Sovereignty, Nationalism and the Quest for Homogeneity in Interwar Europe

Our edited volume with Bloomsbury Academics has eventually gone into production

In September 2022, Bloomsbury Academics announced that the edited volume Sovereignty, Nationalism and the Quest for Homogeneity in Interwar Europe, which Emmanuel, Davide and Mona have been putting together for the last two years, has eventually gone into production and should be released in May 2023.

It has been a long and twisted journey, marked by the pandemic and other dramatic events, first of all the sudden demise of Eric Weitz, who was supposed to write the conclusion of the volume and to whom this will be dedicated. The Myth of Homogeneity team started working on it in March 2020, right after having held the workshop Sovereignty, Nationalism and Homogeneity in Europe between the World Wars, the last event before the first wave of lockdowns due to the Covid-19 pandemic began. The event was co-organised with the Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy (more info on it in our podcast on the event here).

The volume bridges the East-West divide still existing in the historiography of minority questions in interwar Europe. It also puts together contributions examining majority-minority relations from different perspectives, notably comparative, bottom-up and transnational. It includes discussions of: the transition from empires to nation-states with an innovative comparison of traditional cases of imperial breakdown, such as the Ottoman and Habsburg empires, with the United Kingdom, usually considered in this context as a nation-state rather than a composite monarchy; the Paris system and how the new international order inaugurated in the French capital extended its influence over the entire continent causing quests for national homogeneity in different European regions; the concept of national indifference, its applicability to the interwar years and its alternatives; and the transnational organisations and networks of activists that defended minority rights, either directly, as in the case of the Congress of European Nationalities, or as part of a broader concern for peace and international collaboration, as in the case of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.

Through 14 chapters and thanks to an outstanding line-up of authors (see below for the full list), the volume fills an important gap in the historiography of the interwar years, touching upon a wide range of topics such as the history of nationalism, internationalism, minority questions, human rights, activism and gender.

The volume features contributions from: Omer Bartov, Mona Bieling, Alison Carrol, Jane K. Cowan, Emmanuel Dalle Mulle, Sabine Dullin, Marina Germane, Brian Hughes, Alvin Jackson, Pieter M. Judson, Olga Linkiewicz, Xosé M. Núñez Seixas, Volker Prott, Davide Rodogno, David J. Smith and Erol Ülker.

Minorities in Contemporary and Historical Perspective: 1919-2020 and Beyond

The Minorities in Contemporary and Historical Perspectives Monthly Series comes to an end. Thanks to all our authors for their insightful contributions and to our readers for their attention.

In these days of looming confined holidays and mass vaccination campaigns, majority-minority relations might not strike as the topic of the day. However, several posts in our Minorities in Contemporary and Historical Perspective series suggest that cultural, linguistic and national differences in modern societies can still be a source of contention and often require setting up specific political arrangements to further positive inter-group relations. The first part of our series privileges an historical approach inquiring into the origins of minority questions and dissecting long-term trends in majority-minority relations.

Laura Robson starts off our discussion with a lucid piece about the establishment of the first minority protection regime by the League of Nations in 1919. Robson argues that, behind the smokescreen of minority rights, Great Power interest and colonial exploitation could be pursued under a veneer of international respectability. Hence, ‘new forms of informal authority and friendly client states’ were created at Versailles, which would eventually undermine the legitimacy of the League of Nations regime. In the Middle East, as well as in Eastern Europe, the transition from imperial sovereignties to the nationalist system sanctioned at the Paris Peace Conference unleashed strong homogenising dynamics. Focusing on the case of Christian minorities in French-Occupied Syria, Joel Veldkamp examines the ‘nationalist dilemma’ confronted by Syrian nation-builders. After having tried, unsuccessfully, to include Christian minorities in their nation-state-in-the-making project, these elites moved from persuasion to coercion, thus shattering any chance to build a cohesive Syrian nation (and generating a substantial amount of violence in the process).

