Ethnos or demos? Some reflections on (anti-)minority politics

Conflicts between national minorities and majorities have sadly become a routine part of politics in Europe today. Beyond the political, societal and social conflict between national minority(-ies) and majority(-ies), an ever-present and important role is also played by the increasingly fine distinctions in terminology as well as the insinuation of interpretative overtones within the constellation of conflicts – therefore, in the analysis of minorities conflicts, it is never irrelevant as to whether one speaks of a minority, a nationality, or a Volksgruppe (ethnic group; the meaning of the german term Volk or Volksgruppe is impossible to translate in English, but important, because of its implications of an essential understanding of collective difference, used by the far right).

This is because each of these terms implies a specific understanding of how the conflict should be handled, and these understandings are in many respects mutually exclusive. Here, the key categories – according to which a solution to minorities conflicts can and must be discussed – are defined first by the question as to whether a minorities policy is oriented towards the individual and his/her protection from discrimination, or the collective and its (dis-)entitlement through discriminatory laws. This is connected to a more general understanding of minorities and nations: are these to be understood in the sense of a demos, or in the sense of an ethnos? The first option emphasizes the democratic mutability of identities as assigned by the self and by others, while the second option tries to insist on an immutable set of identities, using this concept of ethnic identity to permanently exclude and isolate other people.

The conception of nations and minorities – based on the demos model – is built upon the principle that a population constitutes a nation-state arising from a conception of sovereignty, which assumes the existence of a political equality regardless of other criteria such as language, origin, culture and social status, and exercises state sovereignty accordingly, which means ruling over itself using defined representative mechanisms. Within democratic theory, this model could be typologically described according to Ernst Fraenkel (“Deutschland und die westlichen Demokratien”, Frankfurt 1991: 326) as an “autonomously legitimate, heterogeneously structured, pluralistically organized constitutional state”. According to the social conception founded on the demos model, membership in a nation or minority is not simply a result of citizenship papers; rather, one is a citizen in the full sense of the French citoyen, freely choosing to legally identify oneself as a member of the nation and to share responsibility for this constituent state.

This can be contrasted against the attitudes, conceptions, and political movements emerging from the theory of the ethnos, taking as a basis the ethnic interpretation of the nation and/or the minority as a Volk or Volksgruppe. Here, one attempts to build an identity between the members of an ethnic group, the territory they populate, and their formal membership within respective regional and/or state organizations. In this conception, the imperative nature of ethnicity becomes the central focus, forming above all the constitutional foundation of the Volk, which is understood as a comprehensive ethnic collective. This ethnic identity, built upon linguistic, cultural and historical traditions which are partly factual, partly fictive, is used to legitimize the struggle for ethnic independence, contributing to broader demands for cultural and/or state autonomy within the framework of a collective interpretation of minorities rights.

The third basic dimension emerging is the question of whether minorities conflicts must or should be solved through political or legal means. Here, historical experience offers valuable clues indicating that the answers to this question are never absolute, but only relative, because the potential for shaping political solutions is also dependent on how well the existing laws already protect minorities from discrimination. This in turn points to the importance of the national context of minorities conflicts, because the handling of minorities conflicts must still be ultimately worked out in practical terms within a nation-state’s societal spaces.

This brings up the question of how much a political culture is characterized by ethnic fragmentation and how much by democratic participation. Here, according to Anton Pelinka (Überwindung oder Vertiefung von Hegemonie? Politische Kultur „lernen“. In Politische Kultur. Forschungsstand und Forschungsperspektiven, edited by Samuel Salzborn, Frankfurt 2009) and Arend Lijphart (Patterns of Democracy: Government Forms and Performance in Thirty-Six Countries, New Haven 1999), fragmentation within a society means the existence of sub societies that assign themselves a specific identity informing political loyalties and a particular political attitude – for or against the state in which they live. The more a political culture and thereby its political system tolerates or even encourages ethnic fragmentation, the stronger the centrifugal tendencies become within a society, which can lead to an erosion of the political order and ultimately to its destruction due to ethnopolitical forces.

With regard to the radical right one has to point out: their ethnopolitical ideas are in fundamentally opposition to a pluralistic society. Therefore, a concept of minorities understood as demos should be consistently preferred to those regarding to the concept of ethnos.

Dr Samuel Salzborn is a Senior Fellow at CARR and an Adjunct Professor of Political Science, University Giessen. See his profile here.

© Samuel Salzborn. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).