Minorities in Contemporary and Historical Perspective Series: Summer Break!

Our Minorities in Contemporary and Historical Perspective Series will go on holidays until the beginning of the next academic year. In September, we will resume posting content on topics related to majorities and minorities in collaboration with the Centre on Constitutional Change based at the University of Edinburgh.

In the meantime, please feel free to comment on the previous posts, which you can find below or at: https://networks.h-net.org/node/3911/pages/5740772/minorities-contemporary-and-historical-perspectives-monthly-series

We seize the occasion to thank all scholars who have contributed to the series so far!

We wish you a nice summer and all the best,

Emmanuel Dalle Mulle and Mona Bieling

The “Majority Question” in Interwar Romania: Making Majorities from Minorities in a Heterogeneous State

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.[1] 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.[2]

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.[3]

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.[4]

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.[5] 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.[6] 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.[7]

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:

Emmanuel Dalle Mulle: emmanuel.dallemulle-at-graduateinstitute.ch

Mona Bieling: mona.bieling-at-graduateinstitute.ch


[1] R. Chris Davis, Hungarian Religion, Romanian Blood: A Minority’s Struggle for National Belonging (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 2019)

[2] 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.

[3] Gheorghe Vâlsan, forward to Sabin Opreanu, Săcuizarea Românilor prin religie (Cluj: Institutul de Arte Grafice “Ardealul,” 1927), ii.

[4] 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).

[5] 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).

[6] Opreanu, Săcuizarea Românilor prin religie (Cluj: Institutul de Arte Grafice Ardealul, 1927), 16–17.

[7] Popa-Lisseanu, Secuii și secuizarea românilor (Bucharest: Tipografia ziarului “Universul,” 1937), 62.

Secession in Liberal Democracies: the Catalan case

We are proud to publish here the fifth post of our “Minorities in Contemporary and Historical Perspectives” series, which looks at majority-minority relations in a multi-disciplinary and diachronic perspective. Today’s contribution, by Ferran Requejo (Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Barcelona), examines the reasons for the rise of demands for independence in Catalonia in the last decade. The series is a collaboration with H-Nationalism.

History matters. Current political conflicts display historical roots. Perhaps with history we do not explain everything, but without history we do not explain anything.

Having lived through a bloody civil war in the 1930s followed by four decades of General Franco’s dictatorship, the Spanish state carried out a transition to a democratic system at the end of the 1970s. The 1978 Constitution was the legal outcome of this transition process. Among other things, it established a territorial model – the so-called “Estado de las Autonomías” (State of Autonomous Communities) – which was in principle designed to satisfy the historical demands for recognition and self-government of, above all, the citizens and institutions of two minority nations: Catalonia and the Basque Country. This territorial model occupies an intermediate position between the classic federal and regional models of comparative politics, but has more regional than federal features[1]. Forty years later, many Catalan and Basque citizens and political and social actors show a deep disappointment regarding the development of this territorial model in terms of collective rights, political recognition and self-government.

In recent years support for independence has increased in Catalonia. Different indicators show that pro-independence demands are endorsed by a majority of its citizens, political parties and civil society organizations. This is a new phenomenon. Those in favour of independence had been in the minority throughout the 20th century. Nowadays, however, demands of a pro-autonomy and pro-federalist nature, which until recently had been dominant, have gradually lost public support in favour of demands for self-determination and secession

What has happened?

The reasons for this change are to be found in Catalonia’s political evolution over the past fifteen years, especially in the shortcomings with regard to constitutional recognition and political and economic accommodation displayed by the Spanish political system. The latter have been exacerbated by the reform process of Catalonia’s Statute of Autonomy (Constitutional Law) (2006) and the subsequent judgement of Spain’s Constitutional Court regarding this Law (2010).

Before going into this case study, it is important to point out two theoretical elements that are behind the current political debates about secessionist processes in current liberal democracies:

  1. Like Canada, Belgium or the UK, Spain is a plurinational country. At the beginning of this century, the United Nations clearly established that a politics of recognition is an integral part of the struggle for human dignity (Human Development Report, 2004). Moreover, it established that national and cultural freedoms, which include both individual and collective dimensions, are an essential part of the democratic quality of a plurinational society. As a result, values such as dignity, freedom, equality and pluralism become more complex in plurinational contexts than in those of a uninational nature. In this sense, the overall challenge of plurinational democracies can be summed up in the phrase “one polity, several demoi
  2. An established academic typology divides theories of secession into two basic groups:  Remedial Right Theories, which link secession with a “just cause”, in other words, they regard secession as a remedy for specific “injustices”; and Primary Right Theories, which regard secession as a right belonging to certain collectives that fulfil a number of conditions. These latter theories are subdivided into those of an adscriptive or nationalist nature and those of an associative or plebiscitary nature. A third group of theories consist of a revision of traditional political liberalism that tries to establish a formal and deep recognition of national minorities and their accommodation in the constitutional and political rules of present-day democracies.

Launching the reform of the Catalan Statute (2003-2006)

As laid down in the Spanish Constitution, the reform process of the Statute of Catalonia had to be carried out in three stages: it had to be passed by the Catalan parliament (majority of 2/3), by an absolute majority of the members of the Spanish parliament, and finally it had to be approved in referendum by the Catalan citizens. After a rather baroque process, finally a referendum was held (2006) to approve the new Catalan Statute in which it received the support of 73.9% of the Catalan electorate, although the turnout was really low (48,8%). Its final content disappointed many Catalan citizens. Two important parties, the secessionist Catalan Republican Left (ERC) and the Spanish People’s Party (PP) recommended the “no” vote, although for opposite reasons. This referendum should have marked the end of the reform process by closing a legislature devoted to this issue. However, the appeal of unconstitutionality lodged by the PP caused the controversy to drag on and ended up hindering the deployment of the powers contained in the new text.

The judgement of the Constitutional Court (2006-2010)

The judges of the Constitutional Court (appointed by the Spanish parliament, central Government and the General Council of the Judiciary) took nearly four years to deal with the appeal, generating constant uncertainty regarding the final outcome. Over these four years, the process became increasingly convoluted and politically convulsive. The Court’s impartiality was questioned, seriously damaging the institution’s legitimacy. Finally, the Court published its ruling in July 2010. It affected the constitutionality of 14 articles of the Catalan Statute and “interpreted” 27 others. The aspects revised by the Court can be divided into three areas:

  1. Recognition: the judgement states that the Preamble (in which Catalonia was defined as a nation) had no legal value. Regarding the Catalan language, the wish to make it the preferred language within the administration and the media, and the duty to know it were eliminated; the linguistic rights of consumers and users and its role as the primary language in the education system were limited.
  2. Powers: in this area the Statute’s regulation limiting the scope of “base laws” (the central government’s main way of invading Catalonia’s autonomous powers) was cancelled. Moreover, the concepts of exclusive powers, executive powers and spheres such as international relations, culture, civil law or immigration were reinterpreted.
  3. Finance: in this area, two articles referring to the levelling of incomes taking into account similarity of fiscal effort and legislation on local taxes were declared unconstitutional. The interpretative part affected regulations regarding the ordinal principle and state investments according to GDP, among others.

In short, the process resulted in a clear watering down of the objectives of recognition, self-government and political accommodation that had been established at the beginning of the reform process. This new practical content of the Catalan Statute has never been approved by Catalan citizens in a referendum. This is a key element to understand the subsequent emergence of secessionist demands in Catalonia. First of all, the reform had demanded the legally binding recognition of the national reality of Catalonia within the framework of the Spanish Constitution. This demand had been stripped of all legal value by the end of the process. Secondly, greater depth and protection for self-government had been sought so that the Catalan government could further develop its own distinct powers, but this demand resulted in extremely modest gains. Thirdly, it was not possible to attain a finance model which ended a system regarded as unjust (quantified as between 7% and 9% of Catalonia’s GDP and described by some commentators as “fiscal despoliation” in political debates), nor respect for the “ordinal principle” once the territorial transfers have been made.

The combination of the extremely long-drawn-out process to reform the Statute (7 years) and its final disappointing outcome generated a widespread feeling in a large part of the Catalan citizenry of a lack of institutional legitimacy.

