Paris Peace Conference Addresses Protection for Minorities

Participants in the Paris Peace Conference attempted to make the protection of the civil rights of ethnic, religious, and linguistic minorities a matter of international concern.

Summary of Event

Before World War I, full and equal civil rights were denied to minorities, or subject nationalities, within the multinational empires of Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia, and Ottoman Turkey. Ethnic, religious, and linguistic minorities such as the Finns, Czechs, Poles, Lithuanians, Latvians, Estonians, Serbs, Croats, Slovenes, Greeks, Romanians, Bulgarians, Ukrainians, and Jews suffered varying degrees of discriminatory treatment under alien, imperial rule in Central and Eastern Europe. The empires refused full political rights to minorities with regard to such activities as voting and holding public office. Rights to property ownership and the right to engage in certain professions were restricted. Freedom of religious worship was limited in many regions for minorities. Linguistic traditions were threatened by the imposition of official languages in imperial governmental and educational institutions. Paris Peace Conference (1919)
Minority rights;international
Peace conferences;Paris Peace Conference (1919)
World War I (1914-1918)[World War 01];postwar period
[kw]Paris Peace Conference Addresses Protection for Minorities (Jan. 19-21, 1919)
[kw]Peace Conference Addresses Protection for Minorities, Paris (Jan. 19-21, 1919)
[kw]Conference Addresses Protection for Minorities, Paris Peace (Jan. 19-21, 1919)
[kw]Minorities, Paris Peace Conference Addresses Protection for (Jan. 19-21, 1919)
Paris Peace Conference (1919)
Minority rights;international
Peace conferences;Paris Peace Conference (1919)
World War I (1914-1918)[World War 01];postwar period
[g]France;Jan. 19-21, 1919: Paris Peace Conference Addresses Protection for Minorities[04670]
[c]Civil rights and liberties;Jan. 19-21, 1919: Paris Peace Conference Addresses Protection for Minorities[04670]
[c]Diplomacy and international relations;Jan. 19-21, 1919: Paris Peace Conference Addresses Protection for Minorities[04670]
Wilson, Woodrow
[p]Wilson, Woodrow;Paris Peace Conference
Lansing, Robert
House, Edward M.
Lloyd George, David
Clemenceau, Georges

By 1918, all four multinational empires had collapsed. Military defeat and the exhaustion and deprivations suffered during World War I produced revolutions that overthrew the imperial governments of Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia, and Turkey. The victorious Allied and Associated Powers met in Paris in 1919 to create a peace settlement that was meant to make the Great War “the war to end all wars.” Part of this settlement involved redrawing the map of Central and Eastern Europe to restructure these regions geographically.

It was U.S. president Woodrow Wilson’s insistence on the Fourteen Points Fourteen Points concerning the concepts of equality, liberty, and justice for all peoples and nationalities that added a new dimension to the territorial reconstruction of Europe at the Paris Peace Conference. Wilson’s stress on the principle of “national self-determination,” or the right of all national groupings to determine their own destinies, made redrawing the map of postwar Europe an even more complex task. Self-determination, as a practical policy, was virtually impossible to implement. In Central and Eastern Europe, in particular, ethnic, religious, and linguistic groupings were so intermixed that nothing short of massive population removals and transfers would have allowed each nationality to have its own separate state. Not only would such a policy have been impracticable, not to mention inhumane, but also each of the multitude of new states this policy would have created would have been too small and weak to have any real chance of survival in political, economic, or military terms.

Consequently, the practical redrawing of frontiers made necessary the existence of large minority populations in the newly created and reorganized states of Central and Eastern Europe. The reorganized state of Poland contained not only some twenty-seven million Poles but also one million Germans, three to five million Ukrainians, and two to three million Jews. The new state of Czechoslovakia counted among its total population of fourteen million citizens some three million Germans, one-half million Magyars, and one-half million Ruthenians. The new state of Yugoslavia counted, in addition to its main Serbian, Croatian, and Slovenian populations, one-half million Germans, one-half million Magyars, one-half million Albanians, and six hundred thousand Macedonians, out of a total population of twelve million.

Wilson’s principle of national self-determination was significant for the minority populations in postwar Central and Eastern Europe because they regarded it as a concept that, by extension, could be applied to minority civil rights. The minorities in the newly created and reorganized states considered themselves to be nationalities, just as Poles, Czechs, and Serbs, among others, had considered themselves subject nationalities within the pre-1918 multinational empires. For this reason, representatives of the minority populations pressed the leading statesmen at the Paris Peace Conference to regard the protection of minority civil rights as an important feature of the peace settlement.

