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Chapter 19

National Minorities: A Source
of International Tension

Since the political borders drawn up by the victorious powers seldom coincided with ethnic boundaries, millions of men and women were separated from their kinsmen and unwillingly placed in the borders of countries favored by the treaties. These populations became known as the "national minorities," defined as an oppressed group of individuals having ethnic or religious characteristics different from those of the majority of the population of the state which they inhabit. Eastern Europe between World Wars I and II was in many ways a Europe of minorities.

As the terms of the treaties were being worked out, France, Great Britain, Italy, and the United States were divided between the necessity of satisfying their allies in eastern Europe and the desire to adhere to the Wilsonian principle of the right to self-determination, one of their original grounds for going to war. They were also aware of the threat to peace posed by the numerous uprooted populations within the new states. While conforming to the usual requirements of peace treaties, the Great Powers demanded the beneficiaries sign agreements promising to protect the rights of these "foreign" peoples. Obtaining signatures to these treaties for the protection of minority groups was not always an easy matter. While Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia agreed to sign without much protest and were subsequently just as ready to violate the agreement, Rumania and Poland refused to sign until pressured. These agreements were guaranteed by the League of Nations as equally as the peace treaties themselves, and the

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signatories were required to write the terms into their constitutions. With such guarantees, the powers were confident that the provisions would be respected.

The main provisions of the Treaty on the Protection of Minorities signed by Rumania and the principle Allied powers on September 9, 1919, pledged Rumania to "extend to all inhabitants full protection of life and liberty without regard to birth, nationality, language, race, or religion" (Article II). Rumania recognized "as Rumanian nationals, with full rights and without further ceremony, all persons residing, on the date the treaty becomes effective, within Rumanian territory, including annexed territories and territories that may be ultimately annexed, unless on said date the persons claim nationality other than Austrian or Hungarian" (Article III). Rumanian nationality was equally granted to "persons of Austrian or Hungarian nationality born in territories given to Rumania if their parents are residing there, even if on the date the treaty becomes effective, they are not themselves residing there" (Article IV). Rumania in turn promised not to enact "any restriction upon the free usage of any language....', "In spite of the Rumanian government's adoption of an official language, reasonable facilities will be made available to nationals of languages other than Rumanian to use their languages, oral and written, in the courts" (Article VIII). Minorities received the right to "create, direct, and control, at their own expense, charitable, religious or social institutions, schools and other educational establishments with the right to use their own language and to observe their religion freely" (Article IX). The treaty also stipulated that "the Rumanian government will grant cities and districts with proportionally large numbers of nationals with languages other than Rumanian the appropriate facilities to assure that in elementary school, children will receive instruction in their maternal language. This stipulation will not prevent the Rumanian government from making Rumanian language instruction mandatory in the aforesaid school" (Article X). And finally, Rumania pledged to grant the Transylvanian Saxons and Szekelys local autonomy in religious and educational matters (Article XI).

Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia signed treaties for the protection of minorities containing similar resolutions. In principle, the League of Nations, guarantee meant that the treaties would be strictly observed. In order to assure effectiveness, the Council of the League of Nations detailed a procedure for minorities to complain by petition. Sir Eric Drummond, the English secretary general of the League, appointed a Norwegian, Erik Colban, as head of the minority section. Helmer Rosting, a Dane, and Pablo de Azcarate, a Spaniard, were appointed as assistants. The procedure was to be as follows:

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--Determination of the secretary general of the petition to the members of the council, with remarks of the government involved;

--Examination of the petition and the remarks of the government by

three (or on occasion five) members of the council appointed by the

president of the minority section, for the purpose of deciding whether to

call the council's attention to an infraction or impending infraction of the

treaty as stated in the petition;

--Negotiation between the section on minorities and the government

in question. If negotiations lead to a satisfactory result, the matter is

closed; if not, the members of the council put the matter on their agenda;

--Examination of the question by the council; appointment of an

advocate- negotiation between this advocate and the government

concerned; vote on a resolution by the council.

