Fostering Ethnic Strife by Constructing Threat Scenarios in Multi-Ethnic Contexts: An Intervention from a Historical Perspective

This is part of our special feature, Securitization of Identity.


Security plays a key role in international relations policy. The definition of “security” as a political concept depends on who is doing the interpreting. It is often used in political discourse as a general catchword to express a situation of threat to internal order or of the state so that “security” appears a basic norm of the community’s social and political life. Politicians imply that their state’s order is threatened in order to inspire and mobilize their community for their own actions. The construction and communication of such an insecure situation can be described as a threat scenario, implying that the political order of their state is at risk and is called “securitization.” Using “security” as a legitimizing argument, “security agents” (Bigo 2000, 176) call for action to (re-)establish security. Moreover, security is often invoked by states to justify intervening in neighboring states, whether it is to secure borders or protect a national group or a minority.

The most current and most prominent example of an intervention based on the construction of such a threat scenario is Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Drawing on historical references, Vladimir Putin justified his action by declaring that Russia’s security was at risk. Putin accused Ukraine not only of being ruled by “neo-Nazis” (drawing on a continuity line to World War II), but also of promoting a militarization program that was “controlled” by the “West.” He also claimed that Ukraine was pursuing an “anti-Russia project,” and, not least, that the Russian-speaking minority in Ukraine was threatened and in need of protection. The invasion of Ukraine by Russia and the ensuing rhetoric from the Kremlin provide an example of how threat points are constructed and communicated based on the power of “security” arguments and the fulfilment of minorities’ “security needs” in international relations. In effect, the Ukrainian “minority” Russia claims to seek to protect through military intervention is estimated to constitute roughly 30 to more than 50 percent of Ukrainians.

Beyond international relations, “security” is crucial for relations between national groups in multi-ethnic societies too, since it is instrumentalized to re-configure the relations also between politically dominant ethnic groups and minorities. It becomes a societal value, which refers in such societies not only to political and social security, but also to ethno-cultural security. A historical perspective shows that the political, social, and ethno-cultural postulate of “security” has been an important factor in the development, promotion, and consolidation of national thought. I argue that “security” has ultimately become a key point of reference next to common language and history for national movements, if not even the most crucial one. If we look below the state-level to the regional or even local level, we can find that “normal” functionaries and politicians employ practices of declaring the minorities’ political aims and/or actions as a threat. In doing so, they justify their relations and attitudes towards regional or local minorities. Therefore, I would now like to focus on the most grassroot level of states, the local level, in order to show how much these securitizing moves and acts influence the relationship between majorities and minorities and thus the respective experiences of national consciousness.


Multi-ethnicity as a threat to “majorities”

Lviv, which is today situated in western Ukraine, became the capital of the newly-created Habsburg crown land of Galicia and Lodomeria after the First Partition of Poland in 1772. Since its foundation in the thirteenth century, Lviv had been a particularly multi-confessional and multi-ethnic city. By the end of the nineteenth century, it had a population of about 50 percent politically and socially dominant Poles, about 30 percent mostly poor Jews, and 15 percent Ukrainians (also poorer and uneducated), as well as Armenian and German populations. To put it roughly: The national borders more or less corresponded with the social and confessional borders. A deeper glance at Lviv’s legal setting reveals how important local government was for national movements with regard to the exclusion of ethnic and denominational minorities. The imperial law of local government (1862) gave the capital cities in the provinces the chance to obtain an autonomous status, which Lviv achieved in 1870. During the debates on the legal setting in the city council, which had already begun in the early 1860s, multi-ethnicity was perceived and designed as a threat to Christian property through the “harmful Jewish impact” on the common welfare. The councilors argued that:

The Jews would replace the Christians in nearly every bigger city, while almost completely occupying the smaller cities, and thus block the cities’ development in a municipal and national regard … making it impossible to re-establish the nationality and national civilization…. we are afraid of this element, which represents a fifth of population … particularly because reproduction is a dogma of their faith. (Report of the statute’s commission, September 30 1865, CDIAL, fond 146, op. 4, spr. 156, 70)

The so-called “Jewish question” in local law was stylized as an existential question for the Polish character of Lviv, as well as for the Polish elites and culture, so that the political actors succeeded in limiting the number of Jews on the city council to a maximum of twenty (of one hundred).