It was in the interest of such countries as the United States, Great Britain, and France to consider the wishes of minorities not only for obvious ethical reasons but also in an attempt to ensure long-term stability and peace in the newly reconstructed regions of Europe. The growing resistance and opposition of the subject nationalities before World War I had produced internal instability that weakened the Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, and Russian empires. Balkan nationalism in Southeastern Europe had contributed to the outbreak of the general war in Europe in 1914.

Precedents were not lacking for the Paris Peace Conference to impose special obligations on newly created and reorganized states regarding minority rights. In 1878, the Congress of Berlin Congress of Berlin (1878) had elaborated provisions on religious freedom and political equality to be embodied in the public law of the new principality of Bulgaria and had imposed similar guarantees as a condition of its recognition of the independence of the states of Montenegro, Serbia, and Romania. The congress also included in the Treaty of Berlin specific clauses for the protection of religious liberties in the Balkan territories that remained within the Ottoman Empire. Consequently, Wilson and his chief advisers, Secretary of State Robert Lansing and Special Presidential Emissary Colonel Edward M. House, set out to persuade other leaders at Paris, such as British prime minister David Lloyd George and French premier Georges Clemenceau, to join the United States in pursuing measures to protect minorities in the newly created and reorganized states of Central and Eastern Europe. Wilson’s insistence on this policy resulted in the establishment of the Committee on New States and the Protection of Minorities Committee on New States and the Protection of Minorities at the Peace Conference.

The committee devised a series of treaties by which each newly created, or reorganized, state pledged itself to grant fair and equal treatment to the minority populations within its frontiers and agreed that the execution of its pledges should be treated as a matter of international concern. Four of the defeated powers—Austria, Hungary, Bulgaria, and Turkey—had to make similar agreements as part of the separate peace treaties they signed with the Allied and Associated Powers at Paris. At a later date, Germany also had to pledge itself to protect minority rights, but only with regard to the province of Upper Silesia. The United States, Great Britain, France, and Italy were afraid that imposing further minority protection obligations on a still powerful Germany might help to legitimate future efforts by Berlin to champion the cause of German minority populations in Central and Eastern Europe, causing destabilization in that reconstructed region. By the mid-1920’s, the defeated powers and the new states of Poland, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Yugoslavia, Greece, Albania, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and Finland, as well as Iraq, had pledged themselves to the protection of minority civil rights.

The undertaking of formal pledges to protect minority rights became prerequisite to the above-named states’ entering the League of Nations, League of Nations the organ created by the Paris Peace Conference to regulate international affairs. The principle of minority protection was not incorporated into the wording of the Covenant that established the League because it was believed that this might be too contentious an issue for many prospective member states. The drafters of the Covenant wanted to avoid the impression that the League of Nations would continually pursue policies that might be regarded as unduly interfering in the domestic affairs of individual states. The League did take on itself the role of ultimate guarantor of minority civil rights. Minority populations in the defeated and new states of Central and Eastern Europe were given the right to petition the League over grievances. The League Council had the power to appoint special “Committees of Three,” to which each minority petition was submitted. Between 1921 and 1929, 150 such committees were appointed. Theoretically, the League had not only moral but also more practical means of persuasion, such as economic sanctions, to pressure signatories of the minorities treaties and clauses to live up to their pledged obligations. By incorporating such powers into the functions of the League of Nations, the Paris Peace Conference attempted to make the protection of the civil rights of minority populations a concern of the international community.


For all of its efforts, the work of the Paris Peace Conference proved to be largely ineffectual in protecting the civil rights of minorities in Central and Eastern Europe in the interwar period. Despite its theoretical powers, the League of Nations could do little more than exert moral pressure concerning minority rights, relying on the unwillingness of governments to be recognized, in the League Assembly, as having failed to carry out their treaty obligations. Finding enough support for stronger sanctions proved to be extremely difficult.

The minorities themselves urged the League often to establish an independent and permanent minorities commission with the same functions and powers as the mandates commission, which oversaw the rights of native populations in League-mandated territories outside Europe. The powers of the League with regard to European minorities were based on formal treaties. Nothing could be added to the minorities treaties without the consent of the signatories, and the signatories were utterly opposed to the creation of a permanent commission. They believed that a minorities commission would represent an unacceptable source of interference in their domestic affairs by the League of Nations and the international community. As it was, the hostility and lack of cooperation of the signatory states toward the temporary, ad hoc “Committees of Three” frustrated League attempts to deal effectively with minority grievances.

