In today’s Europe, several groups claim special political rights on the grounds that they constitute peoples. This applies both to state-bearing groups such as the Serbs, Estonians and Greeks, as well as to larger and smaller groups that are in the minority in the state where they live. Among the minority groups, there is reason to distinguish between different types of peoples, as their self-understanding, problems and demands vary by type. One can distinguish between three basic types: micronations, national minorities and ethnic minorities.
- COUNTRYAAH.COM: Offers an alphabetical list of independent nations and dependent territories in Europe. Also includes area and population for each European country.
Micronations are characterized by having a delimited territory with which the group in question has a historically documented relationship. The peoples of micronations can be quite large like Catalonia’s approximately 7.5 million residents and quite small like the Sami, who count approximately 60,000. The micro-nations to varying degrees demand political independence in line with state-bearing peoples, nations. Their demands thus concern the sovereignty of the states, which they contest within their own territory. The micronations are also characterized by the fact that there is no state where their culture and language are dominant.
National minorities are groups that identify with the language and culture of a neighboring country. In Western Europe, these groups usually do not demand border revisions, but greater local autonomy and recognition of their language on an equal footing with the dominant one. In Eastern Europe, national minorities are seen as a danger to political stability, and many of their organizations demand more or less loud border controls. The demands of national minorities thus, like the potential of the micro-nations, relate to the sovereignty of the states.
The actual ethnic minorities differ significantly from these two groups, primarily because their identity and political ambitions are not tied to territorial conditions. They do not invoke home countries in Europe, although two of the most well-known ethnic minorities, the Jews and the Roma, both have a long history as European peoples. Only a few small groups of ethnic minorities in Europe make demands that will affect the sovereignty of states, especially with regard to issues of dual citizenship. Most simply demand the right to organize around linguistic and religious matters.
Recent European historical background of ideas
The background for self-understanding and demands among all three groups must be found in recent European history of ideas. For the past millennium, Europe has been largely organized according to dynastic or geopolitical principles rather than ethnic and/or linguistic community. Nevertheless, in modern times one also distinguishes between different peoples or ethnic groups, which are defined in particular on the basis of linguistic criteria. The European language families were scientifically established in the 19th century based on the discovery of the common features of the Indo-European languages. Communities in particular were operated on the basis of Germanic, Celtic, Romance, Slavic and Arabic languages. From the 1870’s onwards, a certain political organization according to language criteria took place in the so-called Pan-Slavic, Germanic, etc. organizations. However, these attempts to organize Europeans politically by language tribe yielded few practical results, as language families most often stretched across established, political state borders. In the 20th century, however, a number of smaller states were established on a linguistic policy basis Czechoslovakia (later the Czech Republic), which from 1918 was established as a federal state on the basis of the newly established Czech written language; Finland (1917), Ireland (from 1921) and Iceland (from 1944). For all these states (except Iceland), however, the political boundaries do not fully follow the boundaries of the peoples if they are defined as language groups. The most comprehensive and for a time effective attempt to base political organization on a larger scale on peoples based on the language families is the Nazi organization of Europe in the Third Reich 1933-1945.
The concept of people
The concept of peoples has played a central role for the territorially delimited ethnic and linguistic minorities, the micronations of Europe. From the 1880’s, powerful political organizations developed in a large number of linguistic minority areas, which even today represent a significant political power. This applied to Catalonia, the Basque Country, Brittany, Wales, Cornwall and Scotland, all of which before 1900 had established their own written language and political organizations based on the local language. A little later came the organization of Occitania (Southern France), and around 1918 a movement among micronations across Europe was so advanced that pan-European conferences could be organized around common demands. Early in the interwar period, the overarching political demand from these organizations was a federalization of the existing states. Czechoslovakia was highlighted as a model that should be extended to other multilingual states. However, fascism in Italy from 1922 and especially Nazism in Germany from 1933 led many minorities to revise their views on state organization on the basis of the idea of peoples. Both of these totalitarian-led states appeared in the arena of peoples as pannational. Italy thus described the enclaves of Romance-speaking minorities in neighboring countries as “temporarily lost” Italian territories, such as Mussolini’s government demanded “back” to Italy. This applied to areas in France (Savoy, Corsica, parts of the Riviera) and areas in Switzerland, Austria and on the Yugoslav Adriatic coast. Similarly, Hitler’s Germany considered not only the whole of Austria, the German-speaking Czech Sudetenland and the German-speaking French Alsace-Lorraineas belonging to the German Empire, but was also of the conviction that the other Germanic-speaking areas of Europe constituted independent states only by a historical misunderstanding. The conquest of these territories was therefore justified on the basis of an idea of the common destiny of the peoples. Although there were groups in the minority areas that welcomed the fascist and Nazi initiatives, the majorities were apparently skeptical, both because the totalitarian social structure in Germany and Italy offered the intellectuals who formed the central groups in the minority political organizations, and because the prospect of being absorbed into the linguistic community of a larger mother or fatherland did not in fact meet their demands for recognition as independent peoples.
Treaty of Versailles in 1919
The situation was a bit different for the national minorities, who had been placed on the “wrong” side of a state border by relatively new demarcations, especially the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, as they had always identified with the neighboring state. South Tyrol and North Schleswig are examples of such areas where national minorities who identified themselves as Germans sympathized to some extent with the German ambitions to expand the state’s territory. However, neither the Schleswig nor the Tyrolean border was moved. In South Tyrol, a referendum in 1939 showed that there was no majority for a border change, after which a significant part of the German minority emigrated to Germany. In Schleswig, the border had similarly been determined by a 1919 referendum.
World War II and the post-war period
For certain ethnic minorities in Europe, the notion of peoples came to play a particularly cruel role during World War II. Jews and Roma were systematically murdered as “foreign elements” in Europe, and especially in Germany and in the rest of Central Europe, this meant that these peoples almost disappeared. After the end of the war, the Jews established a state outside Europe, based on the European notion of peoples. The creation of Israel can thus be seen as a direct consequence of the idea of political organization by peoples. In the immediate post-war period, this political thought was discredited in Europe, but from the late 1960’s it re-emerged as the core of minorities’ self-understanding in relation to European nation-states. Several micronations seized weapons during this period, from the Basque Country across Catalonia to Corsica. Certain national minorities – in Northern Ireland and South Tyrol – also developed terrorist organizations. The majority of Western European minorities, however, confined themselves to an ideological strife, in which they in turn had some progress. In today’s overviews of micro-nations and national minorities in Europe, about 80 named and organized communities appear. Within the European Union, micro-nations and national minorities have found allies in the European Commission as well as some community in the European Parliament in Strasbourg. In 1994, the Regional Advisory Council was established, in which the views of the minority areas play a significant role, as did the Council of Europe, where, among other things, non-EU member states have adopted recommendations on cultural self-determination for minorities.
The most acute problems in Europe at the end of the 20th century have, as always, the ethnic minorities; the Arab, Iranian, Turkish, Pakistani and Indian minorities as well as the Roma are often subjected to aggression and suspicion in a Europe where the idea of peoples as the obvious political basis is alive again.