Was there a ‘Wilsonian Moment’ in Western Europe?

A tale of enthusiasm, disappointment and the wild haggis!

Original photo by the US Signal Corps

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The mysterious wild haggis.

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

The Myth of Homogeneity

Minority Protection and Assimilation in Western Europe, 1919-1939

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

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

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

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