7/28/09 - nations

In today's excerpt - the concept of a nation in the modern sense of a place which is a primary source of identity for its inhabitants is a very recent phenomenon:

"Of the many ways in which we can define ourselves, the nation, at least for the last two centuries, has been one of the most enticing. The idea that we are part of a very large family, or in Benedict Anderson's words, an imagined community has been as powerful a force as Fascism or Communism. Nationalism brought Germany and Italy into being, destroyed Austria-Hungary, and, more recently, broke apart Yugoslavia. People have suffered and died, and have harmed and killed others, for their 'nation.'

"History provides much of the fuel for nationalism. It creates the collective memories that help to bring the nation into being. The shared celebration of the nation's great achievements—and the shared sorrow at its defeats—sustain and foster it. The further back the history appears to go, the more solid and enduring the nation seems—and the worthier its claims. Ernest Renan, the nineteenth-century French thinker who wrote an early classic on nationalism, dismissed all the other justifications for the existence of nations, such as blood, geography, language or religion. 'A nation,' he wrote 'is a great solidarity created by the sentiment of the sacrifices which have been made and those which one is disposed to make in the future.' As one of his critics preferred to put it, 'A nation is a group of people united by a mistaken view about the past and a hatred of their neighbours.' Renan saw the nation as something that depended on the assent of its members. 'The existence of a nation is a plebiscite of every day as the existence of an individual is a perpetual affirmation of life.' For many nationalists, there is no such thing as voluntary assent; you were born into a nation and had no choice about whether or not you belonged, even if history had intervened. When France claimed the Rhineland after World War I, one of the arguments it used was that, even though they spoke German, its inhabitants were really French. Although ill fortune had allowed them to fall under German rule, they had remained French in essence, as their love of wine, their Catholicism, and their joie de vivre so clearly demonstrated.

"Renan was trying to grapple with a new phenomenon because nationalism is a very late development indeed in terms of human history. For many centuries, most Europeans thought of themselves not as British (or English or Scottish or Welsh), French, or German but as members of a particular family, clan, region, religion or guild. Sometimes they defined themselves in terms of their overlords, whether local barons or emperors. When they did define themselves as German or French, it was as much a cultural category as a political one, and they certainly did not assume, as modern national movements almost always do, that nations had a right to rule themselves on a specific piece of territory.

"Those older ways of defining oneself persisted well into the modern age. When commissions from the League of Nations tried to determine borders after World War I in the center of Europe, they repeatedly came upon locals who had no idea whether they were Czechs or Slovaks, Lithuanians or Poles. We are Catholic or Orthodox, came the answers, merchants or farmers, or simply people of this village or that. Danilo Dolci, the Italian sociologist and activist, was astonished to find in the 1950s that there were people living in the interior of Sicily who had never heard of Italy, even though, in theory, they had been Italians for several generations. They were the anomalies, though, left behind as nationalism increasingly became the way in which Europeans defined themselves. Rapid communications, growing literacy, urbanization, and above all the idea that it was right and proper to see oneself as part of a nation, and a nation, moreover, which ought to have its own state on its own territory, all fed into the great wave of nationalism which shook Europe in the nineteenth century and the wider world in the twentieth."


Professor Margaret MacMillan


The Uses and Abuses of History


Profile Books Ltd a division of Penguin Books


Copyright Margaret MacMillam 2008, 2009, 2010


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