Increased support to secession (2010-2019)

Since the Constitutional Court ruling on the Catalan Statute events speeded up. Catalan elections (2012) established a new minority government (led brecognition, a center-right nationalist federation of two parties) which sought stability through a “Agreement of Government” with ERC. This Agreement included aspects connected with the economic crisis as well as three aspects pertaining to the “right to decide” the Catalan constitutional future: 1) a “Declaration of Sovereignty” (2013) in the Catalan Parliament; 2) the creation of the Advisory Council for National Transition (CATN, 2013-2014) which was tasked with advising the Catalan government on the different scenarios, procedures, legal frameworks, international experiences, institutions, etc., relating to the exercise of the right to decide and secession—most of its 14 members were university professors, mainly from the areas of political science, economics, and constitutional and international law; and 3) the calling of a referendum on the constitutional future of Catalonia which was suspended by the Spanish Constitutional Court, although a “participative process” was finally organized (November 2014). This “process” was based on civil society “volunteers” who counted on legal protection and some infrastructures of the Catalan government. It had no legal consequences, but mobilized more than 2,3 million voters and around 80% of them voted “yes” to secession.

After a new electoral period (2015-2017) a pro-independence coalition (Junts pel Sí – Together for Yes) obtained an absolute majority in the Catalan Parliament (72 seats out of 135). The main point of the programme was to call for a referendum of independence, ideally established in agreement with the Spanish central government, following the Scottish experience in the UK (September 2014) and the Quebec experience in Canada (1980, 1995). Finally, after the rejection of the Spanish Government to enter in negotiations regarding this referendum and the subsequent rulings of the Spanish Constitutional Court, a referendum was celebrated organized basically by civil society organizations. All the practical difficulties notwithstanding, which included a strong and violent repression by Spanish police forces, the referendum was held on October 1st, 2017. The results (source: Catalan Government) were as follows:

 Support (%)Number of Votes
Yes90.182,044,038
No7.83177,547
Blank1.9844,913
Turnout43.032,286,217

With regard to the legitimising positions put forward by the different political actors, there is a clear contrast not only between the values and objectives they defend, but also between the different language and theoretical frameworks they employ. On the one hand, the central government and the main Spanish political parties put forward reasons of a legal-constitutional nature: in the Spanish case, they say, it is not legally possible to enter into a dynamic similar to that which occurred in the case of Canada or the United Kingdom (based on negotiation and bilateralism). Moreover, a number of actors have employed arguments relating to the potential economic decadence of an independent Catalonia or its automatic exclusion from the European Union (in contrast with empirical evidence and the Scottish debate). In practical terms, macroeconomic decisions remain in the hands of the central government, as do decisions relating to the management of the main taxes and fiscal transfers which enable the Catalan government to pay everything from the salaries of its employees to its suppliers. The economy is currently one of the key instruments used by the central government to put pressure on Catalan institutions.

On the other hand, the Catalan actors put forward two kinds of legitimizing argument depending on whether the aim is to justify the holding of a referendum on secession, or to defend the soundness of Catalonia becoming an independent state. The fundamental reason used to justify an independence referendum is its democratic nature. The prior assumption is that Catalonia is a specific demos that has the right to decide about its future according to liberal-democratic values and rules. The differentiating roots of this demos are of a historical and national-cultural nature (Catalonia was an independent state some centuries ago; Catalans have their own language and culture). Thus the legitimizing arguments for the right to decide usually combine the perspective of adscriptive or national theories of secession with the perspective of democratic and plebiscitary theories. Moreover, the legitimizing arguments in favour of independence add to these two avenues those associated with theories of just-cause secession. In this case, “injustice” is present both in relation to the systematic mistreatment at the economic and fiscal levels that Catalonia receives from the Spanish government—Catalonia’s fiscal deficit with regard to the state is in the order of 15,000 million euros a year, according to a number of economic and fiscal studies; lack of infrastructures, centralism with regard to Barcelona’s airport and other infrastructures, lack of recognition of the distinct national reality of Catalan society, linguistic policies (absence of linguistic pluralism in state institutions and practices, etc.), marginalization of Catalonia from the European and international spheres, shortcomings in the use of political symbols, etc.

A formal but rather “symbolic” and non-implemented Declaration of Independence followed the referendum in the Catalan Parliament (October 27, 2017). As it is well known, the Spanish central government reacted immediately applying article 155 of the Spanish Constitution which implies the control of Catalan institutions by the Spanish central government, which also called for new elections in Catalonia (December 2017). The results did not change the previous situation, with an outright majority obtained by secessionist parties (70 out of 135 seats). This elected a new president, Joaquim Torra, who acts in accordance with former president Carles Puigdemont who lives in Belgium. In 2018, a Spanish euro order to arrest Puigdemont was refused by the Court of the German land of Schleswig-Holstein, where he was provisionally arrested. In parallel, a political trial in the Spanish Supreme Court has emerged against members of the former Catalan government and the President of the Catalan parliament that remained in Catalonia. In contrast, other members of the Catalan government and MP’s, including the president of Catalonia Carles Puigdemont, preferred to live “in exile” in different countries (Belgium, UK, Switzerland) in order to avoid being judged in Spain. Although the “autonomous government” in Catalonia has been formally reinstituted the practical situation is far from being “normalized” in political and democratic terms. In October 2019 a new central government was built by the Socialist Party (PSOE) and a leftish party born in the last decade (Podemos). A “table for dialogue” has been created in February 2020 between the Spanish and Catalan governments. However, the programme and calendar are undefined and a clear scepticism is present about its potential as a way to solve the deep historical, national and political problems that are at stake. Not to mention that the fact that Catalan leaders remain in jail or must live in “exile” is not the best framework to obtain a realistic solution. There is a deep divergence between the objectives, language, values and procedural rules shared by the different actors on either side of the “dialogue table”.

To sum up, the future prospects of Catalan and Spanish politics regarding the territorial-national question remain open. Spanish opposition to a referendum in Catalonia, in contrast with the agreement between the British and Scottish governments, leads the current political process into unknown territory. There are a number of different possible scenarios: either through agreements within the context of the Spanish state—which currently seem unlikely—, through agreements with European or international mediation (following, for example, the procedural rules established by the Canadian Supreme Court in 1998 in relation to the relationship between Quebec and Canada, or through the mobilization of Catalan citizenry in a reinforced new secessionist institutional attempt at disconnection).

The 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. The Catalan case constitutes a clear empirical point of reference within the sphere of comparative politics on secessionist processes in liberal democracies, and constitutes a dynamic element in the European Union in an increasingly globalized world.

Ferran Requejo is Professor of Political Science at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona, where he is director of the Research Group on Political Theory. His main fields of research are theories of democracy, federalism, multinational democracies, political theory and political liberalism after World War II. In 1997 he was awarded the Rudolf Wildenmann Prize (ECPR), in 2002 he received the Ramon Trias Fargas Prize, and in 2006 the Spanish Political Science Association Prize to the best book (Multinational Federalism and Value Pluralism, Routledge 2005). He has been furthermore member of the Spanish Electoral Board (Junta Electoral Central, 2004-2008), of the executive committee of the European Consortium of Political Research and of the Comparative Federalism Research Committee (International Political Science Association). He is currently a regular contributor to the newspapers “La Vanguardia” and “Ara” (Barcelona) and other Catalan, Spanish and international media.

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:

Emmanuel Dalle Mulle: emmanuel.dallemulle-at-graduateinstitute.ch

Mona Bieling: mona.bieling-at-graduateinstitute.ch


[1] See Ferran Requejo, “Is Spain a Federal Country?”, http://50shadesoffederalism.com/case-studies/spain-federal-country/. See also K.J. Nagel-F.Requejo, “Democracy and Borders: External and Internal Secession in the European Union” inJ.Jordana-M.Keating-A.Marx-J.Wouters (eds), Changing Borders in Europe, Routledge, 2019: 146-162.

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.

The Pursuit of Polish Homogeneity following World War II

We are proud to publish here the fourth post of our “Minorities in Contemporary and Historical Perspectives” series, which looks at majority-minority relations in a multi-disciplinary and diachronic perspective. Today’s contribution, by John Kulczycki (University of Illinois at Chicago), looks at the efforts of post-WW II Poland to homogenize the population of the so-called Recovered Lands in the west of the country. The series is a collaboration with H-Nationalism.

At the Potsdam Conference in 1945, the three Great Powers had the task of demarking Poland’s western border. During the plenary session on 21 July, President Harry Truman decried that the Soviets had already handed over eastern Germany to the Poles.[1] On his insistence, the conference communiqué stated that “the final delimitation of the western frontier of Poland should await the peace settlement.” Yet, a provision approving “the transfer to Germany of German populations” undermined this caveat.[2]

Polish nationalists claimed eastern Germany on historical grounds as part of the Polish kingdom during the tenth to fourteenth centuries.[3] Government officials referred to the territories collectively as the Recovered Lands (Ziemie Odzyskane), an unconscious part of ordinary speech even after the fall of communism.[4] Polish nationalists also claimed the area on ethnic grounds. As the Polish ambassador in Moscow informed his British and American colleagues on 10 July 1945, “Fairly large territories with a preponderating Polish element were not included within the boundaries of Poland in the years 1918-1939.” “[S]he has to return to her primordial lands, and to continue the old political tradition . . . as a national state.”[5] Integration of the Recovered Lands required the “transfer” of Germans, but the retention of “autochthons,” i.e., indigenous German citizens of Polish origin.

