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Modernism: The Creation of Nation-States

Ahmet Ersoy
Maciej Górny
Vangelis Kechriotis

Chapter I. Making of the modern state in a multi-national context

State and nation

Karl Renner
Traduction de Joe O’Donnell

Texte intégral

1Title: Staat und Nation. Zur österreichischen Nationalitätenfrage (State and nation. To the Austrian nationality question)

2Originally published: Vienna, published under pseudonym Synopticus on the author’s own expenses in 1899

3Language: German
The excerpts used are from Ephraim Nimni ed., National Cultural Autonomy and its Contemporary Critics (London and New York: Routledge, 2005), pp. 27–32.

About the author

4Karl Renner [1870, Unter-Tannowitz (Cz. Dolni Dunajovice, present-day Czech Republic) – 1950, Vienna]: politician, jurist, sociologist and political columnist. Of peasant stock, he studied law at the University of Vienna and became a research assistant in the library of the Reichsrat, the Austrian Parliament, between 1895 and 1907, a position which enabled him to publish under a pseudonym several important studies dealing with the nationality question in Austria and the historical evolution of the institutions of civil law. A member of the moderate wing of the Austrian Social Democratic Party (Sozialdemokratische Arbeiterpartei, SDAP), he was elected a deputy to the Reichsrat in 1907. After the collapse of the Habsburg monarchy in November 1918 at the end of the First World War, Renner became the first chancel-lor of the new Austrian Republic. In this position during two successive coalition governments from November 1918 to June 1920, he proved unable to prevent sizable territorial losses to Italy, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia. On 10 September, 1919, Renner signed the Treaty of Saint-Germain, which prohibited Austria’s union with Germany, a project he and most of the social democratic leaders supported. He advocated Austria’s entry into the League of Nations, a policy of fulfillment of treaty obligations and non-alignment in foreign affairs. The leader of the Social Democratic Party’s pragmatic wing during the 1920s, he was one of the foremost leaders of the workers’ co-operative movement. He also served as a president of the lower house of Parliament from 1930 to 1933. It was his support—however qualified—of the Nazi Anschluss (Annexation) of Austria in 1938 that enabled him to spend the war years in the little Alpine town of Gloggnitz under a tolerant house arrest. With the collapse of Nazi Germany in 1945 and the occupation of Austria by Soviet troops, Renner worked with Soviet authorities to reconstitute the Austrian government, formed a provisional regime and became the first chancellor of the renewed state in April 1945. In Decernber of the same year, the Parliament unanimously elected him President of the republic, a position in which Renner served until his death. Until today Renner belongs to the pantheon of the greatest—albeit not uncontestedly so—modern Austrian statesmen as well as the prominent representatives of Austro-Marxism. He is also credited to be one of the major founding figures of the sociology of law.

5Main works: Staat und Nation [State and nation] (1899); Der Kampf der österreichischen Nationen um den Staat [The struggle of Austrian nations for the State] (1902); Die soziale Funktion des Rechtsinstitutes, besonders des Eigentums, [The social function of the institutions of law, especially that of property] (1904); Grundlagen und Entwicklungsziele der osterreichisch-ungarischen Monarchie [Foundations and aims of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy] (1906); Österreichs Emeuerung, 3 vols. [Austria’s renewal] (1916–17); Marxismus, Krieg und Internationale [Marxism, war and the International] (1917); Das Selbsbestimmung-recht der Nationen in besonderer Anwendung auf Österreich [The national self-determination right in respect to Austria] (1918); An der Wende zweier Zeiten [At the junction of two eras] (1946); Nachgelassene Werke, 3 vols. [Posthumous works] (1952–53); Das Weltbild der Modeme [The worldview of modernity] (1954); Porträt einer Evolution [Portrait of an evolution] (1970).


