No phrase has had greater political resonance in the last one hundred years than “self-determination.” As Eric D. Weitz notes in “Self-Determination: How a German Enlightenment Idea Became the Slogan of National Liberation and a Human Right,” since the 1940s it has become the favored slogan of nationalist and anticolonial movements around the globe, written into virtually every major human rights declaration. In its origins, however, self-determination was an Enlightenment concept relating to individuals. From the late eighteenth century to World War I, it evolved from a primarily individualist into a collectivist doctrine. Weitz tracks this dramatic, often unnoticed transformation, untangling the diverse meanings of self-determination to examine the dilemmas intrinsic to the history of human rights, notably the tension between individual and collective rights. He provides an account of the different meanings of self-determination to the socialist movement of the nineteenth century, beginning with its major Enlightenment proponent, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, as well as to its many advocates in the twentieth. As self-determination became a doctrine related to national or racial belonging, it lost much of its Enlightenment meaning as a concept fundamental to individual self-constitution and emancipation. Self-determination's twentieth-century proponents argued that individual rights flowed naturally and smoothly from national liberation, but the same doctrine that underpinned the emancipation of the national or racial elect could justify the brutal exclusion of others.
Wednesday, April 22, 2015
Weitz: Self-Determination: How a German Enlightenment Idea Became the Slogan of National Liberation and a Human Right
Eric D. Weitz (City College of New York - History) has published Self-Determination: How a German Enlightenment Idea Became the Slogan of National Liberation and a Human Right (American Historical Review, Vol. 120, no. 2, pp. 462-496, April 2015). Here's the abstract: