Mikael Bodlore-Penlaez,
Atlas of Stateless Nations in Europe,
translated by Sarah Finn & Ciaran Finn
(Y Lolfa, 2011)

In many parts of Europe, if you keep your eyes and ears open, a hidden country will reveal itself -- one that the casual traveler might not see. You might think you're in Spain, France, Belgium or Italy, but according to the locals, you may actually be in Catalonia, Occitania, Flanders or Friulia. This new book is a true eye-opener to this hidden Europe.

According to author Mikael Bodlore-Penlaez, there may be at least 30 "stateless nations" in Europe. These also include Wales, Basque Country, Sardinia, Friesland and many more, some known, some unheard of by anyone but themselves. There are also many peoples and regions in search of more autonomy. These entities aren't necessarily seeking independence, but they may have their own language, their own history (possibly as an independent state) or simply a will for recognition.

An estimated 50 million of the 450 million Europeans speak a minority language, the author contends. This may even be low when you look at countries like Spain, where autonomous governments have kept local languages alive, where almost a third of the inhabitants speak either Catalan, Galician or Basque.

If you look closely at France, it is not one nation as Paris would have it, but here includes, clockwise from the North: Flemings, Walloons, Alsatians, Savoyards, Occitans, Corsicans, Catalans, Basques and Bretons.

Many people know the Swiss have four languages and the Belgians three. But how about Italy? In fact, the Italian state is young -- it came together in the 1860s out of diverse elements presumed to be similar -- but its differences are becoming more and more evident as time passes. And even Germany is not as "German" as one supposes.

While some may feel national movements, as expressed in the politics of stateless peoples, is "old school" in a united Europe, or even somewhat "right-wing," the Breton-speaking author of this atlas holds that most of these movements are progressive in nature. In fact, if central governments can be seen by some as repressive, even warlike, as servants of global capitalism, local communities and movements can serve as a strong counterweight to these forces.

One exception which proves the rule is the Lega Nord's conception of a Northern Italy "free" from supporting the country's impoverished South. The idea of Padania, is, the author claims, an "artificial region" not supported by language or history. By contrast, history shows that Northern Italy was seldom if ever a united entity between Roman times and the recent past. Venice, Piedmont and Genoa, for instance, were independent for centuries and linguistically distinct also.

Most of the peoples described are looking for more respect for their indigenous languages and cultures, much like the First Nations in North America. For instance, Spain and France will not permit Catalan to be spoken in their national parliaments in Paris and Madrid, despite the fact that there are more Catalan speakers in Europe than there are Norwegian, Danish, Slovenian, Estonian, Latvian or Maltese, full national EU languages. Catalan is spoken by about 10 million native speakers in four countries, including five autonomous regions of Spain (across about 12 provinces).

Another large region, Occitania, has 15 million inhabitants. Occitan (in at least six variants) is spoken right across the south of France, and in Spanish and Italian territory as well. Scotland, by contrast, with its two indigenous living languages, bases its drive to independence more on its historic and cultural status than on language.

A glance at any of these pages reminds us that most "nation states" were imposed by force over much of their area; that they were intellectually constructed after the fact of conquest; and that centralized languages were imposed on many people or regions. It reminds us that within our local communities and families many of us feel we belong to a quite different collectivity than that centrally imposed; and that only through institutions such as school, the army and television do these artificial constructs have any hold over us. We are also reminded that the history taught in school is only part of the story. Each people has its own history which is not necessarily reflected in school curricula or on TV.

Bodlore-Penlaez is cataloging the claims of these peoples, but it is not in the scope of this book to ask why these claims are arising today. What is the point of offering more autonomy to various regional groups? What does the study of Basque or Welsh, for instance, offer us in a global village? Research shows growing up bilingual offers many advantages. One can notice, for instance, how easy it is for bilingual children in places like Bavaria or Basque Country to learn English as a third language. Bilingualism in Wales has been linked to enhanced abilities in math, and native bilinguals also have been known to enjoy lower rates of dementia in old age. The diversity of languages simply adds to the sum of human understanding. This has not stopped the centralized states from trying to destroy bilingual societies or to deny their existence. Which leads us to the demands for more autonomy and linguistic rights....

Finally, there is nothing written in stone about the current political boundaries; borders change through history and have always done so, and not always at the will of the peoples involved. Since 1990, Europe has seen many new countries emerge. Even so, the author's Stateless Nations project has also evolved since the publication of this book with the addition of such areas as Sicily, Venice and Bavaria on his online maps.

This 160-page atlas, published in Wales, is one of the first detailed attempts to outline the fascinating stories of these diverse national movements and the histories of these oft-forgotten peoples. I can only salute the author for this work, which is inherently highly controversial. Even as complete as it is, there are a few (very few) stickler comments including some awkwardness in the English translation. The inclusion of an entry for the Roma (Gypsy) people would also be helpful, although they have not been known for specific territorial claims.

This book also does not deal with the new Europe of immigrants; the Turks of Germany, for instance: this would be another book. It's ironic that the old continent, which for 500 years sent settlers to every habitable place on the planet, seems to be having so much trouble absorbing small numbers of newcomers itself. Ironically, more respect for Europe's own innate diversity might lead to more a welcoming attitude to new Europeans.

Many parts of Europe, and of the world, have their own histories, languages and self-awareness as a community, if not a full desire for independence. We are just beginning to learn about these peoples around the world and how much they contribute to our common store of knowledge of what it means to be human. This atlas is a worthy contribution to this study.

[ See the author's website for updates and further information ]

book review by
David Cox

20 July 2013

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