War of the Words: How Language Has Sparked Almost Every European War Since 1870

When Russia attacked Ukraine a few weeks ago, international observers cited all sorts of reasons for the invasion: Vladimir Putin was mad for power; he was concerned that Ukraine would join NATO; he had simply lost his mind. Few paid attention to one of his own chief justifications for why Russia needed to go on the offensive, and against Ukraine specifically.

Even the most aggressive dictators do not start wars without cloaking their tanks in some righteous cause. They usually cite national security, for example the expansion of a rival’s sphere of influence (e.g., NATO). Economic factors often play a role, but these are never a standalone casus belli: it would be hard to motivate men to die for oil. There is always some higher cause. Sometimes this is ideological, like spreading democracy, communism, or Islam. More often, particularly in modern European history, the aggressor is motivated by nationalism.

Starting a war over language may sound strange. But the call to defend or liberate “our people” is a stirring one; indeed, it is the one that has motivated almost every European war in the past 150 years. Who “our people” are can be a thorny topic. Alongside language, people speak of “ethnicity” or “culture.” But in a complicated world with blond Poles and swarthy Germans, what was the best proxy for Adolf Hitler and his ilk to determine who belonged to which ethnicity? And what is the key denominator of a culture, and thus a people? Some racial nationalists may not have liked to admit it, but in the real world, the answer to these questions is virtually always language.

Nationalism took Europe by storm in 1848, when Germans, Italians, Hungarians, and many other peoples launched revolutions to win unity and independence. Jacob Grimm, the father of linguistics, played a critical role in 19th Century geopolitics by instilling a common sense of linguistic, and thus national, identity in Germans.

For all of history, Germany had been a patchwork of independent states. The dominant one, Prussia, was determined to change that; their rivals in France were determined to stop them. Chancellor Otto von Bismarck settled the matter with blood and iron. Prussia won a decisive victory in the Franco-Prussian War, which convinced all the German states to swear fealty to Wilhelm I as Kaiser of Germany.

For the next half-century, peace settled over Western Europe. But the Balkans exploded as nations like Serbia, Bulgaria, and Romania threw off Ottoman rule, then fought a series of bloody wars against the Turks and one another to determine who was who. These conflicts were particularly complicated among closely-related South Slavic peoples: millions of people are still bitterly divided over whether Macedonian is a separate language, or a dialect of Bulgarian. The question has geopolitical implications.

The outcome of these conflicts left most parties dissatisfied. Serbs, in particular, were bloodily desperate to liberate Bosnia from Austrian rule. Bosnians had their own culture and religion, but Serb nationalists adduced their mutually-intelligible languages as proof that Bosnians and Serbs were one people.

Meanwhile, the peace in the West had grown tenuous. This was due to a variety of factors in Great Power rivalry, but among the chief flashpoints was Alsace-Lorraine. The German-speaking territory had been part of France for centuries, but in 1871 it was united with Germany. The French were apoplectic that the Alsatians were being allowed to speak German, which stuck a finger in the eye of France’s national pride.

By the turn of the century, Europe was once again on the brink of war. In 1914, Serb terrorists hopped up on rhetoric of national unification shot Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand, touching off a concatenation of events that plunged Europe into World War I.

At the end of the war, American President Woodrow Wilson insisted that the map of Europe should be redrawn along the lines of self-determination: instead of multinational empires, peoples who shared a common language and culture would get their own states. It sounded nice, but European history and geography were complicated, and the new borders left millions of Germans, Hungarians, and others stranded in what were now other peoples’ nation-states.

The first item in the new states’ nation-building campaigns was always making everyone learn the national language, whether that be Czech, Polish, Romanian, etc. This infuriated minority groups, who called on their “homelands” to rescue them. As the Western powers recovered from the Great War, Central and Eastern Europe continued to be torn apart by new ones.

A war, for example, between Hungary and Romania over the suppression of Hungarian culture in Transylvania did not matter much to the great powers. But in the 1930s, a new German dictator rose to power vowing to redraw the map to bring all ethnic Germans (Volksdeutsche) into the Reich.

In an Eastern Europe where German-speaking communities had lived alongside other groups for centuries, what constituted a “racial” German was a messy question. It came down to how one’s grandparents had identified themselves in prewar censuses, which in all the countries of the region defined ethnicity (in the parlance of the time, “nationality”) on the basis of language.

Adolf Hitler started redrawing the map by annexing Austria, then triggered an international crisis to “liberate” the Sudetenland, a German-speaking region of Czechoslovakia. Other states with ethnic German populations grew concerned.

Switzerland, where eight in ten people spoke German, elevated French, Italian, and the tiny alpine language of Romansh to co-official status just so they could claim not to be a German country. This actually worked, but Poland was not so lucky.

President Wilson had insisted on giving the new nation a corridor to the sea, which meant annexing a large swath of German territory to Poland. In 1939, Hitler demanded that the ethnic Germans of the region be allowed to vote on their future. The British were amenable to the idea, but they and the French also resolved to defend Poland should Hitler try to take what he wanted by force, as he had in Czechoslovakia. Bolstered by their allies, the Poles refused to hold a plebiscite. On September 1, Hitler’s febrile crusade to liberate the Germans of Poland ignited the most catastrophic war in history.

At the end of World War II, Europeans vowed “never again” to a long list of things, chief among them massacring one another on the basis of nationality. In any case, Eastern Europe had a new master who wielded absolute power and no moral compass.

The Soviets largely sorted out the confused ethnic boundaries that had torn the region apart for the past century. At least twelve million ethnic Germans were cleansed from Eastern Europe, mostly deported to West Germany or Siberia; about two million were never heard from again. Similar fates befell millions of people of other ethnicities who found themselves on inconvenient sides of borders.

It took decades of some of the most horrific actions in human history, but by 1950 the vast majority of Europeans lived in states with people who spoke the same language they did. For the next forty years, most observers in Europe and beyond looked to ideological struggle as the cause for the next global conflict.

It never happened. War came back to Europe thanks to much older tensions. When communism’s iron fist was lifted from atop the Pandora’s Box of Balkan ethnic tensions, the peoples of the multi-ethnic republic got right back to butchering one another. Serbo-Croatian is arguably one language, but the peoples who speak it use different alphabets and some different vocabulary. This enabled them to identify themselves as different ethnicities, rather than one people practicing different religions. Thanks largely to minor linguistic differences, Serbs, Croatians, and Bosnians laid into one another with murderous zeal until Yugoslavia lay in ruins.

For my entire life, Yugoslavia was Europe’s last war. But forbidden apples have nothing on the temptation to murder one’s neighbours for supposedly mistreating people who speak the same language you do. The difference between Russian and Ukrainian is complex and spectral, and starting with his annexation of Russian-speaking Crimea in 2014, President Vladimir Putin leveraged that connection to press Russia’s advantage.

When Putin launched all-out war in February, geostrategic considerations were major factors. But the reason why Russia needed to invade Ukraine, now, was to rescue Russian speakers in the east of the country. Ukraine had been suppressing the language and culture of Russian speakers in Ukraine for years, and supposedly they were now waging a campaign of outright genocide.

For all Europe has changed, this war started for the same reason that has sparked every other war there for the past 150 years. In Europe especially, nothing defines a people more than language. Lofty ideals and Realpolitik are potent motivators, but nothing drives men to fight like the urge to protect your own. It is not a coincidence that the continent has never really known peace since the days when everyone spoke Latin.

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