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The French Revolution, the Union of Avignon, and the Challenges of National Self-Determination


National self-determination was one of the most important and controversial concepts in twentieth century international relations and law. The principle has had a remarkable history, from Woodrow Wilson's assertion that the peoples of Eastern Europe ought to form their own national states in place of ruined multiethnic and multilinguistic empires after the First World War; to decolonization after the Second World War, when populations worldwide invoked a right to throw off the yoke of imperialism; to the breakup of and war in the former Yugoslavia at century's end in precisely the same area in which a nation's self-determination was first intended to be a panacea for the region's diverse peoples. And yet, national self-determination, if not always called that, has a much longer lineage. Some note its earliest appearance in 1581, when the Dutch claimed independence from Hapsburg Spain. However, it was not until the French Revolution when, as Alfred Cobban remarks, “the nation state ceased to be a simple historical fact and became the subject of a theory,” that a people's right to determine its destiny in international as in domestic affairs was first articulated and applied. The clearest instance of this articulation and application during the Revolution was the union of Avignon and France.

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Jean-Jacques Clere , “Le rattachement d'Avignon et du Comtat à la France : approche juridique (1789–1791),” Annales historiques de la Révolution française 290 (1992): 571

and Detlev F. Vagts , “The Balance of Power in International Law: A History of an Idea,” American Journal of International Law 73 (1979): 555580

Derek Heater , National Self–Determination: Woodrow Wilson and his Legacy (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 1994), 209

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Law and History Review
  • ISSN: 0738-2480
  • EISSN: 1939-9022
  • URL: /core/journals/law-and-history-review
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