FARAVID 35/2011


Kari Alenius, Germany, legislation, and national minorities, 1918 – 1919

The change and formation in the legal status of national minority rights from the fall of 1918 to the late summer of 1919 can be divided into four successive stages of development. A group of comparable features can be observed, but at the same time they are distinguished by a number of special features.

Wide societal changes were not only a general basis but also a necessary condition for the revision of minority policies. In order to safeguard German national interests in the post-war settlement it was no longer for the German political elite to overlook the national needs and demands of minorities in the same way as occurred during the last decades of the Imperial period.

Among the German political elite there were powerful disagreements over how the legal status of national minorities should be developed. These disagreements were based, above all, on already existing long-term ideological differences. Thus, the German right and left, for instance, differed from each other in minority issues by the principle differences of attitude regarding the social importance of minority questions. Left-wing ideology basically excluded special arrangements based on nationality which could have been interpreted as privileges. In any case, the left criticized the minority policies of the Imperial period and were in favor of some degree of reform.

The political right and center were united in their belief about the special social significance of nationality perspectives. However, this mutual starting point led to two sharply divergent attitudes. The right weighed minority issues from a German national perspective which included prioritizing a strong German ethnicity and comparably, the interpretation of other ethnic groups as less worthy both in Germany and in a broader sense.

In the political center national questions were examined from more equal starting points. Germany’s center parties considered taking national interests into account more than the left, but unlike the right, German national chauvinism was much less popular among the supporters of the center. In the thinking of the center, the reasonable wishes of national minorities were to be taken into account. If necessary, the majority would have to bargain over their own national interests so that sufficient opportunity to take care of their national, cultural and linguistic characteristics would be possible for more disadvantaged minorities.

Considered as a whole, the legal status of national minorities in Germany during the years 1918–1919 clearly changed. The majority of the German political elite gradually accepted the idea that minorities should be guaranteed fundamental rights. Then necessary decisions were made at a national as well as an individual state level by the summer of 1919. In the background these changed were influenced by a group of various cosmopolitan-moral, domestic and foreign policy factors, with their combined effect resulting in this change.

Of the acceptance of this change, it was essential that legislative compromise solutions were eventually found through careful consideration and discussion that was estimated to not only bring justice to national minorities, but equivalent benefits to Germany and Germanness. The whole time this process was led by a group of activists with a sympathetic attitude towards minorities who managed to justify the correctness and applicability of their views to the majority of decision-makers who were initially passive and cautious.  

Faravid 35/2011