism

The Myth of Homogeneity Team is proud to launch the first episode of the Myth of Homogeneity Podcast Series. Aiming to disseminate findings from our research project to the widest possible audience, this series of podcasts offers a mix of case-study discussion, updates on our work in progress, curious things we encountered during our research and wanted to dig in deeper, and some behind the scene information about the work of historians.

The first episode, entitled The Ambiguities of Assimilation: Minority-Majority Relations in Italy under Fascism, is based on a talk given by Emmanuel at the Graduate Institute in March 2019. Here, he and Mona discuss the policies of assimilation carried out by Mussolini’s regime against the German and Yugoslav minorities that inhabited the Italian regions of South Tyrol and Venetia Giulia at the time. The episode shows how the fascists’ approach to assimilation was flawed by two structural weaknesses: on the one hand, the regime did not realise that its expectations were too optimistic given the capabilities it had to realise them; on the other, fascist authorities believed that the minorities could not but assimilate and become truly Italian, however, at the same time, they deeply distrusted them.

We hope you enjoy it and we would especially appreciate if you left us some feedback in the comment section at the bottom of the page.

This podcast would have never been possible without the help of Davide Rodogno, Ruxandra Stoicescu, Joshua Thew, Guillaume Pasquier and the financial support of the Swiss National Science Foundation. We thank them very much for that.

Sovereignty and Homogeneity, 1919-1939

Majority-Minority Relations in Interwar Western Europe

At the end of last June, the Council for European Studies of Columbia University held its annual meeting at the University Carlos III of Madrid. Luckily, the theme of the Conference—Sovereignties in Contention:
Nations, Regions and Citizens in Europe
—was in line with our wider research; hence, we did not have to twist our abstract too much in order to be admitted to this very important gathering of Europeanists. The conference offered a great opportunity to show some preliminary findings from our comparative research on majority-minority relations in Belgium, Italy and Spain.

Authors’ elaboration.

A few elements of context, before going into detail. At the end of the Great War, minority treaties were imposed on the countries arising from the dissolution of the Eastern empires. That involved the guarantee of individual rights such as the right to life and liberty, non-discrimination and religious freedom, as well as some collective minority-specific educational and cultural rights to a series of minorities in about 15 countries. The most salient features of this system of treaties were that the rights protecting minorities were guaranteed by the League of Nations and that the system only concerned the Eastern part of the continent. Was this ‘asymmetry’ between Eastern and Western Europe due to the fact that there were no minorities in Western Europe? Not at all.

As Table 1 above shows, although the share of national minorities in Eastern European states was much higher on average than in the West of the continent, there were still sizeable minority groups in European countries that were not subjected to the League’s system. The data is especially significant if one considers that concerning Belgium only the German-speaking population of the Eastern cantons was taken into account in the table. Below, on the contrary, we will consider the Flemish inhabitants of Belgium as a sociological minority.

Overall, there were about 32 million people belonging to a national minority in interwar Europe and approximately 8 million lived in the West, that is outside the jurisdiction of the minority system of the League of Nations. There are several reasons why the system was not extended to all members of the League. On the one hand, the Great Powers wanted to avoid the application of the minority clauses to their own territory (and their colonies). Second, there was a widespread assumption that Western European countries were more homogenous than Eastern European ones and, in any case, better able to deal with these groups without threatening the just re-established peace. Such civilisational hierarchy, whereby Eastern European countries were seen as more backward and immature, was at the core of the asymmetry of the minority protection system.

A first question that we tried to answer—although only superficially for reasons of scope—is whether Western European countries did treat their minorities better than Eastern European ones, as it was widely believed at the time. Belgium, Italy and Spain experienced prolonged periods of majority-minority strain during the interwar years and are therefore an interesting acid test to evaluate state policy towards minorities.

Authors’ elaboration.

