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.

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.

The parallel histories of humanitarian interventions and minority rights

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.

The French intervention in Lebanon in 1860 painted by Jean-Adolphe Beaucé

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.

The territorial acquisitions of the countries arising from the Russian-Turkish War after the Treaty of Santo Stefano (on the left) and the Congress of Berlin (on the right).

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 asymmetry characterising the minority protection system (the countries in red signed minorities treaties or declarations, the others did not).

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.

Graham’s book was one of the major interwar contributions to the advancement of the doctrine of humanitarian intervention.

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.

A picture of a wonderful bay in the Suomelinna Islands a few kilometres off Helsinki’s coast.

Our warmest thanks go to the conference conveners for their masterful organisation of the event and of our stay.

Was there a ‘Wilsonian Moment’ in Western Europe?

A tale of enthusiasm, disappointment and the wild haggis!

Original photo by the US Signal Corps

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The mysterious wild haggis.

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

MoH Conferences 2019

For the last year and a half, the Myth of Homogeneity Team has been busy with everything that belongs to a History research project: visits to the archives, secondary research, source analysis, the organization of a workshop, putting down our first ideas on (virtual) paper – and trying to keep the sugar intake at a humanly level while doing so. As part of our work – arguably the most important one – is to share our knowledge with the world, we have also been preparing for the participation in several conferences in 2019.

We are thus happy to announce our participation in three conferences this year:

1. 29th Annual Conference of the Association for the Study of Ethnicity and Nationalism (ASEN): Nationalism and Self-Determination
(Edinburgh, April 24-25)

At this year’s ASEN conference, we will present a paper entitled “Was there a Wilsonian moment in Western Europe?  Self-Determination in Catalonia, Flanders and the Italian New Provinces in the immediate post-IWW period”.

In this paper, Emmanuel and Mona are taking somewhat of a bird’s-eye view onto the post-WWI international arena that started to be shaped increasingly by President Wilson’s 14 points, particularly his principle of national self-determination. While in the mind of the negotiators at Versailles the principle’s application had to be limited to the new states arising from the dissolution of the Eastern Empire, its implicit universal nature appealed to a wider audience of peoples and minorities throughout the world. The traction of the principle of self-determination among stateless peoples and national minorities in Western European countries has not yet been studied in a comparative perspective. Looking at the arguments and strategies of nationalist movements in Catalonia, Flanders and the Italian New Provinces in the years 1919-1923, this papers aims to provide a clearer picture of the popularity and expediency of self-determination in those years. It thus tackles some of the central themes of this year’s ASEN Conference such as: the practice of self-determination, the League of Nations and minorities questions, nation without states vs. nation-states, and the nation-state as the key objective of nationalist movements.

For more information, see:

2. 26th International Conference of Europeanists (CES): Sovereignties in Contention: Nations, Regions and Citizens in Europe
(Madrid, June 20-22)

In Madrid, Emmanuel will be joining the panel Claiming vs. keeping sovereignty with a co-authored paper by him and Mona entitled “Sovereignty and Homogeneity, 1919-1939: A History of Assimilation in Interwar Western Europe”.
This paper works as an update on our project’s progress so far, incorporating some of the results from archival research conducted in both Italy and Belgium. The paper employs a comparative perspective on national assimilation in interwar Western Europe, specifically comparing Italy, Belgium and Spain.
The panel will be addressing broader questions of assimilation and sovereignty in Europe with case studies from Spain, France and Hungary. The conference promises to be a stimulating experience, especially considering it taking place in the capital of a nation-state which borders are currently being questioned.

For more information, see:

3. University of Vienna, Institut für Zeitgeschichte
(Vienna, November 14)

Following a personal invitation from our colleague Sarah Knoll, Emmanuel and Mona will be visiting Vienna for a presentation on the updated version of our paper “The Ambivalent Legacy of Minority Protection for Human Rights”, which we have presented at our workshop at the Graduate Institute in December 2018. We will be using the time in Vienna to connect with Sarah and her colleagues from the Institut für Zeitgeschichte and to receive feedback to finalize our paper for journal submission.

If you are planning on attending any of the above events, leave us a comment so we can connect in person.
For further inquiries about the project or conference participation, contact either Emmanuel or Mona under

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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