National Personal Autonomy: Definition & Examples

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

How can ethnic minorities within a country be guaranteed their own rights? How about national personal autonomy? In this lesson, we'll examine this idea and see how it's been applied throughout history.

Ethnicity and Empire in Europe

Why did World War I occur? This is a complex question, but the event that most directly caused WWI was the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Okay, so why was Franz Ferdinand assassinated? It was a response to the Austro-Hungarians domination of several ethnic groups in East/Central Europe.

Ethnic conflict was a big source of tension in the early 20th century, and a major cause of World War I. Major empires conquered ethnic groups and incorporated them into the empire, thus preventing these ethnic groups from being able to form nation-states of their own. In extreme cases, ethnic groups within these empires were marginalized, oppressed, and even murdered. It was a big issue, and one that started gaining the attention of radical thinkers. One solution they came up with was a system of ethnic self-rule known as national personal autonomy.

National Personal Autonomy

So, how do you ensure that ethnic groups are legally protected in a continent of empires? How about letting them basically govern themselves? This was the basic idea behind national personal autonomy, a political theory advanced by the Austro-Marxists (social democrats of Austria). Major proponents of this theory included Karl Renner and Vladimir Medem, although the definitive manifesto of national personal autonomy was found in the 1907 book The Question of Nationalities and Social Democracy by Otto Bauer.

Otto Bauer, principal proponent of national personal autonomy
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According to the Austro-Marxist school of thought, national personal autonomy would be a way to organize people of a shared ethnic identity beyond the confines of state borders and boundaries. Through self-rule, ethnic groups could formally organize their own nations, sometimes within existing countries and sometimes across existing state borders.

So, how would this work? Vladimir Medem outlined a system of national personal autonomy in his 1904 Social Democracy and the National Question, based on the following concepts:

  • ''All citizens belonging to a given national {ethnic} group would join a special organization that would hold cultural assemblies...The assemblies would be given financial {taxing} powers of their own...the state would allocate a portion of its overall budget to each of them.''
  • ''Every citizen of the state would belong to one of the national groups, but the question of which...to join would be a matter of personal choice.''
  • Each group ''would be subject to the general legislation of the state, but in their own areas of responsibility they would be autonomous.''

In short, a place like the Austria would be broken into ethnic groups (Serbians, Poles, Jews, etc). Each ethnic group gets its own assembly, and gets to make laws and financial decision for the people of that ethnic nation.

Ethnic groups of Austria-Hungary in 1910
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Nation and State

This was an interesting idea. By the 20th century, the nation-state (what we might call a country) was the definitive model of geopolitical organization in Europe. For most people, the nation-state required two elements: the nation (the collective body of people with a shared identity) and the state (the geopolitical borders and government that controls it). The Austro-Marxists were among the first to formally propose separating the nation from the state.

National personal autonomy proposed de-territorializing the nation, or organizing ethnic groups into a national unit without having to confine them within geopolitical borders. Any ethnic person belonged to the ethnic nation, regardless of where in the country they lived. You didn't have to move to a single community to be part of the ethnic nation. The result, according to Otto Bauer, was a ''non-territorial association''. Basically, the ethnic nation was understood as a corporate body without definitively associated territory. In Bauer's own words, the goal was to ''organize nations not in territorial bodies but in simple association of peoples''.

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