Out of the war, into the struggle: minorities of East Central Europe in 1914-39

Out of the war, into the struggle: minorities of East Central Europe in 1914-39

Maciej Górny

This text is a part of the publication series based on the results of the expert Seminar “A Century of Minority Rights – Lessons from the Post-Versailles System“, organized by the International Centre for Ethnic and Linguistic Diversity Studies and the Department of Russian and East European Studies, Institute of International Studies (Faculty of Social Sciences of Charles University) with the financial support of the Charles University, the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung in the Czech Republic, and the German Embassy to the Czech Republic.

The new reality of post-1918 East Central Europe saw two previously little known human species emerging, majority and minority nations. It is not to say that they had been completely unknown before 1914. Nevertheless, at least formally, none of the multinational monarchies recognized them in a way similar to our intuitive understanding of the term. This ignorance might have had a liberal touch, as in the Austro-Hungarian case, or could be a half-hearted authoritarian attempt at marginalizing non-dominant nationalities, as in the case of the Russian politics in Ukraine or the German treatment in Prussian Poland. 1914 brought a change leading to sharp divisions between various groups of imperial subjects.

During the Great War interethnic tensions became tenser while the presence of refugees in Russian Poland, Bohemia and Austria made them felt even far away from the borderland areas. Later on, after 1918, the number of ruling nations grew considerably and so was the number of frustrated losers forced to live at home in a foreign country such as Ukrainians or Germans in Poland, Germans, and Hungarians in Czechoslovakia, Hungarians and Germans in Yugoslavia and Romania, etc. The period as a whole thus contributed both to the radicalization and proliferation of interethnic strife. The answers given to this challenge by newly created or enlarged states of East Central Europe were rather discouraging and contributing, in turn, to their permanent crisis of legitimization.


The war of the Eastern European empires, which both fighting sides presented as a historic confrontation between the Germanic and Slavic worlds, soon triggered an avalanche of changes that shattered the rules that had applied before 1914. The mechanisms were different, but the outcome was similar. Trieste, which experienced an economic boom at the turn of the century, attracted a mass of Slovenes from the surrounding countryside. Nevertheless, the vast majority of the city’s 230,000 inhabitants were Italian. The growing tensions between Italy and the monarchy in the spring of 1915 led to a mass exodus not only of the Italian population but also of its leading representatives—subjects of Franz Joseph. Rome declared war on the Habsburg monarchy on Sunday 22 May. On that same day, in the evening the crowd attacked everything Italian—the offices of newspapers and associations, shops and cafés. The unrest and looting lasted through the night. On the following day, the authorities replaced the existing city council with a commissioner, and the police arrested and interned scores of people. Italian social organizations were outlawed and Italian officials dismissed from their posts. Simultaneously, local authorities in the surrounding municipalities were dissolved and all street names that alluded to the idea of the Italian nation-state were changed. Thoroughly cleansed of its elites and superficially cleansed of enemy symbolism, Trieste, now ostensibly de-Italianized, became another Habsburg city behind the lines.

A similar situation developed at the other end of Central Europe. The Germans in the Baltic provinces pledged their undying loyalty to the Tsar in the summer of 1914, as did all his other subjects. The wave of Russian nationalism reached the Baltic with lightning speed, nevertheless. As early as in the autumn the authorities banned the use of German in public places. The ban was enforced by the police and, above all, by members of the public eager to inform about their Teutonic neighbors.

Similar mechanisms started to function: singling-out of a minority as potentially treacherous, violence and, finally, persecution, were present on a larger and smaller scale; either as an element of governmental policy or locally, in a form of a conflict between ethnically different village- and town-dwellers. They had a lot to do with the imperial mobilization, yet, instead of securing the interests of the empire they undermined its power.


Other forms of ethnicization resulted from great migrations, mass escapes, and deportations. For the time being the effects of population movements might have been seen as a temporary consequence of the turmoil of war. In reality, flight and deportations not only reduced the size of populations but also led to changes in their composition: in Warsaw, the number of inhabitants decreased by around 20 percent. Since the decline in the ‘Christian’ population—mainly Roman Catholics—was much greater than the decline in the Jewish population, the proportion of Jewish residents in Warsaw increased from 38 percent (1914) to 45 percent (1917) with impact on the results of the first local elections held under the German occupation. In the Polish–Belarusian and Polish–Ukrainian borderlands, in turn, the ‘migration of peoples’ affected Orthodox believers more than it did Catholics. As a result, the proportion of Poles in areas that would later be occupied by Germany and Austria-Hungary was surprisingly high. Deportations of Jews presented an additional problem caused by the existence of a so-called Pale of Settlement. This limited the areas where Jews were allowed to live to the western and south-western provinces of Russia (which had once belonged to the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth). As the German army advanced, ever-greater sections of the Pale became occupied and the areas where Jewish deportees were legally allowed to settle rapidly shrank. In May 1915 the governors of the Mohilev, Poltava, and Yekaterinoslav provinces announced that they had no space for Jewish deportees.

