After about three years of work and a global pandemic, Sovereignty, Nationalism and the Quest for Homogeneity in Interwar Europe eventually goes to press. The edited volume will be released in print and electronic formats by Bloomsbury Academic on 18 May 2023 (click here for more info). The electronic version will be available in open access thanks to a grant from the Swiss National Science Foundation.
Through 14 chapters, the volume offers an in-depth, comparative and transnational study of minority questions in Europe focusing on, although not limiting itself to, the interwar period. The volume makes two major contributions to current historiographical debates on this topic. First, until now interwar European minority questions have been predominantly discussed in the context of eastern Europe. This volume challenges that geographical emphasis by examining both eastern and western European experiences. It thus lays the foundation for a new comparative international history of the relations between national majorities and minorities in Europe after the Great War. Second, building on the observation that nationalist conflicts are based on dynamic interactions between multiple actors, this book brings together different perspectives and methodological approaches (political, social, comparative and transnational) to provide a comprehensive account of minority questions between the two World Wars.
The volume is the result of a truly international collaboration featuring contributions from leading academics and emerging scholars based in Austria, Ireland, Poland, Spain, Switzerland, Turkey, the UK and the USA among others(see the table of contents below). We thank them all for their wonderful chapters.
The volume originated in the international workshop Sovereignty, Nationalism and Homogeneity in Europe between the Two World Wars that the Myth of Homogeneity team organised at the Geneva Graduate Institute in February 2020, right before the onset of the first wave of lockdowns outside China due to the global pandemic of covid-19. Some of the initial participants left, while others joined at a later stage. Among the many people that have taken part in this journey with us, we would like to remember Eric Weitz. Eric was supposed to write the conclusion of our volume with a chapter based on the memorable keynote that he gave at the end of our Geneva workshop in February 2020. Unfortunately, Eric left us in July 2021. The volume is dedicated to him.
The research behind this volume has been funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation (grant n. 169568) and the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement no. 847635. The Pierre du Bois Foundation contributed to covering editing expenses. We thank them all for their generous support.
On the anniversary of Mussolini’s seizure of power, Alessandro and Emmanuel discuss a century of inter-ethnic relations in the Italian borderlands
Vito Timmel, “L’incendio del Balkan” (1941, Rivoltella Museum, Trieste)
At the end of October 1922, King Vittorio Emanuele III offered Benito Mussolini the task to form a new executive. In the previous days, the fascists camicie nere had seized control of several towns in northern and central Italy and threatened the government led by the liberal Luigi Facta to move the assault to Rome if this did not cede power to the National Fascist Party. The details of these events are well-known and have been studied extensively. What is less known however is that at the beginning of October 1922, the fascists had used the same tactics to take over the northern Italian city of Bolzano in what some fascists later defined as a kind of general rehearsal for the planned occupation of the capital.
At first sight Bolzano was an outlier in the series of urban attacks carried out by the fascists in the early 1920s. Indeed the black shirts usually targeted municipalities led by Socialist administrations. By contrast, a coalition of Liberal and Catholics ruled Bolzano. Yet Bolzano was not a random choice. Most of the city’s inhabitants were German speakers and the city was the main urban centre of South Tyrol, a territory that Italy annexed at the end of the First World War along with the mostly Italian-speaking Trentino. South Tyrol was also overwhelmingly German-speaking and several local parties and organisations had repeatedly opposed annexation asking that the local population be given the opportunity to have a say about its future. Post-war Italian liberal governments had rejected these calls, but had guaranteed the preservation of Austro-Hungarian legislation in the area, promised to respect minority rights and begun negotiations for regional autonomy. To the Fascist Party this sounded like a betrayal of the sacrifice of the Italian soldiers who had died in order to conquer an area that – the fascists believed – was ‘inherently’ Italian and had been Germanised by the Habsburg Empire. The March on Bolzano was an attempt to force the Italianisation of the city, as well as a test of the liberal elite’s commitment to respecting minority rights.
Taking advantage of the 100th anniversary of both the March on Rome and Bolzano, in a recent paper published by the Pierre du Bois Foundation for Current History, Alessandro and Emmanuel discuss fascist policies in the new provinces annexed at the end of the Great War – South Tyrol as well as Venezia Giulia – and the impact of the fascist attempts to Italianise the populations living in these borderlands on the rest of the 20th century, most notably on relations with the neighbouring countries of Austria and Yugoslavia (today Slovenia), as well as with Germany. The paper also examines the contradictions of the fascist approach to minorities. It argues that fascist thinking about the allogeni – the fascist term to identify Italians of non-Italian origins – and policy in South Tyrol and Venezia Giulia were informed by a form of ‘consistent ambivalence’ whereby fascists authorities were torn between the naif belief that the assimilation of the allogeni was inevitable and a deep-seated distrust of them, since they were deemed to be inherently disloyal citizens.
