British policy and the protection of minorities 1878-1939
Learoyd, Simon Martin
This thesis considers the question of the protection of vulnerable minority populations in the Ottoman Empire and in Europe, in the context of Britain’s role as a global manager of the international system. It addresses how British policy towards minority protection evolved in connection with Britain’s strategic objectives in the period from the Congress of Berlin in 1878 to the outbreak of the Second World War – a period encompassing the tremendously violent collapse of the Ottoman, Romanov and Habsburg Empires, then the rise of many new, insecure nation states with agendas of ethnic homogenisation, and, finally, the rise of Nazism. Minority protection concerns specifically group racial and religious persecution and the steps taken by outside agencies to prevent or counter the impact of actions by state actors against their own citizens that can lead through discrimination and inequality to minority persecution, ethnic cleansing and, in its most extreme form, genocidal extermination. Britain’s role and importance in minority protection in the period of this study and the influence it was able to exert on other states is singular due to the global leadership role conferred by its overseas empire and the prominent role it played in the League of Nations during the interwar period. The persecution of minorities has been an issue since classical times. The protection of minority groups is a much more recent phenomenon, linked to the emergence of the nation state, defined in terms of a majoritarian set of cultural, religious and linguistic characteristics, as the dominant form of political entity in Europe. This study argues that British interest in minority protection was primarily a result of its interest in international stability, regarded as a necessary condition to leave it free to pursue its overarching foreign policy objectives, in particular its imperial project. As such, British motivation for intervention on behalf of minorities was largely to promote order between those states it regarded as a source of potential instability rather than as a humanitarian response to injustice within states. For Britain, therefore, minority protection was not regarded as a universal obligation on all states but limited to only certain states, mainly in Central and Eastern Europe. The decision on whether and under what conditions to intervene on behalf of minorities depended on the extent to which intervention would help or hinder British foreign policy objectives. The Treaty of Berlin (1878) marked a decisive point in minority protection when a series of territorial adjustments concerning the Ottoman Empire saw the recognition of new nation states in SouthEastern Europe. The transfer of sovereignty to the new states by the Treaty of Berlin was explicitly associated with the imposition by the Great Powers of requirements for racial and religious equality, especially for Jewish minority groups. Additional measures were also imposed on the residual Ottoman Empire intended to provide protection from persecution for its Armenian and other Christian minorities. Britain was instrumental in introducing these measures. However, from the minorities perspective, the protections in the Treaty proved ineffective. The next significant development came with the peace settlement at the end of the First World War which established a number of new nation states in Central and Eastern Europe. Again, the British focus remained on controls over the new states to ensure that the peace was stable and durable. Britain took a leading role in requiring the new states to be bound by Minority Treaties which codified a series of civic and religious protections for their minorities. These Treaties were placed under the ‘guarantee’ of the League of Nations in an attempt to improve compliance by the new states. This had some success in the 1920s. However, British support for the League was always subject to its broader national interests, as evidenced by its sponsorship of the Lausanne and Locarno Treaties which acted in the long run to undermine the system put in place by the Minority Treaties. Britain was also responsible for the management – or, as it turned-out, mismanagement – of minority questions in a state under its direct control: the ‘mandate’ of Iraq, Britain’s cut-and-run from which prefigured larger scale catastrophes in Britain’s imperial retreat after 1945. With the collapse of collective security and the threat posed to the post-war settlement by the rise of Nazism in Germany after 1933, Britain sought a solution to its security challenges outside the League, in which Britain proved willing to sacrifice minority protection in the pursuit of an agreement with Germany. As minority persecution increased, the British response increasingly became focused on the implications of the consequent refugee crisis for immigration policy rather than tackling persecution at source. The consequences for minorities were generally disastrous.