6As a united and operational political organization the Austrian Social Democratic Party (SDAP) emerged at the Hainfeld congress of 1888/89, where Victor Adler managed to persuade hitherto contending factions to accept a common platform. The Hainfeld program remained in force until 1926, reaf-firming the fundamental concepts of contemporary Marxism. The failure, however, of the course of economic and social development to bear out the Marxian prognoses inevitably led to demands for a reappraisal of the theoretical approach. This situation gave birth to a group of exceptionally talented theorists and politicians such as Karl Renner, Otto Bauer, Max Adler, Gustav Eckstein and Rudolf Hilferding, for whom the name Austro-Marxism was later coined. It became a historically identifiable entity with the founding in 1903 of the Fabiantype society Zukunft (Future) that initiated publishing of theoretical socialist journals such as Marx-Studien or Der Kampf (The struggle) and established a workers’ college, the first of its kind in Austria, giving an impetus to an entire system of Austrian socialist education in later years. The first path-breaking studies characterizing the Austro-Marxist theoretical approach, however, had already appeared in the last decade before the turn of the century.

7Austrian socialists, like all others, were primarily concerned with the emancipation of the working class, but their day-to-day political work compelled them to acknowledge the overwhelming importance of the nationality issue within the context of the Habsburg Empire. Moreover, being the only supranational party, the social democrats were the only political organization prepared to think out solutions to a problem threatening to tear the whole multinational state apart. It was Karl Renner who first formulated a theoretical solution for the Empire’s nationality question in his seminal Staat und Nation pamphlet published under a pseudonym in 1899. Seen from a Marxist perspective, nationalism for him was but a transformed class hatred that by creating political tension was blocking natural cultural and economic progress and endangered Austria-Hungary, a state that served well enough the regional requirements of the nations as well as the rising working class. To hinder the animosities that inevitably sprung from the contradictions between national aspirations for sovereignty and the structure of the Empire based on the ‘Crown lands system,’ the driving force of nationalism was to be con-fined to the only sphere where it was legitimate, that is, culture and communication. In this sphere, however, the nations were to be legally defined as corporate bodies. Deviating from earlier socialist attempts to grant autonomy to the various national groups within specific territorial units, Renner introduced the idea of personal autonomy based on the experience of a coexistence of various religious communities in a modern state, an idea that thus far had never been fully explored. This meant that the citizen in a multinational state should become a member of an autonomous national association of his co-nationals, irrespective of his domicile. In matters of genuine national in-terest the citizen was to be subjected to the laws of their own supra-territorial organization instead of the laws of the territorial majority national group.

8Even though some of Renner’s ideas circulated already at the Brünn (Cz. Brno) congress of the SDAP in 1899, the latter’s national program was still based on the territorial concept that envisaged setting up minority organizations along rough ethno-geographic boundaries. At the beginning of the new century, however, this stance in social democratic nationality policy was gradually superseded by the concepts elaborated by Renner and his socialist fellow-theorist Otto Bauer, who picked up on Renner’s ideas in his vastly influential work Die Nationalitätenfrage und die Sozialdemokratie (The nationality question and social democracy) from 1907. The idea of personal autonomy along with the critique of the insistence on ‘state rights’ and full national sovereignty eminent in national movements has found a consider-able echo not only among other socialist theoreticians such as the Czech Bohumir Šmeral. However, it never went from the stage of individual support to that of party backing in any political camp outside the SDAP, not least due to the fact that before 1914 social democrats, despite their mass following, would not have been taken seriously as partner in discussion by the ruling classes. The underlying philosophy of the Austro-Marxist proposals ran counter to the rising spirit of integral nationalism, and, as Renner’s subtle and sympathetic critic Oszkár Jászi put it, the rational doctrine eager to re-place the idea of national state by that of ‘mere’ national rights in a supranational state had little appeal in the emotional setting of the period. Later, a critique influential in the Communist movement seeing the Austro-Marxist approach as a mere subversion of ‘bourgeois nationalism’ was developed by Lenin and Stalin with their prevalently economic interpretation of national-ism. Nevertheless in the long run the Austro-Marxist approach earned the status of a great ‘missed opportunity’ for the Empire’s political elites to produce a viable solution for its boiling national question, and today it serves as an important precursor of multicultural precepts in globalizing societies.


State and nation. To the Austrian nationality question

  • 1 Peregrini dediticii were a special category of non-citizens in ancient Rome. In general, they were (...)
  • 2 Names of tribes or tribe alliances of Germanic people living in the territory of Roman border in L (...)

