Self-Determination of Peoples
Added: 2017-10-30
Added: 2017-10-30
Samostanowienie ludów


First edition: Piotrków 1917. Reprint: S. Estreicher, Konserwatyzm krakowski. Wybór pism, Ośrodek Myśli Politycznej, Kraków 2012.



The most democratic of all wars, as it drew most forces of the nation into active struggle, the present war has also contributed to democratisation of politics and diplomacy. To a high extent, politics came into the hands of people, whose qualification was, most of all, the quality to be able to speak to masses, inspire them with enthusiasm and push through dedication even to fanaticism. Diplomacy and politics broke off consciously and deliberately with traditional precautions, reserve and discussion, and instead, they started to speak exaggerated and sometimes brutal language. War goals and slogans started to be formulated not so much accurately, but their meaning became popular and fit for the needs of political campaigns. When diplomats meet together again to have a debate over the end of a bloody war, it will be, at the same time, return to realism and accuracy.

In a set of agitational slogans used by politicians during the war, for about a year we have been encountering the slogan about “self-determination of peoples,” which perhaps not always being translated accurately enough in our country as self-determination of nations, and thus, becomes the reason for certain misunderstanding and illusions. Where does this slogan come from and what can it mean, if we try to analyse its actual contents?

First of all, where does it come from? The first statesman to use it was President Wilson1 and he included it in the academic proposals he formulated at the end of his January speech as one of theoretical foundations, recognition of which could contribute to peace process acceleration. “Every nation, a big or a small one – he argues – should obtain for her an unhampered and unembarrassed opportunity for the independent determination of her own political development and national policy…” “Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, and there is no law allowing giving up peoples by one ruler for the sake of another one as if it was their private property.” Therefore, he announced himself an advocate of the principle that not only within each state there should be power based on the consent of the governed – which in January could only be understood as directed against Russia, but that governments may give a “nation” to another one, only if that “people” has consented to that. Formulating such a general proposal, he could bear in mind one of two consequences: either he demanded that every assignment of a state territory was based on opinion polls, or that peace treaties changing country borders should always be subject, directly or indirectly, to evaluation and consent of the whole society. It was commonly understood that he meant the former consequence; although it is strange that, at the same time, he did not articulate a demand that in the event that the people of the territory being given up declared against such abandoning, it should be hampered by means of some international enforcement. Only if such an enforcement were possible, a plebiscite would be legally meaningful, and Wilson’s proposal, provided that this is how we understand it, would be really sensible and go beyond the sphere of ethical postulates.

If we already have some doubts about how to understand Wilson’s speech, they are not smaller when we make attempts at interpreting the second political enunciation, which refers to the principle of “self-determination of peoples”, and even uses this term for the very first time. It is a proclamation of the revolutionary Russian government of April this year2, which begins with a statement that “a free Russian nation gives also the Polish sister nation the full right to determine its fate according to its own will,” but, at the same time, it contains an important modification of that right, as it takes it for granted that “Poland’s determination of its fate” is to take place based on union with Russia and it refers only to determination of the form of government. The Russian constituent assembly is to “approve” the line and agree to a territorial change, necessary for its creation. Therefore, the slogan of “self-determination” is of minor importance and it has narrow boundaries.

However, once thrown to the world, it started to assume wider meaning. Enunciations of coalition governments, expressing a general access to the proclamation about the Polish cause, seemed to legitimise the statement that the coalition will be ready to recognise Poles’ right to “self-determination” – even if in narrow boundaries of the Russian proclamation – and, at the same time, similar rights of other nations, not having the state existence. Hopes of such nations, counting on the coalition’s victory, began to grow, excited by the fact that the governments of the coalition powers were willing to see campaigns using the self-determination slogan as causing difficulties in the opposite camp. Also in Russia, Fins and Ukrainians started to use this slogan first in its narrower meaning, later, as the internal confusion grew, giving it even a very wide meaning, namely the right to break away from Russia. When they came to power, Bolsheviks recognised it officially and applied for its affirmation in their peace proposal. In their appeal to the Ukrainian board of 18 December, they finally announced to the world that “the Council of People’s Commissars approves the right to free development for all Russian nations, formerly suppressed by tsars and bourgeoisie, as well as the right to break them away from Russia.” Can it rely on recognition and realisation in its form?

