The European State Teaching Us a Thing or Two About Referendums

Why you should care

Saarland’s fate was decided by two referendums, which led to the same outcome but in very different ways.

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When discussing Europe’s great breakaway regions, Saarland rarely comes up. Catalonia, Basque Country and Wallonia are typically top of mind, but the Saar valley, disputed for decades, is today solidly part of Germany, which is what makes it such a striking success story.

Thickly forested and just 992 square miles, Saarland was part of France for much of the 19th century, until changing hands to become a German area during the Franco-Prussian War in the 1870s. And so it remained, until after World War I, when the territory was administered by the League of Nations and given a 15-year cooling-off period, after which its citizens could decide whether they wanted to be part of France or to rejoin Germany. That referendum came around in 1935 — and Germany’s then leader, Adolf Hitler, wanted Saarland back.

He got it — via propaganda, says Matt Qvortrup, a professor of political science at Coventry University. “The Germans used the referendum as a test case. They actually handed out radios for free to everybody, with just one frequency, and the only frequency was Hitler talking about how Saarland must be returned to the Reich.”

Saarland achieved what recent referendums in Britain and Spain failed to achieve: It resolved a dilemma, rather than stirring up more trouble.

Reclaiming the Saar was by no means a sure thing prior to the propaganda campaign. After Hitler’s rise in 1933, many anti-Nazis had taken refuge in the region and worked to preserve its independence. But they were no match for the Nazi campaign, which combined fear — by spreading rumors that the ballot wouldn’t be secret and anyone voting against Germany could be sent to concentration camps — with nationalism, declaring a Day of the Saar and devoting entire broadcasts to the German character of Saarland’s residents.

Not surprisingly, Germany got its way. Nearly 90 percent of the voters opted to join the Reich, considered a major foreign policy win for Hitler and a proof of concept for the propaganda machine that would churn throughout World War II. The referendum wouldn’t be considered rigged by today’s standards, says Qvortrup, but it was certainly the first to deploy modern technologies to such successful, and sinister, ends.

After World War II, Saarland was once again under French control, this time as a protectorate. Other German provinces were annexed and had their native populations kicked out, but not Saarland. France chose instead to take economic control of the region rather than absorbing it. That rankled some in the region who felt Saarland was being treated as a colony: “For Saarlanders, the tricolor had gone from a symbol of liberty, fraternity and equality in 1946 and 1947 to that of imperialistic control in 1954 and 1955,” writes Bronson Long in No Easy Occupation: French Control of the German Saar, 1944–1957. Nine years after the takeover, France put forth plans for Saarland to become an independent state, with the decision left to residents in the region’s second decisive referendum. The option to rejoin Germany wasn’t on the ballot this time, but when more than two-thirds of voters rejected a plan to go it alone, it was interpreted as Saarlanders’ wish to be part of Germany again. On Jan. 1, 1957, that’s exactly what happened.

“What’s interesting about the 1955 vote is that it’s a case of a very contentious issue actually being resolved by referendum,” Qvortrup says. “It puts a line under what had been almost 100 years of ethnic conflict.… It’s almost a model of how you can solve contentious issues by direct democracy.” Saarland achieved what recent referendums in Britain and Spain failed to achieve: It resolved a dilemma, rather than stirring up more trouble.

So what did the second Saarland referendum do right? It didn’t hurt that the two main governmental parties, France and Germany, refused to let the issue stir up animosity between them. But perhaps more consequential was the voting split: With 68 percent denouncing independence after what was considered a free and fair campaign, there was little debate about what Saarlanders wanted. Allowing for the occasional exception, Qvortrup says, “as a general rule, if you have a very large majority in a democratic country, you can say, ‘Well, that’s it.’” Naturally, in undemocratic countries the rule may not apply: South Vietnam passed a referendum in 1955 in which Prime Minister Ngô Đình Diệm and his proposals for a republic reportedly garnered 600,000 votes — even though only 450,000 people were registered to vote.

Economic issues tend to dominate discussions about a shift in national identity, but the question of whether autonomy or rejoining Germany would be more economically advantageous for Saarland isn’t thought to have been the deciding factor. Instead, the motivation was far more emotional than practical: Saarlanders felt they were German, so they voted to remain German. That type of appeal, says Qvortrup, is often underestimated in referendum votes. It’s thought to be responsible for the Brexit upset, and while failing to give Scottish independence campaigners a victory, it provided a better-than-expected outcome in their 2014 plebescite. “In the Saarland referendum,” Qvortrup says, “as in the Scottish referendum, as in the Brexit referendum, emotional issues are more important than we tend to think.”

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