Esperanto and Ethnic Conflict Since 1887

Two books have been in my mind lately. Firstly, this week was the 130th anniversary of the publication of the Unua Libro, the first book in Esperanto, which makes it one of the few languages in the world to have a birthday. On the 26th of July 1887, L.L. Zamenhof created an international language that he hoped would bridge the divide between people and reduce ethnic conflict. The second thing is that I have been reading The Vanquished: Why The First World War Failed To End by Robert Gerwarth. The book details the enormous amount of ethnic conflict that erupted after the end of the First World War and continued simmering until erupting again in the Second World War.

Before I can discuss either book, it’s necessary to explain the ethnic situation in Europe at the start of the 20th century. There were almost no nation-states (states that represented one nationality), instead there was a multitude of ethnicities and peoples living under the same rule. Ethnic maps of that time are misleading as they try to paint only one colour in each area, implying that only one ethnicity lived there. In reality, there were no clear borders, especially in Eastern Europe where there was enormous multicultural overlap and most areas had a significant number of minorities. Multinational empires were the norm.

Maps like these massively simplify the complex ethnic and linguistic state of Europe

For example, the native languages in Zamenhof’s native town of Bialystok, according to the 1897 census, were 62% Yiddish, 17% Polish, 10% Russian, 6% German and 4% Belorussian. This doesn’t exactly equal ethnicity, as Zamenhof himself was a Jew who could speak Yiddish, but Russian was his native language. However, to complicate matters further, the rural area surrounding the town were overwhelmingly Polish and Belorussian. So the natives languages of the 200,000 people in the Bialystok District (both rural and urban) were 34% Polish, 28% Yiddish, 26% Belorussian, 7% Russian, 4% German. There were also speakers of Ukrainian, Tartar, Lithuanian and Chuvash. So while the idea of each people deciding which country they belong to sounds great in theory, it is almost impossible to put it into practice. What country should Bialystok belong to?

This was the problem Zamenhof was trying to address. Multiculturalism was a fact of life that couldn’t be avoided. It wasn’t feasible to divide the area into separate communities, there was too much overlap. Esperanto wasn’t meant to be just a fun language to be used on your foreign holidays, he aimed for it to be used in the day-to-day life of people. Different languages weren’t something foreign spoken hundreds of miles away, they were spoken across the street. Of course, it wasn’t possible for everyone to learn every language in the area and many people refused to use other languages out of national pride. This lead to division and suspicion between the different groups.

There was a clear need for a common language, but no consent on which language it should be. Bialystok was part of the Russian Empire so there were efforts to push Russian, but this was resisted by other groups. The Jews were the largest group in the town, but given the hostility to them, there was no chance of Christians speaking Yiddish. Poles, Belarusians and Germans all made pushes for their language and were unwilling to accept the others. Zamenhof believed that only a neutral language would be accepted by all groups so a newly invented language would be a fair compromise. The fact that Esperanto didn’t have a history or culture behind it was part of the selling point.

Of course, a common language alone wouldn’t have removed all ethnic tensions and prevented conflict. The Northern Irish conflict for example, was between two native English speaking groups. However, it would have been much harder to reach a compromise and overcome the hatred without a common language. A common language is a necessary but not sufficient condition for co-operation and understanding. It helps but doesn’t achieve the aim by itself.

There was only two ways that the diversity issue of Europe could have been overcome. Either through some sort of uniter like Esperanto that brought people together, or else they would have to be forcibly separated. The first option was certainly idealistic and even utopian, and would have cost time and effort as people learned the new language. However, the second option had even higher costs. If every people were to have its own country, then what would happen to multi-ethnic towns? If Poland were to become a Polish nation-state then what would happen to all the non-Poles? If no compromise could be reached, then there was a danger that each ethnic group would fight it out for dominance or at least survival. Other peoples would have to be driven out to ensure your group dominated. Only major ethnic conflict and ethnic cleansing could create homogenous nation-states across Europe.

Unfortunately, this is the road Europe went down.

The First World War is exactly the kind of conflict Zamenhof dedicated his life to avoiding (and he must have been heartbroken when he died in 1917). It exploded in 1914 for many reasons, but nationalism was a major reason in convincing men to fight and die for their country. Even after the war, the violence continued as people fought over the shape of the new successor states. The idea of what a country should be also changed, now people wanted a state for their people alone. Blood was shed and people uprooted to determine where the new borders would be drawn. As I mentioned above, there were no clear lines, so the military cleared out undesirable people.

L.L. Zamenhof, the creator of Esperanto

The end of the First World War lead to a collapse of the central and eastern European empires and new states built on the principles of self-determination. But what happens to minorities in these new states? What many people don’t realise is that the multi-national empires were replaced by smaller multi-national states and almost every new state had an ethnic minority. This was most obvious in the case of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, later renamed Yugoslavia, whose very name demonstrates its multi-ethnic nature. This state had a combination of Serbs, Croats, Bosnians, Slovenes, Montenegrins, Italians, Albanians and Macedonians. Poland was a mixture of Poles, Germans, Ukrainians and Jews, Czechoslovakia had Czechs, Slovaks, Hungarians and Jews, and ethnic Russians were barely a majority in the Soviet Union.

Minorities outside the state were also an issue and nationalists aimed to return their people to their natural home (as they saw it). The Nazis were able to exploit German anger at the exclusion of other Germans from the nation and fear that they were suppressed under a foreign government. The unification of Germans in Austria, Czechoslovakia and Poland was a major aim of theirs. This irredentism was common in many countries, and desires for a Greater Hungary, Italy and Bulgaria lead to these countries allying with Germany in the Second World War to expand their state.

