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18.4.1922: First Esperanto Conference
Prague, summer 1921. Green flags bearing the word "Esperanto" were flying in the Czech metropolis.

"A new feeling made its way through the world. A mighty call is sounded..."

The 3,000 participants of the Esperanto World Congress "Universala Kongreso" could feel the winds of change. The language movement had been experiencing a boom since the end of World War One. Thousands of people flocked to Esperanto courses, large numbers of schools added the language to their curriculum. Esperanto, according to its promoters, was easier to learn than French or English. Only 16 rules needed be observed, with no exceptions. The language designed to help the world, created in 1887, had author Ludwig Samenhof to thank for its sudden popularity. He believed that peace among the different cultures of the world was possible if only everyone could understand each other, i.e. speak the same language.

The times seemed promising: following the war, the League of Nations had been founded in Geneva – a beacon of hope for the Esperantists:

"Without a neutral international language, different peoples remain completely estranged, even if agreements between nations should theoretically unite them. The Esperantists therefore anticipate that the League of Nations recognize the need for a common means of understanding early on."

But League of Nations members were skeptical. In September 1920, the first debate on Esperanto took place at the League of Nations General Assembly. Members voted on whether Esperanto should be introduced worldwide as a school subject.

But the initiative failed miserably, especially because of France's veto. It was a question of honor for Paris according to Berlin language scholar Detlef Blanke. "The critical issue was that, to the French politicians, the role of the French language seemed to be endangered," he notes. "We must not forget that French was the language of international communication, of diplomacy. At that time, in the 1920s, English was beginning to gain influence. And France was extremely sensitized to the language issue."

But the devotees of Esperanto did not give up so easily. Their efforts finally met with success when the Deputy General Secretary of the League of Nations, Inazo Nitobe of Japan, visited the Esperanto World Congress in Prague.

"I was impressed: some of the speakers took off on astounding oratorical flights," said Nitobe. "It's evidently possible to express thoughts and feelings of all kinds with Esperanto."

Thanks to Nitobe's report, the League was motivated to take up the theme of Esperanto a second time, this time with partial success. A conference in Geneva was planned in order to examine the experiences with Esperanto as a school subject to that date. The first international conference on Esperanto began on April 18, 1922. Attending were school and government representatives from 28 countries. The conclusion reached was positive:

"Through Esperanto, our pupils have acquired realistic knowledge of geography and world history. They have begun to take a new interest in foreign peoples and their customs, literature and art and have developed a great commitment to world peace and the goals of the League of Nations."

In the unanimous recommendation of the Geneva Conference, Esperanto was to be taught at elementary schools around the world as the first foreign language. This suggestion was taken up on the agenda of the League of Nations for the third time. And once again, no final decision could be reached due to France's rigid position:

"Esperanto will become a tool for systematic internationalism, the enemy of national languages."

The Esperanto issue was handed over to the Commission for Intellectual Cooperation. The following year, the Commission resolved not to concern itself with this theme any longer, because, as stated in its justification, it was better to promote the study of living languages.

The Esperantists were bitterly disappointed. But the dream that Esperanto could one day become the language of diplomacy remains even today. The present-day defenders of Esperanto are buoyed by the ongoing discussions on language within the European Union. In 1999, for example, the German government provoked a heated dispute at an informal meeting when it tried to win recognition for German as one of the languages of negotiation. The Finns, who at that time presided over the council, vehemently opposed.

Language scholar Blanke believes that such sensitivity might only increase in the future. "I think that, in the context of achieving better understanding, we need a more democratic language policy, something we don't have in Europe at the moment. In this context, interest in the Esperanto model is growing."
   
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