Yet 2022 marks another important anniversary: the 50 years since the signing of the second statute of autonomy of Trentino-South Tyrol which ushered in a period of stabilisation in majority-minority relations in the area. This statute of autonomy turned South Tyrol from a hotspot of nationalist conflict to an oft-cited success story of minority recognition and cross-border cooperation in Europe. To account for that, the paper goes beyond the interwar period and details the considerable, although hard-won, advances in minority rights and conflict management achieved in the second half of the 20th century.
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.
The converging and diverging trajectories of Joan Estelrich and Josip Vilfan discussed at a Conference in Santiago de Compostela
On 9-10 June 2022, the research project La España global: identitades españolas en prospectiva transnacional organised a workshop at the University of Santiago de Compostela to discuss transnational historical research involving Spanish actors, identities and processes. The event allowed presenting results from the Myth of Homogeneity project about the transnational activities of minority representatives in interwar Europe. More specifically, Emmanuel examined the converging and diverging trajectories of the Catalan-Spanish nationalist leader Joan Estelrich and the Slovenian-Italian minority representative Josip Vilfan, both prominent members of the interwar Congress of European Nationalities, as a prism to reflect upon the entanglements between the study of minorities and transnational history.
At the core of the concept of transnationalism there is an idea of border crossing. More often than not, the border that is being crossed is that of the nation-state. Emmanuel’s presentation did engage with cross-border activities that challenged state jurisdictions, but also tried to extend the notion of transnationalism to the trespassing of regional and identity boundaries. Coming from countries beyond the remit of the minority protection system of the League of Nations and acting, for a considerable part of their lives, within repressive authoritarian regimes, Estelrich and Vifan eagerly engaged in transnational minority networks as a way to promote an internationalisation and reinforcement of interwar minority protection. In many ways, their story is one of successful collaboration. Yet, from the mid-1930s, their trajectories diverged considerably. While Vilfan remained a staunch supporter of transnational cooperation and of the work of the CEN, Estelrich drifted towards domestic engagement within the institutions of the Spanish Republic first, and transnational activity on Franco’s side later. However, despite their apparent glaring differences, both Estelrich and Vilfan had to confront similar painful dilemmas of collaboration and betrayal generated by their minority advocacy that forced them not only to cross state borders, but also to redefine the boundaries of their reference communities and severe previous bonds of loyalty.
Beyond the relevance of Estelrich’s and Vilfan’s transnational trajectories for the history of minority-majority relations in interwar Europe, the paper proposed two broader reflections on the nature of transnational history and the state of the current historiography that centred on questioning both the trans and the national in transnational. To be begin with the national, most of the historiography focuses on the national as the nation-state. Yet any scholar familiar with the nationalism studies literature knows that the nation and the nation-state never coincide. This is all the more glaring when it comes to minority populations who do not identify with the state they live in. Hence, the presentation proposed considering the everyday life of people identifying as national minorities within their state of citizenship as a transnational experience in and for itself, even if this everyday experience does not involve crossing the border of any nation-state. Concerning the trans, the paper explored, although still in very tentative form, the possibility that the crossing activity implied in this term might actually occur in the mind of historical actors, rather than in their physical whereabouts. In other words, examining the many identification dilemmas, twists and turns in Estelrich’s and Vilfan’s lives, the paper proposed to explore the concept of transnational interior processes. Stay tuned for future updates.
In interwar fascist Italy migration, both internal and external, turned into a tool of national homogenisation of borderland minority areas
On 7 June 2022, Emmanuel gave a lecture (whose video is available here) at the University of Neuchâtel within the framework of the Migration History Talks series co-organised by this university and the Swiss National Centre of Competence in Research—The Migration Mobility Nexus (NCCR on the Move). It was a great opportunity to present results from the Myth of Homogeneity project about the Italian case, notably on the nexus between homogenisation and migration.