It goes without saying that the Bolsheviks’ rule is fundamentally different from the first part of Wilson’s proposal, being only the echo of Rousseau’s doctrine. In the democratisation epoch, nobody denies that people, i.e. all citizens of a given state, have the right to decide about their own government and the fate of the country territory. In this or in any other form, all constitutions grant this right.

Also, Count von Czernin3 recognised it very clearly in one of his speeches to us, expressing not only the principle that Poland itself should decide about its political system, but even that Poles themselves should decide about their attitude to other states (“looking for an ally”). If the congress will apply this principle, which is likely, the Congress Kingdom will thus be able to decide about its attitude towards the monarchy and the Habsburg dynasty, and hence, about the Congress Kingdom’s attitude to Galicia. It does not have to be said how important it will be, due to the topography and international position of the future Polish state. The Congress Kingdom will be primarily responsible for solving this issue successfully.

The Bolshevik formula is totally different in its reference to “self-determination of nations.” No independent state will certainly want to recognise the principle, whereby a part of the nation, i.e. citizens of one province or members of one nationality, decides unilaterally about belonging or breaking away from the state. The word “nation,” ambiguous in some languages, meaning both the people (all citizens) and members of a certain ethnographic group (nationality), sometimes causes confusion when translating certain announcements, appearing in the form of speeches or articles on the part of coalition states, and apparently confirming the Bolshevik formula. However, if it comes to accurate formulation of the foundations of peace in the future, both statesmen, acting on the part of the coalition, will undoubtedly use the word “nationin the meaning of people and they will be the first ones to protest, as if they recognised the principle, which, if applied consistently, would break all historic state entities. England will be the first one not to recognise such a principle, even if because of Ireland, Egypt and India. I will not mention the issue of technical difficulties when applying this formula, due to the fact that nations do not live in compact territories, so even voting on that would have to lead either to artificial division of some countries into constituencies, mixed with one another and impossible to be divided, or it would constitute violation of some nationalities by others and the source of new conflicts. In such conditions, one may presuppose that the Bolshevik formula will not be applied to regulate territorial issues disputable between states, unless a given state voluntarily applies it in order to examine the residents’ opinion and, in this way, support its orders which, for the time being, may happen probably only in Russia, as long as it is headed by Lenin’s doctrinaire government.

The second part of Wilson’s proposal is quite close to this Bolshevik formula, admittedly very general and unclear, if we understand it as a postulate, to make people’s plebiscites (such as the well-known Savoyard plebiscite of 18594) resolve about giving up disputable territories to some countries by others. These would be not nationality but territorial plebiscites, so technically they would be easier to perform. But there is not much practical use in formulating the “self-determination” postulate in such a way, as long as states, being owners of the disputable territories, refuse to apply them voluntarily, while militarily they were not defeated. In today’s state of affairs, such a plebiscite could only be obtained from Russia with regard to Lithuania or Courland from the part of central powers, and it is obviously not possible to allow it with regard to our Western Borderlands (in the same way as with regard to Alsace and Lorraine), although America has promised it to us hundreds of times.

It would be also a dangerous illusion to count on applying »self-determination of peoples,« understood in this way at the end of the war, let alone taking into account the fact that Wilson never put this issue at stake clearly enough.

The principle of “self-determination” in its narrower meaning, given to it (in the Polish cause) by the first revolutionary Russian government, as the right of nations to certain autonomy, less or more extensive, has a higher chance of being applied. Perhaps the future world congress will really try to remove one of such important sources of wars, which are (apart from the trading-colonial rivalry) nationality disputes and it will take an effort to recognise a certain general rule, which might mitigate causes of such disputes. If it does not remove – and that is for sure – ethnographic diversity, encountered in all countries to lower or higher extent– it may try to put forward a theoretical principle that each state is to guarantee to its national minorities the right to exist and develop.

