Back   LE Snellgrove, Self-determination

Wilson believed that the frontiers of Europe should be redrawn so that all races ruled themselves.   This right to choose one's own government he called self-determination.   In a crude way this had begun to happen because nine new states had already been created out of the old empires.   Four countries, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Austria and Hungary had been carved from the Habsburg lands.   Five others, Poland, Finland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, had emerged from Russia and Germany.   Unfortunately, there were practical difficulties in the way of self-determination.   First, it was hard to say exactly what indicated a separate race.   The only possible guide was the language they spoke.   This was the test chosen by Wilson but it was not a good one.   Many subject peoples used the tongue of their conquerors, just as the Indians speak English today.   Second, in many parts of Europe, particularly the Balkans, races were too mixed up to be divided without large-scale movements of population.   Third, real countries cannot be created by drawing lines between racial groups.   A country needs industries and railways, ports and agricultural land, frontiers which are protected by seas, rivers or mountains.   Had Czechoslovakia not kept its 3,000,000 Germans she would have lost much industry as well as a defensive mountain barrier.   As it was, the railway system, designed for the Habsburg Empire, now ran across the infant state in the most awkward directions.  

For these reasons the post-war map of Europe was a strange patchwork which was often unfair to minorities.   Yugoslavia, supposed to consist of Serbs and Croats, actually contained Slovenes, Bosnian Muslims, Magyars, Germans, Albanians, Rumanians and Macedonians.   Czechoslovakia, apparently the country of the Czechs and Slovaks, had Germans, Little Russians, Magyars, Poles and Jews as well.   A worse example was Poland.   Point thirteen had suggested that Poland divided in the eighteenth century between Prussia, Russia and Austria should be restored to independence.   The idea seemed fair.   There is no doubt the Poles had been badly treated.   However, their eighteenth-century lands had really been an empire comprising conquered peoples.   Consequently only about two-thirds of the new Poland was inhabited by Poles.   Furthermore its Russian border, the Curzon Line, was drawn without consulting Bolshevik Russia at all.   And because Wilson believed Poland should have an outlet to the sea, a 'corridor' of land was driven across East Prussian territory, dividing it from the rest of Germany.   The port at the end of it, Danzig, was made a free city under international, not Polish, control.   Nevertheless, the whole arrangement was very unsatisfactory.   Nor did the Poles themselves help matters when they crossed the Curzon Line (1921) and seized more Russian land.  

In two cases, self-determination was ignored altogether.   First, the German-speaking population of Austria contained many who wanted union (Anschluss) with Germany.   France was horrified at a suggestion which would make the German population larger than in 1914.   Wilson was forced to give way and many Austrians were left with a grievance.   Second, when Orlando, Italy's Prime Minister, demanded the rewards guaranteed by the Treaty of London, Wilson objected.   He disliked the fact that these promises had been made in a secret agreement.   He also thought Yugoslavia had a better claim to some of the lands.   No matter caused quite so much argument at the Conference.   In the end Wilson appealed directly to the Italian people.   To his surprise the Italians were furious at losing their due.   To them it seemed disgraceful that their claims as an ally were being passed over in favour of Yugoslavia.   The American President became the most unpopular man in Italy.   His portrait was torn down by angry mobs; others were decorated with a German helmet.   The matter was left undecided.   Later Italy negotiated privately with Yugoslavia and received Istria and the East Adriatic islands but not Dalmatia.   So disappointed were her patriots that in 1924 groups led by the poet Gabriele D’Annunzio seized the port of Fiume in Trieste.  

LE Snellgrove was a History teacher in Surrey, Britain, and a writer of textbooks for schools.

This is an extract from his textbook The Modern World since 1870 (Longman Secondary Histories, 1968) which is now out of print.