Table 2 above provides a quick comparison between our case-study countries and some selected Eastern European ones. Western European states did not necessarily fare better than their Eastern colleagues. For instance, being heavily influenced by the terrible record of the Fascist regime, Italy treated its minorities worse than probably any other country in the table (with the exception, possibly, of Poland during the 1930 ‘pacification’ of Eastern Galicia). Spain’s profile oscillates between the harsh persecution carried out by General Primo de Rivera and the very liberal regime of the Second Republic. However, as the latter lasted only about 5 years (excluding the Civil War period), the overall balance is probably more in line with Poland’s performance than with the more liberal policies adopted by Estonia and Czechoslovakia. Finally, in Belgium, state policies did follow liberal principles, although, as we will see later, one can still see in-built tendencies towards some forms of assimilation of minority groups.

The literature on Eastern Europe highlights three domains of social and political life that were especially conducive to majority-minority conflict: the attribution of citizenship to members of the minority group, the use of language in the education system, and economic relations. We therefore decided to look at those same dimensions in our cases. Additionally, and more generally, we considered the presence of forms of overt violence and persecution.

Citizenship was potentially an issue for those national minorities that found themselves living in a new state after the War. This was the case with the German-speaking populations of South Tyrol and the Eupen-Malmédy district in Italy and Belgium respectively, as well as with the Slovenian and Croatian speakers annexed to the Italian Kingdom. While in some Eastern European countries the procedure of attribution of citizenship gave room to episodes of overt discrimination, this was not generally the case in Belgium. Similarly, Italian authorities tended to respect guarantees in line with those established in the minority treaties, but the archives reveal a quite disturbing attitude on the part of then liberal elites towards the so-called re-deemed Italians of South Tyrol. The attribution of citizenship involved different procedures according to the specific profile of the new inhabitants of the Kingdom. In most cases, citizenship could not be rejected (what changed was whether this was automatically given or whether the individual had to apply for it). However, one specific procedure, called elezione, required the evaluation of the application on the part of a commission and the application could be rejected. For a number of reasons, about 200 German-speaking South Tyrolean teachers applied for citizenship following this bureaucratic path. Eying the possibility to gain some jobs, the Association of teachers of the neighbouring province of Trento asked the Ministry of Education to remove the South Tyrolean instructors from their position while the evaluation of their application was pending. The fact that the Ministry seriously contemplated dismissing these, speaks volumes about the little sensitivity of then liberal Italian elites towards minorities.

A flyer promoting a summer school in Catalan organised by the Generalitat (the autonomous government of Catalonia) in 1932.

Education was probably the main field in which the ‘battle for the hearts and minds’ of members of minority groups was fought. In all our cases, national cleavages went along with linguistic differentiation. Hence, education in the mother tongue was key to the preservation of the language and culture of the minority population (or the non-dominant group in the Flemish case). A clear distinction can be drawn between liberal and autocratic regimes. Both Spain under Primo de Rivera and Italy during the Fascist dictatorship of Benito Mussolini pursued a policy of forced assimilation of national minorities that is not to be found in liberal regimes. Both governments outlawed teaching in the minority language and imposed Italian/Spanish as the only language of instruction. The assimilationist effort, of course, affected also the teaching of history and geography, which came to be coloured with a distinctively Italian/Spanish nationalist flavour. However, contrary to Mussolini, Primo de Rivera did not aim at the complete disappearance of the minority language. In Catalonia, for instance, the number of newspapers and books produced in Catalan in fact increased and the regime funded studies on the Catalan language. Yet, Primo de Rivera conceived of Catalan as a regional folkloric language that did not have to constitute an obstacle on the way of the Castillanisation of the masses.

