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  • Defending the Rights of Others: The Great Powers, the Jews, and International Minority Protection, 1878–1938
  • G. Daniel Cohen
Defending the Rights of Others: The Great Powers, the Jews, and International Minority Protection, 1878–1938, Carole Fink (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004), xxvii + 420 pp., cloth $80.00, pbk. $29.99.

As Carole Fink acknowledges in the opening pages of Defending the Rights of Others, her book is not the first "to investigate the international dimensions of the minorities question in Eastern Europe" (p. xvii). Yet what distinguishes her impressive study from others is its broad compass—a sixty-year span starting with the 1878 Congress of Berlin and ending on the eve of the Second World War—as well an exceptional diversity of primary sources. The author has crafted an engaging narrative of the triangular relationship in which the Great Powers, the East European "minority states," and the advocates of minority rights are inextricably entangled. As such, her book carefully documents the advent of modern human rights diplomacy in the first half of the twentieth century.

Fink's assessment of this diplomacy is negative overall. The quest for international protection of minorities in Eastern Europe was hampered by international diplomacy's inability to supersede the sovereignty of nation-states, and marred by chronic irresolution. The Great Powers, despite their relative sensitivity to the plight of Jews and others, never sought to create a universal protection system but instead limited their involvement to stopgap or unenforceable measures. Revisionist powers, for their part, used the issue of minority protection to advance their particular irredentist or territorial claims: German leaders from Bismarck to Hitler continuously championed minority rights for these purposes. Equally detrimental to the protection of minorities was the fact that the successor states (such as Romania after 1878 or Poland after 1918) easily evaded the demands made on them by the Western powers. The author's reappraisal of the influence exerted by international lobbying and advocacy is also sobering. Outspoken yet ideologically divided, Jewish leaders ultimately had little sway over Great Power diplomats and national public opinions; the vibrant internationalist activism of the 1920s, which had pinned its hopes on the League of Nations, became increasingly marginalized in the 1930s. The author concludes that there were no alternatives, however, to the "hollow multinational treaties" signed in Berlin (1878) and Paris (1919), for "behind these formal agreements lay the old structure of Great-Power condominium that controlled Eastern Europe" (p. 363). After 1933, the swift death of the old Concert of Europe destroyed the hopes for a "fairer international order." [End Page 324]

Though often identified with the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, the diplomacy of minority protection has earlier antecedents. After the Congress of Vienna (1815), Fink reminds us, statements on national, religious, or civil rights had become standard. Hence the unorthodox yet historically sound starting point of the book: the 1878 Congress of Berlin and its minority protection clause continued a trend in nineteenth-century diplomacy but also marked a decisive turning point. While devising the partition of the Balkans, the Great Powers insisted on guarantees for minorities in the newly independent states of Serbia, Bulgaria, and above all, Romania, where antisemitic discrimination was particularly blatant. A careful blend of realpolitik and timid humanitarianism, the Berlin Treaty stipulated that in Romania religious creed should not be used to justify discrimination. Ultimately, in full defiance of this provision, only 200 of 230,000 Romanian Jews were granted citizenship. Though the author describes it as a mere "paper threat," the Berlin Treaty nonetheless set a symbolic precedent: it was the first international system designed to protect Jews against a sovereign nation-state. With important consequences for the years to come, the treaty implicitly linked the "minority question" to the "the Jewish question." From a Western point of view, the recognition of specific Jewish rights to protection—even if carefully worded and prompted by pragmatic goals—turned East European Jewry into a test case for minority rights. The situation of the Jews was to serve as a paradigm for later architects—often East European Jewish refugees themselves, especially in the 1920s—of modern human rights legislation.

However, diplomacy (and...


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pp. 324-326
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