The Theory and Practice of Non-Territorial Autonomy in Europe: A Historical Perspective

The Theory and Practice of Non-Territorial Autonomy in Europe: A Historical Perspective

ERC Project Non-Territorial Autonomy as Minority Protection in Europe: An Intellectual and Political History of a Travelling Idea, 1850–2000, Institute for Eastern European History, University of Vienna
Fand statt
In Präsenz
Vom - Bis
15.09.2022 - 17.09.2022
Timo Marcel Albrecht, Lehrstuhl für Deutsche Rechtsgeschichte und Bürgerliches Recht, Georg-August-Universität Göttingen

How can autonomy for groups – especially national minorities – be organised within multinational states? Which respective concepts have evolved during (modern) history, how did those develop and to what extent did they succeed? These still important questions stood in the centre of this Viennese workshop (“Wiener Werkstatt”) which, in a grand tour through at least the last 150 years, focused on personal, i.e. group membership-related, rather than territorial forms of autonomy.1 The conference assembled various international and interdisciplinary experts – historians, jurists, philosophers, among others – who looked at the “travelling idea” of non-territorial autonomy (NTA) from numerous perspectives. One of the intellectual founding fathers of the NTA concept of self-governance, which has been used repeatedly throughout modern history, was the Austro-Marxist Karl Renner (1870–1950) – social-democratic Austrian politician, statesman, jurist, and theorist for national minority concepts. His most influential works were written not long before the Habsburg Empire dissolved and addressed the crucial question for a multi-ethnic nationality state of how to treat its nationalities within an ideal, just, and a stable framework. Coming back to many of Renner’s ideas, this concluding conference of the Vienna-based ERC project about NTA dealt with numerous manifestations and both theoretical as well as practical aspects of that concept which – under the analytical term non-territorial autonomy – has become a hot topic of historic research during the last twenty years.

After introductory words by CHRISTOPH AUGUSTYNOWICZ (Vienna) – director of the Institute for Eastern European History –, BÖRRIES KUZMANY (Vienna) opened the conference as head of the project team. In view of Russia's war of aggression and the serious consequences it has caused also for academia, he was particularly pleased that researchers from Ukraine were able to attend this conference. Kuzmany outlined the multi-layered central questions about the origins, theoretical conceptions, and implementation of NTA ideas. Hereby he emphasised that the project confirmed former assumptions in most cases, but also delivered some surprising results – which was true for the conference in general, too. It turned out, for instance, that politically highly diverse movements resorted to non-territorial autonomy with its collective rights approach – not only leftist Austro-Marxists like Karl Renner or central-liberal thinkers in the interwar period, but also völkisch-illiberal opponents, as the Sudeten German legislative proposals of 1937 showed. It may also astonish that today’s political practices of NTA display little of Karl Renner's initial ideas, at least expressis verbis, although these were very influential in terms of content. Even though the project and conference were able to provide many answers, it became clear that some questions – such as an overall perspective on the interactions and transitions between non-territorial and territorial self-government – remain reserved for future research.

With a focus on nationality concepts by the NTA pioneer Karl Renner, Panel 1 started with the historic roots of modern non-territorial autonomy. Using Renner’s concepts of self-government – including self-administration, self-adjudication etc. –, GÁBOR EGRY (Budapest) analysed predominantly informal autonomy agreements within interwar Romania and concluded that these failed to enter into concrete local practice. PIET GOEMANS (independent scholar), by contrast, looked at Renner’s internationalism and set it in relation to his nationalism and Greater German ideas. According to Goemans, Renner’s NTA ideas and honest international mindset depended on a strong international order rather than on nation states and could already therefore not be put into practice during the first half of the 20th century. The discussion, however, emphasised the statist and equality-based orientation of the realistic jurist Karl Renner which still overweighed his idealistic tendencies. During the panel discussion, ANNA ADORJÁNI (Vienna) introduced the central question of cui bono?, i.e. who benefits from the respective concept, which became a leitmotif question during the conference.