Liberal regimes behaved better towards their minorities. Yet, one can see in-built tendencies to assimilation even there. Liberal Italy died too soon to give a clear-cut judgment on its policy towards minorities, also because the seven governments that were in power between the end of the conflict and the March on Rome often acted confusedly and inconsistently with their new citizens. Yet, especially in Venetia Giulia, there were clear early attempts at Italianising the area by closing down schools in the minority language and dismissing teachers of Slav origins. Monarchic Spain, up to the beginning of the dictatorship in 1923, did not allow teaching in minority language in public schools. Yet, the early interwar period was a time of experimentation during which the first schools in the local language were opened up, especially in Catalonia. The situation improved considerably under the Second Republic (from 1931 to the beginning of the Civil War in 1936) and with the creation of the Generalitat (the Catalan autonomous government). Primary public schools in Barcelona taught pupils in their mother tongue and state schools in the rest of Catalonia introduced professorships in the Catalan language. Also, a parallel educational network in Catalan (financed by the Generalitat) was set up, while Catalan was used as a language of instruction in universities. The German minority in Belgium quickly obtained a status that, at least in principle, ensured the preservation of local identity. As a matter of fact, the territory of the Eastern Cantons was divided in two parts: Eupen and St Vith, that were mostly inhabited by German-speakers; and Malmedy, which was majority francophone. In the first area, German was the main language of instruction and French had to be taught as a second language from the 5th grade. The opposite occurred in the second area. Yet, a clause allowed schools to introduce the second language already from the first grade and it was extensively used, citing as a reason the need to prepare pupils to higher education (which was offered exclusively in French). In 1920, the government declared primary and secondary school diplomas obtained in Germany or Austria invalid in Belgium to stop the outflow of children being sent to study in the area of Aachen, beyond the border (a habit that existed already before the annexation).

This poster announced a protest against the Nolf Bill that partially Dutchified the University of Ghent. Here, Flemish-minded student complain about the ‘half-Dutchification’ of the institution.

The most interesting case of problematic majority-minority relations with regard to the use of language is probably that of Flanders. First, this case is interesting because the borders between majority and minority become blurred. From a demographic perspective, the Flemish population of Belgium was a majority, but from a sociological point of view it was a minority, since the state was dominated by francophone elites and French was the high-status language in the country. The interwar years are a time of transition in which the power imbalance between francophone and Dutch speakers came to be partially redressed. This appears clearly in the establishment, in 1930, of the first Dutch-speaking university in Ghent. Although one would struggle to find signs of deliberate attempts at the Frenchification of Flanders, the fact that the campaign to obtain state-funded university teaching in the language of the majority of the country lasted more than three decades, bears witness to the strong resistance opposed by francophone elites to the recognition of equality between French and Dutch in the country. Furthermore, while equality could have meant bilingualism throughout the country, regional monolingualism (Dutch in Flanders, French in Wallonia), with the exception of Brussels, prevailed. In other words, in the face of a situation in which no linguistic group could impose its own language on the other, segmentation along linguistic lines won over to the disadvantage of linguistic minorities in each region (the francophones in Flanders and the Flemings in Wallonia). Regional homogeneity was the price to be paid for unity and equality between Flemings and Walloon at the state level.

This apparently innocuous group of Italian engineers was making measurements in the area of Bolzano where an industrial zone designed to provide jobs for (pure) Italian workers would arise on land expropriated from German speakers.

In the area of the economy, the distinction between liberal and autocratic regimes is not so meaningful as with regard to education. Italy’s fascist regime excelled in discriminating against German and Slav-speakers. It forced them to close down their economic organisations (that it saw as inherently pursuing irredentist goals) and expropriated land owned by locals in order to colonise it with Italians from the so-called old provinces. In Spain, however, one does not find much evidence of such economic discrimination. This was probably due to the fact that the two major minority areas, Catalonia and the Basque Country, were by far the richest and most industrialised regions of Spain. Also, an important part of the Catalan bourgeoisie (even the moderately nationalist one) in fact supported Primo de Rivera’s putsch for ideological reasons—they hoped that it would curb the rise of the workers’ movement in Barcelona. Similarly, there is no evidence of major deliberate discriminatory policies in liberal regimes. Yet, economic discrimination occurred at the social level without the government intervening to redress it (or not sufficiently). This was the case with monolingual Dutch-speakers in Belgium. Business life in Flanders (as well as in the wider country) was dominated by French, which meant that knowledge of this language was essential for career advancement. Flemish speakers, who represented the majority of the population, had to learn French if they wanted to break the glass ceiling hovering over their heads since their childhood. More generally, in a country in which speaking Flemish was associated with being uneducated and poor, while speaking French marked somebody as belonging to the higher classes, there was considerable social pressure on individuals of Flemish origins to switch to French.