The retreating Czarist army deported at least 750,000 Poles, 300,000 Lithuanians, a quarter of a million Latvians, half a million Jews, and well over 100,000 Germans to the depths of Russia. It was surely the main culprit of involuntary migrations in East Central Europe but not the only one. Austria-Hungary also pursued large-scale deportations of ‘disloyal subjects’ (whose only fault was their Ruthenian or Serb nationality) part of whom were kept in concentration camps with Thalehof near Graz being the most drastic example. Deportation endangered also inhabitants of areas near to the front. Eagerness to get read of potential spies stimulated generals to harsh measures. A great many of the migrants never returned to their homes or did it with a considerable delay. This is especially valid for those who were pushed into the turmoil of the Russian revolutions.


Psychologically, the new post-1918 situation stood in contradiction with a solid portion of maximalist nationalist programs. Though hostile between themselves, most national agendas shared the longing for monopolizing the state, territory, and nation. For achieving this, aliens had to be pushed away, at least in symbolic terms. This unpreparedness for coping with minorities and majorities alike culminated in bloodshed even in some of the most peaceful regions of East Central Europe. The pogrom in Lwów/L’viv, in November 1918, belonged to the most discussed, but it was only one of many incidents of violence directed predominantly against the Jewish population. Besides such outbursts of popular and incited antisemitism, everyday life delivered plenty of reasons to hate and despise each other. Early months of the new regimes abounded in anti-Jewish violence even in otherwise peaceful places such as Bohemian province or the multinational city of Osijek in Croatia. Numerous wars fought by the newly established states provided rich opportunities for ethnic conflicts to turn even more violent. In Czechoslovakia, local Germans demanding their rights to vote for a new Austrian Parliaments were shot at by the military. The presence of refugees delivered arguments to xenophobic action in Bohemia, Germany, and Austria.

There was surely a huge conflict potential on all sides, but I would like to point to a less obvious reason for a postwar minority crisis: missing expertise. In short: being a minority required conscious political thinking especially in the face of almost all national cultures striving for their national states. Thus, whenever a former minority saw its national program realized, it turned into the oppressive majority quasi instantly.


Neither the post-war atmosphere nor political culture of the region facilitated the peaceful coexistence of minorities and majorities. To create legal frames for this power struggle was not an easy task. And the look to prior attempts proved rather discouraging. European diplomacies remembered still how Romania virtually ignored its 1878 obligation to grant citizen rights to its Jews. Romania was a powerful argument to formalize minority rights within the frame of the newly established League of Nations. Another example was about pogroms, most notably in Lwów. The first of a series of minority treaties with the new countries (Poland, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia), losers besides Germany (Austria, Hungary, and Bulgaria) as well as those who enlarged their territory (Romania and Greece) was signed on 28 June 1919 with Poland together with the treaty regulating most of the country’s border questions. Local responses to the minority treaties were mostly stormy, the reason being not so much the content as rather the fact that they were forced upon by the powers and, probably crucially, that Germany with its still sizeable minorities, was not subjected to the same procedure.

Given the tone of the political debate that accompanied the ratification of minority treaties, the prospects for future coexistence were grim. Some of the wartime national conflicts – the Polish-Ukrainian struggle for Eastern Galicia is a prime example – petrified partially due to the activity of the political émigrés who never gave up their wartime political programs. The standing of most of the stateless nations in East Central Europe seemed to have deteriorated from the imperial times. On the other hand, minority politics became a source of a permanent crisis of legitimacy for the new and enlarged states. An example from interwar Poland pointedly characterizes the problem.

The legacy of the 1919 Polish-Ukrainian War and the tone of the political debate that accompanied the ratification of minority treaties overshadowed the prospects for future coexistence of Poles and Ukrainians within a single (Polish) state. The first postwar census in 1921 and the first elections were mostly boycotted by the Ukrainians many of whom took part in the general boycott of the Polish state that lasted until 1923. Actually, every single aspect of the recent Polish-Ukrainian history backfired then setting in motion a mechanism that perpetuated ethnic conflict. The wartime Ukrainian political activists continued their activities aiming at an independent statehood in Austrian and Czechoslovak exile closely watched by Polish diplomats and secret police. Veterans of the Ukrainian armed forces celebrated their dead comrades under the watchful eye of the Polish police who rightly assumed that gatherings at cemeteries have an anti-state agenda. On the other hand, the Lwów university in the first postwar years accepted solely students with a service record in the Polish army which automatically excluded Ukrainians and forced them to study abroad. Czechoslovakia and Austria were the most popular options which, again, contributed to the actions of Ukrainian émigrés and the radicalization of the intelligentsia. Ukrainians were perceived as not loyal and in many cases, they showed no loyalty towards the Polish state. The first elements of normalization of ethnic relations appeared in the mid-1920s just to give way to another wave of radicalism accelerated by the Great Crisis.

Author: Dr. Maciej Górny is a researcher at the German Historical Institute in Warsaw, Poland.

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