Conferring collective rights to various kinds of subnational groups has been and remains a controversial subject. A legal device for empowering ethnic and other minorities, collective rights may also present a solid challenge for liberal polities and are often perceived as potentially encroaching on individual liberty, legal equality, as well as national sovereignty.
While not aspiring to provide any normative answers to this problem, Oskar Mulej's project addresses the intricacies surrounding collective rights and associated challenges of groupism and communitarism by looking at the historical case of national minority activism in Europe during the interwar period. In particular, it focuses on the European Nationalities Congress (ENC) and its president Josip Wilfan. A pan-European NGO that during the years 1925-38 brought together representatives of more than thirty national minorities, ENC provided a space for intellectual exchange between minority activists and various legal and other experts, engaged in promoting collective national rights. While seeking to illuminate an illiberal potential inherent to that concept, as it manifested during the 1930s when ENC came under increasing influence of Nazi Germany, the project simultaneously aims to account for continuous persistence of unmistakenly liberal approaches. Most importantly, a closer look at various contemporary conceptualizations of semantically related concepts such as national autonomy and ethnic community (Volksgemeinschaft) reveals a high degree of ideological fluidity and flexibility. This made them translatable into languages of different ideologies and adaptable to various political projects - right and left, liberal and illiberal alike.
Oskar Mulej is Research Fellow in the ERC Project "Non-Territorial Autonomy. History of a Travelling Idea" at the Institute for East-European History at the University of Vienna.
Adam Sitze, John E. Kirkpatrick 1951 Professor in Law, Jurisprudence and Social Thought at Amherst College, Massachusetts, and Visiting Fellow at the IWM, provided the comment.