Identifying Autochthons

 How to recognize Polish elements who lived under German rule and cultural influence for centuries? Many residents of the Recovered Lands identified primarily with their religion and region and were nationally indifferent or without an irrevocable attachment to a nationality despite the nationalizing efforts of the Nazi regime during the war, when national or ethnic identity could mean the difference between life and death.[6]

 On 19 February 1945 an organization of enthusiasts of westward expansion, the Polish Western Union (Polski Związek Zachodni), advocated “nationality verification” based on a variety of criteria: active participation in the struggle for Polishness and membership in a Polish organization, knowledge of the Polish language and its usage in daily life, and evidence of Polish origin, such as a Polish-sounding surname and Polish family ties and traditions.[7]         

Lacking guidelines from the central government, regional authorities pursued their own approaches.[8] On 22 March 1945 Silesian Governor Aleksander Zawadzki directed officials to protect “Polish souls” by issuing provisional affidavits of Polishness to applicants who “unquestionably belong to the Polish nationality.”[9] These “Polish souls” had to present a document certifying membership in a Polish organization or the testimony of three individuals of unquestioned Polish nationality. A further directive on 7 April 1945 added the use of Polish in the home and in prayer as well as the ability to read and write in Polish and ordered the formation of special commissions of local individuals “of undoubtedly Polish nationality” to decide who should receive Polish citizenship.[10]

In Mazuria, however, Plenipotentiary Jakub Prawin on 24 April 1945 called on Poles of local origin to register for provisional affidavits of membership in the Polish nation.[11] On 26 May 1945 his deputy instructed officials that a lack of documentation of Polish origin, such as a Polish-sounding surname, or an absence of Polish national consciousness, as when applicants declared themselves to be Mazurs, should not prevent certification as members of the Polish nation. Officials could also waive the requirement of a minimal knowledge of Polish in exceptional cases for individuals connected to the Polish nation. Nevertheless, officials were to examine an applicant’s past so as not to protect “foreign elements, enemies of the Polish Nation, or those encumbered with anti-Polish activity.”[12] If approved by a local Polish Nationality Committee, the applicant received a permanent affidavit of Polishness.

Whereas elsewhere the initial directives meant that whoever is not Polish is German, in Mazuria the authorities recognized as Polish all who were not German, requiring little more than a declaration of loyalty. This took into account the region’s unusual character. Mazurs spoke an archaic form of Polish, but unlike most Poles, they were overwhelmingly Protestant. The Nazis classified them as “racial Germans” without a process of individual verification. Indeed, Mazuria was a hotbed of Nazi support. Therefore, Polish activists in Mazuria favored a preemptive collective recognition of Mazurs as Polish citizens instead of individual verification, excluding solely those individuals unquestionably German.[13]

Because of a rigid definition of Polishness as well as the perception of Mazurs as Germans, officials balked at carrying out the directives. On 7 June 1945 Prawin threatened officials with sanctions, admonishing them:

Let the Polish citizen remember that the Kashub, Pomeranian, Warmiak, Mazur—we all, despite these or other religious, political, or social beliefs, are children of one blood of fraternal clans and Polish tribes, and this without regard to whether our closer or more distant compatriots are today conscious of their Polish origin or not. . . . I categorically direct you to register as Poles . . . all individuals identifying themselves as Kashubs, Pomeranians, Warmiaks, Mazurs without demanding of them additional declarations in this regard and to recognize those so registered as Polish citizens.

Revocation of citizenship could only occur after its bestowal: if “it is proven in an administrative and legal way that someone himself consciously of his own criminal instinct acted against Poles and Poland, then of course the Polish citizenship granted him will be withdrawn.”[14]­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­

On 20 June 1945 the Minister of Public Administration, who had jurisdiction over the Recovered Lands, addressed the issue of nationality verification, authorizing governors and plenipotentiaries to issue provisional three-month affidavits of citizenship pending verification to those who inhabited the territory before the war and “belong to the Polish nationality” following a declaration of loyalty. But he did not define the criteria for membership in the Polish nation, except for specifically excluding former members of the Nazi party and “fascist-Nazi criminals.” On 23 June 1945 the director of the Legal Department of the provisional parliament, argued that the criteria should be left to administrative and public security organs, which had the necessary information to separate Poles from Germans, and any regulation should await the peace treaty between Germany and the Allied powers.[15]

Obstacles to Differentiating Germans from Poles

Initially, Governor Zawadzki advocated recognizing only those who “unquestionably belong to the Polish nationality.” By October 1945 he admitted, “No paragraphs and no directives clearly reveal who should be regarded as a Pole and who as a German—in such cases the Polish conscience must decide.”[16] But the officials responsible for verification came mostly from prewar Poland and had no knowledge of conditions under German rule. Furthermore, their competence and integrity frequently declined the lower one went down the administrative hierarchy. Many simply regarded the autochthons as Germans and often targeted for expulsion those with homes and farms that officials could confiscate for themselves or others from prewar Poland. As a result, the mass expulsion from the Recovered Lands that reached its apogee in 1946 included many who qualified for Polish citizenship.

A report on 2 June 1947 of the Department of Inspection of the Ministry of Recovered Lands went to the heart of the matter: “The greatest difficulty in asserting whether a given individual is of Polish origin or not is the lack, or even the impossibility of creating an objective criterion that would differentiate a German from an autochthon.” Furthermore, the decisions concerning verification varied widely. “For some the fact of having a Polish name is enough, and for the authorities to acknowledge the Polishness of others, knowledge of the Polish language and, say, one witness confirming the applicant’s Polish origins is not enough.” “Especially dangerous is the fact that at times individuals already verified are suddenly deprived of their certification of Polish nationality because of a denunciation that the autochthon speaks German at home or has postal contact with Germany and therefore is a German, not a Pole.” Many autochthons “prefer to leave as Germans bearing their Polishness in secret rather than as spurned to whom the right to Polishness was denied and to whom is pinned the mark of treason in the eyes of their fellow Germans.” In addition, “unregulated matters of property” prevent an autochthon deprived of his property from applying for verification: “in practice the greatest number of denunciations is inspired or directed by the current Polish occupants, who in case the autochthon is verified would have to return this property.”[17]

The End of Mass Expulsion

In July 1947 the British refused to accept the last 50,000 Germans that the Poles wanted to expel to the British zone of occupied Germany. In October 1947 the Soviets announced that mass resettlement to their zone would end in November 1947.[18] The imminent halt to mass expulsion focused attention on autochthons who refused to apply for nationality verification. 

In 1947 Silesia, with the largest concentration of autochthons, saw the most vigorous campaign of “re-Polonization,” based on the assumption that autochthons were essentially Polish. Yet, troubling signs of German influence and incomplete re-Polonization persisted. The Ministry of Public Affairs blamed primarily German machinations and falsifications during verification.[19] In the last months of 1947 nationality commissions reversed 1,062 decisions affecting individuals verified as Polish, and 14,650 cases were pending. Contrary to the law, the commissions revoked citizenship without the approval of local officials. The governor, however, saw the expulsion of Germans as more important.[20]

With the end of mass expulsion, the authorities faced the problem of thousands of autochthons not yet verified as Polish. In Olsztyn province, formerly Mazuria, Governor Mieczysław Moczar resorted to repressive measures in the so-called “Great Verification.” On 8 January 1949, he declared, “We desire with all our strength not to lose a single Pole, but we must be very severe in relation to those who are espousing pro-Nazi propaganda,” a reference to those defending Mazurs or resisting verification.[21] The administration mobilized local cadre together with the militia and security forces to target over 20,000 autochthons with various forms of pressure, including physical force.[22] Indeed, on 30 March 1949 the International Committee of the Red Cross informed the Ministry of Public Administration of an increasing number of complaints, mainly from Mazuria, of German citizens forced to request Polish citizenship.[23]

Superficially, Moczar made progress. A report on 1 April 1949 claimed that nearly 19,000 natives were verified in the previous three months.[24] But the use of force and repression strengthened the aversion of Mazurs to Polish officialdom and their existing situation, and they generally continued to identify as Germans.[25]

The Epilogue

Too late for most Mazurs, declarations of regional and national identities became officially possible when the 2011 census allowed inhabitants to indicate one or two national-ethnic identities. No Mazurs identified themselves as such, but 44.4 percent of those who declared a Silesian identity gave it as their sole identity as did 30.4 percent of Germans. Superficially, the postwar nationality policies succeeded: 94.8 percent of Poland’s population declared Polish as its sole identity.[26] This success came in part through the more or less forced departure and alienation of many who could have been loyal citizens contributing to Poland’s reconstruction after the war had these policies and their implementation been different.

