Self-Determination along the Austrian Frontier, 1918-1920: Case Studies of German Bohemia, Vorarlberg, and Carinthia
The First World War led to the collapse of a number of prominent European empires, allowing for the spread of new ideas into Europe. US President Woodrow Wilson’s rhetoric of national self-determination attracted particular symbolic importance because it legitimised popular sovereignty through the use of plebiscites. German-Austrians, like other national groups within the Austro-Hungarian Empire, used self-determination to justify establishing independent successor states after the war. The German-Austrian Republic, founded in 1918, claimed all German-speaking regions of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire on the basis of self-determination. This thesis examines claims to self-determination in three different cases: German Bohemia, Vorarlberg, and Carinthia. Representatives from each region took their case to the Paris Peace Conference, appealing to the Allied delegations to grant international recognition. These representatives faced much opposition, both from local non-German populations and occasionally even from the German-Austrian government itself. German-Austrian politicians in the Czech lands opposed the incorporation of German-majority lands into Czechoslovakia, and instead sought to establish an autonomous German Bohemian province as part of German-Austria. In Paris, Allied delegations supported the historic frontier of the Czech lands, and therefore opposed local German self-determination outright, refusing demands for a plebiscite in German Bohemia. Vorarlberg representatives sought Vorarlberg’s secession from German-Austria, hoping instead for union with Switzerland. Vorarlbergers held a plebiscite to join Switzerland on their own initiative, initially with some degree of international support, but ultimately the international community, fearful of the disintegration of Austria, refused to allow Vorarlbergers to realise their wishes. Carinthian German representatives opposed Yugoslav claims to sovereignty over the region, seeking to remain part of German-Austria. Disagreements between and within the Allied delegations over Carinthia resulted in a decision to hold a plebiscite, which showed a majority in favour of remaining part of Austria. The thesis suggests that the implementation of self-determination in the Carinthian case resulted in a more successful resolution of border disputes. Unlike in the other two cases, the new Carinthian border mostly reflected the desires of the local population. Despite idealistic rhetoric, the final Austrian frontier suggested that Allied delegations at the Paris Peace Conference routinely favoured strategic justifications over self-determination.