Or how sub-state national mobilisation occurred, but it was more fleeting than minority nationalist leaders would have hoped for
On the 100th anniversary of the Paris Peace Conference, in 2019, Emmanuel and Mona presented a paper at the 29th Annual Conference of the Association for the Study of Ethnicity and Nationalism (ASEN) examining whether there was a ‘Wilsonian Moment in Western Europe’. A revised version of that paper has now been accepted for publication in European History Quarterly and it is due to appear online and in print in 2023. The paper entitled ‘Autonomy over Independence: Self-Determination in Catalonia, Flanders and South Tyrol in the Aftermath of the Great War’ (and available in pre-print here) fills an important gap in the historiography of self-determination in the immediate post-WWI period.
While the impact of the post-war spread of self-determination on the redrawing of Eastern European borders and on the claims of colonial independence movements has been extensively researched, the international historiography has paid little attention to minority nationalist movements in Western Europe. Focusing on three regions (Catalonia, Flanders and South Tyrol) that experienced considerable substate national mobilisation between the world wars, Emmanuel and Mona inquire into whether the leaders of Western European minorities and stateless nations shared the same enthusiasm as their anti-colonial and Eastern European counterparts for the new international order that self-determination seemed to foreshadow in the months following the end of the Great War. Since President Woodrow Wilson stood out as the most prominent purveyor of the new international legitimacy of self-determination, the article further examines how Western European nationalist movements exploited Wilson’s image and advocacy to achieve their own goals.
Emmanuel and Mona conclude that nationalist forces in Catalonia, Flanders and South Tyrol initially mobilised self-determination and referred to Wilson as a symbol of national liberation, but this instrumentalisation of self-determination was not sustained. Large-scale mobilisation occurred only in Catalonia and, even there, it disappeared almost overnight in spring 1919. Furthermore, substate nationalist movements in Western Europe tended to mobilise self-determination to gain regional autonomy, rather than full independence, thus pursuing internal, not external, self-determination. The willingness of these movements to privilege autonomy over full independence made them more receptive to compromise solutions and radical forces became stronger only in the 1930s, largely for reasons not directly connected to the post-war mobilisation around self-determination.
In other words, the wave of unprecedented international legitimacy for national self-determination claims inaugurated at the end of WWI did extend to Western Europe. It was not a uniform phenomenon, but a mix of different local attempts to mobilise the new language of self-determination that however did not last as long, and were not as powerful, as the leaders of Western European minority nationalist movements would have wished.