John J. Kulczycki is Professor Emeritus in the Department of History of the University of Illinois at Chicago, where he taught East European history and the history of nationalism. His research and publications have focused on Polish-German relations in the 19th and 20th centuries. His most recent publication is Belonging to the Nation: Inclusion and Exclusion in the Polish-German Borderlands, 1939-1951 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016), which was awarded “Honorable Mention” as the best book in Polish Studies by the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies in 2017.

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:

Emmanuel Dalle Mulle: emmanuel.dallemulle-at-graduateinstitute.ch

Mona Bieling: mona.bieling-at-graduateinstitute.ch


[1] United States, Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States, Diplomatic Papers [hereafter cited as FRUS]: The Conference of Berlin (The Potsdam Conference), 2 vols.(Washington, D.C: United States Government Printing Office, 1960), 2:208-213, 216-221.

[2] Ibid., 357, 480, 1151. The Polish nationalist leader Stanisław Grabski credited Stalin and Molotov with Poland receiving “fully that what we sought,” repr. in Stanisław Kirkor, “Listy Stanisława Grabskiego (1941-1949),” Zeszyty Historyczne 19 (1971): 70.

[3] FRUS, The Conference of Berlin, 1:757-777.

[4] A young Polish historian at the International Congress of Historical Sciences, Montreal, 1995, admitted that he used the term as a matter of habit without being conscious of its political implications.

[5] FRUS, The Conference of Berlin, 1:762, 766.

[6] Recent studies on Central Europe question a natural, progressive nationalization of a people. Most relevant is James E. Bjork, Neither German nor Pole: Catholicism and National Indifference in a Central European Borderland (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2008). Tara Zahra lists other studies, “Imagined Noncommunities: National Indifference as a Category of Analysis,” Slavic Review 69, no. 1 (Spring 2010): 94n2.

[7] Tadeusz Baryła, Warmiacy i Mazurzy w PRL: wbόr dokumentόw: rok 1945 (Olsztyn : Ośrodek Badań Naukowych Im. Wojciecha Ke̜trzyńskiego, 1994), 4-6; Czesław Osękowski, Społeczeństwo Polski zachodniej i północnej w latach 1945-1956: procesy integracji i dezintegracji (Zielona Góra : Wyższa Szkoła Pedagogiczna im. Tadeusza Kotarbińskiego, 1994), 90; Grzegorz Strauchold, Polska ludność rodzima ziem zachodnich i północnych. Opinie nie tylko publiczne lat 1944-1948 (Olsztyn: Ośrodek Badań Naukowych im. Wojciecha Kętrzyńskiego, 1995), 17, 19, 34; Zenon Romanow, “Kształtowanie się polityki władz polskich wobec ludności rodzimej ziem zachodnich i północnych w latach 1945-1946,” unpublished paper [1996?], 1-2.

[8] Grzegorz Strauchold, Autochtoni polscy, niemieccy, czy–od nacjonalizmu do komunizmu (1945-1949) (Toruń : Wydawn. Adam Marszałek, 2001), 37, 45.

[9] Quoted in Romanow, “Kształtowanie się,” 3.

[10] Ibid.; Jan Misztal, Weryfikacja narodowosciowa na Ziemiach Odzyskanych (Warszawa : Panstwowe Wydawn. Nauk., 1990), 192-193, 201; the quote is on 201.

[11] Wojciech Wrzesiński, “Proces zasiedlania województwa olsztyńskiego w latach 1945-1949,” in Problemy rozwoju gospodarczego i demograficznego Ziem Zachodnich w latach 1945-1958, ed. Bohdan Gruchman and Janusz Ziólkowski (Poznań: Instytut Zachodni, 1960),” 177.

[12] Baryła, Warmiacy, 36.

[13] Quoted in Leszek Belzyt, Między Polską a Niemcami: Weryfikacja narodowościowa i jej następstwa na Warmii, Mazurach i Powiślu w latach 1945-1960 (Toruń: Wydawnictwo Adam Marszałek, 1998), 83.

[14] Baryła, Warmiacy, 37-38.

[15] Ibid., 42-44; the quote is on 42.

[16] Quoted in Ingo Eser, “Niemcy na Górnym Śląsku,” in Niemcy, ed. Borodziej and Lemberg, 2 324.

[17] Excerpt, Boćkowski, Niemcy, 403-404.

[18] Włodzimerz Borodziej, “Wstęp: sprawa polska i przemieszczenia ludności w czasie II wojny światowej,” in Niemcy, 1:97-98.

[19] Excerpts, Borodziej and Lemberg, Niemcy, 2:501-503.

[20] Piotr Madajczyk, Przyłączenie Śląska Opolskiego do Polski, 1945-1948 (Warsaw: Instytut Studiów Politycznych  PAN, 1996), 216-217.

[21] Quoted in Belzyt, Między Polską a Niemcami, 163.

[22] Strauchold, Autochtoni, 168; Belzyt, Między Polską a Niemcami, 163-164.

[23] Borodziej and Lemberg, Niemcy, 1:346-347.

[24] Belzyt, Między Polską a Niemcami, 163-168; Claudia Kraft, “Wojewodschaft Allenstein,” in Die Deutschen, ed.Włodzimierz Borodziej and Hans Lemberg, vol. 1, Zentrale Behörden. Wojewodschaft Allenstein, ed. Borodziej and Kraft (Marburg: Verlag Herder-Institut, 2000), 475-476.

[25] Leszek Belzyt, “Zum Verfahren der national Verifikation in den Gebieten des ehemaligen Ostpreussen 1945-1950,” Jahrbuch für die Geschichte Mittel- und Ostdeutschlands 39 (1990): 262; Andzrej Sakson, Mazurzy – społeczność pogranicza (Poznań: Instytut Zachodni, 1990), 128-129.

[26] Główny Urząd Statystyczny, “Przynależność narodowo-etniczna ludności—wyniki spisu ludności i mieszkań 2011,” Materiał na konferencję w dniu 29.01.2013 r., 3, http://www.stat.gov.pl/cps/rde/xbcr/gus/Przynaleznosc_narodowo-etniczna_w_2011_NSP.pdf.

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.

The Jewish Minority in Inter-War Poland

We are proud to publish here the third post of our “Minorities in Contemporary and Historical Perspectives” series, which looks at majority-minority relations in a multi-disciplinary and diachronic perspective. Today’s contribution, by Professor Yoav Peled (Tel Aviv University), discusses the difficult situation of the Jewish minority in interwar Poland. The series is a collaboration with H-Nationalism.

Q – “What is Bolshevism?”

A – “A conspiracy by international Jewry against Christian nations.”

Q – “What have the Bolsheviks given the worker?”

A – “The rule of Jewry.”

Q – “What do the communists want from Poland?”

A – “To turn her into a Russian province ruled by Jews appointed by Moscow.”

                            (“A Bolshevik Cathechism,” Gwiazda Poranna, 1921.)

Since its inception in 1918, the Second Polish Republic had to face two daunting tasks: forging a state and a nation out of disparate ethnic elements and solving the country’s acute economic problems. Catholic ethnic Poles made up only 70% of the population of the newly emergent state, with Ukrainians comprising 14%, Jews 10%, and smaller numbers of Byelorussians and Germans making up the rest.[1]

Its 1921 constitution declared Poland to be the state of the Polish nation, with Polish as the sole official language. But it also established a democratic republic, with universal suffrage, a bicameral legislature, and semi-proportional representation. The constitution guaranteed freedom of religion, with the Roman Catholic faith as first among equals. Ethnic minorities were to enjoy equal citizenship rights and the right to organize autonomous institutions, including their own school systems.

