Nationalism, barely 200 years old, is impossible to avoid, says David Bell.
Nationalism is one of those phenomena that get more confused the closer one looks at them. Most readers would probably accept the principal definition in the Oxford English Dictionary : "Advocacy of or support for the interests of one's own nation." Yet scholars cannot agree if nationalism is a simple sentiment or a political programme, a modern occurrence or an ancient one, the product of particular social conditions or a free-floating doctrine.
Following two notable scholars of the subject, Ernest Gellner and Eric Hobsbawm, I have found a fairly narrow definition most useful.
Simple feelings of support for, loyalty to or belief in a nation are covered by the terms "national sentiment" and "patriotism". What distinguishes nationalism is that it refers not simply to feelings, but to organised political doctrines and movements. Furthermore, these doctrines and movements have a clear goal: the construction and/or completion of a nation. Nationalist movements, after all, nearly always claim that their nation remains an unfinished project and suffers from problems that need to be rectified through political action. In some cases, they allege that their nation has been deprived of territories that rightly belong to it; in others, that the national community is diluted or polluted by the presence of national minorities; in others still, that the citizenry has an imperfect knowledge of, and commitment to, national values and traditions, and the national culture. Most often, the ultimate aim of a nationalist programme is to unite members of a nation within its historical territory, where they can collectively exercise political sovereignty while identifying with national culture.
Because nationalists justify their actions by invoking the rights of their nation but simultaneously confess that this nation does not yet exist, there is something more than a little paradoxical about nationalism. The paradox is most often resolved through an appeal to history: while the nation may not fully exist today, nationalists explain, it did so once, and still retains all of its rights from that time - indeed, these rights constitute a sacred inheritance. Nationalists, in short, forever situate themselves in a beleaguered and imperfect present, en route between a more glorious past and a more glorious future.
As defined in these terms, nationalism is very much a modern phenomenon, dating from no earlier than the 18th century, and originating in Europe.
Before then, European observers most often defined nation as a group of people united by language, law and/or historical tradition, but they saw nations as organic entities. Nations could be born, grow, wither and die, but they could not be created (or recreated) through systematic political action. The idea that millions of people could be shaped into a nation through politics was as yet unthinkable. Only with democratic revolutions did the idea begin to gain adherents.
To understand how nationalism first came into being, it is worth looking at revolutionary France. At the end of the 18th century, France was a multi-ethnic, multilingual country in which only a minority spoke standard French. France's kings had never seen this diversity as a pressing political problem, but the revolutionaries of 1789 believed that they could not create a cohesive democratic community without taking the component peoples of France and, in the words of revolutionary Henri Gregoire, "melting them into the national mass". They devised educational programmes to eradicate regional differences and to create a cohesive, unified national community. They imagined legions of instructors bringing the gospel of the nation to the patois-speaking peasantry, in conscious imitation of the counter-Reformation missionaries who had earlier gone into the countryside for the very different purpose of ensuring conformity with Catholic teachings.
French nationalism, however, was not born solely from political thought.
When devising their projects, early French nationalists could already take for granted the existence of a cohesive national territory, administered by a centralised state apparatus, and the existence of a social and cultural elite who, wherever they lived in France, already spoke standard French and looked to Paris for cultural guidance. The availability of a reliable postal service, transport and a burgeoning number of national periodicals facilitated communication among this elite and allowed them to see themselves as all belonging to the same community. Without these preconditions, the nationalist project of the revolution would have been difficult to imagine in the first place, let alone to begin implementing.
Perhaps the most important point to retain about French revolutionary nationalism is that it worked. The prospect of coming together to construct a new, greater national community offered material advantages to potential members, and also a sense of spiritual purpose to people increasingly alienated from traditional Christian teachings. The French revolutionaries did not manage to teach all French citizens to speak French, but in other realms they had remarkable success. Most important, within a few years after 1789, they forged a truly national conscript army that quickly overran the frontiers of the ancien régime and embarked on a programme of conquest. By the time of Napoleon, French leaders had acquired the ambition not simply to construct a new French nation, but a new "great nation" that would dominate Europe.
In the two centuries since the revolutionary era, nationalism has changed the world - and in doing so, it has changed its own causes. Not every nationalist movement has followed the path of the French. The success and spread of nationalism have created ever more incentives for people to become nationalist, and ever more examples for them to imitate. Even in the early 19th century, thinkers outside France - with the example of the French Revolution before their eyes - found it easier than the French had done to imagine coming together into national communities. In Napoleonic Germany, despite a high degree of political and administrative fragmentation, leading intellectuals came to believe that only the political construction of a united German nation would save them from absorption into France. They thus spurred resistance to Napoleon and inspired projects that would blossom in the time of Otto von Bismarck.
These intellectuals also began to popularise the idea of a world naturally divided into distinct nations, each with a particular "genius", language and culture.
The ultimate success of the Germans - and of other nations - in resisting Napoleon inspired more movements across the Continent. The period around the European revolutions of 1848 is justly called the "springtime of nations". By the end of the First World War, these movements had destroyed most of Europe's old empires, while the Versailles Conference confirmed the principle of "national self-determination" as the basis for a new world order of states.
As a result, throughout the 20th century, nationalism was less a choice than a necessity for people worldwide seeking political power and influence. It had been one thing to embrace nationalism in the early modern world of large, multi-ethnic, religiously inspired empires. It was another to embrace it in a world where humankind was assumed to be naturally divided into nation-states, and where any political unit that did not conform to this norm would have a hard time fitting into an ever-more tightly linked international system.
In the post-First World War world, therefore, nationalism not only remained ubiquitous in Europe, but also quickly spread beyond the Continent. And to their shock, the European imperialist powers discovered that the more cultural influence they wielded - the more they managed to impart their beliefs and values to their colonial subjects - the more they spurred nationalist resistance to their own rule. Thus, in the end, their own colonial empires proved no more successful than Austria-Hungary in staving off nationalism's centripetal demons. In the years after the Second World War, they shared its fate, dissolving into often violent and unstable constellations of independent nation-states. Forty years later, the Soviet empire followed, too. As in the Balkans, the examples have often been troubling. But with every population that has shaped itself into a nation-state, the pressure has only risen on adjacent populations to do the same. Most of the new nation-states have not possessed anything like the material preconditions of nationhood the French had been able to count on in the 18th century. In some cases, they have had no basis other than lines on a colonial map. But the causes of nationalism are no longer what they were in the 18th century, for nationalism has become a fundamental principle of world order. Until this state of affairs changes, nationalism is something that will remain impossible to avoid.
David A. Bell is professor of history at Johns Hopkins University, US.