Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Self-Determination and the Difficulty of Creating Nation-States: The Transylvania Case

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Self-Determination and the Difficulty of Creating Nation-States: The Transylvania Case

Article excerpt

Transylvania, the rugged region that marks the southernmost extension of the Carpathian Mountains of Eastern Europe, evokes images of Count Dracula and other elements of Western mythology. However, for both the Hungarian and Romanian peoples, Transylvania symbolizes the birthplace of their respective nations. Transylvania is, and for thousands of years has been, an ethnically mixed region. As such, it was highly contested between the Hungarians and Romanians at the end of World War I, and it remains a thorn in Hungarian-Romanian relations to this day.

Only in the period immediately after World War I did the study of borders in political geography include analysis of the process of proposal and negotiation that precedes the creation of a new border, rather than focusing on a new boundary and its functions (Kolossov 2005, 611). Through the use of primary resources, especially maps contained in reports given to President Woodrow Wilson, along with the writings of scholars who worked for him, such as American Geographical Society (AGS) Director Isaiah Bowman, I investigate the process of redrawing Transylvania's borders. By parsing the American proposal for reallocating Transylvania, along with other proposals for the region presented at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, (1) it is possible to analyze the difficulties faced by the peacemakers at Paris in creating an equitable peace based on Wilson's principles in as ethically heterogeneous an area as Transylvania and reinforces the difficulties we continue to face in trying to implement the concept of national self-determination.


The rise of concepts such as "self-determination" and "nation-state" in the late nineteenth century opened a new chapter in how we view political divisions throughout the world. On the eve of World War I, most of the world was divided into multiethnic empires. Europe itself consisted primarily of large multiethnic states, with much of its territory split between the German, Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, and Russian Empires. However, emerging new concepts were challenging the validity of empires and championing the liberating influence of the nation-state.

Geographical scholars, among others, were already attempting to define the concept of a nation-state by the time the so-called Great War broke out. The promise of self-determination espoused by President Wilson made it necessary to group people into national units in order to properly uphold their collective rights. Under his doctrine of self-determination, Wilson made it clear that all nations should have a say in the creation of their laws. Rather than defining all subjects of a given state together, which proved especially problematic when considering large multiethnic empires, experts defined peoples on the basis of their perceived membership in a national group. Albert Perry Brigham, writing in the Geographical Review, defined nationality as a "unity of ideal, derived chiefly from hereditary experience or from geographical environment" (1919, 212). He wrote that such groups wished to live and act together, as well as to share a government. He also noted that nations were not clearly defined racially, unlike many researchers of earlier periods who based national identity partly on racial characteristics. Brigham's definition of nationality is inherently qualitative; due to this problem, use of such a definition would not be possible in "scientifically" determining what nation any given group of people belonged to, as there would be no data from which to draw upon.

Leon Dominian, a member of the American Inquiry--the team of American experts who compiled the American peace proposals for the Paris Peace Conference under the aegis of the AGS--wrote that nationality is an artificial product derived from race and shared history (1917, 4). To him, nationality has three fundamental elements: population, history, and geography. …

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