technology creates the nation-state -- 4/01/16

Today's selection -- from Fields of Blood by Karen Armstrong. In the 1800s, the "nation-state" as we now know it was born. Prior to that time, city-states prevailed, or in larger territories, kings ruled over regional clusters whose people had diverse languages and cultures. The borders of these kingdoms shifted often and were poorly defined. With the change, the nation became "deified," and an imperative arose to create a uniformity in language and culture and to drive out diversity. It was technology that enabled the change:

"Industrialization ... gave birth to the nation-state. Agrarian empires had lacked the technology to impose a uniform culture; the borders and territorial reach of premodern kingdoms could be only loosely defined and the monarch's authority enforced in a series of overlapping loyal­ties. But during the nineteenth century, Europe was reconfigured into clearly defined states ruled by a central government. Industrialized society required standardized literacy, a shared language, and a unified control of human resources. Even if they spoke a different language from the ruler, subjects now belonged to an integrated 'nation,' an 'imaginary community' of people who were encouraged to feel a deep connection with persons they knew nothing about.

Portrait of "The Ratification of the Treaty of Münster", one of the treaties leading to the Peace of Westphalia,
where the concept of the "nation state" was born.

"Religiously organized agrarian societies had often persecuted 'her­etics'; in the secularized nation-state, it was 'minorities' who had either to assimilate or disappear. In 1807 Jefferson had instructed his secretary of war that the Native Americans were 'backward peoples' who must either be 'exterminated' or driven 'beyond our reach' to the other side of the Mississippi 'with the beasts of the forest.' In 1806 Napoleon made Jews full citizens of France, but two years later he issued the 'Infa­mous Decrees' ordering them to take French names, privatize their faith, and ensure that at least one in every three marriages per family was with a gentile. This forcible integration was regarded as progress. Surely, argued the British philosopher John Stuart Mill (1806-73), it was better for a Breton to accept French citizenship 'than to sulk on his own rocks, the half-savage remnant of past times, revolving in his own little mental orbit, without participation or interest in the general movement of the world.' But the English historian Lord Acton (1834-1902) deplored the notion of nationality, fearing that the 'fictitious' general will of the people that it promoted would crush 'all natural rights and all estab­lished liberties for the purpose of vindicating itself.' He could see that the desire to preserve the nation could become an absolute used to justify the most inhumane policies. Even worse,

By making the State and the nation commensurate with each other in theory, [nationality] reduces practically to a subject condition all other nationalities that may be within the boundary .... According, therefore, to the degree of humanity and civilization in that domi­nant body which claims all the rights of the community, the inferior races are exterminated or reduced to servitude, or put in a condition of dependence.

"His reservations about nationalism would prove to be all too well grounded. The new nation-state would labor under a fundamental contradic­tion: the state (the governmental apparatus) was supposed to be secu­lar, but the nation ( 'the people') aroused quasi-religious emotions. In 1807-08, while Napoleon was conquering Prussia, the German phi­losopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte had delivered a series of lectures in Ber­lin, looking forward to the time when the forty-one separate German principalities would become a unified nation-state. The Fatherland, he claimed, was a manifestation of the divine, the repository of the spiri­tual essence of the Volk and therefore eternal. Germans must be ready to die for the nation, which alone gave human beings the immortality they craved because it had existed since the dawn of time and would continue after their deaths. Early modern philosophers, such as Hobbes, had called for a strong state to restrain the violence of Europe, which, they believed, had been solely inspired by 'religion.' Yet in France, the nation had been evoked to mobilize all citizens for war, and Fichte now encouraged Germans to fight French imperialism for the sake of the Fatherland. The state had been devised to contain violence, but the nation was now being used to release it.

"If we can define the sacred as something for which one is prepared to die, the nation had certainly become an embodiment of the divine, a supreme value. Hence national mythology would encourage cohesion, solidarity, and loyalty within the confines of the nation. But it had yet to develop the 'concern for everybody' that had been such an important ideal in many of the spiritual traditions associated with religion. The national mythos would not encourage citizens to extend their sympathy to the ends of the earth, to love the stranger in their midst, be loyal even to their enemies, to wish happiness for all beings, and to become aware of the world's pain. True, this universal empathy had rarely affected the violence of the warrior aristocracy, but it had at least offered an alterna­tive and a continuing challenge. Now that religion was being privatized, there was no 'international' ethos to counter the growing structural and military violence to which weaker nations were increasingly subjected. Secular nationalism seemed to regard the foreigner as fair game for exploitation and mass slaughter, especially if he belonged to a different ethnic group."


Karen Armstrong


Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence


Anchor A. Knopf


Copyright 2014 by Karen Armstrong


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