Have you ever stopped to think what would happen if every ethnic group or nation tried to regain the territory it held 100 years ago? What about 1,000? If you're thinking that this could be disruptive, you'd be right: and you'd also be describing the impetus behind some of the bloodiest conflicts in history

Irredentism Irredentism

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    Who gets to say who gets which territory, anyway? It's a messy and often unfair process, particularly when millions have to move somewhere else because the lands they were born on have now been allotted to a nation that has a prior claim. That's irredentism for you. Though the world is probably lucky that most irredentist claims stay in the realm of the theoretical, those that are acted upon turn into invasions, ethnic cleansings, genocides, civil wars, terrorism, and even world wars.

    Irredentism Definition

    Nationalism, usually ethnicity-based but also connected to religion and other cultural/historical factors, is the primary driver of irredentism. Throughout history, we have seen waves of irredentist activity after the disintegration of states. This may derive from successor states like modern-day Russia, the core of the old USSR, that wish to regain lost territory, or from newly-independent ethnic nations that have become nation-states, reviving or inventing old claims. It's a messy process.

    Irredentism: the theory and sometimes practice of restoring territories that are claimed to have once belonged to a (usually ethnic or ethnoreligious) nation. An irredenta is a land area claimed by political movements in a sovereign state different from the one that it is internationally recognized as belonging to.

    Irredentism Examples

    There are many paths to irredentism, whether the irredenta was lost in last year's border war or in a half- imagined injustice centuries ago. Desire to seize territory may be based purely on religion or myth. Irredenta sometimes contain valuable resources or geopolitical importance (e.g., a choke point or oil) suggesting pecuniary motives for a country trying to "regain its own."

    One clue irredentism is in the air is the term "Greater _______" referencing a present-day nation-state. "Greater Serbia," for example, was a guiding concept in the Balkan Wars of the 1990s. The term refers to an imagined or actual historical territory of greater extent than at present; irredentists use it to plant the idea that there could someday be a restoration of that former territory, whether or not any actual members of the current nation-state's ethnic group(s) still inhabit it.

    Of the hundreds of examples of irredentism active on all continents at present or in recent history (even Antarctica, with an irredentist claim by Argentina!), we discuss three of major world significance.

    Nazi Germany

    Probably no European country has taken its irredentist claims to extremes as tragic as Germany during the Third Reich with its geopolitical and cultural concept of Lebensraum (living space) that included not only German colonization of Slavic lands (and removal of their non-German inhabitants) but also regaining territory where Germans lived: Alsace-Lorraine in France, the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia, Austria (the Anschluss in 1938), and the Polish Corridor.

    The rise of Hitler's Germany tapped into German resentment of territorial losses, particularly after World War I. Germany had, after all, been a world-spanning empire at one time. Pan-Germanism, referring to unification of German lands and peoples, did not begin with Hitler, but it does appear to have ended with him.

    Israel and Palestine

    Zionism was an 1800s Christian-and-Jewish-led geopolitical project seeking to restore Palestine, then part of the Ottoman Empire, to the "people of Israel" as their "promised land." The movement to resettle Jews there continued through the British Mandate to the founding of the State of Israel in 1948 and continues today. The right of return for Jews is a religion-based irredentist claim over 2,000 years old, the oldest successful claim of its kind.

    The claimed right of return for Palestinians complicates the situation. They were the actual inhabitants of the area but many have been removed from their lands. Today, the UN observer state of Palestine includes the West Bank, where Jewish irredentist settlements conflict with Palestine's territorial claims.

    The Caliphate

    Though not based on as ancient a claim as Israel's, a Sunni Islamic extremist position that it is desirable to restore the territory and Islamic law of the "Caliphate" represents the most extensive irredentist claim in the world. No UN member state officially supports this view, but numerous terrorist and militant groups attempt to re-establish the boundaries of the caliphates and successor states established by Muslims after the death of Muhammad in 632 AD. Some define the Caliphate as the maximum area of historical Muslim occupation, or even anywhere that Muslims live today. At a minimum, though, it includes North Africa, western Asia, Spain, southeastern Europe, Central Asia, and in some accounts, South Asia.

