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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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].”
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
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:
 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.
 Carole Fink, Defending the Rights of Others: The Great Powers, The Jews, and
International Minority Protection, 1878-1938 (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 2006), 119.
Britain, Parliamentary Papers, Turkey No.
1 (1923) Lausanne Conference on Near Eastern Affairs, 1922-1923 (Cmd. 1814)
(London: HMSO, 1923), 117.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The MoH team at the International Conference ‘Versailles and Rights’ in Helsinki
Last June, Davide and Emmanuel were invited to give a talk at the International Conference ‘Versailles and Rights: A Centenary Appraisal’, organised by the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies and the Karelian Institute of the University of Eastern Finland. The event, involving about twenty international scholars, examined different aspects of the Versailles Peace Conference as a major turning point in the history of rights and the transition from empires to nation-states.
On this occasion, we decided to present some findings from the Myth of Homogeneity research project—notably about the antecedents, organisation and eventual failure of the minority protection system of the League of Nations—along with insights from Davide’s long-standing research on the history of humanitarian interventions. Indeed, while brainstorming a possible topic for this conference, we quickly found out that minority rights and humanitarian interventions have a strangely intertwined and, at the same time, parallel history.
Humanitarian interventions arose and developed during the 19th century as a ‘last resort’ used by the Western powers belonging to the so-called Concert of Europe to impose on the Ottoman Empire respect for religious rights of Christian minorities. As a practice, they evolved with little codification and rather as a series of ad hoc measures adopted by specific states in a context of blatant power asymmetries between these and the slowly crumbling Sublime Porte. Such interventions were no early instance of human rights protection, but they were rather aimed at serving the interests of the Major Powers and at ensuring the preservation of peace and security in the European continent. They were also tainted by clear civilisational hierarchies, whereby on the ‘backward’ Ottoman Empire rules had to be imposed by external forces in order to become a civilised member of international society.
The Bulgarian horrors of 1875 led to the first direct encounter between humanitarian intervention and minority rights in their modern form of protection of national minorities. On the occasion of those massacres Western European powers stood by. The Russian Empire then waged a war (whose rhetoric was that of a humanitarian intervention) against the Ottoman Empire. The victory of the Russians and the Treaty of San Stefano, whose conditions were not acceptable to the other members of the Concert of Europe, internationalised the question and eventually brought all protagonists to the Congress of Berlin in 1878. Minority rights became a crucial part of the peace hammered out there.
At Berlin, minority rights were not an absolute novelty, but the Congress did represent the first multilateral treaty in which foreign powers not involved in the conflict imposed extensive clauses on new states, not only in exchange for recognition, but also for specific grants of territory. One important element of continuity with the previous practice of humanitarian intervention was the adoption of a paternalist approach whereby the new states had to accept treaty clauses protecting minorities because they were considered backward; hence, they had to conform to supposedly Western European standards in order to join the Family of Nations.
However, the Treaty of Berlin did not include any enforcement mechanism. In addition, as the century drew to a close, the Great Powers grew increasingly reluctant to militarily intervene into the affairs of other states. In the first decade of the 20th century, the fate of minorities worsened considerably and this deterioration culminated in the open violence and ethnic cleansing committed by all participants in the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913. Paradoxically, as an important precedent to the creation of a multilateral system of minority rights was established at Berlin (and would be used as a source of inspiration at Versailles), European powers became ever more wary to enforce such rights through diplomatic and military action. On the eve of the First World War, the prospects for minority rights looked grim to say the least. The reasons why humanitarian interventions declined after the Treaty of Berlin of 1878 are systemic. Each potential case for intervention endangered the stability of the international system and peace in Europe. The clearest examples of this situation were the massacres of Ottoman Armenians in the 1890s and early 1900s. In these instances, all the ingredients favourably preparing the ground for intervention were reunited. Still, no military effort took place. At the same time, international legal scholars began putting forward the first theories of humanitarian intervention based upon actions carried out throughout the recently ended century.
The Conference of Versailles represented a ‘triumph’ for minority rights. The recognition of self-determination as one of the main principles of political legitimacy in international relations coupled with the acknowledgment that not all peoples (or not in their entirety) could be granted a state of their own turned minority rights into a convenient solution to reconciling Wilsonian ideas and the geographical complexity of the Eastern European map. The minority treaties and the international guarantee provided by the League of Nations led to the establishment of a minority protection system involving 15 countries, 50 minorities and 30 million people. Yet, this system had two fundamental flaws that bear an important relation with humanitarian intervention: it was asymmetrical and it lacked strong enforcement mechanisms.
On the one hand, the Great Powers imposed minority protection on the new states of Eastern Europe, but sternly rejected its extension not only to themselves, but also to other Western European countries, despite the presence of sizeable minorities within their borders. Such a contradiction fundamentally undermined the system. It also portrayed the lingering on of those civilisation hierarchies that had informed the practice of humanitarian interventions in the 19th century as well as the Congress of Berlin. Only, this time, such hierarchies had somehow ‘moved West’ since territories formerly belonging to the Habsburg Empire (and therefore considered as being part of the family of civilised nations) were now deemed backward and requiring international supervision. On the other hand, the lack of willingness on the part of the Great Powers to intervene in order to guarantee the respect of the treaties made that the minority states could do away with the non-fulfilment of the minority clauses.
The paradox whereby the decline of humanitarian intervention as an international practice went along with its formulation as a doctrine continued during the interwar years. In 1924, the American scholar Malbone W. Graham hoped that the League of Nations would become the central authority in charge of international security and would provide an effective safeguard for the emerging concept of human rights. Similarly, André Mandelstam argued that the founding of the League of Nations and the associated move toward universality meant that all states were now obligated to protect human rights around the world without exception. Graham and Mandelstam referred explicitly to the 19th century model of humanitarian intervention, but now separated it from the ‘sentimental law of humanity’ as well as the division of ‘uncivilised’ and ‘civilised’ nations. Instead, for the first time, they linked the practice directly to an international organisation such as the League of Nations and what they believed was the emerging notion of universal human rights. However, neither Graham’s nor Mandelstam’s idealistic hopes that the League might serve as the new international authority for humanitarian intervention were fulfilled. The Geneva-based organisation did not possess the kind of robust mechanisms needed to implement a ‘world contract’ on human rights. These voices were representatives of a shrinking, disappearing world of progressive cosmopolitan professors in stark contrast with the reality of the 1920s and 1930s.
However, the conference did not end on this negative note. Although the shadow of the 1930s weighs heavily on the interwar years, casting them as a dreadful age of rising authoritarianism and collapsing international cooperation, it was also a time of hope and experimentation, as many of the contributions to this gathering showed. If, borrowing the title of Zara Steiner’s book, it was a period in which ‘the lights failed’, it means that there were lights in the first place – although they were certainly not as bright as the sun in the sky over Helsinki during the first days of June 2019.
Our warmest thanks go to the conference conveners for their masterful organisation of the event and of our stay.
A tale of enthusiasm, disappointment and the wild haggis!
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.
‘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.
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.
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 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.
All our thanks to the organisers of the conference for the wonderful work they did!
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.
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.
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.
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.
A series of blog posts in partnership with H-Nationalism
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 sequence 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 page. Blog posts will be open for civil, moderated comments from our academic subscribers.