WHEN, two years ago, the Madrid session of the Council of the League of Nations reluctantly introduced certain reforms into its procedure for the protection of minorities, the states bound by minority treaties declared these reforms to be final. The problem of minorities was considered as settled. Today, the problem is so far from settlement that it has become more prominent than ever, and it has recently assumed a particularly dangerous form. It has developed into a political struggle which has split Europe into two hostile forces, led respectively by Germany and Poland.

It may seem far-fetched to seek the causes of the political disputes of 1931 in the age of the great migrations; but in fact the connection is immediate and direct. It is in large-scale national migrations, where a whole race, or a substantial part of it, enters the territory of another, that the real minorities problem has its root. The entry of a small body of aliens into a state of firmly-based national institutions cannot give rise to a true minorities problem. Either, like the Huguenots who came to England, they will be easily and inconspicuously absorbed in their new surroundings, or if, like the Jews of Whitechapel and Bethnal Green, they cling to their own culture, their demands will not be on a scale to threaten the national life of their hosts and will easily be conceded to them.

The national migrations ended for Western Europe with the Middle Ages. England, France, Spain, Italy, and also Germany, which in this respect belongs to Western and not to Eastern Europe, have long since become recognizable and individual nations; the earlier components of Celts, Romans, Saxons, Danes, Moors, Italians and the rest are no longer distinguishable within the existing nations except to the ethnologist. For nearly a thousand years no nation of Western Europe has experienced a large-scale national migration. The nearest approach to one was, perhaps, the Plantation of Ulster; and this single and comparatively small exception gave rise to a minority problem which brought the United Kingdom to the verge of civil war in 1914.

In Eastern Europe the period of the national migrations has not fully closed even today. The movements of the Germanic peoples which overran Rome and re-formed the face of Western Europe were themselves, in part at least, occasioned by pressure from other, obscurer nations lying behind them. Behind the German came the Slav, and behind the Slav the Hun and the Turk. Some of the invaders, like the Western and Southern Slavs and the Magyars, settled down permanently in their new homes; others, like the Tatars and the Osmanli Turks, remained for centuries races of alien conquerors, eternal nomads encamped among their settled subjects. Their tide had hardly reached its flood when it began to ebb, and this backward movement is even now in progress. The process of moving the last of the Turks out of Greek Macedonia is going on at this moment, under the supervision of the League of Nations. In the central Balkans it was in full swing during the past century. Rumania is today engaged in what she believes to be the process of clearing up Transylvania after the departure of the intruding Magyars. The Finns, Estonians, Letts and Lithuanians are celebrating the retreat of the Muscovite.

No invasion, not even that of the Mongols, ever wholly wiped out the previous population of the country subjected to it, and similarly, in no retrograde movement do the remnants of the erstwhile conquerors ever wholly vanish. As the tide ebbs and the reefs reappear above the surface there remain behind pools and creeks from the flood which had once covered all. So in every nation of Eastern Europe today we find living side by side the ex-conquerors and the ex-conquered, and with them a very important third category: the colonists from Western or Central Europe who came out to occupy the vacant land, secure the frontiers, and build a dike against the danger of fresh invasion. This process of colonization is one that is little known in the west, but it has been of enormous influence in the history of Eastern Europe, and like the less methodical national movements it extends into quite recent times. The German colonization of what is now northern Jugoslavia dates no further back than two centuries ago; that of the Bukovina to the end of the eighteenth century; that of the Dobruja and Bessarabia less than a century.

These three categories, then -- the ex-conquerors, the ex-serfs and the ex-colonists -- constitute between them the bulk of the population of Eastern Europe. Their proportions vary. In the central plain of Hungary the ex-conquerors form a solid bloc and have become the only and the indigenous population. In the mountainous districts of Bulgaria the ex-serfs are equally compact. In other districts, such as Bessarabia, the three categories are inextricably intermingled; you will find within a few square miles villages of Moldavians, Russians, Ukrainians and Poles; of Turks, Tatars, Bulgars and Gagauz; of Germans, Swiss and French; with Greeks, Jews and Armenians in the towns.

A dominant factor in the whole situation is the extent and importance of the German element. In Eastern Europe it is insignificant only in Bulgaria, Greece and Albania. In Jugoslavia, Hungary and Rumania it is large; in the Baltic States even greater; in Poland and Czechoslovakia it is of supreme importance.