Nationalists were sometimes willing to overlook the opinion of the local people if it clashed with nationalist symbols. For example, Irish nationalists strongly believe that the whole island of Ireland belongs to the Irish people and that an Irish state should control the entire island. However, the Protestants of the Northern Ireland wanted to remain in the British Empire, a decision Irish Nationalists refused to accept. Even though a majority of Northern Ireland wished to remain in Britain, there was a significant Irish Catholic minority that desired an Irish state. Failure to resolve this dispute lead to decades of ethnic conflict.


When the (muroj de miljaroj) walls that had divided people for thousands of years couldn’t be removed by (nia dilegenta kolegaro) the diligent workers for peace, then they were removed by the (glavo sangon soifanta) bloodthirsty sword. The Balkan Wars lead to the first waves of ethnic cleansing of the 20th century as newly established states burnt the villages of other ethnicities in order to strengthen their claim to territory. The most formal example was the 1923 agreement between Greece and Turkey for a population exchange that affected 2 million people. Muslims had been living in the Balkans for centuries and Greek had been spoken on the Turkish coast for thousands of years, but the time of peaceful cohabitation came to an end. Both governments felt that there would be conflict as long as there was a “foreign” ethnicity on their soil, so deportation was preferred. Greeks were deported from Turkey and Turks from Greece, back to their “homeland”.

All across Europe there was tension and conflict as each ethnic group strived to build a homogenous nation-state for their people alone. Nationalism and Fascism were able to exploit fears and suspicions of other people to argue that only among our own people could we be secure and prosperous. Peaceful co-operation and understanding was weakness and unrealistic, an iron fist was needed to deal with “them”. This reached a nadir with the Second World War and the Holocaust, when millions of people were killed and conquered to boost national pride. The Jews suffered worst of all as they had no homeland of their own and were seen everywhere as intruders in need of expelling. Zamenhof’s three children were all killed in the Holocaust.

After the Second World War, drastic steps were taken to ensure future security and eliminate the risk of further ethnic conflict. To remove any risk of future German nationalism or irredentism, 12 million Germans were deported from Poland, Czechoslovakia, Soviet Union, Hungary, Romania and Yugoslavia. The city of Stettin went from being almost entirely German to being almost entirely Polish (and renamed Szczecin). It was only at this point, after the extermination of Jews in the Holocaust and deportation of Germans, that Eastern European countries became nation-states.

130 years ago, Europe was struggling to find a solution to its problems of ethnic diversity and conflict. Zamenhof proposed that these barriers could be peacefully removed by his international language, Esperanto. Instead, the potential for conflict was removed by ethnic cleansing and deporting tens of millions of people in order to create a homogenous nation-state. It’s hard to argue that this was the best choice.

Esperanto is still actively spoken and used today by roughly two million people, although their reasons are different from those originally advanced by Zamenhof. Few now learn it to prevent ethnic conflict or to reach out to different ethnic groups in their hometown. In a world of monolingual nation-states, people don’t need it to speak to their neighbours. Instead it is learned for fun, to travel and meet new people or simply because people have an interest in languages. Today Bialystok is 97% Polish and 2.5% Belorussian, but still has an active Esperanto club. La espero daŭre vivas. The hope lives on.

The flag of Esperanto

7 thoughts on “Esperanto and Ethnic Conflict Since 1887”

    1. Very likely because Latinate alphabets are more widespread in the world as ALL the languages of the West are written with them, thus a Latinate-based alphabet made Esperanto more international than a Cyrillic or Hebrew alphabet (Yiddish is written using that alphabet) would have done. Western culture being the dominant culture in both Europe and the world, a Latinate alphabet was also necessary for Esperanto to be accepted by that culture.

      1. And the flip-side is, that’s why Zamenhof devised the often denigrated letters ĉ, ĝ, ĥ, ĵ, ŝ and ŭ — which critics often complain about, on the grounds that those letters don’t exist in any other, national-language alphabet (and hence, not in any other language’s typography).

        The diacritics did already exist in other languages with “latin” alphabets, but no other language used them on those particular letters, so they wouldn’t be seen as favouring some particular language (but presumably wouldn’t be very difficult to add to any typsetters’ boxes.

  1. And the flip-side is, that’s why Zamenhof devised the often denigrated letters ĉ, ĝ, ĥ, ĵ, ŝ and ŭ — which critics often complain about, on the grounds that those letters don’t exist in any other, national-language alphabet (and hence, not in any other language’s typography).

    The diacritics did already exist in other languages with “latin” alphabets, but no other language used them on those particular letters, so they wouldn’t be seen as favouring some particular language (but presumably wouldn’t be very difficult to add to any typsetters’ boxes.

  2. Letters ĉ, ĝ, ĥ, ĵ, ŝ and ŭ are a very smart way to show how to spell certain sounds.
    Compare letters ĉ and ŝ with hundreds of ways to show the same sounds in Swedish.
    ĝ shows a soft g, my town Göteborg has a soft g but not in English,
    ĥ, ĵ, are fine when you learn languages in Netherland, Spain and France.
    ŭ this is the double u! You see the little u above the big u.
    And in English you write W.

  3. People who use these beautiful letters can now learn esperanto

    საერთაშორისო კომუნიკაციაში ძალიან სასარგებლო ენა

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