As a so-called statutory city, Lviv got the chance to develop into a regional metropolis and claimed to be the proxy capital because the Polish capital Warsaw had become Russified. The statute of 1870 guaranteed the social elite’s power, autonomy on local affairs, and stability. Already, the provisions of the statute could be characterized as securitizing regulations, because they guaranteed the exclusion of lower strata of the population and, as a consequence, of the Ukrainian population. However, these regulations had to prove themselves, particularly in the face of democratization and participation claims, which were expressed with particular fervor during the election campaigns. These led to political and national mobilization to an equal extent by Poles and Ruthenians. This mobilization took place against the background of Ukrainian aspirations to participate in local government, which had become visible and intensified by the end of the 1900s. Ukrainians wanted to achieve stronger representation on the city council through a revision of the electoral code. At this stage, however, the national conflict had already escalated into violence on several occasions, which increased the Poles’ perception of a threat.

Analogously to the “Jewish question,” the Lviv city council utilized securitizing argumentations about forty years later in order to exclude the Ukrainian population from political participation. Despite their political differences, the Polish councilors had a common goal to implement a “policy of defending Lviv’s Polishness,” (Słowo Polskie, February 24, 1911) because defending it would serve as a model for the entire country. The catchphrase of the “Polish character of Lviv” and its defense was always repeated like a mantra in meetings of the city council, be it in discussions about the electoral code reform, or on culture and education, as well as in debates about urban development policy. Its constant repetition makes clear that even in the eyes of the councilors the Polish character was not at all so certain as they claimed to be.

“We need to create a law that will guarantee that Lviv will continue to be the arsenal and fortress for a better future,” (Gazeta Lwowska, December 3, 1910) demanded Polish councilors at one of the numerous debates on the reform of the local electoral code between 1910 and 1914. The Ruthenian resolution, which in 1911 had demanded equal rights for Ruthenians in the municipal elections and a fair distribution of mandates between Poles and Ruthenians, provided fuel for the fire, since the Poles felt themselves and their city at risk. The semantics here exemplified the associated threat scenario, with “arsenal” and “fortress” also referring to the Polish myth of Lviv as a bulwark to the East, which perpetuates the narrative that Lviv had always successfully repelled the threat coming from there. In the context of the debate, this threat was represented by the Ukrainian population. Therefore, according to the agitation of the Polish, politically dominating National Democrats, the councilors should support the defense of the “threatened Polishness” of Lviv (Gazeta Lwowska, February 2, 1914) in order to prevent the Jewish separatists from forming a coalition with the Ukrainians. If the whole society could be united in the fight, there would be no “national uncertainty,” and the city (and its council) would remain Polish. With the intensification of the conflict between nationalities that proviso was constantly repeated and, with it, the related threat to Polish interests. For example, the city’s president (mayor) Józef Neumann argued for the “double” importance of the city:

Because it was up to [the council] in particular to maintain the Polish character of the city. After all, more than half of the population in Lviv is of Polish origin. The city should also be at the forefront of national culture, and must not be allowed under any circumstances to lessen the Polish character of its basis.

Overall, the election campaigns and the futile struggle to reform the electoral rules acted as important focal points for discourses and practices of power that supported the Polish political elite, who used the threat scenario that the “Polish character” of Lviv was in danger to help themselves. The city’s autonomous status made it possible to resist a “compromise” at the local level. Here, the particular social and ethnic conditions facilitated these nationalizing politics.

The claim for participation by broader social strata was therefore increasingly replaced by the ever more virulent need to repel, by all means, the Ruthenian claims for participation in the Lviv municipality. Around 1910, a sort of minimal consensus was reached, the right to vote was extended as a “palliative for partially settling the claims of a large part of broad sections of the population, [and as] a stage for the development of political rights.” But also attached to this minimal consensus was the aim of avoiding jeopardizing the “Polish character” of the city and therefore repelling Ruthenian demands for participation.

Hence, with the words of Didier Bigo, the city councilors “shared a specific kind of ‘sense of the game’” and were “managers of the unease.” (Bigo 2000, 176) They used securitizing argumentations in order to dramatize their own situation and self-empowerment. Moreover, they influenced the interethnic and denominational relations and contributed to the rise of national strife. The created scenario of the threat to the Polish character of the city mobilized the Polish population and legitimized the attitude of the political elites. Their basis for action was the defense of Polish Lviv, and their martial semantics led to a solidification of the nationality conflict even before the beginning of World War I, which intensified during the war and escalated into war between Poles and Ukrainians after 1918.

