False Springtime of Peoples: The Legacies of Peacemaking after World War I in Eastern Europe and the Middle East
Recent international crises—the flow of refugees to Europe, simmering war in Ukraine, multiple civil wars in the Middle East, the spread of ethnic populism—have roots in the peace settlements made after World War I. This conference seeks a better understanding of that foundational episode a century ago and to use this knowledge to promote a greater understanding of fault lines across and within societies today.
The end of the Great War fed millenarian aspirations around the globe, echoing the expression attached to the European revolutions of 1848, the ‘springtime of the peoples.” Georges Clemenceau remarked famously at the opening of the Paris Peace Conference: “We have no longer to make peace for territories more or less large; we no longer have to make peace for continents; we have to make it for peoples.” Of course, such a sweeping statement begs the question of what makes a people a people? Who gets to become a people, at any rate a people eligible to form its own nation-state? The Paris Peace Conference would answer these questions in differentiated and hierarchical ways in different parts of the world.
As early as 1903, W.E.B. Dubois posed “the problem of the color line” demarcating ever more rigorously defined “white” peoples from myriad “others.” More recently, Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds have shown how the color line structured international relations from the late-19th century forward. Certainly, the Paris Peace Conference played its role, as they put it, in “drawing the global color line.” Our conference will explore the ways in which provisions for religious and ethnic minorities and League of Nations Mandates constituted two sides of the same coin. Provisions for “white” ethnic and religious minorities and for mandate system were both about defining peoples, in the service of a certain international order.
With particular attention to Europe, Eric Weitz and others have traced the construction of a new world order that normalized ethnically homogeneous nation-states rather than multinational empires. Whereas previous European peace settlements had tended to focus on lands, the peacemakers in Paris shifted the focus to peoples, in the defeated German, Russian and Habsburg Empires. The conference would participate in coding the peoples of Central and Eastern Europe as “white.” As such, the conference accorded these peoples an assumed right to organize immediately as ethno-national states. The conference likewise contrived means of protecting linguistic and religious minorities within these new states.
Beyond Europe, making peace for peoples meant defining and affirming racial hierarchies, in sharp dissonance with the universalist rhetoric accompanying the end of the war. The former Ottoman and German domains posed distinct definitional challenges to the peacemakers. The “Mandate Principle” as it emerged from the conference deemed these lands and peoples a “sacred trust of civilization,” a concept likewise applied differentially and hierarchically. The “color line” had been drawn long ago for the former German colonies in Africa and the South Pacific, and no one at the Paris Peace Conference seriously considered according them self-determination.
The former Ottoman lands were another matter altogether. Too many wartime promises had been made to the peoples of the predominantly Arabic-speaking Middle East for their lands simply to be absorbed as colonies, at least in the familiar legal sense of the previous century. Yet few in Paris considered these peoples “white,” in the sense of being worthy of immediate self-determination. The conference thus struggled to define them as superior to Africans and Pacific Islanders, inferior to Europeans and Americans. Like their counterparts in Eastern Europe, the former Ottoman peoples spoke many languages and followed various religious faiths. In the Middle East as in Europe, defining a “minority” meant simultaneously defining a “majority.”
Inevitably, defining peoples set them against one another, at times violently. Few scholars have addressed the historical links joining postwar violence in Europe and the Middle East. This is surprising, given that political violence in the Balkan borderlands between the Habsburg and Ottoman empires ignited the World War I, with a Serb’s assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand. The time is right further to explore these connections, as the world confronts the prospect of continued conflict around Muslim migration to Europe, the politics of Turkish accession (or rather non-accession) into the European Union, and the rise of ethnic and religious populist movements in Europe, the Middle East, and North America.
This conference will be the first to link the histories of making minorities (and majorities) in Central and Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Historians of the Hohenzollern, Habsburg, Romanov, and Ottoman empires, and their successor states, will come together to revisit the six treaties signed between 1919 and 1923, as well as the accompanying “New State” or “minority” treaties. We will do so in a comparative and transnational mode.
The first part of the conference will encompass a long historical perspective on the treaties, to clear away ideological assumptions that continue to muddy scholarship. What were the problems to which minority treaties and mandates seemed to provide the answers? We will also analyze how diplomats in Paris envisaged a world without monarchical multinational empires, but with colonial empires left intact and even expanded among the victors. We will consider alternatives the peacemakers rejected. Perhaps most fundamentally, the conference will explore why guarantees of minority protection backfired and why the mandate system came more to reinvent empire than replace it.
The second part of the conference considers the long-term impact of the treaties signed between 1919 and 1923. We ask how legal protections triggered reactionary politics among freshly minted “majorities” and, in turn, how these protections radicalized “minorities,” thereby laying the basis for conflicts today. For example, we welcome contributions on such topics as: the historic roots of present-day anti-Immigrant movements and Islamism; Zionism from a transnational perspective; and “universal” versus “national” rights. We particularly encourage topics that compare minority politics and experience in different regions and countries.
We envisage a conference of some 30 scholars, including chairs and commentators. We invite proposals that address our two major themes:
1) Situating minority provisions and the mandate system in their proper historical context
2) The long-run impact of the Paris Peace Conference in defining peoples, and in shaping their responses
Our goal is to produce a set of papers useful to scholars, policymakers, and journalists. We plan publication of an edited volume. The language of the conference will be English.
We are presently applying for funding to support the conference. If we are successful, the conference will cover travel to and from Bratislava, as well as accommodations and meals. The conference will be housed administratively at the GWZO in Leipzig.
Questions may be addressed to any of the three organizers below. Proposals (in English) are due on 10 July 2018. Please send to all three of the following:
Frank Hadler (GWZO, Leipzig): <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Leonard V. Smith (Oberlin College, Ohio): <email@example.com>
Elizabeth F. Thompson (American University, Washington, DC): <firstname.lastname@example.org>