Turning away from the intensively read icon Karl Renner, Panel 2 dealt with forms of neglected, often overlooked arrangements of non-territoriality. TAMARA SCHEER (Vienna) sought to identify NTA aspects within local structures of the Catholic church in Austria during the Habsburg Empire and elaborated especially on the interplay of using German and minority languages. Although the church itself was an actor in ethnic-national conflicts, Scheer emphasised its need for a pragmatic position and conciliatory character in order to provide pastoral care to the individual believer, regardless of language barriers. The church’s strong position in imperial Austria led to the opportunity of using minority languages more flexible than the state rules officially provided. OLENA PALKO (Basel), who talked about the “territorialisation of ethnicity“, “national courts”, and their challenges in interwar Ukraine, as well as VICTORIA GERASIMOVA (Omsk), who analysed the Bundist Jewish intellectual Abram Kirzhnitz with his role as pioneer in establishing NTA ideas in Siberia around and after 1900, completed the panel. That the papers did not always strictly distinguish between territorial and non-territorial elements, might have been due to the very fact that also in practice both forms of autonomy have often developed together.

In his evening keynote lecture, DAVID J SMITH (Glasgow) traced NTA as “travelling idea” throughout history. For the formative period, he described non-territorial autonomy as a response to claims of nations – defined by common ethnicity, culture, or language – to self-determination. Emphasising the strong influence of Johann Gottfried Herder’s ideas and their reception during the 19th century, he went on to Austromarxist conceptions around 1900. Their most eminent figures – Karl Renner and Otto Bauer – argued that addressing the national question territorially would only recreate existing problems in a smaller scale. After World War I with new emerging states and shifting borders in East and Central Europe, the victorious powers chose the path of a non-discriminatory minority protection, based on individual rights, instead of collective rights-based NTA. Smith made clear that already during the 1920s disputes between the liberal and völkisch interpretation of NTA concepts became apparent. Spanning several decades with developing theories but little practice, the expert on nationalism and ethnopolitics highlighted the 1990s when, after the fall of the Iron Curtain, NTA ideas suddenly became highly relevant again and, for instance, interwar Estonia’s cultural autonomy was regarded as model for multinational Eastern European states. Today, various entities employ NTA concepts, such as the Brussels (Belgium) and Sami (Finland) region or Canada towards the French-speaking population. In his conclusion, however, Smith accentuated that NTA cannot be seen as a “one fits all“ approach, as history has shown. Lastly, he rightfully pointed on lessons to learn from the interwar period, also intellectually from transnational thinkers like Paul Schiemann (“anational state”) who anticipated problems that are still today crucial within multinational states.

In Panel 3, LEVENTE SALAT (Cluj-Napoca) offered critical perspectives on NTA by questioning its state-orientation – shall we insist on a primordial character of the state and an only derivative character of autonomy arrangements? Also beyond traditional European cases, Salat showed numerous examples for autonomy concepts, that had already existed before the foundation of the respective state. Despite these interesting examples, it however appears likely that the principal potential conflict regarding sovereignty, namely between autonomy for certain groups and the state as limiting entity, will basically remain unchanged.

Looking deeper at NTA in Russia around 1917, IRINA NAM (Tomsk) emphasised the Jewish historian Simon Dubnow as crucial thinker of both non-territorial and territorial autonomy. Her talk revealed the importance of autonomy concepts that evolved – independent of Austromarxist theoreticians – as Jewish Autonomism in the surrounding of the Russian-Yiddish Bund in Russia which had declared cultural autonomy as particularly important for Jews in the Russian periphery and diaspora. She described in detail the process of transforming NTA concepts from theory into practice after the Russian Revolution, during civil war and before the Soviet Union’s foundation in 1922, also with a comparable look to the Far Eastern Republic (1920–1922). With Nathan Feinberg, ROTEM GILADI (Roehampton) also addressed an important Jewish intellectual who worked at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University and utilised concepts of autonomy for the Palestinian question after World War II.