The German element in Eastern Europe belongs partly to the category of the ex-conquerors, partly to that of the colonists. It is doubtful whether it can anywhere be considered indigenous, except in the western parts of Czechoslovakia, while in East Prussia, although it began as a colonization, it has now become native. But in certain countries, notably along the southern coast of the Baltic, the German race advanced as in the Middle Ages as conquerors, thus reversing the usual direction of national migrations, which has commonly been from east to west; and in all the rest of Eastern Europe the Germans have been by far the most numerous and successful of all colonists. While the Englishman, the Frenchman or the Spaniard took ship and set sail to the west, the landbound German loaded up his oxcart and set his face towards the east. From the Middle Ages onwards, there has been a steady stream of German immigration eastward, into the Baltic countries, Poland, Moravia, Hungary, and as far east as the Volga, the Caucasus and Siberia. It is going on to this day; the majority of the colonists who venture into Russia or Turkey as experts of various kinds are Germans.

It must be added that the Germans have in nearly all cases proved an exceedingly valuable element in the countries in which they settled. While the Slav or the Magyar were still semi-nomadic, or at best rude peasants, the Germans brought with them the conception of an ordered civic life. Almost all the older towns of Poland, Bohemia, Hungary, Rumania and the Baltic States, and many yet further afield, are of Germanic foundation. The Germans were also the chief miners. Most of the mining districts in the Carpathians were for centuries worked by them. Even in the Balkans there is evidence that the mines of Serbia were largely worked by Germans in the days when Serbia was a great kingdom. A sober, industrious and cultivated people, the Germans were greatly sought after by monarchs anxious to develop and consolidate their dominions; they were invited from far distances to come and settle in the east, and were granted extraordinary privileges to induce them to do so.

This leads on to the second great difference between Eastern and Western Europe: a difference, this time, in political and legal philosophy. The systems of the west are, broadly speaking, based upon Roman conceptions, upon what was so finely expressed by Marcus Aurelius as "the idea of a polity in which there is the same law for all, a polity administered with regard to equal rights and equal freedom of speech." Even if Rome realized this ideal imperfectly, yet the ideal remained -- that of the equality of all free citizens within the bounds of the political state. The conception of equality inevitably carried with it that of uniformity, the idea of the assimilation of diverse elements into a homogeneous whole. Applied to nationality, it emerges in the theory of the nationally homogeneous and sovereign state within which strict equality is most easily attainable through uniformity. We see this conception at work today, for example, in France. The Italian and Polish immigrants into France, even the negroes of the French colonies, are encouraged to become "de bons Français," to forget their origin, adopt the French language and culture, and even to intermarry with the true French stock.

This ideal has, in fact, produced the distinctive nationalities of the west; but it is a process which took many centuries to effect, must have caused much distress and hardship, and certainly could not have been accomplished at all without the existence of comparatively stable natural frontiers and the cessation of national migrations. In Central and Eastern Europe, however, this idea is quite new.

Until recently the political thought of these countries was dominated by Germanic and Turkish ideology (the word "Turkish" is used in the widest sense). In each of these systems the basis is quite different from the Roman. For the old Germans, the law did not proceed from the state to the individuals whom the state recognized as its citizens; it was inherent in each individual, and the sum of the individuals in whom the law was vested composed the nation. The law was a personal principle; it was this theory that enabled Herder to define the state as "the extension of the family." Thus when they came as conquerors into contact with an alien race, they guarded themselves from contamination by distinguishing that race sharply from themselves and forbidding it access to the privileges reserved for the "nation" proper.

The Turkish system, in practice, draws this distinction even more sharply, for the Turks appear everywhere as conquering nations, subduing and enslaving others. When there is added to this the theocratic system of Islam, one finds everywhere the best efforts of the state directed, not towards assimilating the conquered (except in so far as they accepted Islam), but towards keeping them as distinct as possible from their rulers in language, manner of living, customs, and even in dress. Just as the Roman system could not have triumphed so completely in the west without conditions of homogeneity and stability favorable to it, so the Turkish and Germanic systems (which were adopted, with few modifications, by the Slavs) could not have maintained themselves had ethnographical conditions been less mixed. But a homogeneous national state, within natural boundaries, was a thing hardly known in East European history, and the rarest event in that story is a genuine national war or national invasion.

