Before 1914, Europeans could cross national borders without a passport and without much noticing that a border had in fact been crossed. The Great War changed all that, or rather the postwar settlement did, redrawing the map of Central and South-East Europe along supposedly ethnic lines, based on the Woodrow Wilson principle of national self-determination. That these same treaties codified the rights of minorities was only logical, since it was the creation of these nation-states on the basis of dominant ethnic groups that had the instant fleet of establishing such 'minorities'. Many of these - Hungarians and Germans in Czechoslovakia and Romania, for example - belonged to ethnic groups whose states were somewhere else, which created split political personalities of a new and unstable kind. In 1923, the Turkish and Greek Governments, acknowledging the need permanently to resettle refugees following their three-year-old war, exchanged one and a half million people, sending them 'home' to their 'proper' nation-states: the destabilising consequences of such genetically engineered map-making soon became evident. Borders that had hitherto been vague transitional zones became firm markers of personal and collective identity.
LRB 22 August 1996 | PDF Download