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


Neither the Polish nor Rumanian state could be regarded as artificial and therefore never suffered the sense of lack of moral legitimacy which Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia found such a handicap. But while the right of Poland and Rumania to exist was never contested, many contemporaries, most notably their national minorities, argued forcibly that they were too large. A combination of dynamic nationalist expansionism and Allied approval for making these 'bastions against Bolshevism' as formidable as possible inflated Poland and Rumania into very much more than straightforward nation states. At the same time, the demographic position of the Poles within the 'Polish Empire' and Rumanians within 'Greater Rumania' was strong enough to persuade the national governments that a more aggressive line towards their minorities would be both practical and beneficial.

The existence of a Polish state before 1795 already provided historical legitimisation for the re-creation' of Poland in 1919 but it was perhaps the nineteenth-century Polish record that was most persuasive. Although the fighting spirit of Polish nationalism was subdued in Romanov Poland, suborned in Habsburg Poland and provoked in German Poland, the tripartite division agreed at the Congress of Vienna showed no signs a century later of eradicating the Polish sense of national self-consciousness, indeed 'martyrdom' may well have strengthened local nationalism. The Poles were a nation deserving a state by all criteria except imperial power politics. With the collapse of all three occupying empires over the First World War, the Polish claim of national legitimacy became incontestable. Given the long-standing western sympathy for the Polish cause and the energetic patronage of France, the recreation of Poland almost automatically received the backing of the Allies, especially when reinforced by the tactical concept of Poland as a Western bastion inhibiting German revanche and blocking Bolshevik expansion.

Contrasting with the ease with which the principle of a new Poland was internationally recognised was the bitter controversy surrounding the territorial extent of the Polish state. Amongst the Poles themselves, opinions were (dare one say) polarised between the outlooks of the right-wing nationalist Roman Dmowski and the socialist Josef Pilsudski. Dmowski wanted a state as large as possible without endangering the numerical hegemony of the Poles and their ability to assimilate any non-Polish minorities. Pilsudski envisaged a still larger state reminiscent of the Polish Commonwealth of the past, in which a family of nationalities would be united in a federation headed by the Poles, the largest ethnic group. The Allies supported the idea of Poland being as extensive as was consistent with political, economic and military strength, in particular granting access to the Baltic by the 'grant' of German territory promptly dubbed the 'Polish Corridor' (see Map 4). In the east; Polish aggrandisement could only be at the expense of Bolshevik Russia and was therefore applauded by Western governments still actively engaged in intervention on the side of the Whites.

The frontiers of Poland were, as a result, as extended and unstable as any in eastern Europe. In the west, Polish acquisition of a Baltic 'Corridor' antagonised Germany irreconcilably, with a move to reclaim that territory awaiting only German recovery from defeat. In the south, Poland was involved in what now seem excessively acrimonious disputes with Germany over Upper Silesia and with Czechoslovakia over Teschen, which permanently soured relations between the three states. In the north, Poland provoked the new state of Lithuania by seizing and then formally incorporating the district of Vilna. Finally and most ominously, in the east a bruising Polish-Soviet War in 1920 gave notice of the eventual recovery of the military strength of Russia. In the meantime, the eastern frontier was the longest and most vulnerable of all, a geographically and ethnically arbitrary line on the landscape awaiting the inevitable pressure from a reviving Soviet Union. Although Poland was not as extensive as Pilsudski would have liked, it was too large for all its neighbours.

The national composition of Poland (see Table IXa) featured a Polish demographic dominance which was the envy of the Czechs and Serbs. Although there seems no doubt that the official censuses were less accurate statistical exercises than 'Polonisation propaganda', and the Polish percentage of the total was closer to two-thirds than appears, the strength of the Polish position could not be denied. If the racial dimension is emphasised, the Polish state was some 87.7 per cent Slav. Although there was a fair variety of non-Polish minorities within the state, four mustering over 1,000,000 people, the leading challenger was still only one-fifth the 'weight' of the Poles.

The Polish experience in the nineteenth century persuaded many gullible contemporaries that the Poles could never inflict on others what they had for so long endured themselves. An example from 1922 is the opinion of Charles Sarolea: 'A Pole cannot be a nationalist... he has been the first to apply the federal principle in his relations with other nationalities living under the authority of the Polish state. Poland has suffered too much from the aggressive nationalism of Germany, Russia and Austria to be misled by the nationalist heresy'. In reality, the Poles proved the most fanatical of heretics, with their protracted experience of 'martyrdom' under the dynastic empires serving to justify the victimisation of their own minorities after 1919.