One finds, then, the personal law inherent in the conquerors and denied to the conquered. Here, however, we come again to the position of the colonists. The colonists were not serfs; they were free men, coming on invitation from foreign lands, and before they came they required assurances that their position would be respected. Hence we get the system, so widely spread throughout Central and Eastern Europe, of "privileges" or "liberties" granted to groups or to whole nations of immigrants.

Most of these privileges were granted in favor of Germans. In nearly all cases they included a portion of free land, exemption from all feudal dues, with commercial privileges and the right to be judged by their own elected judges and according to their own law, which was usually that in force in their mother-city (most commonly the Magdeburg law). It was a position far superior to that of the common serfs who made up the majority of the population, and in many cases materially above that of all but the wealthier nobles themselves. It is not surprising that friction between the Germans and the local population was frequent, and that the kings, perpetually at variance with their unruly nobility, tended to ally themselves with the German bourgeoisie, whose interests coincided with their own.

Similar benefits were extended to other nationalities who could be of service to the monarch of the day. Even the Turks, with their splendid contempt for the giaour, allowed the Greeks a position which was, in practice, an extremely advantageous one. A well-known instance is that of the Phanariot régime in Moldavia and Wallachia, which for some two centuries was conducted exclusively by Greeks, greatly to their advantage. The Sultan Mohammed II, after capturing Constantinople, crowned the Greek Patriarch with his own hand and presented him with a diamond-studded scepter, a bodyguard of Janissaries, a prison and a torture-chamber of his own. So universal did this habit of national discrimination become that even the gypsies of Hungary and Poland enjoyed self-government under their own "kings" or "voivodes," some of whom were quite magnificent persons.

So for centuries the east went happily its own ways, independently of the west. The situation has changed, and changed radically, only since the French Revolution and the advent of democracy. For the French Revolution, more than any movement which had preceded it, stressed the idea of equality and uniformity within the state. This was the very negation of the complex, semi-feudal principle of "privileges," "liberties" and individual status still prevailing in Eastern Europe at the time; and the effects of these principles, when they spread to the east, were very different from those which they had in the west. It was of profound importance that the great revolution should have taken place in France, a country with few national problems, a well-marked and characteristic nationality, and easily recognizable national frontiers. The French revolutionaries took their "nation" for granted; they were interested in sweeping away the "Gothic absurdities" within it. The makers of the French Revolution turned aside only for a moment to consider "national" in the sense of "racial" problems; and that was when, with a consciousness of benefaction, they swept away the disabilities that had been laid upon the Jews.

Eastern Europe, however, had to cope with a more complex problem. Here the democratic revolution wore a double aspect; it was the revolt of the poor man against the rich and of the conquered nation against the conqueror. When these two currents flow together, as they did when the nations of the Balkans rose against the Turk, the story is easy; it is when they encountered each other, as they often did in Hungary, that it becomes so extraordinarily difficult for the western observer.

But democracy flowed out of the west, and so, ultimately, did power; and into minds which before had been ignorant of it there crept the idea of national democratic self-determination, an idea born of the theories of the French Revolution, and based on the French democratic conception of the "nation." As soon as the East European nations, in revolt against Sultan or Tsar, understood that their political future was going to be decided, not by the standards native to them, but by those of the western State, the French "nation," they set out, with the simplicity characteristic of their souls, to "make it so." If they were to have national frontiers they would see to it that these should be as extensive as possible, and this they did by every means, from the fairest to the most foul.

Perhaps the most glaring example out of many which might be chosen is that of Macedonia, with its tragic history of rival national propagandas so long as the coveted prize was still held by the Turks, its still more ghastly tale when one or another of the claimants obtained control over it. But what has gone on in Macedonia can be paralleled, although usually with less of horror, along a score of East European frontiers today, and here we have the very heart and root of the modern minorities problem -- a problem of Eastern Europe: that nations long accustomed to live together according to East European conceptions, which permit and even encourage national distinctions, are hurriedly attempting to fit their conditions to the ideas of Western Europe, which believes in the sanctity of majority rule and holds that the larger the majority the greater the sanctity.

