I feel like I need to write this blog because for a long-time now I have been speaking about my dislike of nations, symbols of nations, and nationalism. I am sure a load of people thought I was just terrible when I wouldn’t join in the patriotism of the Olympics, declaring it to be the embodiment of the message which Wilfred Owen dubbed “The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est/Pro patria mori” (it is sweet and right to die for your country). So, rather than trying to explain myself in 140 character tweets, I thought I’d bore you all with a bit of history instead. Plus it will be so much nicer to give the EDL supporters, who I argue with, a link which explains why I don’t agree with them, rather than engaging in a long conversation.
What is a nation?
Allow me to initially dispel any ideas you have that a state is a nation. A state is not a nation; it is a geographical area of governance, and the state holds certain apparatus such as the ability to raise taxes or to go to war. A nation, conversely, is a group of people, and a nation does not necessarily come under the boundaries of the state, as will be shown. “Nation” is an abstract concept, what Benedict Anderson described as ‘imagined communities’. Several aspects have been considered to make a person a member of a particular nationality, this can include citizenships, languages, histories, religions, cultures and races.
The seeds of nation are to be found in the French Revolution of 1789. I’m sure someone will argue with me about the Shakespearean notion of “nation”, but this is really anomalous and does not fit with our modern understanding of ‘nation’. The latter part of the eighteenth century saw the consolidation of ideas formed during the Enlightenment regarding equality, sovereignty of the people, and freedom. This was seen in not only the French, Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen but also within the American Declaration of Independence in 1776. Indeed the Declaration of the Rights of Man stated that ‘the principle of all sovereignty lies fundamentally with the nation; no body, no individual can exercise authority which does not expressly emanate from it’. The legacy of these revolutions and declarations was therefore the notion of the political nation; self-governance and the glorification of the home-land was catalysed far beyond what had taken shape in Britain with the ‘Glorious Revolution’. This is when people started to become ‘citizens’ rather than ‘subjects’. However, it didn’t take long for these concepts to be used for ill. Napoleon managed to harness the force of national pride in his dictatorship, allowing him to build his empire and declare war on numerous other states. War, in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries formed many national identities, pitting man against man and instilling a fear of, and sense of superiority over, what Edward Said dubbed, ‘the other’. Another effect of these war is that pre-existing ethnic communities became separated into disparate states, so that some states came to contain numerous nationalities with different languages, cultures, histories, races, religions, and identities.
The latter nineteenth century saw a period of upheaval where multinational empires declined and new states were formed: Greece (in its modern form) 1830; Belgium 1830–31; Italy 1861; and Germany 1871. This led to the rise of national identities in these states, and their consolidation in England and France. The nineteenth century has thus been dubbed ‘the age of nationalisms’. But, we can muddy this picture. The forming of Italy wasn’t easy, indeed it was a rather artificial construct. Italy was a country of two halves, the north and the south were incredibly different areas with little in the way of shared cultures. Southern Italy itself was in a state of civil war. The situation was so desperate that upon unification Massimo d’Azeglio declared, ‘We have made Italy, now we have to make Italians’. This is very much the crux of the problem. National identities are not natural, they are created, and this is not necessarily an organic creation, but is instead often as a result of the self-conscious desires of rulers and elites. Indeed at this point regional languages, dialects and identities, not national ones, largely took precedence. Two of the most significant factors in creating the primacy of nation, if indeed it is considered to ever have been truly successful, were programmes of national identities by states, and industrialisation. One example of the way in which states promoted national identities was within schools: school books became printed in national languages; and children were taught about glorious, often mythical pasts. Industrialisation took many people out of their local communities, meaning that people became increasingly exposed to different cultures within their state. This meant that it was necessary to have a moveable language and cultural identity as people relocated from rural to urban areas looking for work. This gave rise to the self-consciousness that Ernest Gellner states is necessary in the forming of national identities: people must believe themselves to be part of the same nation.
Now, this rise in national identity was responsible for the great wars of the twentieth century, yes, other factors played important roles, but the root of all these factors was the demand for the nation-state. It had been usual for princes to have an identity and language different to those under their governance, or for empires such as the Habsburg to rule over several ‘nations’. The belief of the nation-state therefore was the desire that nations should govern themselves. This is important for understanding many of the beliefs within Germany which led to their ‘blank cheque’ to Austria, provoking the First World War. Germany wanted a Grossdeutschland and, in contradiction to the ideology, they also wanted an empire. The Grossdeutschland policy aimed to have all ‘Germans’: those who shared the German language, and cultural identities, to become part of a greater Germany, however some were living in Switzerland, some in Austria, some in Poland. War and aggression were therefore necessary to fulfil this. Meanwhile Germany was also fighting for its ‘place in the sun’ by creating antagonisms during the course of the scramble for Africa. These events, I would argue, should be given the largest share of the blame for plummeting the world into the Great War of 1914. Other states, however, must also share in this blame, and when we look at these states we find nationalism is again to blame. The Habsburg Empire, for instance, was going through its death throes and Austria-Hungary was in a state of panic, Serbians wanted a nation-state. Germany had decided before the shooting of Franz Ferdinand that Austria needed to go to war with Serbia, knowing they could use this to provoke war to fulfil their aims. Such was the culture of nationalist antagonisms that that one shot in Sarajevo sparked a domino effect that plunged the world into war within 6 weeks. It was nationalism again that led to the Second World War. To be brief, Germany had not completed their plan for all “Germans” to come under the German state during WWI, indeed the post-war treaties had the opposite effect. Added to which, they felt that Germans needed a greater area. Their desire for Lebensraum (living room) made war with Poland and Russia an attractive concept. Another part of this plan was ethnic cleansing. Such was their nationalism that they did not want what they saw as “unclean” blood polluting their bloodline. This led to the ethnic cleansing of the Polish, and the genocide of the Jewish holocaust the world will never forget. Both of these wars led to the deaths of, at a conservative estimate, 100 million people.
This all brings me to the point of this blog. I hope you have seen how nationalism is not natural, it is very much created. I hope it has also shown you that whilst the claims of the French Revolution were noble: ‘the principle of all sovereignty lies fundamentally with the nation; no body, no individual can exercise authority which does not expressly emanate from it’; this has been polluted over the intervening period and led to the deaths of millions people. From my studies I am convinced that nationalism led to both of the world wars, and subsequently to the deaths of 100 million people in the two world wars alone. We can trace numerous other atrocities to this concept of nation: the Bosnian war, for instance, saw numerous incidences of ethnic cleansing. It is not the most scholarly source, but I felt that the Wikipedia entry on ethnic cleansing best summed up its aims in a language which is accessible, “The purpose of ethnic cleansing is to remove competitors. The party implementing this policy sees a risk (or a useful scapegoat) in a particular ethnic group, and uses propaganda about that group to stir up FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt) in the general population. The targeted ethnic group is marginalized and demonized. It can also be conveniently blamed for the economic, moral and political woes of that region.” We saw this in Germany during WWII and we saw this in Kosovo, amongst many others. Only nationalism has the ability to create the sense of ownership of a geographical space and fear of ‘the other’ necessary to lead to such atrocities.
However, just as industrialisation aided the rise of nation states, globalisation is aiding their decline. We live in a mobile world where countries can do business with each other at the click of a mouse. People have skills which mean that they can move from one country to another and add to the GDP of that country. English is currently the lingua franca, and just as national languages aided the rise of national identities, the languages of business (lingua franca) can aid the growth of global identities. This new world we are embarking on means that nationalism is becoming an outdated concept. I would argue that based on the legacy of nations: war, genocide and ethnic cleansing, that this is something to be thankful for.