Author: Miroslav Hroch
Address: Professor Emeritus, Faculty of Humanities, Charles University in Prague, now without affiliation
Page Range: 2–18
No. of Pages: 17
Keywords: nation, national movement, nationalism, globalised nationalism
Abstract: The author recommends that any consideration of the issue of nation and nationalism should be preceded by a careful analysis of the terminology used. He points out that the key term ‚nation‘ itself should be used in the knowledge that it refers, on the one hand, to a specific large group of citizens – members of a nation, but also to an abstract value community of culture. He critically rejects the thoughtless use of the term ‚nationalism‘, which forgets that it is derived from the term ‚nation‘. This is a dangerous distortion, especially when applied to non-European realities. A nation is originally a specifically European phenomenon, that is to say, a community that grows out of the old cultural and ideological resources of European countries. If the globalised term nationalism is used retrospectively to analyse the history or present of European nations, there is a danger of distortion and misunderstanding. Just as distorting, however, can be the analysis of non-European ‚nations‘ in the coordinates of the European nation. In conclusion, the author points out that the humanistic and motivational values of the European nation from the time of its formation are largely an empty phrase for contemporary nations. The reason for this, however, lies not only in terminological confusion, but also in the great transformation of value norms as a result of the neoliberal questioning of national values and identities that is being promoted in the context of advancing globalisation.
Prof. Miroslav Hroch, PhDr., DrSc., dr. h. c. is a Czech historian and pedagogue working at Charles University in Prague, first at the Faculty of Philosophy and since 2000 at the Faculty of Humanities. He was awarded an honorary doctorate from Uppsala University. He is interested in the history of the modern period, especially the comparative history of national movements in Europe.
Keywords: nation, national movement, nationalism, globalised nationalism
Česká verze: HTML
The term nationalism belongs to those that today live their own life regardless of what reality they actually denote (or are supposed to denote), similarly to communism, humanity, human rights. Moreover, today we encounter it as a global phenomenon – as a term it appears everywhere in the world. At the same time, it is, to say the least, a vague, ambiguous term, mostly used as a disqualifying label or even a swear word, sometimes as a neutral tool of analysis, but in some languages (Spanish) originally as a positive value. Thus, both in the determination of content and in the evaluative perspective, we observe diametric differences. In this paper I would like to point out several contexts that must be taken into account if we want to understand and critically assess the confusions around nationalism.
First of all, I would like to recall the fact that the term nationalism is derived from the term (and reality) nation and should only be used in the context of nation. Therefore, it will be necessary to present basic data on how the phenomenon of nation has been and is understood, noting at the outset that nation is a specifically European phenomenon in its original sense, and not only in the conceptual sense. This, in turn, cannot be explained without an explanation of how the modern (European) nation was formed. In this context, I intend to draw attention to the neglected fact that the term nation does not only refer to a specific set of people in our environment, but that it is also an abstract denoting a construction – a cultural community of values.
The dual position of national existence
It is not a self-evident principle that at the beginning of any analysis it is necessary to begin with the terms that are to be its tools. Here, then, with the term “nation”, which forms the basis of everything – and above all, it is historically a much older term. Although the term nationalism dominates today in referring to everything related to the nation, it is only a neologism derived in most European languages from the Latin natio, natus sum. Czech is one of the few languages to have translated the term. I’ll leave aside more than a century of debate about the definition of nation. For the sake of rough orientation, I will only mention that in these discussions the understanding of the nation and its birth moved between two extreme positions. On the one hand is the notion that a nation is determined by objective, i.e., factors and circumstances independent of the individual’s will; on the other is the view that a nation is determined primarily, indeed exclusively, by the fact that a certain set of people consider themselves to be a nation. Simplistically, then, labels such as “constructivism” on the one hand and “primordialism” (or “essentialism”) on the other are used in various surveys. But these need not be incompatible opposites. There is no consensus definition of nation, and it is therefore advisable for any author who uses this term to state at the outset what he or she means by it. Which I must do here, in an effort to be clear.
I assume that each of us spontaneously, without reflection, recalls the term nation in a double position, in a double context, and uses it according to circumstances, spontaneously in one or the other of these positions, which often leads to misunderstandings. The more common position is that of the nation as a designation, understandable to everyone, of a specific, objectively existing set of people, a large social group, whose members are aware that they belong to this group and accept this belonging as a positive component of their lives. They communicate with each other in the cycle of everyday life, they come into conflict, or, on the contrary, they come together for a partial interest – in this, the nation is a framework that they use when necessary. The ties, the relations between the members of this group very often (but not always) have their roots deep in the past, in the Middle Ages, but were only constituted in the course of modernisation – i.e., roughly during the 19th century. It is impossible to identify a stable, universally valid combination of these relations (territorial, linguistic, cultural, political economic, religious, etc.); each could have been modified, or even absent and substituted by another. However, the indispensable characteristic of national existence has always been threefold:
- Its members are aware that they belong together and that they are united by a common past,
- secondly, they communicate more intensely with each other than with surrounding groups (hence the special importance of language),
- thirdly, they form a community of citizens who are equal, even if they are socially and professionally stratified.
However, there is also a second position that we are not always clearly aware of. It is the term ‚nation‘ as a designation of an abstract cultural commonality, as an idea, or perhaps more accurately a construction, born in the minds of educated people (or politicians) and having positive value connotations for them. Here the nation as a whole is considered, regardless of social stratification. If one takes into account the interest differences of the sub-components of the nation, then with respect to the harmonizing function of the nation – its elementary value is its very existence. The idea of the nation as an abstract value was born in the formative period of the modern nation but had much older roots in many European nations.