Italy has historically been known as a country of emigration. The state’s laissez-faire approach towards outward migration, as well as its diaspora policies, have widely been studied. However, it is less known that during the fascist dictatorship (1922–43) migration was used as a tool to promote the homogenisation of the minority populations inhabiting the provinces of South Tyrol and Venezia Giulia. In this presentation, Emmanuel showed how, being unsure about the legitimacy of their sovereignty over these borderlands, fascist authorities promoted land colonisation, surreptitiously encouraged emigration among members of the Slovenian/Croatian minority, and in 1939 signed an agreement with Germany that forced Tyroleans to choose whether they wanted to become German citizens and emigrate north of the Brenner or stay in Italy and become ‘true’ Italians.
This escalation of coercive uses of migration to homogenise the borderlands annexed at the end of the Great War failed. For the historian, they are an unmistakable reflection of the ‘consistent ambivalence’ that marked the fascist approach to the country’s national minorities throughout the interwar years. On the one hand, fascist authorities shared a rhetoric whereby assimilation was inevitable. The Italian ‘civilisation’ was deemed to be so powerful that no minority group would resist its assimilative spell. On the other hand, the fascists fundamentally distrusted the members of the two minorities that it wanted to incorporate within the body of the nation. The allogeni, the term used by the fascists to indicate Italian citizens of non-Italian origins, were thus kept in a limbo of forced assimilation and latent segregation that further reduced the effectiveness of the assimilative measures adopted by the regime.
Or how sub-state national mobilisation occurred, but it was more fleeting than minority nationalist leaders would have hoped for
On the 100th anniversary of the Paris Peace Conference, in 2019, Emmanuel and Mona presented a paper at the 29th Annual Conference of the Association for the Study of Ethnicity and Nationalism (ASEN) examining whether there was a ‘Wilsonian Moment in Western Europe’. A revised version of that paper has now been accepted for publication in European History Quarterlyand it is due to appear online and in print in 2023. The paper entitled ‘Autonomy over Independence: Self-Determination in Catalonia, Flanders and South Tyrol in the Aftermath of the Great War’ (and available in pre-print here) fills an important gap in the historiography of self-determination in the immediate post-WWI period.
While the impact of the post-war spread of self-determination on the redrawing of Eastern European borders and on the claims of colonial independence movements has been extensively researched, the international historiography has paid little attention to minority nationalist movements in Western Europe. Focusing on three regions (Catalonia, Flanders and South Tyrol) that experienced considerable substate national mobilisation between the world wars, Emmanuel and Mona inquire into whether the leaders of Western European minorities and stateless nations shared the same enthusiasm as their anti-colonial and Eastern European counterparts for the new international order that self-determination seemed to foreshadow in the months following the end of the Great War. Since President Woodrow Wilson stood out as the most prominent purveyor of the new international legitimacy of self-determination, the article further examines how Western European nationalist movements exploited Wilson’s image and advocacy to achieve their own goals.
Emmanuel and Mona conclude that nationalist forces in Catalonia, Flanders and South Tyrol initially mobilised self-determination and referred to Wilson as a symbol of national liberation, but this instrumentalisation of self-determination was not sustained. Large-scale mobilisation occurred only in Catalonia and, even there, it disappeared almost overnight in spring 1919. Furthermore, substate nationalist movements in Western Europe tended to mobilise self-determination to gain regional autonomy, rather than full independence, thus pursuing internal, not external, self-determination. The willingness of these movements to privilege autonomy over full independence made them more receptive to compromise solutions and radical forces became stronger only in the 1930s, largely for reasons not directly connected to the post-war mobilisation around self-determination.
In other words, the wave of unprecedented international legitimacy for national self-determination claims inaugurated at the end of WWI did extend to Western Europe. It was not a uniform phenomenon, but a mix of different local attempts to mobilise the new language of self-determination that however did not last as long, and were not as powerful, as the leaders of Western European minority nationalist movements would have wished.
The documents of the Holy See are an underexploited source on majority-minority relations
Transnational actor by definition, the Church could not afford ignoring minority questions in interwar Europe. There are at least two reasons why documents held at the Vatican Archives are a privileged source on majority-minority relations in interwar Europe: linguistic politics and the double nature of the Catholic Church as, at once, a transnational organisation devoted to the spiritual welfare of worshippers and a state keeping diplomatic relations with foreign governments.
