The right of self-determination in regard to the question of membership in a state thus means: whenever the inhabitants of a particular territory, whether it be a single village, a whole district, or a series of adjacent districts, make it known, by a freely conducted plebiscite, that they no longer wish to remain united to the state to which they belong at the time, but wish either to form an independent state or to attach themselves to some other state, their wishes are to be respected and complied with. This is the only feasible and effective way of preventing revolutions and civil and international wars.
To call this right of self-determination the “right of self-determination of nations” is to misunderstand it. It is not the right of self-determination of a delimited national unit, but the right of the inhabitants of every territory to decide on the state to which they wish to belong. This misunderstanding is even more grievous when the expression “self-determination of nations” is taken to mean that a national state has the right to detach and incorporate into itself against the will of the inhabitants parts of the nation that belong to the territory of another state. It is in terms of the right of self-determination of nations understood in this sense that the Italian Fascists seek to justify their demand that the canton Tessin and parts of other cantons be detached from Switzerland and united to Italy, even though the inhabitants of these cantons have no such desire. A similar position is taken by some of the advocates of Pan-Germanism in regard to German Switzerland and the Netherlands.
However, the right of self-determination of which we speak is not the right of self-determination of nations, but rather the right of self-determination of the inhabitants of every territory large enough to form an independent administrative unit. If it were in any way possible to grant this right of self-determination to every individual person, it would have to be done. This is impracticable only because of compelling technical considerations, which make it necessary that a region be governed as a single administrative unit and that the right of self-determination be restricted to the will of the majority of the inhabitants of areas large enough to count as territorial units in the administration of the country.
Poets and artists have a message to tell. But this message refers to ineffable feelings and ideas. It is not open to utterance in an unambiguous way precisely because it is ineffable. We can never know whether what we experience — erleben — in enjoying their work is what they experienced in creating it. For their work is not simply a communication. Apart from what it communicates, it stirs up in the reader and spectator feelings and ideas that may differ from those of its author. It is a hopeless task to interpret a symphony, a painting, or a novel. The interpreter at best tries to tell us something about his reaction to the work. He cannot tell us with certainty what the creator’s meaning was or what other people may see in it. Even if the creator himself provides a commentary on his work, as in the case of program music, this uncertainty remains. There are no words to describe the ineffable.