As Yoav Peled shows, in Eastern Europe, Polish elites followed similar assimilationist templates. Confronted with a highly diverse country and willing to forge a cohesive nation-state, both dominant Polish parties (Endecja and Sanacja) ‘were determined to make Poland a homogeneous state in the shortest time possible’. Jewish and German minorities, among others, bore the brunt of this political programme, but ‘while assimilation of the Germans into Polish society was seen as unlikely, assimilation of the Jews was seen as undesirable’. Assimilation failed, but between 1939 and 1945 the linguistic and national heterogeneity of Polish society changed dramatically because of war, ethnic cleansing and genocide. Albeit much less diverse than in the previous two decades, at the end of the Second World War, Poland also acquired new territories formerly under German rule. John Kulczycki tells us how, in these putative ‘Recovered Lands’, Polish authorities set out to sort ‘true Poles’ from ‘Germans’. Recovering ‘Polish souls’ became a national priority, albeit one for which officers tasked with inquiring into the ethnic nature of the inhabitants of these regions received few guidelines. After about two years of mass expulsion, the Polish Ministry of the Recovered Lands had to recognise ‘the impossibility of creating an objective criterion that would differentiate a German from an autochthon’. As the Polish case suggests, in interwar Europe minorities became an ‘issue’ mostly because majorities felt insecure about the latter’s loyalty to the institutions of the state, which these majorities felt as their own. Chris Davis then historicises the minority question in interwar Romanian Transylvania as a ‘majority problem’, ‘namely that there were too few Romanians, living too far apart, in a region far too important’. To solve this problem, Romanian anthropologists and historians found a creative solution. Armed with presumably scientific data, they asserted that the sizable Hungarian-speaking population of Transylvania ‘possessed a Romanian ethnogenesis’ and had simply been ‘denationalised’ during centuries of Hungarian rule. Against the background of these theories, assimilation in fact became ‘renationalisation’ and minority rights could be all too easily ignored.

The second half of our series moves from historical analysis to contemporary affairs. Ferran Requejo illuminates the old and recent causes of the considerable rise of demands for independence in Catalonia since 2010. Discussing different factors, ranging from economic to identity variables, Requejo concludes that ‘lack of national recognition and accommodation shown by the Spanish state has played a decisive role in causing the predominant Catalan demands to shift from being regionalist or pro-autonomy towards secessionism’. Whatever the outcome of the current tensions between the Catalan and Spanish executive, the Catalan case constitutes an unavoidable reference for the study of self-determination processes in Europe. Adopting a similar mix of historical and political science analysis, Brian Girvin dissects 100 years of majority-minority relations in Northern Ireland. Girvin explains how, by undermining the very concepts of majority and minority, the Good Friday Agreement promoted consensus and cooperation between the Protestant and Catholic communities in Northern Ireland. It created a ‘consociational model for power sharing, political cooperation and conflict resolution’ that put the two nationalities on equal terms. Despite its remarkable success, however, demographic changes and Brexit risk unsettling the balance achieved at the end of the 1990s.

Our series concludes with three blogs stemming from a very fruitful collaboration with the Centre on Constitutional Change. Writing about Scotland, Michael Keating argues that Scots are not usually seen as a national minority identifying with a kin-state elsewhere but as a minority nation within a plurinational union. Keating explains that ‘Scottish politics have become more self-referential and detached from the British level’, with the COVID-19 crisis allowing the Scottish Government to occupy the main political space. Yet, Scottish independence is not inevitable. Even in the event of independence, Scotland would remain a small nation nested in larger systems of regulation and policy-making. Judith Sijstermans details how dominant strands of Flemish nationalism have incorporated populist narratives and how this populist turn has led to the adoption of an identitarian approach.  Sijstermans explains how, in Vlaams Belang’s rhetoric, ‘Flemish autonomy from the Belgian state is interwoven with an anti-elite search for autonomy from broader local and international “elite” who are portrayed as corrupt, anti-democratic, and in opposition to the Flemish volk (people)’. Finally, Patrick Utz dissects the complex and multi-layered nature of national identities in South Tyrol, suggesting that they underpin the success of its consociational institutional design. Utz explains that new forms of regionalism are allowing for a patchwork of identities that combine reinterpretations of historic elements with newly emerging alliances. The SVP offers an illuminating example: the party has become more vocal in portraying both Austria and South Tyrol as ‘motherland’ while promoting a ‘European Region of Tyrol’ as part of the European Union’s cross-border initiatives.