In interwar Europe local priests and the Church hierarchy confronted nationalising states increasingly willing to assimilate populations that spoke a different language from that promoted by state institutions. In such minority regions, the lower clergy often identified with the minority population and defended Church practice (also reflected in the Church’s Code of Canon Law) whereby religious teaching had to be given in the mother tongue of the local population. Yet this position put the clergy in direct confrontation with state officials willing to homogenise minority areas. As a consequence, state nationalisers frequently associated the local clergy as a bastion of minority nationalism. The fact that some priests did participate in minority nationalist movements, sometimes even within radical fringes, did not contribute to dispelling suspicions of the clergy’s disloyalty to the state. Be it in democratic Belgium or authoritarian fascist Italy, many of these priests and, although more rarely, also some bishops were expelled from the state territory, accused of being dangerous agitators paid by foreign powers to bring about chaos in minority areas.
State pressure to have the lower clergy abide by laws of linguistic assimilation that imposed monolingualism throughout the state territory was felt not only in minority regions, but also in Rome. The Vatican Apostolic Archives brim with exchanges in which diplomats of states dealing with minority populations urged the Holy See to have priests stay out of politics and provide religious teaching in state, instead of minority, language. In more extreme but not unfrequent cases, the Vatican received requests of removal of bishops deemed to engage with minority nationalism.
In April, Emmanuel spent two weeks at the Vatican Archives gathering material on minority questions in interwar Belgium, Italy and Spain. The documents confirm that Church authorities had to walk a tight rope between the need not to disaffect local populations seeking protection against linguistic homogenisation and keeping favourable diplomatic relations with important European states. Caught between the hammer and the anvil, Church authorities tried to defend their autonomy and religious practice, but in the radicalising age of the 1930s, it became ever harder to protect the linguistic rights of minorities, especially in authoritarian state like fascist Italy or in the extremely polarised context of the Spanish Civil War and the ensuing onset of Franco’s dictatorship.
The Vatican records constitute an invaluable source that would nourish the academic output of the Myth of Homogeneity project.
Emmanuel presented a paper co-authored with Alessandro entitled Victims of their own Rhetoric: The 1939 Option Agreement and the Consistent Ambivalence of Fascist Homogenisation Policy in the Italian New Provinces. The paper provides a re-reading of the 1939 Option Agreement between Italy and Germany in light of about two decades of fascist attempts at homogenising the border regions of South Tyrol and Venezia Giulia. It argues that although the behaviour of fascist authorities in the crucial months when 1939 drew to a close were ambivalent indeed, as many authors have already pointed out, that ambivalence was very much in line with the pattern followed by the regime throughout the interwar period. It thus concludes that such ‘consistent ambivalence’ was a key feature of fascist policy in the new provinces (as South Tyrol and Venezia Giulia were called at the time) and explains the bizarre behaviour of Italian officers in the second half of 1939.
As fascist Italy and Nazi Germany drew closer in the late 1930s, the Anschluss realised the Italian nightmare of a Greater Germany at its doors and Italian attempts to assimilate the population of South Tyrol continued to be disappointing (from the fascist perspective), finding a diplomatic solution to the question of South Tyrol grew ever more important. By mid-1939, the two countries came to an agreement whereby the population of the region would have to decide whether it wanted to remain in Italy or adopt German nationality and move north of the Brenner border. The Option Agreement, as it was called, was a strange hybrid between an option procedure, a plebiscite and a population transfer. It also created serious dilemmas for the two countries. Should they push for the transfer of all South Tyroleans or for as few as possible? The Nazi government needed men for the war effort. It was thus clearly in favour of a clean sweep solution. The Italian position was much more nuanced: while some were in favour of a total resettlement, many within the regime, especially at the local level were not. Furthermore, the Italian behaviour does not suggest a support for radical options. Nazi officers immediately began to spread propaganda in favour of resettlement (or to scare those South Tyroleans who wanted to stay, which actually were a majority). Italian authorities, in contrast, first remained silent. Then, when they realised that most people were inclined to vote for Germany, they tried to convince locals to stay. However, their propaganda was hampered by the strictures that their previous rhetoric and their fundamental distrust of the South Tyroleans imposed to their discourses.
The paper argues that this ambivalent approach was surprisingly consistent with fascist thinking about and treatment of Italy’s minorities. The ambivalence at the core of fascist policy in the new provinces stemmed from the combination of a naive belief that assimilation was inevitable – that the German-speakers of South Tyrol and the Slovenian and Croatian speakers of Venezia Giulia could not but assimilate to the great Italian civilisation – and a profound mistrust of the allogeni (as members of these two minorities were called at the time). Hence, the allogeni were simultaneously included by force in the Italian nation and marginalised in a liminal state of latent segregation.
The paper received positive comments and led to an interesting discussion about the differences between South Tyrol and Venezia Giulia, the precedent of the option procedure and the difficulties of co-writing an article.