This process went on unchecked up to 1918; but since that date, the situation has altered once more, and radically.

Self-determination, we say, is accomplished for Europe today. At any rate, there is to be no more of it, for every European nation west of Russia belongs to the League of Nations, and their territorial integrity is guaranteed by the whole fabric of international law and order. Thus the process of manufacturing nationality should be at an end now, and there should be no more need to slaughter out of hand a recalcitrant disciple of another national cause, and to tell his children that they shall learn their lessons in the language of the majority or not at all. It is time, therefore, to ask whether the west has not some other political doctrine to give to Eastern Europe, less disastrous in its effects than the last.

Such a doctrine does exist, and this time it is England which has given it birth. English political thought has never wholly accepted the French philosophy. In a dozen definitions of nationality developed by English thinkers one common idea will always be found to be present -- the idea of consent. A recent writer summed up this thought in the following remarkable sentences, which contain no mention either of language or of racial origin: "Nationalism denotes the resolve of a group of human beings to share their fortunes, and to exercise exclusive control over their own actions. Where such a determination exists there should be a state, and there will be no abiding peace until there is a state."

It is this saving conception of consent which was responsible for the existing minority treaties, so bitterly resented by the states bound by them, so often denounced by those who do not understand them. While the politicians and generals who dictated the peace terms were drawing the new frontiers of Europe along lines which they themselves could hardly believe coincided with their expressed doctrine of self-determination, they nevertheless approved minority treaties which stipulated that some attempt at least should be made to secure the consent of the peoples included against their will within the new states. They should not be left to the mercies of the uncontrolled doctrine of self-determination, as it works out in East European practice. And Eastern Europe should be grateful for them, for, given the mixed ethnographical conditions prevailing there, the new fabric could not possibly endure unless this element of consent were reintroduced. One writes, not "introduced," but "reintroduced," for although its modern expression comes from the west the principle is inherent in the old political philosophy of the countries concerned. It was with their consent that the "Saxons" came from Flanders to Transylvania, and settled there "ad retinendam coronam;" it was with their consent that the Greeks returned to Constantinople, and to their patriarch's torture-chamber.

The principle was, of course, modified and in some cases wholly obscured by the hard law of conquest. It operated fully only in the case of the colonists, most of whom, as previously remarked, were Germans. It is precisely for this reason that the Germans, although usually better treated today than most other national fragments, complain most loudly of the new régimes, and in fact feel their effects most hardly. The Bulgar of Macedonia, the Pole of Lithuania (the examples chosen are not intended to be invidious) has but exchanged one servitude for another; the German has in most cases been cast down from a privileged position.

One cannot plead that the old order should be restored, for it resulted in the domination of the many by the few, and often in the preference of peoples of alien origin to those who formed the majority of the population. No one can ask the Czechs or Rumanians to entertain such an idea. But surely the peoples of Eastern Europe need not be above delving a little into their own pasts, putting from them part, at least, of an alien doctrine which has served its turn and brought them their independence.

Democracy -- and even modern autocracies have been obliged to incorporate much of the theory of nineteenth-century democracy -- has swept away forever part of the foundations of the old privileges, for it is no longer possible to assign a whole national group to certain fixed functions within the communal life. But the broad principle, which even the Turks recognized, that a nationality is best governed within the state by allowing it free development of its national culture and institutions, with limited autonomy, has only proved its worth the more during the period of its obliteration. In religion this principle is now generally admitted and practiced; it is denied in the field of linguistic and cultural institutions, which are what the world recognizes today as essentially national, only because the dominant nations still fear that the principle of self-determination which has hitherto been applied in their favor might one day be turned against them. The guarantee of the Covenant of the League of Nations should remove this fear, and indeed the campaign in favor of frontier revision would lose its adherents in the west, were not public opinion uneasily conscious that the minority treaties have not been applied so as to secure that consent which it was their purpose to attain. If the world can be convinced that the new frontiers, even where they have been drawn in haste and under the influence of prejudice, are not causing real hardship and injustice there will be no talk of altering them against the will of the states concerned.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • C. A. MACARTNEY, author of "Survey of International Affairs, 1925" and several volumes on central and eastern Europe.
  • More By C. A. Macartney