Yves Plasseraud

Choose Your Own Nationality
The Forgotten History of Cultural Autonomy

(Le Monde Diplomatique, May 2000)



The idea of personal autonomy was developed especially during the decades before the First World War in the regions of Central Europe, some of them part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Many of the thinkers and writers came from Austria and so it would not be inappropriate to group them under the label of the Austrian School of non-territorial federalism. These very original ideas, aimed at introducing rights of cultural autonomy and extraterritoriality, were completely erased and obliterated following the nationalistic frenzy of the World Wars and the imposition/acceptation everywhere of the monopoly of territorial sovereignty of the central state, one and indivisible.

This essay by Yves Plasseraud represents a very interesting contribution to the discovery of those forgotten conceptions and provides useful indications for carrying on the exploration of a theme extremely relevant for the solution of current conflicts everywhere in the world.

Yves Plasseraud is Doctor of law, chairman of the Minority Rights Group based in Paris.




There have always been regions in which different peoples have been intermingled. But with the millions of refugees, displaced persons and migrant workers scattered around the world at the end of the 20th century, ethnic entanglement is increasingly frequent. Even where there is a genuine political will to find a solution, it is becoming less and less realistic even to attempt to provide a minimum of cultural rights for all. In particular, the provision of mother-tongue education to people scattered among different ethnic groups is increasingly problematic.

The extent of the problem was apparent a few years ago in Bosnia, where the dispersal of the communities involved put paid to every idea, even the creation of separate cantons. But there have long been proposals on how to solve the problem. Even if they have little chance of getting started in the regions most in need of them, one or two are worth examining. In particular, the concept of a personal status attaching to each individual, irrespective of his movements, has a long pedigree.

After the great invasions of the 5th century, the customary Germanic law of the new arrivals in central Europe (1) coexisted with Roman law for several centuries. When the various groups eventually became sedentary, a unified private law emerged. But the idea of personal status was perpetuated in the form of self-administration for certain peoples with strong particular characteristics. In 1486, for example, the Saxons of Transylvania (in present-day Romania) were granted special autonomy for their "nation" by Mathias Corvin, king of Hungary, and the Transylvanian constitution of the time was based on unio trium nationorum, a union of three nations (2).

The Jews, too, were sometimes granted a similar status by the monarchs of late medieval Europe, although it was always subject to revocation without notice, as the interests of the moment dictated. The status of Polish Jews in the early period of Ashkenazi immigration is a case in point. On arrival in the Vistula kingdom, they were granted a number of privileges supposedly equivalent to those they had enjoyed in their country of origin. The status granted by Duke Boleslav of Kalisz in 1264, which was based on the 1188 edict of Magdeburg (3), served as a model for much subsequent legislation regarding the Jews.

On grounds of religion and ethnic origin, Jews were recognised as constituting a specific social corporation organised in autonomous communities (kehilot in Hebrew). They were considered the property of the monarch (servi camerae) and could be judged only by royal representatives.

In 1334 King Casimir III (Casimir the Great) extended this arrangement to the whole kingdom, and in 1388 Vytautas of Lithuania (4) followed suit. The aim was to increase the numbers of Jewish settlers - though the rulers' motives were not entirely altruistic and protected communities were frequently exploited. The most sophisticated technique was to attract Jews persecuted elsewhere by granting them official and extensive privileges. Once the community had established itself and become solvent, its privileges were withdrawn and it was expelled. Its assets, and the interest owing to it, reverted to the crown. Later, the Jews were invited to return and buy back the goods and privileges that had been stolen from them...

Another response to the question of religious minorities was the Ottoman system of millets, i.e. communities of followers of religions other than Islam. In a Muslim world in which religion and civil society were inseparable, the Ottoman authorities, under constant pressure from the Western powers, had to find an acceptable system for subjects who were not Muslims, but belonged to the "people of the book". According to Koranic law, Muslims possess a personal status unaffected by movement or emigration. It was, therefore, natural that a similar status should be granted to protected persons in Islamic society, the dhimmis. This status, under a system of concessions known as the Capitulations, gave Christians special privileges, especially from the 18th century onwards.

In the context of the 1848 revolutions in Europe, the ideas of Jozsef Eötvös (1813-1871), called by somebody the "Hungarian Tocqueville," were of particular significance. Eötvös was an enlightened aristocrat who became a minister in Hungary's democratic government of 1848. Concerned to make the nationality principle compatible with the European order established by the Congress of Vienna, he was one of the first to postulate the system of personal cultural autonomy as a means of preventing the break up of the great empires.

