Neighbours in the same back yard

Nations, Identity, Power
August 24, 2001

The impact of identity politics is of vital importance to our understanding of European and international politics at the dawn of the 21st century. In Nations, Identity, Power , the reader is offered a cornucopia of informed and detailed insight on the politics of identity. Although the main emphasis of George Schöpflin's work is on Eastern and Central Europe, the author also provides valuable analytic examples of the nature of national identity in France, Germany and England.

Schöpflin blows away popular misconceptions about identity politics, for example, the strong tendency to see reason and identity as mutually exclusive, whereby identity politics is irrational and national identity is to blame for many of the ills of the world. Whereas cultural identities can be a source of enrichment in a celebration of difference, they can also sow the seeds of hatred that germinate into conflict. The pathologies of some ethno-national conflicts continue to provide a lurid fascination.

But for many scholars there has been a consensus that Central and Eastern European nationalism is brutish, extremist and nasty, while in the West, it is argued, national identity is based on the Enlightenment legacy of civil society, peace and democracy. The author rejects any essentialist, "West is best" approach, which hides the deeper and more complex issues of nationalism.

Contrary to popular assumption, ethnic diversity is not peculiar to Eastern and Central Europe. Schöpflin says ethnicity is present in even the most civic of polities in Europe. It is deep rooted in the French Republic, with French language politics lying at the heart of the Republican project.

Far from having "left ethnicity behind", states in the West have "contextualised and contained ethnicity, diluting it, taming it and hemming it in with civil societies and state machineries that ensure that ethnicity is not the sole source of political power".

While virtually every other modern state may be defined in ethnic terms, Schöpflin argues that in England this is rare. Ethnicity has been subordinated to class and this has helped make the country relatively open to migrants, exiles and other foreigners.

Nations, Identity, Power is divided into five sections: "What is a nation?", "Ethnicity and cultural reproduction", "The state, communism and post-communism", "Minorities" and "The ethnic factor reconsidered". Issues include the problem of ethnic minorities in Eastern and Central Europe, inter-ethnic relations in Transylvania and the break-up of Yugoslavia. In a chapter on Hungary, the author contrasts the comparative calm there with the chaos and turmoil of post-Yugoslavia. By contrast with Serbian irredentism, witness Hungarian attitudes to co-ethnics living in neighbouring states. There are four chapters on Hungary, Romania and Transylvania that illustrate this process. In his chapter on Hungary as a kin-state, Schöpflin shows how the way in which the state treats its own minorities can benefit those Hungarian minorities living in other states.

When assessing Transylvania,  the one-time wound of Trianon has become almost a blessing in disguise. Certainly, in Transylvania, there is little support for re-unification with Hungary. Transylvanians may be portrayed as the most authentic of Hungarians in the rhetoric of Hungarian nationalism, yet when they go to Hungary, they are treated as foreigners. Their loyalty is to Romania. Schöpflin's writing style is lively and vigorous, if abrasive. Ethnicity, identity, nationalism and nationhood are intriguing topics for study and certainly inform European politics today. Schöpflin has provided a fascinating book that deals with these issues in a thought-provoking, original and insightful manner. It is a great piece of erudite scholarship, which one will return to time and again.

Robert C. Hudson is senior lecturer in European studies, University of Derby.



Nations, Identity, Power

Author - George Schöpflin
ISBN - 1 85065 409 3 and 410 7
Publisher - C. Hurst & Co
Price - £40.00 and £16.50
Pages - 442

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