Referendum or direct vote by all the electors of a country or district on a specific question. Since the 18th century plebiscites have been employed on many occasions to decide to what country a particular area should belong; for example, in Upper Silesia and elsewhere after World War I, and in the Saar in 1935.
The term fell into disuse during the 1930s, after the widespread abuse by the Nazis in Germany to legitimize their regime.
In Roman history, a plebiscite was a law enacted by the plebs in their comitia tributa or concilia plebis (see comitia) on the rogation of a tribune. Originally these resolutions needed confirmation by the Senate, but later they came to be binding on the whole people.
In modern politics a plebiscite is an expression of popular opinion obtained by vote from all the electors of the state. It tends to be used of decisions over which state a population should owe allegiance to. Plebiscites were employed by the League of Nations under a section of the Treaty of Versailles to decide the national destiny of areas which were involved in peculiar difficulties.
In 1935 a plebiscite took place in the Saar district to discover the wishes of the inhabitants regarding their nationality, and it resulted overwhelmingly in favour of German as against French nationality. In 1955 a referendum rejected a Franco-German agreement for ‘Europeanization’ of the Saar (later it was agreed that the Saar should return to Germany, and it did in 1957). In 1939 the Soviet government held a plebiscite in the eastern provinces of Poland, in order that the inhabitants might actually or apparently decide on the question of annexation.