In a major work on the nationalities issue (The Problem of Nationalities) published in 1856, Eötvös drew a parallel between religion and nationality. Membership of a nationality (identified by language) was conceived as a subjective right of the individual, with separation of the state from both religion and nationality. At the time, Eötvös' idea of a secular state did not lead him to propose a corresponding constitutional system based on recognition of nationality rights. It was only later, in Vienna, that the idea reached political fruition.


'Workers have no country'

In their rare writings on the subject, both Marx and Engels were more concerned with class than with nationality (5). Seen as a temporary formation corresponding to a specific phase in the development of capitalism, the nation was bound to be subordinate to the historic interests of the proletariat. And, of course, according to Marx and Engels, the workers had no country.

Despite this conviction, the founders of Marxism could not help being dragged into the impassioned debate on the national question. But their approach was essentially instrumental. The struggle for national emancipation was seen at best as a contribution to the awakening of mass consciousness. Marx and Engels distinguished between the large nation-states they considered "viable" and small "non-historical" nations (Geschichtslose Nationen), like the Czechs, Bretons or Balts, which were doomed to extinction. Since the construction of a unified capitalist market was the necessary prerequisite for the development of revolutionary conditions, only the existence of large central European states (first and foremost Germany) could be of benefit.

However, the tactical aim of destroying the reactionary strongholds represented by the Russian and British empires sometimes led Marx and Engels to support "small" national movements such as those of the Poles and Balts. Towards the turn of the century, Engels recognised that the autonomy, and even independence, of national units was frequently a precondition for effective revolutionary action. This view was embraced, at the cost of some doctrinal confusion, by the Second International, founded in Paris in 1889.

Because of the multi-ethnic structure of the Austro-Hungarian empire, and the relative freedom of thought that prevailed there, the Austro-Hungarian socialists were the first to study relations between the social and national questions in depth. Article 19 of the imperial constitution, based on a draft dating from 1849, declared that "all the peoples in the state are equal before the law and each has an inalienable right to cultivate its nationality and language" (6). It was therefore not surprising that the "Austro-Marxists" should develop a distinctive approach to the national question.

In 1887 Karl Kautsky (1854-1938) became the first social democrat to publish a theoretical work on the issue. Kautsky was an Austrian who, unlike Marx and Engels, based his conclusions mainly on his observations of British experience. Approaching his subject from the combined viewpoint of history and economics, he reached a pragmatic position half-way between intransigent internationalism and advocacy of national independence.

However, the most significant theoretical contributions were made by Karl Renner and Otto Bauer. Nations occupied a prominent place in the thinking of Karl Renner (1870-1950), a Moravian lawyer. He deplored the fact that, unlike the churches, nations had no legal existence of their own within the dual monarchy and were forced to organise in the form of political parties. Renner rejected the dominant centralist doctrine in which subjects related to the state as isolated individuals (7). Instead, he proposed dividing the Austro-Hungarian empire into a number of provinces corresponding as closely as possible to ethnic boundaries, within which the dominant national groups would take precedence over the others in matters of language.

"The internal distribution of nationalities," Renner argued, "would naturally be decided on the basis of population density: co-nationals in a local diocese or constituency would form a national commune, i.e. a corporation governed by public and private law with the right to issue decrees and raise taxes, and endowed with funds of its own. A certain number of communes linked by territory and culture would form a national district with corresponding corporate rights. The sum total of national districts would constitute the nation, which would also be a body governed by public and private law" (8). The state constituted by the sum of the various nations would be a Nationalitätenbundesstaat (9), in which minorities could organise themselves as national associations of individuals enjoying "extraterritorial personal cultural autonomy" (10).

Renner's definition of nations on strictly linguistic grounds was rejected by Otto Bauer (1880-1938), a sociologist who extended the system's potential field of application to "non-historical nations" and to displaced proletarian masses. In 1907 he published a seminal work (The Question of Nationalities and the Social Democracy) in which he paid particular attention to the culture of the "proletarian minorities" created by the internal migration of working masses.

Although Bauer opposed forced assimilation, he was, like Renner, strongly critical of the "separatism" of the Czech and Jewish socialist movements, which to his mind were propounding an anti-assimilationist ideology counter to working-class unity.

