Principle of Nationality

By Jaroslav F. Smetanka (Editor)

[The Bohemian Review, September 1917]

The middle part of the nineteenth century is known in history as the period during which the principle of nationality determined the course of events in Europe. The wars for the liberation of Italy, for the unification of Germany, for the redemption of Balkan Slavs from Turkish yoke, all had their reason in the overwhelming desire of peoples who felt a strong consciousness of unity to have that unity expressed and embodied in a national state.

After the Russian-Turkish war of 1877-78 it appeared, as if the era of nationalism had been closed. The problem of the Near East assumed a subordinate place to the problem of the Far East. In the eighties came the partition of Africa. Diplomacy revolved around the rivalry of Great Britain with Russia in Asia and with France in Egypt, while Germany was busy picking up colonies and hinterlands and islands all over the world. World-interests took place of European interests and questions of trade and tariffs far overshadowed in importance the rumblings of discontent that made themselves heard occasionally from central and southeastern Europe.

A real awakening came in 1908 with the annexation by Austria of Bosnia-Herzegovina. This rough-shod violation of the Treaty of Berlin, the impotent wrath of Serbia at seeing the Serbs of the two provinces seemingly lost forever to the Serbian national state, the threatening attitude of Russia and the great danger of general war which was averted only by submission to Austria's aggression, made the statesmen of Europe realize that nationality was far from being a dead issue, that the unification of Germany and Italy was only a stage, and not the last step, in that long process which has been going on in Europe for a thousand years since the disintegration of Charlemagne's empire, namely the creation of states possessing national and political unity.

At the beginning of the twentieth century most of the states of Europe were national states. France, England, Germany, Italy, Spain, even Russia are political formations in which for the great majority of the population the terms nation and state are synonymous. This solidarity, it is true, is not always perfect. Thus England has its alien element in the Irish for whom patriotism means something far different from devotion to the United Kingdom. In Germany the people of the lost provinces and the Poles in the East look upon the state within which they are held by force as an enemy, while Russia has of all the national states the largest admixture of foreign elements. There are two states, however, whose very existence is a denial of the principle of nationality—Turkey and Austria-Hungary.

The causes which gave rise to these two anomalous states are very dissimilar, and yet the growth of Austria and of Turkey is closely connected. The Turkish state is the outgrowth of the militarism of the Asiatic tribe; the Austrian state is the result of the ambitious policy of a single dynasty, carried out principally through lucky marriages. "Bella gerant alii, tu, Felix Austria, nube—let others carry on wars, thou, oh lucky Austria, stick to marrying." But marriages alone would not have created the great Danube Empire. When the Hapsburg archduke Ferdinand was elected king of Bohemia and Hungary in 1526, the reason was not so much that he was brother-in-law to King Ludvig who lost his life in the disastrous battle of Mohacs, but because both Bohemia and Hungary, threatened by the victorious Turks, felt the imperious need of combining their strength with that of the Hapsburg hereditary domains, equally menaced by the infidel.

Neither Turkey nor Austria managed to transform their subjects of many races into a homogeneous state, and by this failure the fate of the two empires was sealed. Turkey's downfall came sooner, for on the one hand the rule of the Turks was more brutal and blood-thirsty than the rule of the Hapsburgs and on the other hand between the rulers and the subjects there was the fundamental difference of religion in addition to the difference of race. So the sway of the sultan which in the seventeenth century reached almost to the gates of Vienna receded constantly toward Asia during the last two hundred years, until when the present war broke out it extended only a few miles out from Constantinople. The greatest gainer at the expense of Turkey was Austria. "In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries Serbians and Croatians north of the Danube and Save rivers and the Roumanians of Transylvania and Bukovina became subjects of the Hapsburgs. Now it is a fact of the most vital importance that when the larger half of the Serbian and Roumanian races were delivered from Turkish tyranny in the nineteenth century, they did not become subject to the rule of Austria, but were allowed to set up national states of their own.

The great war was brought on by Austria's ultimatum to Serbia. Vienna claimed that certain Serbian officers were guilty of complicity in the murder of Archduke Francis Ferdinand and his wife and that the Serbian government connived at the agitation among the Jugoslav population of Austria-Hungary aiming at the detachment of the southern provinces of the monarchy and their union with the kingdom of Serbia. That the assassination of the archduke was a mere pretext for crushing independent Serbia has been established to the satisfaction of everyone outside the Central Empires. But it cannot be denied that the very existence of Serbia was a danger to the integrity of the Hapsburg monarchy. The Serbian race—and in this connection one must keep in mind that Croatians and Slovenians are of the same race as the Serbians and that all three peoples have the consciousness of one common nationality—the Jugoslav race could not remain permanently half slave and half free. The rulers in Vienna and Budapest realized this danger and the realization made them willing vassals of Berlin. In return for Germany's guarantee to Austria of free hand against the Serbian swineherds they were ready to lend themselves entirely to the larger designs of Germany for a place in the sun.