The Ruthenes, who were incorporated into Poland through first the collapse of tsarist authority and then the failure of an independent Ukraine, remained antagonistic to Polish rule from start to finish. Although relatively backward in their nationalism, the Ruthenes had their morale raised by the close proximity of the Ruthene-Ukrainian majority just across the Soviet border. Encouraged by rumours of the considerable cultural freedom enjoyed by Ukrainians within the Soviet Union, the Ruthene minority resisted the enforced assimilation projected by the Polish authorities. A vicious circle of resistance and repression, then more violent opposition provoking stronger reprisals, reached its zenith with the infamous 'pacification' of the Ruthenes by Polish cavalry in late 1930. Though a lull ensued in the 1930s it seems difficult to agree with Peter Brock that 'it looked as though, but for the war, a modus vivendi might ultimately have been worked out'.' What calm existed was the temporary product of the exhaustion of both persecuted and persecutors, not the beginnings of future consensus and co-operation.

TABLE IX National Composition of Poland and Rumania

(a) Poland (Census of 1921)
Nationality Population % of total
Poles 18,814,999 69.2
Ruthenes   3,898,000 14.3
Jews   2,110,000   7.8
Belorussians   1,060,000   3.9
Germans   1,059,000   3.9
Lithuanians        69,000   0.3
Russians        56,000   0.2
Czechs        31,000   0.1
Others        78,000   0.3
Total 27,177,000 100.0
(b) Rumania (Census of 1930)
Nationality Population % of total
Rumanians 12,981,000 70.8
Magyars   1,426,000   8.6
Germans      745,000   4.2
Jews      728,000   4.1
Russians      409,000   2.3
Ruthenes/Ukrainians      382,000   2.2
Bulgars      366,000   2.1
Gypsies      263,000   1.5
Turks      177,000   0.9
Others      418,000   2.4
Total 17,895,000 100.0

A similar experience befell the Belorussians. With Belorussia (like the Ukraine) partitioned between Poland and the Soviet Union, the Polish government initially encouraged 'Belorussianism' to secure the loyalty of the minority population against the Soviet threat. Although Belorussian nationalists would have preferred independence of the kind they had attempted before the Treaty of Riga divided their country in March 1921i, they were hopeful that they might play off the Poles against the Russians to secure preferential treatment. But the dream that partition might be a nationalist blessing in disguise, the means by which Belorussia's backward society could catch up with its larger neighbours, was soon exploded. Alarmed at the Belorussian nationalism which they had promoted a weapon aimed at the Soviet Union which showed every sign of backfiring the Poles switched in 1924 to a policy of forcible 'Polonisation'. As Belorussian schools, societies and newspapers were closed down, the Polish government talked blithely to the League of Nations of 'the natural process of assimilation of minority groups'. The Belorussian nationalist leader Cvikevic could not contain his disillusionment:

Yesterday we and the Poles were two nations on the same side of the fence. Poland, 'a nation crucified', was our elder brother in the momentous struggle against tsarism, and her example gave us strength and courage. We lived in the hope that freedom would come at the same time for both our peoples and what happened? As soon as Poland had risen from the dead, her scourge began to play over the white body of Belorussia.... Life has bitterly crushed our illusion.

By the late 1920s Belorussian resistance was taking the form of vain protest with the other harassed minorities within the Sejm, the Polish Parliament, and a shift towards the political left, headed by the socialist Hrumada. After 1928 all political nationalism in Belorussia was crushed, as was all cultural nationalism after 1936. By the mid-1930s, the choice for Belorussians under Polish rule was to acquiesce (the reluctant resort of the majority), to continue protesting (and end up in the special concentration camp reserved for Belorussian trouble-makers at Bereza Kartuska) or to emigrate (as perhaps 100,000 desperate people did over the inter-war period).

Although the German minority constituted only 3.9 per cent of the state population, it was concentrated in the compact areas of Upper Silesia and the Corridor between Germany and East Prussia, close enough to its kin state to draw continuous encouragement and sustenance for its local campaign of revisionist agitation. Polish hostility to the Germans was above all the result of the Prussianisation of Poznania over the decades before 1914. Those German settlers who had benefited from the Prussian colonisation scheme before the war were now unceremoniously dispossessed of their land, which was handed over (or 'returned') to Polish settlers. This drawn-out struggle over real estate so near the redrawn German border could not fail to fuel German hatred of Poland and enlist sympathy for Hitler's later demands for the return of the Corridor to Germany.