Respect for the rights of ethnic minorities was forced upon Poland by the Minorities Treaty it had to sign as part of the Versailles peace agreements. The Allied Powers insisted on this treaty in view of the widespread anti-Jewish pogroms that accompanied the various battles to determine Poland’s eastern borders in 1918-1919 (and again the Polish-Soviet war of 1919-1920), and the treaty included two articles relating specifically to Jews: Article 10 guaranteed autonomous Jewish control over Jewish-language primary schools that were to be set up and paid for by the state, and Article 11 guaranteed that Jews would not be forced to violate their Sabbath, and that no elections would be held on that day. The limitation of Polish sovereignty by the treaty, and the role played by Jewish organizations in bringing it about, were a sore point for Polish nationalists. In response, as long as the right-wing National Democrats (Endecja) were in power, the state dragged its feet in regularizing the citizenship status of non-ethnic Poles, particularly Jews, who resided in territories annexed to Poland from Russia, Germany, and Austria. This delaying tactic ended only in 1930. In 1934, after signing a non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany, Poland unilaterally abrogated the Minorities Treaty.

Polish politics in the inter-war period fell into three main tendencies: the Endecja, headed by Roman Dmowski; the centrist Sanacja (cleansing), led by Marshal Joseph Piłsudski, the founder of modern Poland; and the Left, centered on the Polish Socialist Party (PPS). The Endecja advocated an aggressive nationalizing policy towards the ethnic minorities, pressuring the Slavic minorities to assimilate and the Jews and the Germans to emigrate, while the Left favored allowing the minorities to develop their own cultures within the Polish nation-state. As for the Jews, the Endecja advocated exclusionary policies, up to and including physical expulsion from the country, while the Left advocated equal protection and uncoerced assimilation.

Piłsudski assumed state power in a coup d’état in 1926. He and his Sanacja successors (Piłsudski died in 1935), who held state power until 1939, gradually came to adopt the aggressive nationalism of the Endecja.  Thus, whether under the Endecja or under the Sanacja, “the Poles were determined to make Poland a homogeneous state in the shortest time possible.”[2]

Of Poland’s ethnic minorities, only the Jews could neither plan to establish their own state on Polish territory nor wish to unite with any foreign country. (Most of them, however, demanded collective rights within the Polish state.) Still, the Jews were viewed by all political tendencies, except the Left, as most threatening, suspected, inter alia, of being Communist agents. This perception placed the Jews, together with the Germans, in the category of inassimilable minorities. However, while assimilation of the Germans into Polish society was seen as unlikely, assimilation of the Jews was seen as undesirable.

The 19th century Polish national movement included two ideological undercurrents with regard to the Jews: an exclusionist, anti-Semitic undercurrent, and an integrationist undercurrent that considered Jews to be part of the Polish nation. The latter view was captured in the slogan of the nineteenth century uprisings against the Romanov Empire, “our freedom and yours.” Moreover, “the most important post-1863 school of Polish social thought … the Warsaw Positivists, condemned and rejected anti-Jewish beliefs, at least until the first decade of the twentieth century.”[3]  

In the inter-war period, the anti-Jewish stance gradually gained the upper hand. One major reason for that was the stunted development of the Polish economy. Dmowski, the most prominent integral Polish nationalist and anti-Semite, set the tone for the public discussion of the national and Jewish questions. In 1934, he wrote: “Even if Jews were morally angels, mentally geniuses, even if they were people of a higher kind than we are, the very fact of their existence among us … is for our society lethal and they have to be got rid of.”[4] To counter this lethal danger, Dmowski called, already in 1912, for an economic boycott against the Jews, and his political program was centered on the need to Polonize the urban economy and induce the Jews to emigrate.

In 1925, Dmowski stated: “The economic and financial crisis is the axis of our present-day politics …”[5] One indication of the crisis was hyper-inflation. The rate of exchange between the Polish mark (in effect until the introduction of the złoty in 1924) and the US dollar was 1:186 in July 1920 and 1:20,000,000 by the end of January 1924.[6] In most areas of industrial and agricultural production the levels of output reached by the end of the inter-war period were lower, in physical terms, than they had been in 1913.[7]

The crux of Poland’s economic problems was in agriculture, which sustained two-thirds of the population. In 1921, 1% of landowners owned close to 50% of Poland’s arable land while almost two-thirds of all farms had less than the minimum required for subsistence – five hectares. In spite of two land reform bills, passed in 1920 and 1925, by 1939 only 15% of the farmland had been reparcelled. The urban economy was not developing nearly fast enough to absorb the surplus rural population, and emigration became increasingly difficult as the inter-war period progressed.

Poland’s economic policies favored agriculture over trade and industry and large farms over small ones. Since Jews held a prominent position in trade and (small) industry, and, in the countryside, depended on the economic fortunes of the peasants, they suffered disproportionately from those policies. Fewer than 6% of the Jews were engaged in agriculture, while in the cities they numbered between one-quarter and two-thirds of the population. In 1921 over 40% of them were engaged in commerce and 34% were engaged in industry, mostly as artisans and handicraft workers. Jews constituted over 60% of all those engaged in trade and commerce, 56% of the medical doctors in private practice, over 40% of the teachers, and one third of the lawyers.[8]

Independent Poland moved quickly to dismiss Jews from their public sector jobs in the formerly Austrian territories, the only areas where Jews had been employed by the state. By 1929, only 1% of central and local government employees were Jews. In 1928, there were only two Jews among the 4,000 workers of the municipal tram system in Warsaw, a city that was 35% Jewish. In addition, Jews were excluded, as employees, suppliers and distributors, from state enterprises, which enjoyed monopoly status in such traditional Jewish industries as tobacco, alcohol, matches and salt. Moreover, unlike their Polish counterparts, few unemployed Jews received any assistance from the state.

In 1919, Sunday was designated by law as a mandatory day of rest for all businesses. This meant that Jews had to either violate their Sabbath or remain idle two days a week, contrary to the spirit, if not the letter, of the Minorities Treaty. Small businesses, which were predominantly in Jewish hands, were discriminated against both by the government’s tax policy (Jews paid between 35% and 40% of Poland’s tax revenue) and by the credit policy of the state-owned banks. These administrative steps were accompanied by a popular economic boycott and occasional bursts of violence against Jewish-owned businesses. Moreover, “ethno-nationalist papers … frequently stressed that ‘eight million Poles are forced to live outside their homeland, while four million Jews occupy Poland’, and that ‘polish peasants, instead of emigrating to foreign countries in search of bread and work, should find such bread and work in towns and cities in their homeland’ [in place of the Jews].”[9]

These measures, however, failed to dislodge the Jews from the urban economy. Between 1921 and 1931, the share of Jews among those active in trade and commerce declined from 62.6% to 52.7%, in industry from 23.5% to 20%, and in public service and the professions from 14% to 13.4%.[10] Jewish petty traders managed to stay competitive throughout the Depression as well, and “apart from a few fanatics, most Polish consumers ignored all other considerations, including pastoral letters instructing them to boycott Jewish traders,” and continued to patronize them.[11]

In 1936, the Sanacja Prime Minister officially endorsed the economic boycott against the Jews, as long as it was carried out without violence. In the same year a bill to outlaw Jewish ritual slaughter (shkhite), modeled after a law initiated by the Nazis in Bavaria in 1930, was introduced in the Sejm. The prohibition of shkhite would have breached the guarantee of the Jews’ religious freedom and undermined their equal status as citizens. For unlike the Sunday rest law, that gave Jews the option to still observe their Sabbath at an economic cost, the shkhite law was intended to forbid them to perform one of the most basic and indispensable rituals of their religion. Incredibly, this issue took up about half of the parliamentary time in the fateful years of 1936-1938, more than any other issue then on the agenda. But the efforts to forbid shkhite were unsuccessful until the German occupation authorities forbade it in October 1939.

In summarizing the dynamics of the Sanacja government (1926-1939) in relation to the Jewish minority, Prof. Jerzy Tomaszewski has concluded that,

The most important changes in the legal status of the Jewish population occurred after the May [1926] coup d’état, when the authoritarian regimes were able to break the resistance of the nationalist right-wing … and purge the local administrative apparatus of its supporters and followers … [However,] at the end of the 1930s the same authoritarian government was able to ignore the democratic opposition and adopt some elements of the nationalist conceptions. Although, before September 1939, Poland avoided the establishment of any openly discriminatory laws, some initiatives born at the beginning of 1939 might well have led in this direction (Tomaszewski 1994:127).[12]

Yoav Peled is Professor Emeritus of political science at Tel Aviv University. He is author of The Challenge of Ethnic Democracy: The State and Minority Groups in Israel, Poland and Northern Ireland (Routledge 2014), co-author, with Horit Herman Peled, of The Religionization of Israeli Society (Routledge 2019), and co-editor, with John Ehrenberg, of Israel and Palestine: Alternative Perspectives on Statehood (Rowman and Littlefield 2016).