Roumania was in a similar situation with reference to Austria-Hungary. Six million Roumanians lived their own national life in the kingdom east of the Transylvanian mountains, while four million of their kinsmen were subjects of Magyars and Germans who by fair means and foul tried to denationalize them. That the relations between the Dual Monarchy and Roumania were not acute before the war is due to the fact that a Hohenzollern king governed the foreign policy of the Latin state. A treaty of alliance bound Roumania to the Central Empires; in fact upon Roumania was conferred the nickname of Austria's gendarme in the Balkans. Serbia had gone through the same experience during the reign of the dissolute king Milan, but it was emancipated from German influences earlier than her neighbor. The Roumanian King Charles died soon after war broke out; the events of the war uncovered the German ambition of a central European block, and the Magyars introduced a reign of terror in Transylvania. That made the statesmen of Roumania realize that their people, too, must become all slave or all free. They cast their lot with the Allies.

It is not necessary to dwell at length on the conflict of the Italian and Polish national aspirations with the integrity of Austria. When the union of Italy was accomplished after Austria's defeat in the wars of 1859 and 1866, small fractions of the Italian people in the Trentino and around Trieste remained subject to the Hapsburgs. Italy will not rest, until these her children are united to the rest of the nation of which they feel themselves to be a part. Should Italy fail to accomplish the redemption of the Irredenta in this war, there will have to be another war. The districts, however, that are inhabited by the 760,000 Italian subjects of the monarchy, are a mere fringe on the southern border of the Austrian territories. Their geographical and commercial importance is very great but the existence of the Dual Monarchy would not be menaced by their loss. Even the loss of the Polish districts, large and populous though they be, would not affect the foundations of the empire, and the ruling circles of Vienna and Budapest are pretty well reconciled to the idea of the restoration of Poland. But what about the Little Russians or Ukrainians? The absolution of the Polish part of Galicia into the re-united, independent Poland would leave the Little Russian districts of Austria-Hungary almost cut off from the main body of the empire. Now the four million Ukrainians of Austria have been the leaven by which the big mass of more than thirty million Little Russians in the southern governments of Russia have been brought to the consciousness that they are a distinct nationality. From the new, democratic Russia comes the report that the provisional government has recognized the separate position of the Ukraine in the Russian commonwealth; it seems almost certain that to the nations of Europe, even if not to the number of independent states, will now be added the Ukrainian nation numbering approximately as many members as the French nation. Would the peace of Europe be secure if four million people, the most advanced part of the Little Russian nation, remained in Eastern Galicia, Bukovina and Northeastern Hungary under German and Magyar rule, while from thirty to thirty-five million of their brothers enjoyed full national freedom right across artificial boundary lines?

Of the varied races of Austria-Hungary Czechoslovaks and "Magyars alone are contained entirely within the monarchy. In numbers they are about equal, but while Bohemians and Slovaks are subject races with few rights, Magyars rule the Hungarian half of the empire absolutely and in the affairs that are common to Austria and Hungary their influence far exceeds even that of the Germans. This fact determines their attitude toward the state in which they live. To the Czechoslovaks the Dual Empire is a jail in which their national life is being strangled to death, while to the Magyars it is a means to make the home of their race coterminous with Hungary and even expand it into the Balkans at the expense of the Slavs and Roumanians. Bohemian and Slovak democracy demands the break-up of Austria-Hungary in order that their nation may live in a free state; Magyar oligarchy works for the preservation of the empire in order to maintain their rule over alien races. The just solution is one that conforms to the principle of nationality supported both by the European Allies and by America. Give the Czechoslovaks their own national state and let the Magyars have a state of their own, if they want it, covering those districts of Hungary that are inhabited by Magyars.

It is interesting to note that the very people who brought on the war now talk about the principle of nationality. The Vienna Armee-Zeitung, organ of the military fire-eaters who forced the Serbian ultimatum in July, 1914, has been discussing recently the proposal of peace without annexations, as it is interpreted by the powers at Vienna. Serbia must be excepted from its operation, says the Armee-Zeitung, for these reasons: Austria did not make war on Serbia as a matter of aggression, but of defense, and is entitled to guarantees that the attack (sic) should not be repeated. These guarantees are needed also in the interest of the principle of nationalities, in order that members of the same race, Serbians and Montenegrins, might be united under the same rule, the sceptre of the Hapsburgs. If the military situation were more favorable to the Central Empires, no doubt the same argument would be applied to Roumania and the Roumanian nation would be united by the annexation of the free kingdom to the hybrid Hapsburg monarchy.

The militarists of Vienna forget that a nation wants to be not united only, but free, and that love of liberty is one of the strongest motives of human action. The most fruitful cause of wars will be abolished, when there will be no ruling races and no oppressed races. The process of making Europe a family of nations must be carried on to completion. Let each people that possesses a national consciousness and sufficient enlightenment Constitute an independent unit of that New Europe which will emerge from the smoke of the cannon after the final defeat of the Germans.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013.



If you appreciate the articles, read the e-novel informed by them —

THE HEADLONG FURY

A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald

The Headlong Fury
448 FASCINATING PAGES
PURCHASE NOW