National minorities in Eastern Europe, 1848-1945, Raymond Pearson

Chapter 6. New Europe?

At the end of the First World War, eastern Europe was territorially repartitioned and politically refashioned. The nationalism of peacetime had already secured the states of Serbia, Greece, Rumania, Bulgaria and Albania from the wreckage of Ottoman Europe, all of which experienced territorial adjustments through the Versailles Settlement. The wartime downfall of tsarism and the inability of its successors to maintain Russian authority over their nationalities led to the fragmentation of the old empire of the Romanovs and the emergence of independent Finland, Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Finally, the collapse of the Habsburgs at the end of the war promoted the formation of new states like Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia as well as the drastic reduction of traditional entities like Austria and Hungary. With ample evidence that the world of the dynastic empires had departed, never to return, one could have been pardoned for assuming that the new states of eastern Europe represented a complete break with the imperial past and introduced democratic principles into societies which had never had the opportunity before to determine their own futures.

A first surprise comes with the realisation that every one of the new states arrived with a significant proportion of its population still composed of minorities. Just what level constitutes a 'significant' percentage is obviously debatable but a list of the east European states with their minorities expressed as a proportion of the total population (Table VII) is instructive. With between 20.1 per cent and 29.2 per cent of the population of eastern Europe counting as national minorities in the sense of subordinate status, the limitations of the Versailles partition exercise become glaringly apparent. Although the minorities problem had been quantitatively halved, the minorities population was still one-quarter of the total, and the average east European state had minorities comprising one-quarter of its population. Of the major states, Rumania came closest to the average, Hungary was relatively minority-free and Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia featured by far the highest minority proportions. Despite all the fashionable talk in Paris, the empire had not really yielded to the nation state: although the trend was clearly in the direction of the nation state, in not one instance had it been fully realised. The poly-ethnic or multi-national political unit had not died with the Habsburg Empire in October 1918. The First World War and Versailles Settlement together only converted eastern Europe from an area dominated by a select number of extensive empires to an area quarrelled over by an extensive number of select empires.

Table VII National Minorities in the East European States, 191938
State Census
Minorities as %
By census
of total population
By estimate
Albania 1930 22.3 24
Bulgaria 1934 13.3 16
Czechoslovakia 1921 undifferentiated 52
Estonia 1934 11.8 13
Hungary 1920 10.4 15
Latvia 1930 26.6 28
Lithuania 1923 16.1 18
Poland 1921 30.8 35
Rumania 1930 29.2 34
Yugoslavia 1931 undifferentiated 57
Average 20.1 29.2

Note. With official censuses tending to underplay the representation of minorities, whether innocently or (increasingly) by design, statistics from the appropriate state census and estimates by reputable contemporary authorities are both cited for purposes of comparison.

At the same time, there was a significant shift within each 'mini-empire' towards creating a 'majority nationality'. Among the dynastic empires before 1914, there existed not a single example of a nationality enjoying a numerical majority: the Russians reached just 44.3 per cent, the Austrians after 1867 only managed 36.8 per cent and even the Magyars, who came closest, strained to touch 48.1 per cent. The over-riding question within the empires had always been not the identity of the majority nationality but whether a minority nationality was dominant or subordinate. After 1919, every state featured a nationality with a numerical majority or, in the cases of Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, a near-majority, which automatically rendered it 'dominant'. Among the major states, the most dominant numerical majorities were the Magyars and Bulgars (approaching 90 per cent), in the middle range with healthy majorities around 70 per cent were the Poles and Rumanians, and by far the weakest, falling just short of majority status at all, were the Czechs in Czechoslovakia and the Serbs in Yugoslavia. The traditional imperial phenomenon of the 'dominant minority' had ceded place to the 'dominant majority' feature commonly associated with the nation state, a plain indication of the direction in which political organisation was moving in eastern Europe. None of the new states had either shrugged off the imperial heritage or achieved the ideal of the nation state. Given that the 'Successor States' were political hybrids, exhibiting features of both empire and nation state without falling definitively into either category, what were the repercussions upon the national minorities remaining within the 'New Europe'?

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