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. For more information, please visit: https://themythofhomogeneity.org/

Scholars interested in contributing to the series can contact:

Emmanuel Dalle Mulle: emmanuel.dallemulle-at-graduateinstitute.ch

Mona Bieling: mona.bieling-at-graduateinstitute.ch


[1] For detailed references please see my The Challenge of Ethnic Democracy: The State and Minority Groups in Israel, Poland and Northern Ireland, 2014.

[2] Stephan Horak et al., Eastern European National Minorities 1919-1980: A Handbook, 1985.

[3] Joanna Michlic, Poland’s Threatening Other: The Image of the Jew from 1880 to the Present, 2006.

[4] Cited in A. J. Groth, “Dmowski, Piłsudski and Ethnic Conflict in Pre-1939 Poland,” Canadian Slavic Studies 3:69-91, 1969; original emphasis.

[5] Cited in Anthony Polonsky, Politics in Independent Poland, 1921-1939: The Crisis of Constitutional Government, 1972:97.

[6] F. Zweig, Poland Between Two Wars:A Critical Study of Social and Economic Changes, 1944.

[7] Z. Landau and J. Tomaszewski, The Polish Economy in the Twentieth Century, 1985:121.

[8] Mendelsohn, Ezra, The Jews of East Central Europe Between the World Wars, 1983:23-29; R. Mahler, The Jews of Poland Between the Two World Wars: Socio-Economic History in Light of Statistics, 1968 (Hebrew).

[9] Michlic, op. cit:88.

[10] Mahler, op. cit:109, 137, 157.

[11] Joseph Marcus, Social and Political History of the Jews in Poland, 1919-1939, 1983:245.

[12] J. Tomaszewski, “The Civil Rights of Jews in Poland, 1918-1939,” Polin 8, 1994:115-127.

The Nationalists’ Dilemma: Minorities, Revolt and Violence in French-Occupied Syria


We are proud to publish here the second 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 Joel Veldkamp (Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva), looks at the nationalists’ dilemma of how to include minorities in their national project through the case of the Great Syrian Revolt of 1925-27. The series is a collaboration with H-Nationalism.

The “Great Syrian Revolt” of 1925-27 was the largest and bloodiest uprising against European rule in the interwar Middle East. The leaders of this uprising, nearly all of whom were Sunni Muslims or Druzes, strove determinedly to include other religious groups in their coalition. These efforts largely failed, as did the revolt itself. In this article, I explore the reasons for that failure.

In February 1926, Fawzi al-Qawuqji was feeling frustrated. He had already served as a military officer for two defeated states – the Ottoman Empire, vanquished in World War I, and Amir Faysal’s Kingdom of Syria, which had been destroyed by a French invasion just a year and a half after it was born. Afterwards, Qawuqji had reluctantly joined the French Syrian Legion as a cavalry captain. In July 1925, however, an uprising against French rule had begun in Syria’s Druze region, an uprising which quickly scored some stunning victories and gave hope to erstwhile nationalists like Qawuqji. That October, he and his men mutinied and joined the revolt. But the momentum of the revolt had stalled over the long winter, and Qawuqji had been reduced to fighting a bloody guerilla war in the Damascus countryside. From his headquarters on Mount Qalamoun, Qawuqji sent an angry letter to the leaders of Salamiyya, a village inhabited mostly by Ismaʿili Shiʿite Muslims:

I would never have believed that the Ismaʿilis, our brothers in religion, nationality and soil, would carry the arms of the enemy to fight their Syrian brothers and walk down the path of the Armenians… I pity enormously those who will, in our country, have a fate similar to the Armenians in Turkey. …If you don’t want to join us, then at least be neutral.[1]

This letter (unearthed by Laila Parsons in her indispensable biography of Qawuqji), and its clear, disturbing reference to the recent murder of over a million Armenians by the Ottoman State, calls for close examination. Although he was a pious Sunni Muslim, Qawuqji was no religious extremist, nor is there any evidence that he was prejudiced against Shiʿites. On the contrary, as this letter shows, he wanted the Ismaʿilis to join him. Moreover, the revolution itself had been launched by leaders from another religious minority group, the Druzes in southern Syria. The leader of the Druze forces, Sultan Pasha al-Atrash, proclaimed that Druzes, Muslims and Christians were “brothers in nationality”[2] and said, “We make no distinction in religion or sects, as our only aim is to obtain our legitimate rights, which are for all the sons of the Syrian nation, regardless of class or sect.”[3] For the leaders of the revolution, the liberation of Syria was and had to be an ecumenical project.

Why, then, this outpouring of sectarian venom in Qawuqji’s letter? I argue that it stems from the “nationalists’ dilemma” – the inability of nationalists to persuade minorities to forget their past alienation and join the national cause without using means that were in themselves alienating.

At the time of the revolt, even more so than today, the lands of Syria were home to an array of religious and ethnic groups – Sunni Muslims, Ismaʿilis, ʿAlawis, Druzes, Yazidis, Christians, Jews, Arabs, Kurds, Turks, Armenians, Circassians, and more. Although Sunni Islam had been the politically supreme religion in the region for nearly a thousand years, in 1925, only 56% of people in the French-ruled territories in Syria and Lebanon were Sunni Muslims; only 49% were Arab Sunni Muslims.[4] France perceived this diversity as Syria’s all-defining political feature, and often sought to use religious and ethnic minorities as a wedge against a potential resistance movement led by Syria’s Sunni Muslim elites. Among other policies, they created five distinct administrative regions in Syria for Christians, ʿAlawis, Druzes, Sunnis and Turks,[5] recruited Armenian refugees to fight against rebels in the region, patronized Catholic leaders and institutions, and distributed weapons to Christian villages.

The classic descriptor for these colonial tactics, both in the academic and popular literature, is “divide and rule.” While accurate in many ways, in other ways this phrase masks the scale of the challenge Syria’s nationalists had taken on. They were not simply trying to unite and liberate a nation – they were trying to create one. Despite the decisive rejection of “methodological nationalism” by historians in recent decades, it is still all too easy for modern historians to receive the rhetoric of the rebels of 1925 uncritically, to accept that they were fighting for the independence of a preexisting entity called “Syria,” a real whole that the French were trying to “divide.” But in 1925, “Syria” had never existed as an independent nation-state. (Indeed, since the rebels’ vision of “Syria” included Lebanon, Palestine, and Alexandretta, it arguably still has not.) Not even the borders of the Ottoman-era provinces in the region could be claimed as a precedent for the creation of such a state. Thus, when Qawuqji addressed the Ismaʿilis as “brothers in nationality,” he was, as Benjamin Thomas White observes, “not reflecting the actual existence of such a whole, but rather attempting to bring it into being.”[6] He was, as it were, trying to create a “myth of homogeneity.”

The rebel leadership clearly understood that sectarian divisions could be their undoing, and that the French would exploit that possibility. The rebels acted accordingly. Michael Provence cites an August 1925 letter from Sultan Pasha al-Atrash to the Greek Orthodox Patriarch in Damascus, “apologizing for rebel misdeeds, promising to compensate losses, guaranteeing security in the name of the insurgent government, and pledging to eliminate further problems.”[7] When Fawzi al-Qawuqji tried to seize Hama in October 1925, he designated a special unit to protect the city’s Christian neighborhoods.[8] A remarkable American diplomatic report from 1926 says, “Four men from the Bab-Sharki section of [Damascus] were kidnapped on March 25th but were allowed to return when it was found that they were Christians. …The rebels apparently are eager to avoid all signs of a religious struggle.”[9]

Unfortunately for the rebels, this solicitousness rarely motivated religious minorities in Syria (other than the Druze) to support them. Their gospel of a homogenous “Syrian nation,” in which sect would not matter, was simply not believed. One month before receiving Qawuqji’s letter, the Ismaʿilis of Salamiyya wrote to the French authorities, asking for support to form a 200-strong all-Ismaʿili cavalry unit to fend off attacks by rebels (and raids by Bedouin tribes who did not believe the gospel of Syria either).[10] While some Christian intellectuals supported the revolt, and some Christian villages like Saydnayya gave it material support (under varying degrees of duress), Christians who actually took up arms for the armed revolt appear to have been few in number indeed. (In my research, I have found three individuals.)[11] Overall, the reaction of a Christian jeweler in the village of al-Ruhaybah north of Damascus appears to have been representative: “We were warned on October 14 that the Druzes were coming to attack the region,” he told French investigators in September 1926, “and as I was the only Christian in the village, I left my home and came to seek refuge in Damascus.”[12]

These incidents testify to the enduring ways in which sectarian categories structured the thought and rhetoric of political actors in Mandate Syria. If Qawuqji did not have sectarian goals, he did have a sectarian vision. He perceived the Ismaʿilis as acting as a group against the revolution, he addressed them as a group, and he threatened them with the fate of another ethnoreligious group. Qawuqji took it for granted that the Ismaʿilis should be addressed as Ismaʿilis, just as the Christian jeweler of al-Ruhaybah took it for granted that his religious identity would make him a target for the rebels. And just as Qawuqji carried the memory of the extermination of a troublesome ethnoreligious group by the empire he had once fought for, so members of minority religious groups in Syria carried the memories of past large-scale violence against them.