Despite its considerable influence, Austro-Marxism always remained a minority trend within the Socialist International. Despite his concern to reconcile the Russian proletariat with that of the peoples of the empire struggling for liberation, Lenin was resolutely hostile to what he called the Austro-Marxists' "parochialism" (11). In 1898, at the first congress of the Russian Social-Democratic Workers' Party (RSDWP), he opposed the future Mensheviks (12), who advocated cultural autonomy for minorities and recognised their right to self-determination. At the second congress in 1903, which marked the split between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks (13), Lenin pushed through the right to territorial self-determination as a basic principle of the party, dashing the hopes of the extra-territorialists (14).

The Jewish question

Jewish working-class consciousness emerged in an urban world of small workshops. It developed in reaction to the racism of the surrounding society and the growing influence of Zionism. The initial aim of the Jewish social-democrats was to secure "normal" social rights for Jewish workers. But in the last decade of the 19th century the assimilationist approach began to be attacked as utopian. The first to criticise it openly was Yuli O. Tsederbaum (Martov). In 1894 he proclaimed that, in the case of the Jews, social struggle and national liberation had to go hand in hand, since production relations among the Jews of eastern Europe were such that they could not otherwise develop a complete social structure and a proper working class (15).

When it came to revolutionary struggle among the Jews, there were two conflicting theses. The territorialists considered the existence of a national territory as a necessary condition for the emergence of a revolutionary working class. They therefore advocated self-determination and the creation of a Jewish state. For the Bundists and other "extra-territorialists", the creation of a Jewish state was entirely unrealistic, since the Jews were entrenched in the region of the "non-historical nations" and had no intention of leaving their homeland. In their view, Jewish nationality was a matter of language and culture. Starting from 1905, at the third congress of the RSDWP, they moved decisively in that direction, proclaiming culture to be the Jews' homeland and Yiddish, the language of the masses, the instrument of their national struggle.

The Austro-Marxist doctrine of extra-territorial cultural autonomy held out the prospect of a legal solution to the problem but, as Renner himself admitted, it did not allow for diasporas or scattered minorities. The Jews were excluded from the outset. The leaders of the Bund and the Jewish Socialist Workers' Party (Serp) therefore took on the task of adapting Renner's ideas to the situation of the Yiddish-speaking Jews of central and eastern Europe (16), calling for the creation of a multinational RSDWP on federal lines. Other organisations, including the Armenian social democrats, supported this approach. The Bundist leaders proposed that Russia, like the Austro-Hungarian empire, should become a federation of autonomous peoples.

The Bund and other Jewish social democratic movements like Poale Zion and the Serp, whether "territorialist" or not, were always regarded with suspicion by the leaders of the International because of their alleged nationalism. But their demands were based on a religious and social culture forged by centuries of autonomy within the kehilot. Consequently, they tended to be well-received by grass-root militants. The distinctive contribution of the Jewish socialists of Russia to Austro-Marxist doctrine was precisely that the particular historical development of Eastern European Jewry, which the Austro-Marxists had not taken into consideration, had created a situation in which the principles of personal autonomy could be applied to Jewish communities.

In 1916 Vladimir Medem produced a synthesis of Russian Jewish historian Simon Dubnow's approach to Jewish nationalism and the ideas of the Austro-Marxists. He expounded the doctrine of the Bund in the following terms: "Let us consider the case of a country composed of several national groups, e.g. Poles, Lithuanians and Jews. Each national group would create a separate movement. All citizens belonging to a given national group would join a special organisation that would hold cultural assemblies in each region and a general cultural assembly for the whole country. The assemblies would be given financial powers of their own: either each national group would be entitled to raise taxes on its members, or the state would allocate a proportion of its overall budget to each of them. Every citizen of the state would belong to one of the national groups, but the question of which national movement to join would be a matter of personal choice and no authority would have any control over his decision. The national movements would be subject to the general legislation of the state, but in their own areas of responsibility they would be autonomous and none of them would have the right to interfere in the affairs of the others" (17).

Medem rejected the traditional identification of state with nation. For regions of mixed population, he proposed a national federalism based on autonomous social institutions. The population of Russia would be divided into "national associations" which individuals would join on the basis of free personal choice. Scattered national groups, whose membership would be recorded in a "national register", would establish "corporations governed by public law", i.e. corporate bodies endowed with institutions and legal powers. Membership of a national group would thus be legally recognised, and the nation itself would be a moral body endowed with legal personality. In line with the usual principles of federalism, the ensuing multinational state - which a professor of French law, Stiphane Pierri-Caps, has termed the "multination" (18) - would retain responsibility for defence, foreign affairs, the economy and finance. The management of national, i.e. essentially cultural, affairs would fall to the national corporations.