10[...] In the sense, state and nation are antitheses of the same order as those of state and society. The state is legal territorial domination, the society factual personal association, an antithesis which has played a significant role in the developmental history of human society. The primeval polity is a personal association based on blood relations. The necessity of migration, of nomadic life, does not permit any fixed relationship to a territory. The sendentariness required by the state is absent. The great Oriental monarchies and the Roman Empire were the first great examples of territorial power, the first states in the modern sense, the only difference being that the dominant interest group was, at the outset, a nation and not an economic class. The defeated became slaves or peregrini dediticii,1 thus perishing in legal terms, or were absorbed into the state system as citizens, thus merging into the state as a whole. The Roman Empire was replaced by Germanic and Arabian tribal states, which were based on tribal affiliation. Here the phenomenon first emerged of the defeated tribes retaining their legal system and their language, of two peoples distinct in terms of law inhabiting a unitary territory. However, one tribe alone retained entitlement in the political sphere. The Carolingian Empire initially united many tribes without abolishing, suppressing or confining to a particular territory their national law, language and specificity. The dominant group was an economic class, the great landed proprietors, not a tribe: the Roman provincial retained his national law, even if he lived among Bavarians and Frisians, and the Frank, Alemannic or Chamaver2 retained his even if living among Romans. Before dealing with a dispute, the judge would ask him: ‘Quo jure vivis?’ Which law do you live by? The party thereupon made a declaration of nationality. The judge then knew according to which body of law he was to judge that party. Here, the so-called personality principle prevailed. Under its rule in the Carolingian Empire, ten nations coexisted not only with different national languages but also with different legal codes.

  • 3 The Crown dedicated to the Czech patron St Wenceslas symbolizes the ‘histori-cal right’ to the ter (...)

11The modern state replaces this principle with the territorial principle: if you live in my territory, you are subject to my domination, my law and my language! It is the expression of domination, not of equal rights; the domination by the established inhabitants of the newcomers, by the propertied, who is held fast by his property, of the propertyless, who must follow demand where it leads, at the least by the majority of the minority, if not by the settled minority of the majority. From this ensued the territorial struggles of the nation states, and also the territorial policies of the nationalities within the state. For this reason the Young Czechs support Staatsrecht for territory of the Crown of St Wenceslas3, because it guarantees them domination of the minorities. For this reason the Young Germans support the independence of the former states of the German Confederation and the exclusion of Galicia and Dalmatia, that is, a Young German form of Staatsrecht. The territorial principle can never produce compromise and equal rights; it can only pro-duce struggle and oppression, because its essence is domination. The nation as a whole gains nothing through this domination; as a consequence of inter-nal migrations and the extensive economic contact linking the broadest pos-sible circles of humanity no nation can limit itself to specific, narrowly de-fined frontiers. All elements that exist outside the confines of the home terri-tory are, as foreigners, without rights. Consistent supporters of Staatsrecht must admit that a Czech in Vienna has no right to assert his nationality. The territorial principle implies the reckless abandonment of one’s own minorities, the reckless domination of foreign minorities to the advantage of the long-established propertied classes. It combines the national concept with patrimonial ideas and thus becomes in many ways anti-national.

12On the other hand, within the interaction between sovereign states, within international law, there exists a defense against the territorial principle. The Englishman has the diplomatic protection of his fatherland; he may display English inscriptions on the doors of his business in Prague; he may speak English in the street there if he so pleases. Yet he is a foreigner. However, the German-Austrian in Prague is without rights, for he is on ‘Czech soil.’ He may not speak German, display German signs; otherwise he faces the threat of mistreatment or looting. If he is looted, against whom should he bring le-gal action? The Czech people? The Czech people do not constitute a juridical person! It is a curious thing that this nation, which has kept the whole of Austria on tenterhooks for three decades, does not exist at all within the legal system, that it is a metaphysical, transcendental object for the law and the courts. This also applies of course to the Germans with respect to the Czechs, to the Poles with regard to the Ruthenians and so on. In a word, each Aus-trian nationality is accorded greater protection abroad than within Austria, each foreigner among us greater protection than the native within his own land, because an intra-state existence does not provide a corrective to the ter-ritorial principle, because no one is protected by his nation, because a nation can protect no one except by means of reprisals, of revenge. This is not a lawful state of affairs, but one of nascent or open civil war.