In Panel 4, JEREMY KING (South Hadley) and TRIIN TARK (Tartu) dealt with the cases of imperial Austria and interwar Estonia, covering the important issue of national classification and registries. Both identified schooling as the crucial case for national classification by a nationally-separated system. While King showed the low level of controlling the nationality in Austria (“don’t ask, don’t tell”) and questioned the former relevance of language for national classification, Tark elaborated on the conflict between free, voluntary registration and external, “objective” classification as well as the risk of abuse by (authoritarian) states.

Contributing a legal-historical perspective, LEÓN CASTELLANOS-JANKIEWICZ (The Hague) introduced innovative research on the role of private international law (i.e. norms regulating the applicable law in cases of conflicting jurisdictions) for the development of human rights, deterritorialising law, and collective rights-based minority protection. He and TATIANA KHRIPACHENKO (Bonn) highlighted the jurist André Mandelstam as remarkable protagonist of this interplay between private and public international law as well as for using NTA ideas within imperial Russia. Analysing and mapping Jewish collective rights worldwide, SIMON RABINOVITCH (Boston) completed the law-related Panel 5 and stressed several developments of NTA concepts within Jewish communities mostly in liberal, democratic contexts until today.

Finally, XOSÉ NÚÑEZ SEIXAS (Santiago de Compostela) looked at views by West European scholars on NTA in interwar Eastern Europe. Also his paper convincingly made the ideologised conflict between (liberal) individual and (authoritarian) collective rights during that time apparent. Distinguishing the self-perception of Western and Eastern European minorities back then, he particularly criticised the too general, unequal perception mainly in former NS Germany of Western minorities as homogenous whereas the Eastern ones were regarded as highly distinct, even with a different “value” and strength (particularly in the context of the Neuordnung Europas). For today’s discussion, he recommended to eventually leave the path of thinking NTA in winner/loser categories and in general to take a more pragmatic approach to this concept.

In her closing remarks, SABINE DULLIN (Paris) rightly called the conference a great success, particularly by showing the huge historical variety and complexity of non-territorial autonomy as concept. It was not only more than just a tour d’horizon, covering the spectrum from the multinational Habsburg, Ottoman, and Tsarist Empire via the interwar period until today, but also an impressive display of the broad methodology to cope with NTA concepts. To expand this methodology even further, she suggested the employment of ethnoscopes as a tool to reproduce local phenomena to the global level and praised the “Wiener Werkstatt” as workshop which made non-territorial autonomy much clearer as a multifaceted concept of managing diversity.

All in all, the conference displayed many advantages of NTA ideas, but also the (still under-researched) risk of their abuse in practice by nationalist and authoritarian actors. It showed a broad overview of similarities, identities, continuities, and differences as well as factors that made autonomy concepts historically successful. At the same time the conference rightly called for constantly asking who benefits from envisaged or realised NTA arrangements (cui bono?) and which actors were involved in their creation. As one of the outcomes of the conference RONI GECHTMAN (Halifax) accurately summarised that all can benefit from NTA when it is conceptualised in a satisfactory way. Conceptual precursors, the “dark” instrumentalisation of NTA, and some more fundamental questions, such as the extent to which NTA concepts have been seen as just, fair, and desirable, were only briefly discussed; however, the conference successfully provided numerous exemplifications for further reflection on this. At the same time, it made clear that territorial and non-territorial autonomy have often shared a close relationship and common development and are therefore partly difficult to separate. Although this very fruitful workshop concluded the ERC-funded NTA research project, it successfully set the ball rolling to continue interdisciplinary research on non-territorial autonomy throughout history.