For areas of homogenous population, the theorists of personal federalism adhered to the classic approach of equating state administration with territorial self-determination. The district council was to be the sole authority. The novel feature of their approach was thus the mixture of personal and territorial federalism.

Cultural autonomy was passionately advocated from 1925 onwards by several prominent figures in the Congress of European Nationalities, notably the distinguished Baltic German essayist and politician, Paul Schiemann. The Congress, which emerged in parallel to the League of Nations and met once a year, made considerable progress on the nationalities issue, but the rise of nationalism from 1933 onwards put paid to all hopes for minority rights (19).

Brave but fleeting attempts

The critics of personal autonomy are always quick to dismiss it as utopian. Yet the history of attempts to implement it, now unfortunately almost completely forgotten, suggests that it is definitely worth reconsidering. In Russia, theories of personal autonomy were swept aside under the empire and totally eradicated by the Bolsheviks. In Austria, however, the ideas of the Austro-Marxists aroused interest even on the right, among those concerned with the survival of the permanent miracle called Austro-Hungary. Heinrich Lammasch, a professor of international law and the empire's last chancellor, considered recognition of the principle of a free association of nationalities as the only hope for its survival.

A start on practical implementation was made before the First World War. In 1905-1906 a partial system of personal autonomy was introduced in Moravia, when a national register was drawn up with a view to the election of two national curia, German and Czech, to share the Brno diet. The arrangement was found satisfactory and subsequently extended to the school system.

In 1910 a system of cultural autonomy for Germans, Jews, Poles, Romanians and Ruthenians (20) was successfully introduced in Bukovina (21). On the strength of this encouraging start, the system was about to be extended to Galicia, the Austrian part of Poland, in 1914, but its introduction was prevented by the outbreak of war. That was not the end of the story, however. On 3 January 1918 the short-lived Ukrainian Central Rada - influenced to a considerable extent by Ber Borokhov's leftwing Zionist party, Poale Zion - granted personal autonomy to the Jewish, Polish and Russian peoples. And the following year the Hungarian Soviet Republic, led by Bela Kun, established a commissariat for German affairs. Similar ideas are to be found in the project tabled by the Hungarian delegation to the Peace Conference on 20 February 1920, with a view to attenuating the shock of the inevitable break-up of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. Almost nobody paid attention to these bold and useful initiatives.

In the interwar period, the most interesting experiments took place in the Baltic states, beginning with Lithuania. During the troubled early years of the new Lithuanian state, a law passed on 21 October 1920 enabled the existing Jewish kehilot to organise their affairs in accordance with the principle of personal autonomy. Unfortunately, the system was revoked with the advent of an authoritarian regime in Kaunas in 1926 (22).

Paul Schiemann, the Baltic German essayist and politician, propounded similar views in Riga at the beginning of the century. Like Eötvös and the Austro-Marxists, Schiemann argued that the separation of state and nation would put an end to the ultimate evil of nationalism, just as religious tolerance and the separation of church and state had appeased the spirits of the individuals. After lengthy study, he proposed a complete system of administration based on the principle of personal cultural autonomy (23) for the German community in Latvia, which was to manage its own cultural affairs as a corporate body under public law. Implementation of the system was prevented by international political developments - intervention by the USSR and Nazi Germany (24).

The third Baltic republic, Estonia, established and put into operation a full system of personal cultural autonomy. Under a law of 12 February 1925, minorities that so wished could form local associations, and each national group was represented at state level by a central cultural council. With the membership threshold set at 3,000, Jews were also able to benefit. A novel feature of the system was that in regions where ethnic Estonians were in a minority, they too could organise associations according to the same principle. Dr Ewald Ammende, one of the authors of the Estonian law, was also a founder of the European Nationalities Congress. The system worked well for the Germans and the Jews, but despite the efforts of another of the law's authors, Professor Mikhail Kurchinsky, the Russian population never achieved the degree of organisation necessary to benefit from it (25).

This brief survey of the history of personal cultural autonomy prompts us to ask why it is apparently so completely unknown to present-day politicians. The answer is simple. The concept originated in central Europe. After the First World War it was obliterated by the steamroller of Soviet "real socialism". In the West, the question of national minorities was disposed of by turning attention to human rights, and hardly anyone has taken the trouble to dig around in the untranslated archives (26). Recent events in the Caucasus and Bosnia, however, make doctrines concerned with the rights of dispersed minorities more topical than ever.