13From this ensues the necessity of constituting the nationalities, of equip-ping them with rights and responsibilities, and of declaring that in every part of the empire every member of a nation enjoys—albeit subject to the grading referred to below—the protection of his nation and bears its burdens and ob-ligations. In brief: the personality rather than the territorial principle should form the basis of regulation; the nations should be constituted not as territo-rial entities but as personal associations, not as states but as peoples, not ac-cording to age-old constitutional laws, but according to living national laws. Of course, no people exist without territory, and internal reconstruction can-not be independent of the geographical stratification of the population. If the personality principle forms the constitutive principle which brings about the separation of the nationalities and the union of individuals then the territorial principle will have a significant role to play as an organizational principle.

14There are those who will assert from the outset that such a construction is impossible to realize. Nevertheless it is important to keep the following in mind. First, in the Frankish Empire the personality principle was dominant, not only in the more formal respect of the language, but also in regard to the gamut of private and public law—to an extent which does not appear appli-cable today—and made possible the coexistence of many nationalities. Sec-ond, this system was the legal system applied to all foreigners—the so-called ‘Franks’ in the Orient—and this was with reference not only to language, but also to private and criminal law. And since most people will be impressed neither by the Caroli Magni [Charlemagne] legal order nor by the situation in the Orient, third, in our own and indeed all highly developed states, this prin-ciple can be found applied in its purest form in the case of institutions whose almost unshakeable power over minds and whose vitality is doubted by no one: the religious communities.

  • 4 Ukr. Lviv, Pol. Lwów.

15In one and the same parish, two and often three denominations are repre-sented, each of which forms—or at least should form—a corporation under public law and a religious community. Each has its own board, its own property, its own institutions for instruction and charity, conducts state business as a self-administrative entity in its assigned sphere of activity (based on reg-isters) and amalgamates with other communities in territorial terms to form parishes, deaneries and dioceses, etc., with some, such as the Catholic de-nomination, forming worldwide personal associations without any territorial sovereignty. Here the formula for the problem has been found: ‘Give to the Emperor (the state) what is the Emperor’s, and to God what is God’s!’ Here it has become possible, for example, for three archbishops to reside in Lem-berg4, a Catholic, a Uniate and a non-Uniate, without them and their subordi-nates being constantly at loggerheads with one another. To be sure, this was not always the case. When the principle of cuius regio, illius religio still ap-plied, that is, the pure territorial principle (a present-day form of which is cuius regio, illius lingua), religious discord raged through the land. Through centuries of struggle it finally became clear that the issue was not one of en-trusting the church with governmental functions and the state with ecclesias-tical functions. Peace was immediately established when territorial sover-eignty was removed from the church and cultural sovereignty entrusted to it, when it became solely that which in conceptual terms it solely is: a personal association of those sharing the same belief, just as the nation is a personal association of those sharing a way of thinking and speaking.

16This is not to say that the territorial principle is wrong in itself and unten-able. On the contrary, it is the formula for nation state formation. As we have already acknowledged, the nation state is the form of state system with the least internal frictions; it is the inevitable ideal of every nation, or at least of those members who are granted ‘active’ nationality. It is one of the conceiv-able ways of solving the national question.

17However, it is not a formula for solving the Austrian nationalities question within the framework of the historically given, economically and socially necessary unitary Austrian state. For rather than eliminating national con-flicts, the national territorial state produces and heightens them. It does not arbitrate these conflicts by means of law, but decides them by means of force; it facilitates prolongation and victory, but risks loss and destruction. It can never guarantee the peaceful, secure enjoyment of national rights in a multilingual, unitary state under the rule of law. It does not signify the solu-tion of the Austrian problem, but the dissolution of Austria. The example of Hungary teaches us that no bond of international law can hinder the final separation.