It is doubtful whether such a principle, theoretically agreed during the congress, could be secured by some control and international protection, since it would be a very serious limitation of “sovereignty of particular states.” For instance, Count von Czernin objected to it during the meeting of the Hungarian delegation on 6 December, stating with emphasis that foreign states may not get the right to interfere in nationality disputes of an independent state, as it could be a fundamental limitation of its independence. But even theoretical recognition of the nations’ equality principle during the world congress could be of importance, particularly towards such weak entities as e.g. Russia after the war. Since in the face of today’s war result, the illusions that the Polish state, which might be created, covers the ethnographic whole of our nation, are deceptive, one needs to take into account the fact that certain, very important parts of our nation will remain non-united with the future Polish state. It would be very beneficial for us if the European congress actually articulated the principle that Polish national  minorities should be provided with national autonomy everywhere they exist; similarly as it may request that the Polish state undertakes not to impair the Ruthenian or Jewish element. In the principle adopted by the Congress we would then have serious basis for any further efforts to acquire that kind of autonomy, all the more so because we could then count on the help of the factions wanting still to avoid isolation of a given state, but not being chauvinistically or imperialistically disposed. The provisions of the Vienna Congress with the analogous contents, referring to us, were not kept, but these were the time of the Holy Alliance and absolute-nationalistic reaction, hence totally unfavourable towards nations’ autonomies, and thus, only with those limitations, the “self-determination” principle, which came to the surface last year, can be of some practical significance to us. It may make it possible for us to decide about the Congress Kingdom’s political system, about its attitude towards monarchy and Habsburg dynasty, thereby about unification with Galicia. Perhaps it may make it easier for us to make efforts to secure national development to the Polish factions, remaining outside of the future Polish state. But it is hardly possible that the slogan uttered by Wilson in an unclear form, and undertaken by the coalition and by the revolutionary Russian governments, could give us something more. Whoever counts on it and neglects real and practical chances, based on such uncertain calculations, makes a political mistake. There was time, when the Polish society, exhilarated with an almost identical slogan of “peoples’ brotherhood” and counting on its fast realisation in Europe, neglected, in the name of this glorious future, real political and organic work in Galicia, the Congress Kingdom and Greater Poland (Wielkopolska). At that time, such fantasizing policy found some support and focus in groups of emigrants, detached from their homeland, whereas the manifesto of the Polish Democratic Society of 1832 has been its most distinguished literary monument so far. In fact, nobody believes any longer in “peoples’ brotherhood” as a real possibility in the nearest future, but the slogan of “self-determination” of peoples or nations, which is unclearly formulated and explained to widely, plays for us a very similar, undesired, role. The analogy refers even to its support, namely emigration.





1   Thomas Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924) –US president, one of the first American political scientists. The author of the so-called “Wilson’s Fourteen Points” of 1918, the programme of making Europe more just, which was to ensure peace in it. He was awarded the 1919 Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to create the League of Nations.

2   This text was published in 1917.

3   Ottokar Theobald Otto Maria Graf Czernin von und zu Chudenitz (1872-1932) – diplomat and politician, Austro-Hungarian Foreign Minister in years 1916-1918, main author of the 1918 Treaty of Brest-Litovsk signed between the Central Powers and the Soviet Russia.

4  Plebiscites were frequently used by the Savoyard dynasty in its achievements to unite Italy under its rule. Estreicher probably had in mind the plebiscites held in three kingdoms in central Italy, which, based on the peace treaty after the war in Austria with the French-Sardinian alliance were to return to the Habsburgs. The local population, however, declared in favour of joining the Kingdom of Sardinia. The Savoy itself, being the cradle of the dynasty uniting Italy, under the plebiscite fell into the hands of France in 1860.

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