The Jewish minority in Poland was the largest in eastern Europe, mustering well over 2,000,000 people, or at least 7.8 per cent of the total population. The traditional policy of avoiding confrontation and sheltering from the political storm was moderately successful: despite the ready visibility of a Jewish population obstinately resistant to all attempts at integration or assimilation, the Polish government made few overt moves against the compact settlements of Jews. Azcarate, expressing the somewhat unworldly view of the League of Nations, described the official Polish attitude towards the Jews as 'very wise' and 'a model of governmental policy towards minorities'. Accepting the long-established Jews as part of Poland's heritage, the Polish nationalists reserved their greatest venom for their recently acquired minorities, a perhaps surprising phenomenon in a Europe where anti-semitism was assuming epidemic proportions. It may be that the Polish government was intimidated into fatalistic inactivity by the sheer scale of its Jewish problem. Dmowski and other Polish nationalists rarely spoke of assimilation as appropriate to the Jews, only of the desirability of mass emigration, but the practical difficulties of inducing over 2,000,000 individuals, many virtually irreplaceable in the commercial economy of Poland, to emigrate were too daunting. Quixotic as ever, the Poles tolerated the prime historical target of minority discrimination in order to expend most of their energies harassing their fellow Slavs.

The conspicuous advantages enjoyed by Poland, such as a universally recognised claim to statehood, strong backing from the West and a heavy Polish demographic dominance, were largely offset by the repercussions of its geographical location and territorial over-extension. Surrounded by powerful neighbours with ethnically based designs on 'Polish' territory and with a variety of minorities whose close support by their contiguous kin states was encouraged by official persecution, Poland also had the unsought distinction of being the only east European state bordering upon both Germany and Russia. This geographical predicament alone was sufficient to cancel out all the combined strengths of Poland.

Rumania was the only beneficiary of Versailles to have been in independent existence before the First World War and therefore had a practical legitimacy which was incontrovertible. Rumania had three attributes that attracted Allied favour in 1919; it had fought ori the Allied side in the war (albeit belatedly and disastrously); its political complexion was pronouncedly anti-Bolshevik (a feature skilfully highlighted by the Rumanian premier Bratianu); and its geographical location was between central Europe and Bolshevik Russia. As a result, Rumania was favoured territorially by the Allies as part of their cordon sanitaire against the Bolshevik menace. Rumania's unfortunate wartime experience was turned to good diplomatic account as, like Serbia, its government claimed territorial compensation for sufferings incurred in the Allied cause. Over 1918, Rumania took advantage of the Russian slide into civil war to occupy the northern territory of Bessarabia, a seizure 'legitimised' a year later at Versailles. The collapse of Austria-Hungary forced the populations of Transylvania and Bukovina, with substantial Rumanian settlements but hitherto preferring membership of the Habsburg state, into the arms of Rumania. The Transylvanian Rumanians only deserted the Habsburg banner when imperial collapse was certain in late 1918, demanding the recognition of all their current privileges as an explicit condition of their union with Rumania. The Allied statesmen at Versailles recognised the greatly expanded, even territorially bloated, 'Greater Rumania' with few qualms.

A state which had grown so fast at the expense of almost all its neighbours could not expect to enjoy any border security. Only along the short frontiers with Czechoslovakia and Poland to the north were there no serious clashes. To the south, Bulgaria had every intention of reclaiming southern Dobrudja, originally lost at the end of the Second Balkan War in 1913: to the west, Hungary was determined to recover Transylvania. As in the case of Poland, the long border with the Soviet Union to the north-east had an almost palpable impermanence (and came under increasing Russian pressure after the mid-1920s). The territorial expansion into 'Greater Rumania' effected at the end of the First World War converted what had been close to a Rumanian nation state into a Rumanian empire. Incurring the penalties of significant minorities and the wrath of all its truncated neighbours, Rumania after 1919 showed every sign of falling victim to its own success.

The national composition of Greater Rumania (see Table IXb) presented both advantages and impediments to a Rumanian demographic ascendancy. The expanded state accommodated a greater variety of national minorities than any other east European neighbour (excepting the Soviet Union): like Yugoslavia, which came second in this respect, Rumania's heritage from its geopolitical position in the conflict zone between the Romanov, Habsburg and Ottoman Empires was an egregious ethnic heterogeneity. The racial spectrum was remarkable, with some 70.8 per cent Latins, 8.6 per cent Magyars, 4.2 per cent Germans, 4.1 per cent Jews and 6.6 per cent Slavs. On the other side, the strong Rumanian position (even allowing for the usual statistical exaggeration of the dominant nationality) was reinforced by the fact that the leading challenger was less than one-eighth the size of the Rumanian majority. The overall demographic hegemony of the Rumanians persuaded them to approach Greater Rumania with policies designed to convert the new territories into integral components of a homogeneous nation state. The size of the newly acquired possessions impelled the Regateni, the Rumanians of the original Regat (or Danubian Principalities), to move in to enforce the authority of Bucharest. Even the Rumanians of Transylvania found the arrogance of the Regateni and their arbitrary suppression of all local autonomy repellent, and virtually formed a new national phenomenon: a minority within the majority. The fact that Transylvania, while one of the most backward areas of Austria Hungary, was in 1919 the most advanced part of Greater Rumania encouraged the local inhabitants to resent the cruder Regateni and increased the determination of Bucharest to 'Romanise' its latest and most valuable acquisition. What has been termed 'integral nationalism', already discernible before 1914, dominated Rumania in the inter-war period, to the permanent detriment of its many minorities.