Conference Overview:

Welcoming Addresses

Christoph Augustynowicz (Vienna) and Börries Kuzmany (Vienna)

Panel 1: "Cui bono"? NTA beneficiaries and their opponents

Roni Gechtman (Halifax): Vladimir Medem, Beynish Mikhalevitsh and the Jewish Labour Bund on Plurinational States

Gábor Egry (Budapest): Non-territorial (non-)autonomy and its socio-political conditions. What informal arrangements at the local level can tell about the benefits of non-territorial autonomy
Discussant: Anna Adorjáni (Vienna)

Panel 2: Overlooked NTA arrangements / NTA in combination with other forms of minority protection

Tamara Scheer (Vienna): Austrian Roman-Catholic Dioceses and the Recognition of Language Diversity (1867–1918)

Olena Palko (Basel): Non-Territorial Arrangements in Interwar Soviet Ukraine: the development of the judicial network for minority populations

Victoria Gerasimova (Omsk): Abram Kirzhnitz and the Evolution of the NTA Idea in Siberia
Discussant: Börries Kuzmany (Vienna)

Keynote Lecture

David J Smith (Glasgow): What? Why? And for Whom? Tracing the Practice of NTA across Time and Space

Panel 3: NTA, Society and State

Levente Salat (Cluj-Napoca): The NTA concept – beyond the Statist Bias

Pavel Kladiwa (Ostrova): National Indifference vs. the Pressure of Nationalism? The Moravian Society Before and After the Approval of NTA

Irina Nam (Tomsk): Non-territorial Autonomy in Russia: Political projects and their implementation during the Russian Revolution and Civil War
Discussant: Matthias Battis (Vienna)

Panel 4: NTA and the State – Friends, Foes, or Substitutes?

Jeremy King (South Hadley): National Classification in Imperial Austria: A New Take on a Pivotal Case

Triin Tark (Tartu): Should the state have control over national registries? The case of cultural autonomy in interwar Estonia
Discussant: Pavel Kladiwa (Vienna)

Panel 5: Legal Aspects of NTA

León Castellanos-Jankiewicz (The Hague): National international law: The Minorities Treaties and municipal legal personality

Tatiana Khripachenko (Bonn): Imperial Uses of Non-Territorial Autonomy: The Projects of Russian Legal Scholars

Simon Rabinovitch (Boston): Religious Communities and Non-Territorial Autonomy
Discussant: Timo Aava (Vienna)

Launch of the special issue of the Nationalities Papers, ‘Accommodating National Diversity within States: Territorial and non-territorial approaches since the late 19th century’.
Presenter: Oskar Mulej (Vienna)

Panel 6: “That May be Correct in Theory But It Won’t Work in Practice’’ – Right or Wrong?

Andrea Pokludová (Ostrava): Moravian Compromise 1905: a model solution to ethnic conflicts or a way to deepen ethnic conflicts in the daily lives of the inhabitants of multiethnic cities on the eve of the Great War

Gennadii Korolov (Kyiv): The Trap of Non-territoriality in Revolutionary Ukraine: Polish National Autonomy (1917–1920) in Assessments of its Creators and Contemporaries
Discussant: Yuki Murata (Vienna)

Panel 7: NTA Across Borders

Piet Goemans (Brussels): Karl Renner’s Internationalism

Rotem Giladi (London): Illegible Knowledge: Nathan Feinberg, Autonomous Experience, and the Partition of Palestine

Xosé M. Núñez Seixas (Santiago de Compostela): Individual vs. collective rights? West European views on non-territorial autonomy, 1914–1939
Discussant: Marina Germane (Vienna)

Closing Remarks

Sabine Dullin (Paris)

1 Already in 1899, Karl Renner summarised the core of the NTA idea: “Die Nationen sind nicht als Gebietskörperschaften, sondern als Personalverbände zu constituiren“ (The nations should be constituted not as territorial corporations but rather than personal associations): Karl Renner (pseudonym: Rudolf Springer), Der Kampf der österreichischen Nationen um den Staat. Das nationale Problem als Verfassungs- und Verwaltungsfrage, Leipzig et al. 1902, p. 33.