This rather lengthy procedure made any intervention by the League of Nations uncertain at best in case of mistreatment of minorities, particularly since the government in question could take advantage of a series of procedures to delay the action -- for example, by requesting more time to deliver its remarks. In addition, what negated the system of minority protection was that the states most likely to disobey the resolutions were linked by treaties of alliance to the powers dominating the Council of the League of Nations. This was clearly the case with France and the nations of the Little Entente. Hungary complained to the council on March 15, 1923, about the Hungarians of Transylvania who chose other citizenship and were thus stripped of their possessions -- in direct violation of Article III of the treaty described above. In a memorandum of April 6, 1923, addressed to the political section of the Quai d'Orsay, the French department of the League of Nations summarized the Hungarian position and noted that Rumania was counting on French support. The head of the political section wrote the following remark at the bottom of the memo:

The Hungarians have a legal complaint, but the Rumanians are our

friends. My government means therefore to support the Rumanians,

while indicating to Monsieur Titulescu (the Rumanian delegate to the

League of Nations) that he should refrain from pushing the matter too


The principle victims of political repression by the new states were the German minorities in Poland, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, as well as the Ruthenian minorities in Poland and Czechoslovakia. The Albanian and Bulgaro-Macedonian minorities in Yugoslavia also suffered considerably. These minorities had a singular trait in common; they were on the losing side in 1918 and had no allies to forward their cause. But they were not the only victims. The Poles of Czechoslovakia, the Rumanian minority in Yugoslavia, and the Serbian minority in Rumania had the same problems. Nationalism

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continued to reign in eastern Europe -- a far cry from the Wilsonian ideals of international cooperation.

The archives of the League of Nations in Geneva are full of petitions and complaints citing various treaty violations, a few trumped up and unjustified, but the vast majority backed by overwhelming evidence against the accused states. It is not difficult to understand the bitterness and despair of the peoples who were arbitrarily uprooted from their countries and delivered to foreign states.

Rumania, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia were the worst offenders against national minorities. The leaders of these countries quickly realized that the Powers, in giving them such large numbers of non-native people, had bestowed them with a dangerous gift. They were well aware that these new subjects would remain attached to their old countries -- how could it be otherwise? The new states were thus faced with assimilating or eliminating these minorities, despite the resolutions they had signed.

The tactics designed to deal with the minorities followed common patterns: a prolonged state of siege in the annexed territories; physical and moral cruelties wherever the minority group was small; other tactics when the group was larger and formed a tighter community. Occasionally an entire population was expelled, as in the case of the Bulgarians driven from the western shores of the Aegean Sea by the Greeks. This eliminated the Bulgarian minority in Greece, but 300,000 destitute Bulgarians had to be absorbed by a ruined and exhausted Bulgaria. Elsewhere, only the elite were expelled -- lawyers, journalists, teachers, and religious leaders -- depriving the minority of its natural leaders. All civil servants who had served in preceding regimes were expelled and replaced with others usually less competent and often less honest. The Transylvanians of both Hungarian or Rumanian origin quickly learned that any new arrivals were sent wherever the ethnic composition of an area needed to be changed to benefit the state of Rumania. A report from the French minister at Bucharest dated September 10, 1920, eloquently states:

Hungarians in particular are targeted by the rapid, intensive

Rumanization plan adopted by the government in Bucharest. Thanks to

regulations they have adopted, the authorities have the means to rid

themselves of all those whose position seem worth taking. On August 21,

50 families from Kolozsvar (Cluj) were sent to Hungary, on August 28,

75 families, and last week 53 families.... There is no need to emphasize

the conditions under which these evacuations took place...

The French military attaché confirmed his colleague's observations: "Even in the Rumanian villages (in Transylvania) there are complaints of abuses...". A similar policy was used in Czechoslovakia. In 1927, Eduard

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Benes explained to William Martin, a Swiss journalist, how he went about altering the ethnic composition of Czech towns and cities:

The dominant power always has the means to modify the ethnic

character of towns by stationing troops, civil servants, commerce, banks

in them...we have done this.... This experiment has worked in Brunn

(Brno) which was almost entirely a German city when we took it, and in

which the German minority is now disappearing. The same is happening

in Kassa (Kosice), which was a Magyar city and now is nearly all Slovak.

The political rights of national minorities were systematically ignored in the early days and eliminated later. Despite the treaties, the national minorities in Rumania and Yugoslavia were refused the right to vote until 1926. The minorities in Czechoslovakia made up nearly 40 percent of the total population by official estimates, but the constitutional assembly responsible for legislation regarding language usage and agrarian reform did not include a single representative from the national minorities. And when the minorities were finally allowed to participate in elections, their parliamentary representation was diminished by manipulation of voter registration. In Prague, a 90 percent Czech city, one deputy represented only 38,000 people while in Karlsbad (Karlovy-Vary), a 95 percent German- speaking city, one deputy represented 47,000. In Slovakia, the unequal treatment was even more obvious; in Ersekujvar (Nova Zamky), a 90 percent Hungarian city, a deputy represented over 53,000 inhabitants and in Ungvar (Oujgorod), a Hungaro-Ruthenian city, one deputy represented over 63,000. The same disproportions were found in Rumania and Yugoslavia. In the rare occurrence when minorities were allowed to participate in Yugoslavian elections, the Hungarians were allowed three deputies, although numerically they should have had twelve.