The Magyar minority of Transylvania was unquestionably the largest and most recalcitrant of the non-Rumanian groups. According to official Rumanian statistics, the Magyars numbered 1,426,000 or 8.6 per cent of the total population: Hungarian figures put the Magyar minority near 2,000,000 or almost 12 per cent of the total. With the simplistic social stereotype that of a Magyar intelligentsia and upper class co-resident with a Rumanian peasantry, the superior position of the Magyar minority attracted government action soon after 1919. The Magyars suddenly found themselves no longer the local bastions of Hungarian dominance but a collection of isolated and vulnerable communities within the state of the Rumanians whom they had until recently been relentlessly Magyarising. The ruling Magyars had been automatically 'disinherited' by the shift in the Hungarian-Rumanian border and now agrarian and social legislation designed to favour the local Rumanian population was threatening to 'dispossess' them too. Copious complaints were lodged with The League of Nations. Some charges were controversial: did government-sponsored erosion of the wealth and privilege of an ex-dominant minority count as 'affirmative action' to benefit the previously disadvantaged Rumanians or as persecution of a national minority requiring League intervention? Other allegations were more straightforward: the ebullient Regateni undoubtedly overstepped the limits of legality on a number of occasions in their headlong pursuit of the Romanisation of the minorities. Meanwhile, of course, every kind of moral, political and financial inducement was employed by the nearby kin state of Hungary to make Transylvania ungovernable and precipitate a collapse of authority which would make border revision in the Magyar favour unavoidable.

Aside from the Bulgar minority, compactly settled in the southern Dobrudja and fighting a stubborn campaign for reintegration with neighbouring Bulgaria, the other non-Rumanian groups tended to adopt a low profile, hoping that outward compliance with Romanisation would enable them in practice to retain much of their identity. The long-established German or 'Saxon' minority resident in Transylvania chose to protect its economic prosperity by avoiding provoking the Bucharest government, neither consorting with its Magyar neighbours nor fostering close links with Germany. Virtually the only substantial minority of pre-1919 Rumania, the Jews remained the principal target of Rumanian prejudice but with traditional anti-semitism further 'justified' by the argument that since Bolshevism was a Jewish vehicle for world domination, the Jews in Rumania were agents of an enemy power. Local intimidation and acts of violence against the Jews were rife and, at very least, condoned by the government. The Russian and Ukrainian minorities, together comprising 4.5 per cent of the population, were concentrated in Bessarabia and Bukovina. There were few confrontations with the Rumanian authorities, largely because the Slavs were never in any doubt that their 'Rumanian captivity' was only an interlude from which the massing power of their kin state would soon secure their release.

Unlike the Czechs and Serbs, the Poles and Rumanians were not reconciled to running empires, instead aiming to convert their states into nations by whatever means seemed justified. Tantalisingly short of the ideal of the nation state, the Poles and Rumanians would not allow their minorities to stand in the way of their ambition. It was predictably the states featuring a relatively small proportion of minorities which were most tempted by 'integral nationalism'. The Poles and Rumanians, each with almost 70 per cent of their state populations, believed they had the moral right and physical strength forcibly to 'solve' their minority problems and convert their territories in the foreseeable future into nation states. Just how this was to be achieved in an age when every nationality, whether majority or minority, was acutely aware of its identity and convinced of the legitimacy of its cause could only be controversial (and very possibly bloody). The means by which majorities might 'solve' their minorities problems included the encouragement of minority emigration (perhaps even mass expulsion), assimilation into the dominant majority culture (through both encouragement and compulsion), frontier adjustments (provided of course that no territorial loss were entailed.) and, starting to emerge as a feasible option, the physical liquidation of 'unwanted' minorities. The phenomenon of integral nationalism, first identifiable among the Balkan states in the late nineteenth century and spreading to most of eastern Europe over the 1920s, was exhibited at its most forthright and unapologetic in Poland and Rumania.

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