Thanks to the recent improvement of the sanitary situation in Europe, the team of the Myth of Homogeneity is again presenting research results at international conferences. The ‘awakening’, after more than a year of forced inaction, began already in May 2021, when the team organised a panel at the Annual Convention of the Association for the Study of Nationalities (ASN). This year, the event, which usually takes place at Columbia University in New York, was held online. The panel, entitled Minorities after Versailles in Europe and the Middle East: A Comparative Perspective, explored interwar majority-minority relations in a broad comparative framework fostering dialogue between experts specialised in different geographical areas and political contexts.
The three contributors to this panel explored the contradictions and intricacies of the new international order ushered in at the Paris Peace Conference, an order based on population politics and a lingering tendency to seek national homogeneity. Sarah Shield (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) argued that, after the Great War, the Great Powers mobilised ‘self-government’ in the Middle East to legitimise foreign rule (through the mandate system), to excuse violence (for instance in the French Syria), and to alienate territory (as in Palestine). Building on the cases of Alsace-Lorraine and Asia Minor, Volker Prott (Aston University Birmingham) inquired into the factors that explain differences in patterns of conflict and violence between these two areas. Finally, Chris R. Davis (Lone Star College-Kingwood) shifted the focus from minorities to majorities and dissected how transnational networks of ethnologists in Romania and Hungary shaped notions of belonging relating to the respective majorities and minorities in either country. Overall, the three papers emphasised to the need to expand the comparative study of minorities in Europe and the Middle East, and, especially, to connect the largely self-contained literatures on minority protection, on the one hand, and the mandate system, on the other.
In August, the team will be presenting a paper at the Annual Pierre Du Bois Conference, which will take place at the Graduate Institute in Geneva. The event, organised by the Pierre du Bois Foundation and Professor Michael Goebel, will feature distinguished speakers from universities across the globe. The team’s contribution will examine fascist policies of assimilation in interwar Italy. Taking as a starting point the 1939 Option Agreement between Italy and Germany on the ‘voluntary’ resettlement to the German Reich of the inhabitants of the German-speaking Italian area of South Tyrol, the paper argues that the ambiguities inherent in the agreement and in the fascist approach to the Option reflects the larger history of attempts at assimilating minorities in Italy (both in South Tyrol and Venetia Giulia, the other minority region annexed by the Italian Kingdom at the end of the Great War). More specifically, the paper shows that fascist policies of assimilation were characterised by three main features: a naïve belief that the assimilation of these minorities would be an easy task; the lack of means to carry out radical solutions; and a deep-seated distrust of the allogeni (as Italian citizens of non-Italian origin were called at the time), even of those who willingly assimilated to Italian culture and who enthusiastically joined the Fascist Party. As a result, the ambivalent policy pursued by fascist authorities during the period of the Option was consistent with previous attempts at assimilating the German-speaking populations of South Tyrol.
We are proud to publish here the sixth post of our “Minorities in Contemporary and Historical Perspectives” series, which looks at majority-minority relations from a multi-disciplinary and diachronic angle. Today’s contribution, by R. Chris Davis (Lone Star College–Kingwood), examines the efforts of Romanian nation-builders to make Romanians during the interwar period. The series is a collaboration with H-Nationalism.
Heterogeneity in Interwar Romania
While the situation of ethnic minorities in Romania has been examined extensively within the scholarship on the interwar period, far too little consideration is given into the making of the Romanian ethnic majority itself. My reframing of the “minority question” into its corollary, the “majority question,” in this blogpost draws on my recently published book examining the contested identity of the Moldavian Csangos, an ethnically fluid community of Romanian- and Hungarian-speaking Roman Catholics in eastern Romania. While investigating this case study of a putative ethnic, linguistic, and religious minority, I was constantly reminded that not only minorities but also majorities are socially constructed, crafted from regional, religious, and linguistic bodies and identities. Transylvanians, Bessarabians, and Bănățeni (people from the Banat region) and Regațeni (inhabitants of Romania’s Old Kingdom), for example, were rendered into something more broadly and collectively dubbed “Romanian.” What also became clear is that definitions and dynamics of majoritarian identities could be contested as much as minority ones, especially when we consider that the very concept of minorities (and thus majorities) is the relatively recent invention of the nation state.
