Major Theme - {title}
Post-war Europe – Nations, States & Collapsing Empires
An illustration of soldiers holding flags representing (L-R): Czechoslovakia, Portugal, Poland, the U.S.A., France, the U.K., Italy, Belgium, Greece and Serbia Photo: Illustrated London News [London, England], 3 Aug 1918

Post-war Europe – Nations, States & Collapsing Empires

By William Mulligan

The First World War brought about the collapse of four multinational empires – the Russian empire in 1917, and then the Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian, and German empires in 1918.

They collapsed in defeat and revolution.

For centuries, these empires had represented the dominant form of political organisation in central and eastern Europe and the Balkans and the Middle East. These empires derived their legitimacy from their capacity to provide internal order and external security for their subjects. As Franz von Matscheko, a senior Austro-Hungarian diplomat, put it in late 1914, the empire was ‘a European necessity’, which secured peace and required national minorities to subordinate their nationalist programmes to the wider benefits of political stability.

These benefits had often been accompanied by discrimination, repression, and exclusion. On occasion, these empires had used extreme violence against groups, whom they considered a threat to their integrity. The most notable example of this was the Armenian genocide in the Ottoman empire, during which an estimated 1.5 million Armenians died.

The collapse of these empires begged the question of what would replace them.

The nationality principle had already been common currency in European politics for at least 100 years, but it assumed an even more prominent position in debate about the new world order after 1914. Allied leaders claimed that they were fighting for the rights of small nations. Although Woodrow Wilson avoided the term national self-determination in his famous 14 Points Declaration to Congress in January 1918, many assumed he had issued a programme for the establishment of nation-states. The leaders of national minorities in the central and eastern European empires – like the Czech Tomas Masaryk or Poland's Roman Dmowski – called for the creation of nation-states. Only on this basis could the jumble of different ethnicities in Europe live together in peace. Indeed, the leaders of the four empires often espoused the nationality principle, so that in late 1916, the German and Austro-Hungarian governments promised an independent Polish state after the war, albeit one tied tightly into the German sphere of influence.

In the wake of Russia’s collapse in 1917, new states emerged – the Baltic states and Ukraine as well as Poland. By the end of 1918, the other three empires had collapsed. New states included the remnants of the defeated powers – the German Weimar Republic, Austria, Hungary, Turkey (and Bulgaria, a prototypical small nation state, which had chosen fatefully the losing side in the war); greatly enlarged nation states, notably Greece, Romania; and the so-called successor states, such as Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia.

These new regimes were beset by several challenges, not least was the integration of large minorities into states, which derived their legitimacy from the nationality principle. One of the criticisms of the peace settlement after the First World War was that it simply reconfigured the issue of national minorities in Europe, rather than resolved it.

Three million ethnic Germans lived in the Sudetenland area of Czechoslovakia, while in Transylvania, transferred from Hungary to Romania, there were three million Hungarians, Serbs, and Germans. There were large communities of Jews dotted throughout eastern Europe. The establishment of the state of Israel had to await the Second World War, but some anti-Semites exploited the Balfour Declaration, promising the creation of a Jewish homeland, to demand the expulsion of Jews from central and eastern Europe to Palestine. 

Before the end of the war, Allied leaders and nationalist campaigners had acknowledged that the interweaving of different ethnic groups in central and eastern Europe could not be resolved simply by redrawing borders to accommodate the variety of different national demands.

However they believed that other institutions and conventions could ameliorate the challenge of integrating ethnic minorities into nation-states. But the different policies cut across each other. In 1919, the Allies and the United States compelled the successor states to sign minority protection treaties, which provided for the protection of ethnic minority communities under the League of Nations. The successor states resented deeply the implication that they were not to be trusted to protect the rights of all their citizens – but given the wave of pogroms following the end of the war, Allied scepticism had some basis. The states themselves sought to mould the identity of their new citizens through the education system, military service, and surveillance, tools honed in the 19th century by nation-builders in western Europe. Defeated countries, notably Germany, used minority rights as a tactic to destabilise the peace settlement in eastern Europe. In the 1930s, Hitler effectively used the language of the nationality principle to push through major revisions of the treaty of Versailles, such as the remilitarisation of the Rhineland in 1936 and the annexation of the Sudetenland following the Munich crisis in 1938.

This suggests that the collapse of the empires and the elevation of the nationality principle proved fateful for political stability in central and eastern Europe. And yet in the context of shattered societies in 1918, few other options existed. In Austria-Hungary nationalists did not issue declarations of independence until the final days of the war, after the empire had effectively ceased to function. Likewise in the Russian and Ottoman empires. In the vacuum left by dissolving imperial regimes, the nationality principle promised, at the very least, a modicum of order and stability. The German state continued to function (just about) during the transition from the imperial regime to the Weimar republic. While political leaders in Germany, Austria, and Hungary emphasised the obvious violations of the nationality principle, their readiness to invoke this language of national self-determination only confirmed its general legitimacy. Moreover, other possible principles for reordering Europe – such as the military balance of power - would have led to even more severe losses for the losing states. For example, the French military wanted to detach the Rhineland from Germany, but British and American leaders prevailed upon the French Premier, Georges Clemenceau to give up these ambitions because they clearly contravened the nationality principle.

During the immediate post-war period, crises and high tensions undermined the efforts to construct a workable order. But by the mid-1920s, following the ending of the inflationary crisis in Germany and Austria (with international help and the support of the League of Nations), European politics stabilised. The borders drawn between 1918 and 1923, despite the flaws, survived challenges until Hitler’s expansionist foreign policy rent Europe asunder in 1938 and 1939.

Dr William Mulligan teaches modern international history at UCD. His books include The Origins of the First World War (Cambridge, 2010) and The Great War for Peace (Yale, 2014)

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