To further weaken the minorities, the states tried to impoverish them through biased land reform. In Czechoslovakia, the German and Hungarian estate owners were the only ones adversely affected by the reform, while the Czechs actually benefited. In Ruthenia, out of 162,000 hectares confiscated from Hungarian property owners, only 22,000 hectares were distributed to Ruthenian peasants, with the remainder distributed to Czech ex-soldiers enlisted to colonize the region. In Poland as well, only the large German estates were affected by the new agrarian laws. In Rumania, the land reform of 1921 impacted Transylvania much more severely than the older provinces: the Rumanian Boyars were allowed to keep 500 hectares, while the Transylvanian property owners were permitted only 260 hectares and were given only half the compensation. The League of Nations deliberated this matter in 1921 , but did not reach a verdict in favor of the Hungarian petitioners until 1927, and even then it was incomplete. In Yugoslavia,

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discriminatory fiscal land laws deprived the German and Hungarian minorities of their property in favor of Serbian colonists, while Croatian property owners received the same treatment as the Germans and Hungarians.

Beginning in 1925, however, upon advice from France recommending moderation and prudence, a certain standardization of treatment appeared, although in all but word the national minorities remained second-class citizens. Cultural and linguistic discrimination remained frequent. Consid- ered a model of democracy, Czechoslovakia in many ways exemplified policies pursued by the new nations between 1925 and 1938. A 1920 law permitted the use of minority languages in local administration and the courts of districts in which minorities comprised at least 20 percent of the population. But in the following year, administrative shuffling of district boundaries reduced the liberal intentions of the 1920 law to near-zero. Then in 1926, a decree stated that "the administrative authorities could always require the use of the official language when the public interest was at stake;" their willingness to do so resulted in the Czech language being used exclusively in local administration and courts of law, even in districts with German, Hungarian, Polish, or Ruthenian majorities. The methods used in taking the censuses which served as the basis for applying the language law were questionable. A census taken in 1930 in Czechoslovakia illustrates the corrupt methods used: in Bohemia-Moravia, the head of the family filled out the census forms, but in Slovakia and in Ruthenia the census taker himself completed them, giving him ample opportunity to alter the information. The census takers were hand-picked, and in the district of Bratislava with its numerous German and Hungarian residents, not a single one of the 300 census takers was either German or Hungarian. The petition presented to the League of Nations by representatives of the German and Hungarian minorities was met with no reaction, as could be expected. In Rumania and Yugoslavia, policies regarding minority groups were even harsher than in Czechoslovakia. With examples such as these, it is easy to see why the minority question poisoned international relations in this part of Europe.

Adolph Hitler's rise to power and Germany's support for the German minorities convinced some states to adopt a more liberal policy toward their national minorities: Transylvanian Germans, for example, gained special status in 1935. Nevertheless, Konrad Henlein's German Party of the Sudetenland claimed, but was not granted, autonomy, and by 1937 was clearly oriented toward Berlin and national-socialism. After Hitler seized Austria in 1938, Rumania and Yugoslavia liberalized their treatment of national minorities. A Rumanian ordinance dated August 4, 1938, finally guaranteed non-Rumanian groups the use of their own languages in public assemblies in areas where they were in the majority, and the post office

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finally agreed to deliver letters addressed in languages other than Rumanian and to rescind the exorbitant surcharges on telegrams in German or Hungarian. Primary and secondary school were also reopened. At the same time, Czechoslovakia began making overtures to its minorities. The minorities could only greet initiatives from men such as Benes and Titulescu -- who had purposefully undermined the minorities' justifiable complaints to the League of Nations -- with disbelief and mistrust.

In 1938, concessions granted or promised to minorities came too late; the victims of 20 years of mistreatment were no longer willing or able to forget. Instead, these minorities, backed by the governments of their respective countries of origin, demanded with increasing insistence a revision of the treaties and the reparation of their countrymen. Paradoxically, it was Hitler who championed the rights of these peoples to self-determination, and it was to him that the Germans, Hungarians, Slovaks, Croats, and even Poles looked for assistance.

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