What became the Romanian majority by the 1920s and 30s emerged not only from the inhabitants of the newly appended territories but also from a heterogeneous mix of ethnic and national communities long present in the Romanian national space. Greater Romania during the interwar period was formed from newly unified territories that were home to large populations that were either non-Romanian-speaking or non-Romanian Orthodox or both. From these new frontiers emerged large, complex multi-ethnic border zones: in the Banat region lived Swabians, Hungarians, Serbians, Catholic Bulgarians and Krashovani, and Czechs; in Transylvania were Hungarians, Szeklers, Saxons, Swabians, Jews, Ruthenians, Ukrainians, Slovaks, and Armenians; in Bukovina were Poles and more Germans, Hungarians, and Ukrainians; in Moldova and Bessarabia, still more Germans, Jews, and Ukrainians, as well as Csangos and Russians; and in Dobrudja and Muntenia dwelt Greeks, Turks, Tatars, Gagauz, Aromanians, and Lipovans. Spread throughout the country was Europe’s largest contingent of Roma. The capital Bucharest was also home to many of these same communities, including relatively large numbers of Albanians, Macedonians, Italians, and French. After World War I, the city became the destination for thousands of Hungarians emigrating from eastern Transylvania. Historically, many of Romania’s national elites came from these groups, be they Greek Phanariots in the Old Kingdom (or Regat), Armenian and Aromanian merchants in Moldova and Transylvania, or Hungarian and German noblemen in Transylvania.
The monumental task of Romania’s nation builders (i.e. its majority makers) during the interwar period was, therefore, to break down the country’s regionalisms and local identities and to instill a semblance of ethno-national identity, one easily professed as well as measured, however ill-defined it might be. Eager to take stock of the new territories – and the presumptive ethnic Romanians inhabiting them – historians, ethnographers, anthropologists, sociographers, and demographers from urban centers such as Bucharest and Iași journeyed to the country’s periphery, especially to Transylvania. For Romanian historians and social scientists from Transylvania, new avenues for research and publication were opened in a Greater Romanian nation eager to document the character and plight of ethnic Romanians who had long survived foreign dominion. Romania’s foremost geographer Gheorghe Vâlsan called on a new generation of professional and amateur historians, scientists, and writers to take stock of the nation:
In every corner of the Romanian land there needs to be found a priest, a teacher, an enlightened man, to attempt to draw upon the unknown ways distinctive to the life of his region. Gradually, research on the regions will multiply and fill gaps. We are at the most significant moment of our national history, and a faithful image of the land and people of Romania in this epoch will be uniquely documented. For our efforts, future researchers will acknowledge us.
A vanguard of Romanian historians and scientists, including those of the famed Gusti School of Sociology, now sought to locate, quantify, and record the varieties of Romanian-ness within the newly enlarged country. What they discovered in the Romanian countryside often shocked them.
Romanianize the Romanians
These majority makers soon realized that the Romanians were, in many areas of the country, actually a hodgepodge of languages, patois, cultures, customs, and religions, with little sense of the national identity being debated and refined in Bucharest, Iași, and Cluj. Allegiances in rural Romania were principally to family, Church, neighbor, and village, and not to some modern notion of a larger ethno-national community. In this respect, the Romanian peasantry – especially in the heterogeneous borderlands in Transylvania and Moldova – was no different than the vast majority of the rural, disparate communities that populated the rest of central and eastern Europe. As Kate Brown has discussed in her influential work on the multi-ethnic Kresy region in Ukraine – a region that could just as easily stand for Transylvania, Bukovina, or Dobrudja – the peasantries who eked out lives for themselves naturally incorporated the complexities of the hybrid cultures in which they lived; their identities were tied to locality, class, profession, and social status rather than to nationality, a designation few villagers in such a milieu would have understood. To the extent that they did characterize something akin to a national identity, it was, for them, something mutable – something that could change with marriage, education, or military service.
Convincing these Romanian peasants – at the very least, those who spoke Romanian and were Orthodox – they were actually something called “Romanian” was no small feat. In many ways, Romania’s nation builders had to Romanianize the Romanians. This is not to say that the majority of the Romanian-speaking peasantry did not intuit or even profess a sense of Romanian national belonging; only that most would not have articulated or actualized it as did Romania’s nation builders in interwar years. A modern national consciousness – one that could be mobilized and enacted for nation-building – had to be impressed upon the vast rural population. It probably rarely occurred to the Romanian-speaking peasants from the marshes of the Danbue Delta that they shared a common origin, homeland, and destiny with, say, the highlanders around the Western Carpathian’s Bihor Massif, nearly 1000km away.
