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"Every national border in Europe," El Eswad added ironically, "marks the place where two gangs of bandits got too exhausted to kill each other anymore and signed a treaty. Patriotism is the delusion that one of these gangs of bandits is better than all the others."
—Robert Anton Wilson[1]

Irredentism is the nationalist belief that a territory belonging to another country should be annexed for ethnic or historical reasons.

Irredentism is to be distinguished from territorial expansionism, in that irredentism claims to advocate taking back land that is "rightfully ours," while expansionism advocates annexation regardless of whether the territory was "ours" in the first place.[2] The name of the hypothetical country resulting from successful annexation frequently contains the word "Greater," such as, for example, in GreaterWikipedia's W.svg Serbia, GreaterWikipedia's W.svg AlbaniaWikipedia's W.svg, GreaterWikipedia's W.svg Greece, GreaterWikipedia's W.svg India, GreaterWikipedia's W.svg Russia, GreaterWikipedia's W.svg Hungary, GreaterWikipedia's W.svg Romania, and GreaterWikipedia's W.svg Bulgaria. (There is, however, no Greater Switzerland. Oddly enough, Switzerland also hasn't been at war for over 150 years,[3][4][5] but that's probably just a coincidence.)


According to the political ideology of ethnolinguistic nationalism, a nation-state must encompass all the speakers of a given language and have only one official language.[6] The first principle meant that multiple nation-states would often clash over the same region, as completely monolingual regions are more the exception than the rule. The second meant that nation-states would pursue ethnic homogenization in their territories through deportations, population transfers, forced assimilation, or even massacres in order to destroy any existing linguistic diversity.[6][7][8] Fortunately, irredentism usually does not receive the official support it once did.[2][9][7]

Gimme gimme gimme![edit]

If the American desires the greatness and prosperity of the States before all nations, and the Englishman desires the same for his nation, and the Russian, Turk, Dutchman, Abyssinian, Venezuelan, Boer, Armenian, Pole, Czech, each have a similar desire; if all are convinced that these desires ought not to be concealed and suppressed, but, on the contrary, are something to be proud of, and to be encouraged in oneself and in others; and if one country's greatness and prosperity can only be obtained at the expense of another, or at times of many other countries and nations; then how can war not be?
—Leo Tolstoy, Patriotism, or Peace?[11]

Irredentism often seeks to expand a given country to its maximum historical extent, regardless of whether the irredentists' ethnic group ever actually formed the majority in the territories in question. Examples include the irredentist claims by Hungarian right-wing extremists to the entire Pannonian Basin, ultra-Zionists to Jordan, or irredentist claims by Russian conservatives (including Vladimir Putin) to the Baltic States, Ukraine, Poland (of which they already shaved the eastern third) Finland (see previously listed affair), and Alaska[12] (which they sold at what was considered by some a more than fair price ("Seward's Folly"[13])). In a sense, West Germany had irredentist attitudes in claiming that East Germany was a part of Germany, too.

The goal of irredentism[edit]

Irredentists often provide lengthy justifications as to why a region rightly belongs to their country, but do not clarify how such transfer of land would in itself be beneficial (and much less whether it would be worth the costs a war would bring). For instance, the territories claimed by irredentists may have no or a negligible presence of their ethnic group[7] (rendering claims of "our brothers are being oppressed" moot), and in some areas (such as the European Union) there may be no barrier to travel, meaning the irredentists can go there any time as if it were in their own country.

In addition, it is often the case that even when minorities are forcibly assimilated, the actual individuals do not disappear; they merely begin speaking another language. In this situation, an irredentist war would cause actual loss of life and suffering far worse than any language shift or name changes. Even if the assimilatory policies are violent, an irredentist conflict will likely increase, rather than diminish, death and suffering. Another issue is that if the irredentist country successfully wages an irredentist war, it may in turn implement similar assimilatory policies, but this time directed towards the other ethnic group, and it is unclear why this would be preferable to the previous situation.

Even if all members of the minority in the contested region were to become assimilated, the language would in many cases still have a large number of speakers in its respective nation-state and be in no danger of dying out. It would only cease to be spoken in one (often very small) area, but the continuance of the language as a whole would in no way be threatened. It is unclear what point there would be in expanding a state's territory to "defend the language" when the very fact of its existence already guarantees the language's survival, even without any territorial enlargement. Perhaps the point is not to ensure the survival of the language, but to increase the number of its speakers, for whatever reason. But such a goal could be more easily (and peacefully) achieved by simply promoting higher birth rates. The goal might be to ensure that the language be spoken in that particular area, but why should this be so? Why would it not be enough for the language to have an assured existence within the irredentist's currently existing nation-state? Surely it would be preferable for a language's speakers to live in peacetime in an unchanging area rather than to be constantly tormented by war and bloodshed (the inevitable result of the endless cycle of irredentism) in exchange for a slightly larger area to move around in. Not to mention that changing the official language of the area would probably not ease poverty, lack of access to education or healthcare, or many other real problems that nationalists so often ignore[14] in favor of the much simpler (and pointless) goal of satisfying their urge to get rid of "foreigners".[note 1]

Irredentism in education[edit]

See the main article on this topic: Nationalism in history textbooks
On this globe there are national boundaries marked, but on photographs of the Earth from space, there are no national boundaries to be seen, which is perhaps a useful lesson for politicians.
Carl Sagan[15]

One cause of irredentism, both presently and historically, has been educational systems. Education is often used as a means of instilling nationalism, xenophobia, exclusionary ethnic loyalty, irredentist attitudes, and the idea that only one ethnic group has the "right" to live in a certain area.

See also[edit]


  1. See also Lyndon B. Johnson's quote about xenophobic politicians: "If you can convince the lowest white man he's better than the best colored man, he won't notice you're picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he'll empty his pockets for you."