We hope that you have enjoyed the series and we encourage you to continue the discussion commenting on our posts. You will find a full list here.

We thank all our authors for their inspiring contributions; the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, the Centre on Constitutional Change, and the Swiss National Science Foundation for their support; H-Nationalism, in particular David Prior, for giving us the opportunity to run the series on their platform; and all our readers for their attention. A special thanks also goes to Mona Bieling, Alessandro Ambrosino and Davide Rodogno for their fundamental help.

Hoping that 2021 will be a less eventful and more cheerful year, we wish you all the best!

Emmanuel Dalle Mulle and Daniel Cetrà

The Minorities in Contemporary and Historical Perspective series is organized by the Myth of Homogeneity Research Project at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva, and the Centre on Constitutional Change at the University of Edinburgh.

For more information, please visit:

https://themythofhomogeneity.org/

https://www.centreonconstitutionalchange.ac.uk/

Minority Questions as Complex Objects of Enquiry

On 27-28 February 2020 we organised a workshop on Sovereignty, Nationalism and Homogeneity in Europe between the Two World Wars.

For a day and a half, 18 scholars specialised in different aspects of late 19th and early 20th century European history met at the Graduate Institute Geneva to discuss intergroup relations and, more specifically, minority issues in interwar Europe. The papers presented at the event showcased the complexity of minority questions by using different approaches often emphasising varied aspects of majority-minority relations. While some participants examined majority-minority relations in different European countries from a broad comparative perspective, others looked more closely at specific cases or questioned the appropriateness of using the categories of majority and minority to refer to such groups. Others yet followed minority representatives and other individuals concerned with minority questions across borders and into interwar organisations and networks of activism.

A group picture of the participants taken on the morning of the second day.

The overall result was a rich exchange that highlighted how after Versailles, regardless of whether they lay in the ‘civilised West’ or the still ‘backward East’ (to quote some stereotypical views hegemonic at the time), European states tended to fit the populations living within their borders into neat ethno-cultural categories and, although to different degrees, promoted homogeneity through a wide range of nation-building strategies. Minority representatives and organisations vocally denounced violations of minority rights and fought for better protection of their cultural peculiarities, but, at the same time, often exaggerated the importance of group identity for the wider populations they claimed to speak for and the homogeneity of minorities themselves. At times, ordinary people followed the injunction of minority representatives; sometimes, however, they showed signs of ‘national indifference’ and based their behaviour on considerations and interests not directly linked to their purported national identity—of which in many cases they were not even aware. The rich, and sometimes contradictory, tapestry of perspectives stemming from the different panels highlighted the need for a multi-dimensional approach to interwar intergroup relations; one taking into account different actors, contexts and motivations for action.

Eric Weitz’ lecture on “The Global Struggle for Human Rights in the Age of Nation-States”.

In the evening of the first day, Eric Weitz, Distinguished Professor of History at City College and the Graduate Centre of the City University of New York, broadened the thematic contours of our workshop by presenting his wide-ranging new book, A World Divided: The Global Struggle for Human Rights in the Age of Nation-States. In the talk, Professor Weitz explored the relationship between nation-states, human rights and minority rights in the context of the ’emergence’ of minorities between the late 19th and early 20th century as well as during the process of decolonisation in Africa.

Apart from advocating the ‘multi-dimensional’ approach mentioned above, the workshop also contributed to bridging the East-West divide currently existing in the literature, whereby minority issues are still implicitly considered as a ‘Question of Eastern Europe’ (to quote the title of a famous interwar work on the subject) while the international history of majority-minority conflicts in Western Europe remains in its infancy.

The Myth of Homogeneity Team would like to thank the Swiss National Science Foundation, the Pierre du Bois Foundation, the Graduate Institute and the Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy for their kind support as well as all the participants for their insightful contributions.

Below you can listen to the paper given at the workshop by our team members, Emmanuel and Mona, entitled Sovereignty and Homogeneity: A History of Majority-Minority Relations in Interwar Western Europe.