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1919: Minnow Nations Sign 'Little Versailles Treaty'

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Interior of the Galerie des Glaces showing the arrangement of tables for the signing the Treaty of Versailles in Versailles, France. This photo was taken the day before the signing of the treaty.
Interior of the Galerie des Glaces showing the arrangement of tables for the signing the Treaty of Versailles in Versailles, France. This photo was taken the day before the signing of the treaty.Credit: Lt. M.S. Lentz/Wikimedia Commons

On June 28, 1919, the Polish Minority Treaty was signed in Versailles, France.

Also known as the Little Versailles Treaty because it was signed on the same day as the principal document that officially ended World War I, the Polish Minority Treaty was the first of 14 bilateral accords agreed to by many of the smaller independent republics that emerged out of the Austrian-Hungarian and Russian Empires following World War I, in return for their recognition by the victors.

The purpose of the minority treaties was to compel the new, in many cases ethnically based, states to guarantee not only the human rights of minority groups – in most states this included a Jewish minority – but also to allow them significant autonomy such as the right to use their own language and observe their own day of rest.

Notably, the powers that imposed the minority treaties on new states such as Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia were not themselves bound to the same standards. France, Britain and Russia did not undertake to provide collective rights to national minorities in their midst. The United States certainly didn’t.

What to do with the Jews?

The right to national self-determination was one of the major political ideals to gain traction in Europe between the 1878 Congress of Berlin and the Versailles Conference. But the creation of nation-states, in place of empires with subjects of different nationalities and religious convictions under a single monarch, carried the risk of denying equality to individuals and groups that were not part of the national majority.

Even without the pressure of Jewish organizations like the American Jewish Congress and American Jewish Committee, or France’s Alliance Israelite Universelle, it was inevitable that the fate of the Jews in central and eastern Europe would occupy the attention of diplomats at Versailles. The Jews were not a candidate for their own state in Europe but had suffered in almost every national conflict that took place around them.

Of course, it was no coincidence that the movement to provide the Jews with their own physical homeland if not state – that is, Zionism – emerged during the same period. It was bound to come into conflict with those Jews pushing for collective minority rights for the Jews in their respective home countries.

Have law, can't be bothered to enforce

The Polish Minority Treaty contained clauses that guaranteed national minorities the right to use their own language – in schools, in the press and even in the courts. The treaty also had special “Jewish” clauses guaranteeing a proportional amount of public funding for Jewish schools, and also freedom from being forced to violate the Sabbath; for example, by holding elections on Saturday.

Not all the minority treaties had those two explicitly Jewish clauses, but generally they were of the same spirit.

The problem was that, although the treaties had provisions for enforcement through the newly established League of Nations, except for a handful of cases, the political will did not exist to prosecute violations of their terms.

One rare exception occurred in September 1933, when Nazi Germany informed the League of Nations that it would reverse an earlier decision to apply anti-Jewish legislation in Upper Silesia, which had been divided between Poland and Germany after World War I. This announcement followed the bringing of a petition to the League by Franz Bernheim, a Jewish resident of a German-controlled town who had been fired from his job after Germany began adopting laws restricting Jewish employment in a number of professions.

But the Bernheim case depended on a 1922 agreement derived from the Polish Minority Treaty, rather than the treaty itself.

More to the point, when the German-Polish Convention expired, in 1937, Germany immediately reimposed its anti-Semitic policies in the area.

For his part, Polish Foreign Minister Jozef Beck announced in September 1934 that Poland no longer intended to uphold the Minority Treaty, which it saw as illegitimate interference that was not similarly applied to neighbors such as Russia and Germany.