18However strictly conceptual separation can and must be realized, the reality itself is not necessarily characterized by an irreconcilable opposition: the imminent German-Czech armistice will probably represent a compromise between the two principles. This will be all the more lasting and advantageous the closer it comes to the personality principle. It is impossible on a purely territorial basis.

19Austria cannot tolerate any territorial Staatsrechte, any such Czech right for the lands of the Crown of St Wenceslas or such a German right for the former lands of the German Confederation; it cannot tolerate a ‘state party’ or an imposed state language. Just as religious discord flares up when a denomination seeks to play the role of state religion, so too is every state language a perennial source of strife. If the nations were constituted and organized, and national majority rule and repression, as well as national ‘baptism’ [Wegtaufen] through compulsory attendance of a foreign school, were ruled out, then the Slavic peoples, since they are historically and economi-cally forced to live with the Germans, would still have to make use of the only possible means of communication, the German language, wherever they had to understand each other. No law is made requiring humans to mate. They do it anyway.

20The internal organization of the nationalities would naturally have to ac-cord with the geographical density of settlement. The co-nationals inhab-iting a parish or district would form a national community [Gemeinde], i.e. a corporation under public and private law with the power to issue decrees and levy taxes, as well as its own property. A territorially and culturally affiliated number of communities would form a national canton [Kreis] with corporate rights. The totality of the cantons would form the nation. It too would be a legal entity under public and private law.

21The administrative implementation of this form of organization would not require great effort or great cost: the receipt of the obligatory declaration of nationality by all citizens of age by the political authorities of first instance, the recording of the declarations in national registers, the identification of the communities and cantons through persons having the confidence of the na-tional groups, the undertaking of elections for the three representative bodies (communal, cantonal and national councils) and their constitution. We would now have the nationalities as such: each for itself, represented according to its internal structure and actual power, each at the same time in a particular region a majority and in another region a minority, which in the interest of national unity it cannot abandon; each incapable of oppressing foreign minorities because the other nationality as a totality will respond with the repression of the former’s own minority, and thus prepared in ad-vance to accept compromise with other nations; each nationality occupied with internal consolidation, with the close fusion of the economically differ-ing, opposing classes, concerned about the promotion of its own education system, its national literature and its national art; each master of its mem-bers, master of its own resources. Who could doubt that national existence, rather than exhausting itself in the struggle with other nations, would necessarily look inward and deepen?

22Nothing can express its own specific effects if it is not regarded purely for what it is. If one wants to solve the nationalities question, one must focus on the nations! One must liberate them from political constellations, from the necessity of political barter, from feudal and clerical influences; one must call upon them as they are to prevent them from disguising themselves with sallow historical masks in order to frighten the others. The living have rights and will safeguard their rights.

23If this solution is not chosen, there is only one alternative. There is only a single dilemma: the personality or the territorial principle. One must opt for one or the other. I believe that the problem is more clearly delineated if a sharp distinction is made between the opposing possibilities. The question is not one of centralization or autonomy. The national question defined in terms of the personal association can be resolved in the context of the most strenuous centralization or the most far-reaching autonomy. Legislation can be centralist and administration decentralized. By the same token, it is possible to deal with certain state matters relating to legislation and administration on a unitary level, while differentiating others in the case of each province. How one is to make distinctions is dictated by the nature of state objec-tives and state resources. Here, too, clarity cannot be achieved as long as the centralization question is confused with the nationalities question.

24Joe O’Donnell in National Cultural Autonomy and its Contemporary Critics, Ephraim Nimni ed. (London and New York: Routledge, 2005), pp. 27–32.


1 Peregrini dediticii were a special category of non-citizens in ancient Rome. In general, they were those that belonged to towns that, having initiated a war against Rome, had surrendered unconditionally. They were not protected by community laws and lacked citizenship [Translator’s footnote].

2 Names of tribes or tribe alliances of Germanic people living in the territory of Roman border in Late Antiquity

3 The Crown dedicated to the Czech patron St Wenceslas symbolizes the ‘histori-cal right’ to the territory of the medieval Bohemian kingdom.

4 Ukr. Lviv, Pol. Lwów.


Joe O’Donnell (Traducteur)

© Central European University Press, 2010

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