Even more infuriating to the signatory states was the fact that the other countries that entered the League of Nations chose not to pledge themselves formally to the protection of minority rights. The victorious Allied and Associated Powers and the nonbelligerent countries joining the League were afraid that such a pledge might obligate them to admit the claims of such racial, religious, and linguistic minorities as the African American populations of the United States, the Irish in Great Britain, the Flemings in Belgium, the Bretons in France, the Basques in Spain, and the Chinese in the Japanese-controlled Shantung Peninsula. The principles of national self-determination and, by extension, the protection of minority civil rights appeared to be acceptable to the victorious and nonbelligerent powers at Paris and in the League only if they could be imposed on the defeated countries and the small, newly created states of Europe, which were too weak to oppose such impositions. The real purpose of the minority rights provisions of the Paris peace settlement was not to protect particular groups but to give stability to the political and territorial postwar settlement in Central and Eastern Europe.

The precedent set at Paris in establishing the protection of minority civil rights as a matter of international concern had some significance. Although the successor organization to the League of Nations, the United Nations, did not include minority protection in its founding charter, the United Nations and the international community have taken an increasing interest in minority rights since 1945, as an aspect of the growing world concern for human rights issues. Paris Peace Conference (1919)
Minority rights;international
Peace conferences;Paris Peace Conference (1919)
World War I (1914-1918)[World War 01];postwar period

Further Reading

  • Bailey, Thomas. Woodrow Wilson and the Lost Peace. Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1944. Critical interpretation of the U.S. role in the failures of the Paris Peace Conference. Condemns Wilson for his inability to translate into reality such ideals as the principle of self-determination. Includes excellent bibliography and index.
  • Birdsall, Paul. Versailles Twenty Years After. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1962. Well-written highly critical analysis of the Paris Peace Conference, written just before U.S. entry into World War II. Condemns the inadequacies and harshness of the peace settlement, along with American isolationism, as the reasons for the breakdown of stability and peace in Europe. Includes bibliography and index.
  • Dockrill, Michael, and John Fisher, eds. The Paris Peace Conference, 1919: Peace Without Victory? New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001. Collection of essays by historians and by one former British foreign secretary examines the difficult issues faced by the Paris conference delegates. Includes index.
  • Hudson, Manley. “The Protection of Minorities and Natives in Transferred Territories.” In What Really Happened at Paris: The Story of the Peace Conference, 1918-1919, by American Delegates, edited by Edward M. House and Charles Seymour. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1921. Detailed account by an American delegate of the minorities question and Wilson’s central role in its settlement. A somewhat uncritical analysis, but interesting to the general reader nevertheless.
  • Lederer, Ivo, ed. The Versailles Settlement: Was It Foredoomed to Failure? Boston: D. C. Heath, 1960. One of the best collections available of short essays, articles, and other materials concerning the Paris Peace Conference. Contributors include both historians and statesmen. The final four essays address the minority rights issue. Includes suggestions for further reading.
  • Macartney, C. A. “League of Nations’ Protection of Minority Rights.” In The International Protection of Human Rights, edited by Evan Luard. New York: Praeger, 1967. Intelligent and critical analysis of the background of the League’s efforts to protect minorities. Provides detailed information concerning the minority treaties and the resistance the League faced from the treaty states and their friends in attempting to implement this policy. Includes bibliography and index.
  • Marks, Sally. The Illusion of Peace: International Relations in Europe, 1918-1933. 2d ed. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. Excellent analysis of pre-Nazi, interwar international relations in Europe. Particularly critical of the Paris Peace Conference and the weaknesses of the League of Nations. Places the minorities issue in this context. Includes bibliography and index.
  • Mayer, Arno. Political Origins of the New Diplomacy, 1917-1918. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1959. This and Mayer’s later volume, cited below, provide excellent examinations of the ideas and interests that influenced and determined the Paris peace settlement. Includes bibliography and index.
  • _______. Politics and Diplomacy of Peacemaking: Containment and Counterrevolution at Versailles, 1918-1919. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1967. Presents thorough analysis of the minorities issue. Includes bibliography and index.
  • Nicolson, Harold. Peacemaking, 1919. 1929. Reprint. Phoenix, Ariz.: Simon, 2001. Excellent personal account of the Paris Peace Conference by one of the most important members of the British delegation. Summarizes the issues, personalities, and day-to-day events at Paris. Features entries from the author’s personal diaries. Includes index.
  • Walters, F. P. A History of the League of Nations. 2 vols. 1952. Reprint. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1986. Provides a detailed and sympathetic study of the League and its interwar activities. Gives a thorough account of the League’s dealings with the minorities issue. Includes bibliography and index.

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