During the mid-19th century, for reasons that scholars continue to debate, the lands of Syria witnessed unprecedented communal violence, culminating in the massacre of thousands of Christians by Druze fighters in Mount Lebanon, and the subsequent murder of thousands of more Christians by Sunni rioters in Damascus. The killings triggered a French military expedition to Mount Lebanon, which forced thousands of Druzes to leave their homes and relocate to southern Syria, where their descendants and coreligionists would launch the Great Syrian Revolt 65 years later.  Throughout the Revolt, Christian publications in Syria and Lebanon drew parallels between it and the 1860 violence. In August 1925, the second month of the revolt, the American consul in Damascus reported that after a minor quarrel between peasants outside of Damascus, “The sound of shooting aroused the Christian quarter, the inhabitants of which became panic stricken believing that the Druses had arrived in Damascus to massacre them” [13]  (again).

Rebel solicitousness towards religious minorities, and the rebel gospel of a non-sectarian Syria, were thus working against a long and complicated legacy: a religious hierarchy created by more than a millennium of Muslim rule in Syria, a colonial-era practice of Western intervention on behalf of Christians and other minorities, and powerful memories of large-scale communal violence.

Nevertheless, the rebels could not tolerate the minority groups’ reluctance to join them. The assertion that the revolution was for all “Syrians” regardless of sect would be meaningless if only “Syrians” from certain sects embraced the cause. The success of the rebels’ national vision required the enthusiastic assent and cooperation of groups which would be religious minorities within the nation they planned to create. If the rebels could not win their cooperation by solicitousness, they would have to try to compel it.

Qawuqji’s threatening letter to the Ismaʿilis is one of an entire genre of letters written by rebels to religious minorities. Elizabeth Thompson cites a rebel leaflet which charged Christians in Lebanon with being “complicit with foreigners against your brothers,” and urged them to “abandon resignation, which is sterile, and run for your sword.”[14] Provence documents a demand sent to “a prominent Greek Orthodox Christian” in December 1925, for either 800 Ottoman gold pounds or fifty rifles and thirty Greek Orthodox men to join the uprising. “The unmistakable impression,” Provence concludes, “is that [this rebel leader] sought men more than money and wanted to include Christians among his rebels.”[15] The American consul in Damascus reported in April 1926 that a Christian leaderin Damascus had received another rebel demand for money or men for the fight, “saying that so far, although the rebel cause was likewise theirs [the Christians’], they had done nothing to aid it.”[16] Qawuqji himself, in leading an assault on the Christian mountain town of Maʿalula, demanded that twenty men from the town join his rebel force in exchange for breaking off his attack.[17] The demand, like most, possibly all, of the others, was refused.

The effortless toggling in these letters between embrace and menace, between hailing religious minorities as “brothers in nationality and soil” and accusing them of treason and threatening them with genocide, exemplifies the nationalists’ dilemma. The rebel leaders felt compelled to resort to coercion to bring minorities into the fold. But the inherently threatening nature of this coercion made minorities even more loath to cooperate. The result was a spiral of exclusion and self-exclusion that imprinted a violent alienation onto minority status from the very birth of the Syrian nation-state, an alienation which resonates in Syrian political culture to this day.

In the event, the rebels’ attempts to coerce Christians into joining the Revolt often drove them further towards the arms of their ostensible protectors – the French. At the same time, the refusal of Christians to join the revolt strengthened the already-present perception among the rebel rank-and-file that the Christians were pro-French, and numerous incidents of anti-Christian violence ensued. Maʿalula was besieged repeatedly. Across southern Syria and Lebanon, thousands of Christians fled or were pushed out of their homes. When the Druzes arrived in al-Ruhaybah, the Christian jeweler’s Muslim neighbors burned his house down and looted his belongings. Events like this created new memories of violence, to which Christians and other minorities would return again and again. When France entered into negotiations over Syrian independence with Syrian nationalist leaders in 1936, leaders from religious minority communities across the Mandate territory wrote to the French authorities and to the League of Nations, warning of the dangers they would face as “minorities” in an independent Syria. They often cited the 1925 violence as an example.[18] 

Much recent scholarship has emphasized the historical novelty of “minorities” as a political category. This scholarship has tied the emergence of this category to the emergence of the modern nation-state in Eastern Europe and the Middle East after the destruction of the Ottoman and Hapsburg empires in World War I. The reasoning goes that it was only with the establishment of states whose raison d’être was to embody the will of a majority that the concept of “minorities” made sense. The modern nation-state, we are led to conclude, changed everything.

But in highlighting the novelty of minority politics and the nation-state, historians also should attend to the ways in which people’s experience of the past informed the way they integrated these new ideas into their politics and life experience. This calls for attention to historical continuities as well as novelties. The identification of Arabs and Sunnis as “the majority” and of Christians and Druzes as “minorities” within the “nation” of “Syria” might have all been new, but the way that Syrians received these new concepts was to a large extent determined by memories of past violence. That very process of reception, in turn, engendered more violence. Under French colonialism, the Syrian national state had a long and painful gestation, and the “minority” category in this state was marked from the beginning by violence and exclusion – not as a consequence of the functioning of the modern state, but because of the past’s long shadow.

Today, Syria is once again passing through a revolution. And once again, despite concerted efforts early on by the revolutionaries to create cross-sectarian bonds of solidarity against the regime, strikingly few religious minorities have been willing to shed the regime’s protection, and fewer still to make common cause with the rebel movement, which has become increasingly sectarian and extreme over time. The sobering power of these historical continuities should be a subject of reflection for historians.

Joel Veldkamp is a PhD student at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva, where he is writing a dissertation entitled “The Politics of Aleppo’s Christians and the Formation of the Syrian Nation-State: 1920-1936”. His research interests include modern Middle Eastern history, the history of sectarianism, U.S.-Syrian relations, and the history of Christianity.

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. For more information, please visit: https://themythofhomogeneity.org/

Scholars interested in contributing to the series can contact:

Emmanuel Dalle Mulle: emmanuel.dallemulle-at-graduateinstitute.ch

Mona Bieling: mona.bieling-at-graduateinstitute.ch


[1] Laila Parsons, The Commander: Fawzi al-Qawuqji and the Fight for Arab Independence, 1914-1948 (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016),83.

[2] Secret Despatch No. Pol/306/4 from Colonel G.B. Symes to the Secretary of State for the Colonies, 4 September 1925, [FO371/10851]. Original text not available; quote is from a (poor) British translation. Reprinted in ed. Bejtullah Destani, Minorities in the Middle East: Druze Communities, 1840-1974, (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Archive Editions, 2006),399

[3] Keeley to Kellogg, Despatch 295, December 3, 1925, 890d.00/328, 1910-1929 CDF, RG 59, USNA. Letter from Sultan al-Atrash enclosed.

[4] N.E. Bou-Nacklie, “Les Troupes Speciales: Religious and Ethnic Recruitment, 1916-46, » International Journal of Middle East Studies, 25:4, (Nov 1993), 646

[5] The State of Greater Lebanon, the State of the ʿAlawis, the State of Jabal Druze, the State of Syria and the Sanjak of Alexandretta, respectively. The latter was annexed by Turkey in 1939, the former still exists today as the Lebanese Republic; the others were eventually absorbed into the Republic of Syria.

[6] Benjamin Thomas White, The Emergence of Minorities in the Middle East: The Politics of Community in French Mandate Syria, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2011), 83

[7] Michael Provence, The Great Syrian Revolt and the Rise of Arab Nationalism (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2005),62

[8] Parsons, Commander, 72

[9] Keeley to Kellogg, Despatch 351, March 29, 1926, 890d.00/378, 1910-1929 CDF, RG 59, USNA

[10] White, Emergence of Minorities, 89

[11] Two Christian officers from Fawzi al-Qawuqji’s unit in Hama, and a mysterious figure named ʿUqla al-Qitami, a village leader from the Druze region who some French officers insisted was the bastard son of a Druze leader. See N. E. Bou-Nacklie, “Tumult in Syria’s Hama in 1925: The Failure of a Revolt,” Journal of Contemporary History 33, No. 2, (April 1998), 286, note 48; Provence, Great Syrian Revolt, 61

[12] Enquête du Colonel Raynal, 3ème Partie : Damas, Dossier de Procès-verbaux à Témoins, September 10, 1926, Levant, Syrie-Liban 1918-1940, Vol. 237, #156, Centre des Archives diplomatiques de La Courneuve.