A picture of the fascist assault to the Narodni Dom (the social and cultural centre of the Slovenian community of Triest) in July 1920.

If one excludes the exceptional period of the Spanish Civil War, violence did not reach excessive proportions with clear episodes of ethnic cleansing. Yet, autocratic regimes did make use of violence both on their way to power and once in office. Italian Fascists in particular carried out violent raids against Slovene and Croatian speakers in Venetia Giulia (and to a much lower extent against German speakers in South Tyrol) in the period 1919-1922. The fire of the Slovenian National Cultural Centre in Triest (Narodni Dom) is probably the most extreme instance of this wider campaign conducted by the black shirts against the Slav minority. There were no episodes of deliberate violence against minorities during liberal regimes, but there is abundant evidence of substantial pressure being exercised by Belgian authorities on the population of Eupen and Malmedy during the so-called consultation. The Treaty of Versailles had imposed a plebiscite without secret ballot in order to confirm Belgium’s annexation of these two districts. The consultation lasted between January and June 1920. During those six months the inhabitants of the districts could sign registers held in the municipalities of Eupen and Malmedy to declare their opposition to the annexation. Both German and neutral observers denounced widespread intimidations on the part of Belgian officials.

Authors’ elaboration.

In the concluding part of the presentation, we tried to visually represent the policies of different regimes towards their minorities using an analytical framework based on two main axis: inclusion vs. exclusion and homogenisation vs. recognition. The first axis pertains to the possibility that the minority be considered part of the wider (state) political community. If this is not deemed to be possible, one obtains a series of segregationist policies, while on the contrary assimilation or integration prevails. The second axis refers to the recognition (or not) of national/cultural difference. Republican Spain and Belgium managed to provide both inclusion in the wider community (although to different levels) and recognition of difference (in Belgium that evolved substantially during the period). That is also the case with Liberal Italy, although to a lower extent than the two regimes above. In this respect, one also needs to differentiate between the policies pursued in South Tyrol and in Venetia Giulia. These three regimes mostly followed an integrationist approach. Monarchic Spain and Primo de Rivera’s dictatorship, on the contrary, showed much less tolerance for difference and can be therefore considered as having pursued pure assimilationist policies (although the latter to a much greater extent than the former). The main difference between Monarchic Spain and Liberal Italy is that public education in minority language was allowed in the latter, but not in the former. Finally, Fascist Italy followed an inherently ambiguous policy. On the one hand, it rhetorically proclaimed that the inhabitants of South Tyrol and Venetia Giulia were redeemed Italians, thus making clear the possibility (even asserting the inevitability) of their integration. On the other, however, fascist authorities strongly discriminated against members of these two minorities in different areas of social life and deeply mistrusted even those Slav or German speakers who showed commitment to the fascist party itself.

The Supreme Court of Spain in Madrid. @M.Peinado

During the evenings and in the afternoon following the end of the conference we could also take advantage of visiting the city of Madrid. A walk in the wonderful Parc del Buen Retiro continued into a stroll in the nearby upscale neighbourhood of Salesas. Wandering around, from one street to the other, we eventually ended up in front of the Supreme Court of Spain (Tribunal Supremo), where a trial against the leaders of the Catalan independence movement had just been closed ten days before. It was a powerful reminder that strained majority-minority relations in Europe are not a thing of the past.