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Minorities Treaties

Informal designation for a series of international agreements concluded following World War I. The Minorities Treaties were drawn up between the Principal Allied and Associated Powers (the United States, the British Empire, France, Italy, and Japan), on the one hand, and 14 newly created or expanded states in Europe and the Middle East (Albania, Austria, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Estonia, Greece, Hungary, Iraq, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Turkey, and Yugoslavia), on the other hand, governing eligibility for citizenship in the latter states and granting citizens belonging to racial, religious, or linguistic minorities certain collective rights. Among the provisions granted by the treaties were the right to equal treatment and protection by the state for their members; to use minority languages for specified public purposes, including in courts and elementary schools; to establish and control educational, religious, and social welfare institutions for their groups; and to receive a proportional share of state expenditures for educational, religious, and welfare services.

Specific provisions varied from treaty to treaty; not all guarantees were specified in each agreement. For Austria, Bulgaria, Hungary, and Turkey (all former members of the Central Powers), clauses concerning minorities were inserted in the general peace treaties of Saint-Germain, Neuilly, Trianon, and Sèvres, respectively. For the other countries, minorities clauses were part of the treaties by which the Allies recognized independence and frontiers. The agreements stipulated that each state would incorporate the clauses’ provisions in its constitution. The League of Nations was to guarantee implementation, and the agreements were not to be modified without the consent of a majority of the League Council.

For many years it was generally believed that the idea of creating a permanent international mechanism for protecting the rights and welfare of minorities was placed before the Paris Peace Conference by representatives of Jewish organizations, who lobbied effectively for its adoption. Although it is true that major Jewish bodies (including the Alliance Israélite Universelle, American Jewish Committee, Comité des Délégations Juives, and the Joint Foreign Committee of the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Anglo-Jewish Association) submitted detailed memoranda on the subject to the Peace Conference and attempted to persuade Allied leaders to support them, the minorities protection system was ultimately created for reasons that had little to do with Jewish activity.

Most likely, the system emerged as a compromise solution to problems arising from the Anglo–French conflict over whether the new Polish state should be given larger or smaller boundaries that would include or exclude large numbers of ethnic Germans and Slavs. France favored the former position, in conjunction with its overall strategy of weakening Germany to the maximum. Britain favored the latter, largely out of concern that if Germany lost too much territory to Poland, Germany was liable to renounce the armistice that had ended the war, with potentially destabilizing results throughout the continent. Placing German and other minorities in Poland and elsewhere under a comprehensive system of international protection undercut the arguments of all disputant parties and allowed the Peace Conference to come to a relatively successful conclusion. Jewish spokesmen Julian Mack and Louis Marshall supplied some of the initial draft language for the treaties, but their final wording preserved only some of the original Jewish demands.

Nevertheless, Jews throughout the world, of virtually every political and ideological stripe, greeted the minorities treaties with enthusiasm, believing that the policies would inaugurate a new era of security for some 5.5 million (mostly East European) Jews. However, their hopes were soon dashed. Efforts in the 1920s to invoke the treaties and enlist the League of Nations in action to stop mass killings of Jews in Ukraine, the threatened expulsion of Galician Jewish war refugees from Vienna, the numerus clausus in Hungarian universities, and anti-Jewish violence in Romania all brought no tangible result. League members proved unwilling to intervene in the internal affairs of member states, especially on behalf of a minority group in whom no other state took an active interest.

In this regard, the ability of Jews to make use of the minorities protection system to their advantage was considerably less than that of the German minorities in Poland and Czechoslovakia, for example, who could count on the government of Germany to support their claims. Meanwhile, the treaties appear to have added to friction between Jews and non-Jews in the countries subject to them. None of those countries accepted the treaties willingly; all did so only because the Allies made formal diplomatic recognition conditional upon their ratification. The widespread attribution of the treaties to Jewish machinations at the Peace Conference reinforced the stereotype of Jews as a powerful, sinister international political force ready and able to use its influence to undermine the sovereignty of nations whose interests differed from theirs.

Jewish leaders in Eastern and Western Europe, as well as in the United States, tried various strategies to activate the minorities protection system in an advantageous manner, including seeking practical alliances with other minorities, participating actively in the European Minorities Congress, and enlisting broad support in European and American public opinion. None of these strategies enjoyed any great success. The only favorable League action on a Jewish claim was the so-called Bernheim Petition of May 1933, which forced a temporary suspension of Nazi anti-Jewish legislation against the Jews of German Upper Silesia, on the grounds that such legislation violated the League-guaranteed German–Polish Convention of 1922. That action did not directly involve one of the minorities treaties, however, and when the Convention expired in 1937 Nazi legislation was reintroduced. Meanwhile, in September 1934 Poland unilaterally renounced its obligations under its treaty until all members of the League bound themselves to identical clauses. Since League members other than the 14 signatory states proved unwilling to do so, the minorities protection system effectively collapsed.

Suggested Reading

Gershon Bacon, “Polish Jews and the Minorities Treaties Obligations, 1925: The View from Geneva,” Gal-Ed 18 (2002): 145–176; Carole Fink, Defending the Rights of Others: The Great Powers, the Jews, and International Minority Protection, 1878–1938 (Cambridge, 2004); Carol Iancu, Le combat international pour l’émancipation des juifs de Roumanie (Tel Aviv, 1994); Erwin Viefhaus, Die Minderheitenfrage und die Entstehung der Minderheitenschutzverträge auf der Pariser Friedenskonferenz 1919 (Würzburg, 1960).