One way to achieve this was to fix nationality and ethnicity in space. Censuses and especially ethnographic and demographic maps affixed identities to particular territories, making visible (or invisible) one community or another and creating national taxonomies into which peoples could be neatly segregated. Beginning in April 1924, a series of statutes under the rubric The Regulations on Establishing Romanian Nationality aimed not only to establish the procedure for acquiring Romanian nationality but also to facilitate the recording and cataloging of the various populations in the new Romanian territories. Thus was created an inventory and topology of the Romanian nation using nationality lists, nationality registers, and nationality certificates (certificate de naţionalitate). In the process, not only minority but also a majoritarian national identity became codified and then inscribed in the legitimizing documents of state bureaucracies. Homogenizing projects and legislation generated an epistemological knowledge of the nation – quantifying and objectifying the nation, from something abstract to something real, something living – with the aim, ultimately, to create a nation-state that was unitary, stable. The Romanian equivalent of Germany’s Ostforschung created a veritable database of the nation’s people, utilizing statisticians, demographers, sociologists, historians, cartographers, and, by the 1930s, racial anthropologists and eugenicists. Research on Romania’s vast populations was coordinated by ominous-sounding centers or bureaucracies such as the Institute of Biopolitics, the Institute of Hygiene and Social Hygiene, and later the State Undersecretariat of Romanianization, Colonization, and Inventory. By the late 1930s, the policy of Romanianizaiton (românizare) became an organizing policy of the Romanian state, a policy that segued into deportations, resettlements, repatriations, and ultimately genocide.
If you can’t beat ‘em… force ‘em to join you
The inherent difficulty of segregating large swathes of the country’s population into neat ethnic categories, especially into categories that would show a preponderance of ethnic Romanians (and thus an indominable ethnic majority) circumscribed by state borders, led to the targeting of particular minorities for redefinition as majorities. Looming over this entire enterprise remained the “Hungarian problem” in Transylvania, namely that within Romania’s new borders there were too many Hungarians, living too close together, in a region far too important; conversely, we could historicize the situation as a “majority problem,” namely that there were too few Romanians, living too far apart, in a region far too important. It was therefore no coincidence that Romanian historians and scientists who undertook research in eastern Transylvania began to question the ethnic composition of the region and the ethnic origins of its Hungarian-speaking Calvinist and Roman-Catholic inhabitants, known as the Szeklers, who had lived there for centuries. Throughout the interwar period and into the 1940s, a number of studies and monographs promoted the idea that most if not all of the Szeklers possessed a separate ethnic genealogy or “ethnogenesis” from the body of Hungarians who entered Europe from Asia. According to this reinterpretation of the settlement and presence of Hungarian speakers in eastern Transylvania, the modern-day Szeklers were in point of fact denationalized Romanians from Transylvania, having been subjected to centuries of forced assimilation by Hungarian overlords, Hungarian administrative policies, and especially the Hungarian churches.
Geographer Sabin Opreanu, a mentee of the aforementioned Vâlsan, was among the first to suggest that the mass of Szeklers were none other than denationalized Romanians. He characterized the Szekler land as a “stratified space of confessions,” in which younger Hungarian ethnic and religious elements lay atop much older Romanian Orthodox ones. These older Romanian elements formed the basis of this population, making it Romanian, not Hungarian. By peeling away these linguistic and confessional layers, he claimed, one could uncover the latent existence of a Romanian ethnic and racial continuity within the region. Noted Romanian philologist and classicist Gheorghe Popa-Lisseanu subsequently claimed that the bloc of Szeklers was created through systematic Hungarianization policies directed from Budapest since the 18th century. The Szekler was simply a “stray Romanian,” on the wrong path of history:
Those who will come voluntarily back to the bosom of their mother are welcome; for those who will linger in their situation of today, we consider them rightfully consanguineous with us but of Hungarian language and law. We seek to show them in every way their true ethnic origin and to convince them of this.
Eventually, “denationalization” (desnaționalizare) theories speculated that the entire body of Hungarians in eastern Transylvania possessed a Romanian ethnogenesis. These theories helped solve a statistical dilemma that had bedeviled Romania’s nation builders since the country’s postwar acquisition of Transylvania. Romania’s majority makers used many of these theories – and extensive, state-sponsored research and fieldwork conducted in Romania’s new territories – to deconstruct the ethnic genealogy of minority communities, attempting to prove that a lost Romanian ethnos lay buried beneath their otherwise foreign customs, languages, and history. Other communities in peripheral regions such as the Timoc valley, Bukovina, parts of Moldavia, and Bessarabia soon became the object of similar questions and studies. As the threat of denationalization became part of a national cause linked to the very health and survival of the nation, the theories and discourses on the problem soon became invested with racial and biopolitical tropes. Denationalization theories, supported by serological work undertaken by Romanian racial anthropologists, proved useful tools for the recovery of populations that could now be labeled “lost Romanians.” By the late 1930s and early 40s, the growing body of studies on the Transylvanian Hungarians and Szeklers would provide a template for new studies on other ethnic minority communities, such as the Hungarian-speaking Csangos of Moldova. In the case of the Csangos, such works proved to have significant, lasting impacts both on and within the community, leading to new, alternative historical narratives based in no small part on the purported scientific demonstrability of ethnic origins.