(1) See Istvan Bibo, Histoire des petites nations d'Europe centrale, Albin Michel, Paris, 1993.

(2) The other two nations were the Hungarians and the Szeklers (a large minority in Romania, also known as the Sicules).

(3) The capital city of the federal state of Saxony-Anhalt (formerly in the German Democratic Republic). In 962 Magdeburg became the seat of an archbishopric devoted to envangelising the Slavs. The edict of 1188 regulated the status of the Jews by granting them a number of privileges.

(4) On the Polish system of citizenship see Jerzy Kloczowski, "Les traditions de citoyenneté en Pologne et dans la République polono-lituano-ruthhne", in Chantal Delsol, Michel Maslovski, Histoire des idées politiques de l'Europe centrale, PUF, Paris, 1998, p.229 et seq.

(5) See Georges Haupt, Michael Löwy and Claudie Weill, Les marxistes et la question nationale, 1848-1914, L'Harmattan, Paris, 1997.

(6) On the nationalities regime in the dual monarchy, see Jean-Paul Bled, "L'Autriche-Hongrie: un modèle de pluralisme national", in André Liebich and André Reszler, L'Europe centale et ses minorités: vers une solution européenne, PUF, Paris, 1993, p.25 et seq.

(7) As in France, where there is no intermediate level between the individual and the state.

(8) Claudie Weill, L'Internationale et l'autre; les relations interethniques dans l'Europe de l'Est, Arcanthre, Paris, 1987, p.94.

(9) A federal state composed of nationalities.

(10) This idea had already been put forward in 1899 at the Brno congress by a Slovene, Kristan Etbin. Many years later, in 1918, Renner, having become the first chancellor of the Austrian Republic, instructed the distinguished lawyer, Hans Kelsen, to draw up a constitution based on these principles. The project was never followed up.

(11) See Andreas Kappeler, La Russie, empire multiethnique, Institut d'études slaves, Paris, 1994.

(12) In opposition to the Bolsheviks, led by Lenin, the Mensheviks advocated revolution in two stages. The social democrats should first hasten the fall of the Tsar and establish a legal socialist infrastructure on the western model, including trade unions and regional associations. The socialist movement would then educate the working class and develop the class consciousness needed to carry out a socialist revolution.

(13) The majority of the Bundists then moved over to the Menshevik side.

(14) On the Austro-Marxists in general, see George Haupt, Michael Löwy, Claudie Weill, op. cit.

(15) In place of which a passive, servile lumpenproletariat would develop.

(16) Vladimir Medem published his seminal work, Sotsialdemokratiia i natsional'nyi vopros (Social democracy and the national question) in 1904, before Otto Bauer's famous book, Die Nationalitätenfrage und die Sozialdemokratie (The Question of Nationalities and the Social Democracy), which came out in 1907.

(17) Henri Minczeles, Histoire générale du Bund, Austral, Paris, 1995, pp. 279-280.

(18) Stéphane Pierré-Caps, La multination. L'avenir des minorités en Europe centrale et orientale, Odile Jacob, Paris, 1995.

(19) Jozsef Galantai, Trianon and the protection of minorities, Corvina, Budapest, 1992, p.119 et seq.

(20) Western branch of the Ukrainian people. Ruthenia belonged in turn to Hungary, Czechoslovakia (1919), Hungary again (1938) and the Soviet Union (1945).

(21) A region of northern Romania. Austrian in 1910, it was divided between Ukraine, Romania and Austria in the interwar period and now straddles Ukraine and Romania.

(22) See Michael Garleff, "Die kulturelle selbstverwaltung der nationalen Minderheiten in den baltischen Staaten", in Boris Meissner, Die baltische Nationen, Estland, Lettland, Litauen, Markus, Cologne, 1991, p. 87 et seq.

(23) Anders Henriksson, The Tsar's Loyal Germans. The Riga German Community. Social Changes and the Nationality Question, Columbia University Press, New York, 1983.

(24) See H. Kause, "Die Balten und ihre Zeitgeschichte: Zu Schiemanns 100. Geburtstag am 29 März 1976", in Jahrbuch des Baltischen Deutschtums 1976, Lüneburg, 1975, and the work of John Hiden of the Baltic Research Unit at Bradford University, forthcoming.

(25) David Smith, Retracing Estonia's Russians: Mikhail Kurchinskii and Interwar Cultural Autonomy, Nationalities Papers, Vol. 27, No. 3, September 1999, p. 445 et seq.

(26) Except for rare polyglots like Claudie Weill.


[Translation by Barry Smerin]


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