The creation and the perception of the threat of Lviv’s Polish character was a legitimizing method to assert and to sustain practices of political exclusion and to preserve stereotypes. Particularly, local government influenced the interethnic and interreligious relations and made a strong impact on the growing national conflicts by securitizing and counter-securitizing discourses and practices, so that the city councilors could be described as securitizing actors. This microlevel-perspective reveals how important local governance and its autonomy were for the national movements. It demonstrates clearly that the local level, in particular, strongly influenced interethnic and interreligious relations and had a major impact on the growing national conflicts.


Securitization as a political tool for exclusion and nationalism

This sketched example of pre-World War I Lviv shows that not only between states, as Critical Security Studies suggest, but also within communities, securitization is a political tool. “Security,” for instance, also in the form of “internal security,” characterizes the ‘good’ order to be striven for and therefore normalizes social action. In multi-ethnic contexts, like the example of Lviv, this means securing and strengthening the political dominance of an ethnic or confessional group. An important aspect is that the situation of one’s own group is dramatized and presented as existentially endangered. The process of perceiving and communicating security problems by constructing threat scenarios develops dynamically—hence in the interplay between the so-called securitizing moves, one’s own group (audience), and references to the ethnic, confessional group that is deemed to be a threat. Hereby, the actors present themselves as obliged and as the only ones who can realize and guarantee security. The goal of creating ethno-cultural security is thus portrayed as a duty, as is evident in the Lviv city council debates. Thus, “security” becomes an important argument and tool for the legitimization of power, but also for self-empowerment of groups and their leaders.

Especially in East Central Europe, at the turn of the twentieth century, the various national movements struggled with each other for dominance in a special way in the local space. The definition of what each respective group was to be protected against created a specific pattern of interpretation of interethnic relations. Through this process, the construction of threat scenarios and their communication to one’s own group were constitutive components of the respective nationalization processes, since only through this could an actual self-thematization and demarcation from the others take place. Ultimately, securitization discourses can be characterized as a means of mobilization, so that a mobilization/securitization nexus emerges.

When threat scenarios are discursively negotiated between actors and their audiences, threat management takes place not only through extra-ordinary measures, but also through routines that become habitual, whereby certain ethnic groups are excluded. The Lviv City Council carried out specific threat management through exclusionary policies that provoked Ukrainians. “Security” is therefore a political tool of the dominant group, used argumentatively to justify the exclusion of minorities. Securitization thus leads to a dynamic of strengthening and solidification of national conflicts and thereby provokes an ultimately paradoxical situation: With the argument of wanting to create security, insecurity­—namely conflict—is created. The example of local politics in Lviv and the limitation and exclusion of non-Polish groups points to the fact that the construction of threat scenarios is a ‘normal state description’ for nationalizing societies, so that ethno-cultural security is understood as a norm and a goal. Therefore, it is an important component of national discourses and national identity. However, the decisions, practices, and discourses of the political actors belonging to a particular ethnic group are displayed as threat management, which should always be kept present in the public’s awareness in order to uphold the sense of their legitimacy. If one understands the nation as an “everyday plebiscite” (Ernest Renan 1882, 70) and also as an imagined construct (Benedict Anderson), only threat management, the (sustainable) exclusion of the (threatening) others, offers a “carefree” life for one’s own nation. Consequently, political actors are only supported if they promise security. The example of the local government in Lviv therefore shows that “security” is a key concept for understanding discourses of nationalization in multi-ethnic contexts.


Heidi Hein-Kircher earned her M.A. and PhD from Heinrich Heine-University in Düsseldorf. Working on the research staff of the Herder-Institute for Historical Research in East Central Europe – Member of the Leibniz-Association in Marburg, Germany since 2003. In 2018, she received her habilitation degree at Philipps-University Marburg. In her research, she focuses on urban, minorities, and nationalism history of the 19th and 20th centuries in East Central Europe as well as historical critical security and conflict studies.




Anderson, Benedict. 1983. Imagined Communities. Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism, London: Verso.

Bigo, Didier. 2000. “When Two Become One: Internal and External Securitisations in Europe,” in: Morten Kelstrup, Michael C. Williams, eds., International Relations Theory and the Politics of European Integration. Power, Security, and Community. London, New York: Routledge, 171-204.

Gazeta Lwowska, December 3, 1910; February 2, 1914.

Renan, Ernest. 1882. Qu’est-ce qu’une nation?, Paris: Lévy.

Report of the statute’s commission, September 30 1865, Central‘nyj Deržavnyj Istoryčny Archiv Ukraïny, m. L’viv, fond 146, op. 4, spr. 156.

Słowo Polskie, February 24, 1911.


Published on April 18, 2022.


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