To acknowledge the phenomenon of denationalization was the first step toward legitimizing Romanianization projects as renationalization projects, especially in regions where putative non-Romanians represented statistical majorities. The emphasis on ethnic origins was crucial: Romanian political and scientific elites decried the forced assimilation of ethnic Romanians in the past yet simultaneously introduced a series of homogenization projects targeting the country’s ethnic, linguistic, and religious minorities. Rebranding Romanianization as a process of national recovery also mitigated the country’s obligation to ensure minority rights, which the Romanian government had agreed to as part of the post–World War I settlement. In other words, the rights of minorities need not be upheld if those communities were, in essence, members of the ethnic Romanian majority, unwittingly and unjustly concealed as ethnic minorities. This process of national induction would have major implications for the ethnic majority-minority dynamic in Greater Romania, determining cultural and education policies, redrawing county and regional lines, influencing land reform and appropriation of churches, and recategorizing populations in national censuses. Majority-making contributed to the political radicalization of the interwar period and informed the thinking and policies that would lead to some of the worst atrocities perpetrated against minorities in wartime Romania. This was certainly the case with the influence that race-based conceptions of the nation had on Antonescu’s population policies – including sterilization, deportations, internal colonization, and population transfers – enacted during World War II.
Like race, ethnicity, and nationality, the terms “minority” and “majority” are fluid concepts with a tendency to reify. One is necessarily constructed against the other. When modified by adjectives ethnic, national, religious, or linguistic, these terms become overlapping and even more reflexive. Postulating the “majority question,” retrospectively, is yet another way to examine national and ethnic imagining as a multi-way process and to challenge the “myth of homogeneity” in east-central Europe.
R. Chris Davis is Professor of History at Lone Star College–Kingwood, where he is founder and coordinator of the LSC Center for Local & Oral History. He teaches US, European, and World History, as well as oral history and film studies. Chris researches and writes on minorities and religion in twentieth century east-central Europe. Currently, he serves as a book-reviews editor for H-Romania and as a board member for the Society for Romanian Studies. He recently published his first book, Hungarian Religion, Romanian Blood: A Minority’s Struggle for National Belonging (The University of Wisconsin Press, 2019).
The Minorities in Contemporary and Historical Perspective series is organized by the Myth of Homogeneity Research Project at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva.
Scholars interested in contributing to the series can contact:
 R. Chris Davis, Hungarian Religion, Romanian Blood: A Minority’s Struggle for National Belonging (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 2019)
 See Eric D. Weitz, A World Divided: The Global Struggle for Human Rights in the Age of Nation-States (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2019),160–163.
 Gheorghe Vâlsan, forward to Sabin Opreanu, Săcuizarea Românilor prin religie (Cluj: Institutul de Arte Grafice “Ardealul,” 1927), ii.
 Kate Brown, A Biography of No Place: From Ethnic Borderland to Soviet Heartland (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2003), 40. See also Tara Zahra, Kidnapped Souls: National Indifference and the Battle for Children in the Bohemian Lands, 1900-1948 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 2008).
 Szekler(s) (Hu. székely [sing.]/székelyek [ pl.]; Ro. secui) is the Anglicized (via German) ethnonym for the Catholic and Protestant ethnolinguistic subgroup of Hungarians in eastern Transylvania, a region historically part of the Kingdom of Hungary but part of Romania since World War I (Northern Transylvania, including the Szekler-inhabited region, was ceded back to Hungary from 1940 to 1944). It is generally held that the Szeklers colonized the area around the eleventh century, though some theories place them in the Carpathian basin much earlier. Historically, the Szeklers were among the ruling nations of Transylvania, the Unio trium nationum, alongside the Saxons and Hungarians (and excluding the Romanians).
 Opreanu, Săcuizarea Românilor prin religie (Cluj: Institutul de Arte Grafice Ardealul, 1927), 16–17.