[13] Keeley to Kellogg, Despatch 267, August 15, 1925, 890d.00/202, 1910-1929 CDF, RG 59, NA

[14] Elizabeth Thompson, Colonial Citizens: Republican Rights, Paternal Privilege, and Gender in French Syria and Lebanon, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000), 47

[15] Provence, Great Syrian Revolt, 119

[16] Keeley to Kellogg, Despatch 355, April 12, 1926, 890d.00/384 1910-1929 CDF, RG 59, USNA

[17] “Al-Thawra fii Jabaal al-Qalamoun,” [The revolution in the Qalamoun mountains] Al-Maҫarrat, No. 16, (July 1926), 419-429

[18] For example, on March 7, 1936, the bishops of Aleppo for seven different denominations wrote to the French High Commissioner, copying in the League of Nations’ Permanent Mandates Commission, to express their concern over the treaty negotiations: “In 1925, during the revolt in Syria, the Armenians of Damascus and the peaceful Christian farmers of Syria and Lebanon were pillaged and massacred.”

“PETITIONS, au nombre de 98, en six catégories, relatives à L’UNITE SYRIENNE,” May 28, 1936, p. 83, Syria: General,  Carton 4097, Jacket 4, 6A-4892-1469, UN Archives

Some Thoughts on the Origins of the Post-WWI Minorities Regime

We are proud to publish here the first post of our “Minorities in Contemporary and Historical Perspectives” series, which looks at majority-minority relations in a multi-disciplinary and diachronic perspective. Today’s contribution, by Professor Laura Robson (Portland State University), provides some considerations on the origin, nature and purpose of the Minorities Regime established by the Great Powers at the end of the First World War. The series is a collaboration with H-Nationalism.

The treaties of Versailles, Sèvres, San Remo, and Lausanne are sometimes conceived as the beginnings of a new kind of international rights regime, prefiguring the legal edifice of “human rights” that began to emerge after 1945 and eventually became a central aspect of Cold War internationalism. And indeed, the treaty arrangements of the postwar period did collectively produce a new language of international diplomacy that replaced a nineteenth century imperial discourse of “civilization” and “race” with a twentieth century discourse of rights: in particular, the rights of minorities, which came to stand as a representation of a new and theoretically more politically equitable global order. But this rhetoric did not actually signal the birth of a new political system. It served instead as a kind of code, intended to veil the old-fashioned militarism of this new form of extractive empire and to put in place procedures for reinforcing, without acknowledging, the racial hierarchies that underlay the system’s careful differentiation of sovereign rights across the globe. In other words, the peace agreements of 1919-1923 represented an attempt to appropriate an emerging language of national rights, and especially minority rights, for the purpose of maintaining an older imperial order. 

In 1919, the architects of the peace agreements who came together at Versailles faced a fundamental problem. They had spent the last four years fighting a war that was essentially in defense of more or less permanent imperial expansion, but whose trajectory had inadvertently led to a considerable strengthening of anti-imperialism across the globe – particularly in the Bolshevik sphere, where Lenin was making declarations of withdrawal from Russia’s imperial commitments as a way of winning adherents to his cause. So the question for the peacemakers – particularly representatives of Britain and France, who were absolutely determined to make their brutal four years pay dividends – was how to reconcile the anti-colonial feeling of the day with their undiminished imperial ambitions. Facing this difficulty, the political and diplomatic leaders of the old “Great Powers” began envisioning a new global order comprised of self-consciously modern, theoretically sovereign states under the continued economic and political authority of the old imperial powers.

The first “rights” frameworks to emerge were the multiple minorities treaties signed with the new states emerging out of the shatterzones of the Ottoman, Russian, and Austro-Hungarian empires. All modeled after the first treaty signed with Poland at Versailles in 1919, they called for equal rights for all citizens, the free exercise of religion and cultural practice, and some mechanisms for protecting cultural distinctiveness. Though they agreed on little else, representatives of the United States, France, and Britain all concurred that the League must not guarantee universal protections for minorities that would apply in their own metropoles; and so the treaties were limited to the “new or immature states of Eastern Europe or Western Asia” – thereby deliberately enshrining the idea that minority communities represented a legitimate site of external intervention into the affairs of theoretically sovereign but less “civilized” nations.[1] In other words, they deployed the emerging concept of minority as a new legitimization of an old practice: Great Power political, economic, and military intervention in the Balkans and beyond.[2]

Simultaneously and relatedly, the Allied architects of the peace treaties declared that the post-war project of drawing new maps would reflect national interests – thus hopefully appeasing nationalist sentiment while reserving the right to construct new states in ways that would support ongoing imperial ambitions. Arguments over the shape and demographic makeup of Poland, Hungary, and Romania – among many others – were cloaked in a rights-based language about self-determination and nationhood, but actually represented Allied efforts to isolate Germany and construct a cordon sanitaire between themselves and the Bolsheviks.[3] In the Treaty of Lausanne, signed in 1923, this imperially sponsored construction of nationality was taken to a new level. Lausanne formalized what was euphemistically called a “population exchange” between the new revolutionary Turkish government of Mustafa Kemal and Eleftherios Venizelos’ Greek administration, forcibly denationalizing approximately 1.2 million Anatolian “Greeks” and 350,000 Muslim “Turks” under the aegis of the League of Nations. This 1923 exchange confirmed the post-war Allied commitment to deploying a language of “national rights” and minority protection to support the political and, especially, economic interests of their own empires. Fridtjof Nansen expressed the combination of these criteria precisely in a statement to the Commission in 1922, saying that the “Great Powers” supported the exchange because “to unmix the populations of the Near East … is the quickest and most efficacious way of dealing with the grave economic results [of the war].”[4]

In other words, the appearance of a new discourse of minority rights – and its corollary, minority “exchange” – in the post-WWI treaties was almost entirely instrumentalist. Its primary rationale was not to protect minorities in Eastern Europe or the Ottoman sphere but to smooth the path for imperial powers to create new forms of informal authority and friendly client states for a new postcolonial era. As Mark Sykes – co-author of the infamous Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916 – wrote during the 1919 peace conference, “Imperialism, annexation, military triumph, prestige, White man’s burdens, have been expunged from the popular political vocabulary, consequently Protectorates, spheres of interest or influence, annexations, bases etc., have to be consigned to the Diplomatic lumber-room.”[5] Luckily, it seemed, the rhetoric of national – and especially minority – rights that was gaining such currency around the globe would substitute nicely.

Laura Robson is Professor of history at Portland State University in Portland, Oregon. Her most recent books are States of Separation: Transfer, Partition, and the Making of the Modern Middle East(University of California Press, 2017) and the edited volume Partitions: A Transnational History of 20th Century Territorial Separatism (with Arie Dubnov; Stanford University Press, 2019).

Scholars interested in contributing to the series can contact:

Emmanuel Dalle Mulle: emmanuel.dallemulle-at-graduateinstitute.ch

Mona Bieling: mona.bieling-at-graduateinstitute.ch


[1] Albania, Austria, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Estonia, Greece, Hungary, Iraq, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Turkey, and Yugoslavia.

[2] And fitting into a much longer practice of international diplomacy that sought to formalize relations among the “three elements of the international legal order” identified by legal historian Nathaniel Berman: “(1) a substantively grounded international community … ; (2) sovereigns, whose ‘potency’ and ‘serenity’ are periodically reimagined; (3) those viewed as not full participants in the community of sovereigns, those ‘Vassals, Subjects, People.’ ” See Nathaniel Berman, Passion and Ambivalence: Colonialism, Nationalism, and International Law (Leiden: Nijhoff Publishers, 2012), 58.

[3] Carole Fink, Defending the Rights of Others: The Great Powers, The Jews, and International Minority Protection, 1878-1938 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 119.

[4] Great Britain, Parliamentary Papers, Turkey No. 1 (1923) Lausanne Conference on Near Eastern Affairs, 1922-1923 (Cmd. 1814) (London: HMSO, 1923), 117.

[5] Sykes, “Our Position in Mesopotamia in Relation to the Spirit of the Age,” FO 800/22. The full document is also reprinted in Helmut Mejcher, The Imperial Quest for Oil: Iraq 1910-1928 (London: Middle East Centre, St. Antony’s College, 1976), appendix 2.