    Irredentism Caliphate StudySmarterFig. 1 - Caliphate boundaries for the modern world based on irredentist claims; this one purportedly represents the map promoted by ISIS (Islamic State)

    While other irredentist claims over a thousand years old to vast areas of territory exist (e.g., Assyrian nationalism), they rarely see any actions taken by the irredentists. The Caliphate is different.

    After the collapse of the USSR following its defeat by Western-backed Islamic militants in Afghanistan in the 1980s, battle-scarred mujahedin "holy warriors" spread out across the Muslim world to take on their own secular states. The rise and success of al-Qaeda, a product of the 1980s Afghan war, were tied to the Taliban-led Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, which was proof to many that a "pure" Islamic state could exist in the modern world.

    Al-Qaeda provoked the West into a war in Afghanistan after a series of terrorist attacks that included 9-11. Much of the world became a battleground as pseudo-states and semi-autonomous territories were carved out of sovereign countries in places like the Lake Chad Basin (Boko Haram), Somalia (al-Shabaab), eastern Yemen (al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula), the southern Philippines, and so forth. All of them subscribe in some form to the irredentist idea of a restored Caliphate.

    The rise of the Islamic State, which made rapid territorial gains in Iraq and Syria in the 2010s before being virtually wiped out, was an important episode. "ISIS," as it was called in the West, openly proclaimed that it was the restored Caliphate and started to function as an irredentist successor state, planning to expand its revanchism to Baghdad, Mecca, and beyond.

    Irredentism vs Revanchism

    The two terms have similar meanings and are often confused. Irredentism originally referred to 19th-century Italy and has come to mean any idea or plan to restore territory perceived as lost, regardless of cause, time, perceived aggressors, and so forth.

    Revanchism comes from the French word for "revenge" and is derived from 1870s French resentment over the loss of Alsace-Lorraine in the Franco-Prussian War (yes, the same Alsace-Lorraine that was to partially motivate irredentism in Germany's Third Reich). Revanchism, thus, should be used in reference to actions taken to regain lost territory in the immediate past.

    Irredentism in Italy

    Italy as a modern state dates from the founding of the Kingdom of Italy in 1861. In 1877, politician Matteo Renato coined the term "terra irredente" to encapsulate the wishes of several Italian movements that wanted more territory. Italian irredentists wanted Austrian-held areas that actually had Italians living in them, like South Tyrol and Trieste, but also places like Malta and Corsica with people they construed as Italian (they weren't). Crucially, they wanted a place called Dalmatia (now Croatia and Slovenia). Italy entered World War I for the express purpose of getting Dalmatia if the Triple Alliance powers fell, which they did.

    Irredentism Italy StudySmarterFig. 2 - Italy in 1919, showing its irredentist claims to Corsica and Dalmatia that remained unsatisfied

    But Italy didn't get Dalmatia after all (they were blocked by US President Woodrow Wilson). This fed fascism and the continued expansion of imperial Italy in the Mediterranean (Libya) and the Horn of Africa, and eventually resulted in their siding with the Axis Powers in World War II. Some further irredentist gambits for Dalmatia were made during the collapse of Yugoslavia, but were unpopular in Italy, as they bore the stain of fascism. As with Nazi Germany, the atrocities committed in the name of irredentism led to the abandonment of the idea except in extremist circles.

    Irredentism and Russia

    On many people's minds in the 2020s is the issue of Russian irredentism. Resurgent Russian nationalism is seen as a driver of the Russo-Ukrainian war, a conflict that has raised the specter of a thermonuclear world war. It is important to understand the historical geographic context.

    From One Empire to Another

    The Russian Empire existed for several centuries under the tzars and after the Russian Revolution, the Stalinist Union of Soviet Socialist Republics expanded into the largest state seen since the days of Mongol supremacy. It included "Mother Russia" with its capital in Moscow and 14 other republics in a union cemented by the presence of millions of ethnic Russians and Moscow's iron fist.


