Saturday, June 14, 2014

The Esperanto State that Didn't Happen

Will there be a phrasebook in
the travel guide?
On June 14, 1908, the San Francisco Call, repeating a story from the Kansas City Journal, reported on the attempt to create an independent state between Germany , Belgium and Holland. Moresnet had been created as a neutral zone in the treaties after the Napoleonic wars. The tiny territory actually existed for a century, finally being annexed by Belgium at the end of World War I (Belgium, itself, had been part of the Netherlands until 1830).

There was still the question of the fate of Moresnet, a valley with 3,000 inhabitants. There were various proposals to set up the place as an independent micro-state. In 1908, it was proposed that not only should Moresnet become independent, but should be an Esperanto homeland. The Call reported that
Professor Roy, the French Esperantist, is urging the establishment of an independent Esperanto state in Europe. The site he has selected for his experiment is on a neutral strip of territory which lies on the frontier between Germany, Belgium and Holland, five miles from Aix-la-Chapelle. This territory is nown as Moresnet, is situated in a pleasant valley and has a population of 3,000 inhabitants. Esperanto is to be the official language of the place. The expenses of the state are to be borne by the subscriptions of Esperantists the world over. The scheme includes an Esperanto theater, a daily official Esperanto gazette and a sort of Esperantists parliament, which will meet periodically to discuss the affairs of the little state.
The joke often made against Esperanto is, “where do you go to speak it?” The answer is “everywhere.” A few years ago, visiting the Forbidden City, I noticed that they had audio tours available in Esperanto. Though I loathe audio tours, I was tempted to get one in Esperanto, dissuaded only by the length of the lines. Moresnet would, had it been a success, answered that question, I suppose.

It’s a small region, and it probably wouldn’t get its own tourism book (pamphlet, perhaps). Imagine the section in the guides, describing the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, and littlest of all, Moresnet.
This charming region has adopted Esperanto as its official language. Travelers are advised that the language is somewhat similar to Italian. Waiters in its cafés are happy to bring one a “vino,” that is, a glass of wine.
Of course, in 1908 there really wasn’t much of anything to see in Moresnet. They would have had to work really hard to get a tourism industry. By 1908, the zinc mines that had made the region so desirable at the end of the Napoleonic era were about tapped out, so they couldn’t expect a continuation of the mining economy. Of course, there was the idea of the Esperanto theater, paid for (in Professor Roy’s idea) by Esperantists throughout the world. It’s difficult to Esperanto speakers to join the organizations that promote Esperanto. Expecting the (currently financially beleaguered) Universal Esperanto Association to support a (tiny) country would probably doom both.

Further, having Esperanto as the official language of a nation, runs against Zamenhof’s ideas. Isn’t this supposed to be a language owned by no one? Politics would intrude. If Moresnet had survived as an Esperanto-speaking country, wouldn’t people start associating Esperanto with the political aims of the micro-state? “Oh, you speak Esperanto. You must be siding with Moresnet.” It’s probably better for Esperanto that no guide book says, “here they speak the charming language Esperanto.”

Upate: Since writing this, I've learned a lot ore about Moresnet, including that the idea was that the expenses of the state would be paid for by the Esperanto movement, which is a monumentally stupid idea. I need to revisit it, but I want to sort out its history.
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