Investigating Esperanto: Cold War Politics and the Myth of Neutrality

Investigating Esperanto: Cold War Politics and the Myth of Neutrality

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As a native English speaker, I sometimes take for granted how easy it is for me to use my mother tongue in many countries. As the current lingua franca, English speakers can travel the world fairly easily, communicate in academia conveniently, and access numerous written resources without difficulty. As I've grown as a thinker, amateur historian, student of international relations, and learner of modern languages, it has become increasingly clear that language holds immense power, from the global stage to the most personal of relationships.

In 1887, Ludwik Zamenhof, a Polish physician and scientist, recognized the power of language and created Esperanto—a language designed to be easy to learn, universal, and neutral. It was consciously crafted, not based on any ethnic or national language. Although it did not achieve Zamenhof’s goal of becoming a universal second language, it is the most successful constructed language in achieving interlingual communication and acquiring a community of speakers. However, this success was on a much smaller scale than originally intended, often leaving it overlooked by the general public.

When I first learned about Esperanto, it was described as a dead language—a historic experiment extinguished by the fascist movements of early 20th-century Europe. I was intrigued to discover that, despite facing persecution and dwindling numbers during World War II, there was an increase in Esperanto speakers after the war, particularly in state-socialist countries during the Cold War.

Yugoslavia 1953, Esperanto Congress Postal Stamp

This led me to wonder how it was used politically during the Cold War. Was it a language for espionage, a resistance against Russian dominance, aligned with Eastern or Western ideals, or a push to create an international community in a divided world? As I began my Laidlaw research to explore these questions, a larger question loomed: To what extent is Esperanto really a politically neutral language, and can any language be neutral?

Many scholars of linguistics, history, international relations, anthropology, and other disciplines have debated the question of language’s power and neutrality. My goal is not to explore Esperanto’s neutrality from scratch, but to incorporate its significance into my research on the language’s use during the Cold War by asking questions like: Did Esperanto learners share similar ideological or political aims? Was learning it an act of nonconformity or merely a tool for further communication?

Scholars like Roberto Garvía observe that even when Esperanto was first created it “had the basic characteristics of a secular religion: a message of meaning, a set of moral principles, and a message of salvation.” It aimed to unite people, reject division and prejudice, and prevent any single language from dominating. These goals do not seem to be neutral. They are crafted to build a community with a certain set of core values, regardless of where these community members come from or what their mother tongue may be. There are also very few utilitarian reasons to learn Esperanto. With no native-speaking community, mass media, legal code, territory, state authority, or state-backed education system promoting it, its practicality is limited. Learners choose it for its ideals—ideals focused on promoting a “neutral”  language as an international means of communication, thereby reducing the global dominance of languages tied to specific nations and states in favor of a more impartial alternative.

At this stage, I still have more questions than answers, but I do know that, despite its history of persecution and claims of being a failed project, Esperanto succeeded where other constructed languages failed. It was used in ways that aligned with Esperantist goals, yet it struggled to remain the “neutral” language it was intended to be.

I am still exploring how these revelations about Esperanto’s neutrality, or lack thereof, influenced its use during the Cold War. What is certain, however, is that all language holds power. This power is complex and sometimes ambiguous. My experience as a Laidlaw scholar has shown me that research is often less prescriptive and straightforward than it seems, and there is always more to discover. 

USSR Esperanto Postal Stamp

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