    The Baltic nations (Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia) left the USSR in 1990, and the other 11 left when Russia itself nearly collapsed into civil war in 1991. Russia quickly moved to form a looser association with some of the republics (the Commonwealth of Independent States) but also welcomed back millions of ethnic Russians from them.

    Those Russians who stayed abroad, in newly independent countries like Latvia, Ukraine, and Turkmenistan were subject to official Derussification campaigns wherein decades of resentment over being Russified (i.e., being forced to adopt Russian culture and often abandon their own) under the Soviet yoke were manifested in campaigns to change scripts (from Cyrillic to Latin or Arabic), limit or ban the use of the Russian language, change place names, and so forth. In Estonia and Latvia, ethnic Russians were even deprived of citizenship and voting rights.


    And then there was Ukraine. Geographically, it is critical to Russia's geopolitical and economic security and is squarely within Russia's sphere of influence much as Mexico is in the US's sphere. Russia was able to keep Ukraine Russia-friendly most of the time until 2014 when anti-Russian politicians who came to power during the Maidan Revolution turned against the ethnic Russians who form the majority in the Donbas, a border region with Russia (the Luhansk and Donetsk republics).

    A sequence of irredentist Russian moves followed, couched in a variety of justifications.

    The first to go, in 2014, was Crimea. This Black Sea peninsula had once belonged to Russia and is almost entirely ethnic Russian. Nationalistic considerations of what Ukrainian Derussification would do there, combined with strategic notions of the potential loss of Russian military access, led to Crimea's declaration of independence from Ukraine and a rapid referendum in which they joined Russia.

    Irredentism Kyiv StudySmarterFig. 3 - A key part of the Ukrainian government's post-2018 Derussification campaign was changing city names from Russia to Ukrainian

    Wanting nothing to do with Derussification, the Donbas republics commenced eight years of warfare with Kyiv, in which thousands died. Russia was finally triggered to invade Ukraine after claiming it became strategically necessary for them, as they suggested Ukraine might join NATO, whose member states had been getting progressively closer to Russia's borders since the 1990s. Russia also evoked "Denazification" of Ukraine as a motive for 2022's invasion, which was combined with its immediately prior recognition of Donetsk and Luhansk.

    Irredentism is often this cloudy. Invasions are wrapped up in "rescues" of people of the invaders' ethnicity and fears, justified or not, of their safety.

    Irredentism - Key takeaways

    • Irredentism is the theory and sometimes action of regaining territory perceived as once belonging to an ethnic group or other entity but currently within the boundaries of sovereign states.
    • Revanchism refers to irredentism when the context is an action taken to restore territory that has been recently lost, for example in a war.
    • Nazi Germany, Israel, and the Caliphate are examples of irredentist claims and actions.
    • Russia's 2022 invasion of Ukraine is widely interpreted as irredentism.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Irredentism

    What is irredentism? 

    The political project of an ethnic or another cultural group to regain territory perceived as belonging to it but located in a different sovereign state than the one in which the ethnic group is located.

    Is Kosovo an example of irredentism? 

    Kosovo is perceived by some ethnic Albanians as part of "Greater Albania," an irredentist project to restore Albanians in one sovereign state.

    What is the difference between irredentism and revanchism? 

    Irredentism may be based on unfulfilled claims thousands of years old, so it is a broader term. Revanchism refers to the retaking of territory lost in recent history, typically in a war.

    Who is the founder of Italian irredentism? 

    There was no founder of Italian irredentism per se (though Pasquale Paoli was often cited as the inspiration): it was a series of movements that arose after the founding of the Kingdom of Italy in 1861.

    How is Russia's annexation of Crimea an example of irredentism? 

    Crimea, which is almost entirely ethnic Russia, had once belonged to the USSR and Russia, then to Ukraine, so Russia's taking it back from Ukraine was a classic example of irredentism.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Irredentism first referred to ______ whereas Revanchism first referred to _________.

    Which continent has not been subject to irredentist claims?

    Crimea is primarily ethnically _______


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