Mass acceptance of the identity associated with the nation in the position of a social group, however, did not automatically mean the conscious acceptance of this idea of the nation as an abstract value community by each member of that group. On the contrary, in the process of forming a nation, or a national movement, national leaders understood the “nation” as a ready-made closed construct and value, and it was not important to them whether its potential members already shared a national identity with them.
However, the two levels – the concretely social and the abstractly cultural – are intertwined. The notion of the nation as a value-laden abstract community became part of the new national identity during the formation of modern nations, and conversely, the “idea of the nation” was modified in the minds of its members according to their education and the place they occupied in the social structure of the national society.
The difficulty with terms: from nation to nationalism
Whether differentiated or not, the term “nation” is now a worldwide phenomenon – a society of nations starting with the scores of Indian nations in Latin and North America and tribal or other communities in Africa.
Why such success? I dare not answer comprehensively; I will only point out some indisputable connections. To be a nation today, almost always and everywhere in the world, is something prestigious and, above all, it implies certain rights, and these rights are based on respect for cultural specificity, but also, and above all, it implies certain political or power ambitions: ‚we are finally governing ourselves‘. This may sound unambiguous but let us leave aside for the moment reservations such as the question “who is actually governing themselves and for whom?”. In the eyes of those who rule the world and in the eyes of political scientists and sociologists, the contemporary globalizing world is a world of variously definable communities, which they refer to as nations. Since English is the lingua franca of global politics and science, these communities are understood to be ‚nations‘ in the sense that English has understood the term since the 17th century, i.e. in the sense of self-contained political entities – states. Although we translate United Nations into English as nations, we know that they are not nations in the sense that European cultural tradition understands them.
The world of journalism, and unfortunately also the world of contemporary science – whether political science or sociology – has no problem with this terminological confusion, because it covers the diverse mixture of various political units with another, much more frequent term – “nationalism”, which, as a product of terminological globalisation, is thoughtlessly applied to world, European or Czech processes, not only present but also past. Luther, Masaryk, and Mussolini can all fit under this terminological umbrella. For this reason, I prefer to use the English “nationalism” when talking about what is happening outside Europe and in the present, to indicate that these are processes different from what we use the Czech equivalent of this term to describe when analysing European affairs, whether in the present or in the past.
If we try to define ‚nationalism‘, it is even more true here than in the case of the term ‚nation‘ that there is no consensus definition. Even today, the vague notion, which was valid only a few decades ago, that ‚nationalism‘ refers to everything that is somehow related to the nation, or ‚nation‘, does not apply. Today, in Anglo-Saxon texts we find terms such as “white nationalism” “Trumpian nationalism”, “Hong Kong nationalism” “Latin American nationalism” “white nationalism” etc. Thus, Ernest Gellner’s phrase that it is nationalism that shapes nations was once a bon mot. In the end, the nation is presented as a virtual reality that exists for us only because we can apply the label “nationalism” to a process, a phenomenon, a social segment in the sense of a sense of togetherness, a common interest, or a mere verbal devotion, belonging. This is done irrespective of the reality it is used to denote.
Members of multi-ethnic state entities such as Indonesia and India, not to mention most African states, are “nations” because their political and sometimes academic elites can be traced to a sense of identification with the entity so named – and thus “nationalism”. In doing so, it is difficult to determine unambiguously to which of the two positions of the nation, as I characterized them in the introduction, the term is attached. I venture here to formulate it only as a hypothesis that it is primarily a position of social reality – that is, as the attitudes of particular ‚nationalists‘. It is only derivatively that one seeks the values to which “nationalism” would subscribe, or which it would argue for in an effort to strengthen the cohesion of the whole called “nation”.
While journalists (and indeed most politicians) are not bothered by this terminological obfuscation, many political scientists and other social scientists realize that the ambiguity of the term “nationalism” reduces its explanatory power to zero. Hence, even before the middle of the 20th century, there were (and then increasingly are) attempts to specify differences using adjectives – statist, imperial, but also humanist, liberal, integral, and so on. Europeans are particularly sensitive to the use of the term “nationalism” to denote identity with a nation defined by, among other things, a common language of its own, as is common among most European nations but rarely on other continents. In an attempt at specification, some authors use the term “ethnonationalism”, but usually with a pejorative connotation. For in the contemporary European mainstream, which no longer considers the nation to be a European value, ‚ethnos‘ is used as the antithesis of the civic principle, and therefore as a label for something that is not befitting a proper European. I consider this idea to be not only mistaken, but even dangerous.
This brings me to another chronic dispute about nationalism. It is the dispute over its evaluation. If we label a position as nationalist, a politician as nationalist, we usually mean it as a criticism. In the Czech linguistic tradition this has been the case from the very beginning, because we usually use this term to describe phenomena and attitudes that we evaluate negatively. In the German linguistic tradition it was similar, but only until about the middle of the last century. Then there was an attempt to neutralise the term, as the American historian Carlton J. Hayes tried to do in the 1930s. The adjective was then meant to differentiate between positive or negative shade. In Central Europe, the German historian Eugen Lemberg, a native of Liberec /Reichenberg, was the first to attempt this neutralisation. However, he failed to enforce this concept. To this day, some German authors tend to lean towards a more negative connotation, but more common are authors who describe nationalism as ambivalent in value: sometimes positive, sometimes negative, depending on the situation. Despite this declared view, however, they consider nationalism as something inappropriate.
Although English and especially American authors often stress that this is a terminus technicus for them, if we look more closely we get the impression of a certain hypocrisy. It is especially true of American authors that they do not usually use the term when referring to the USA. It is a negative term for them, which they like to use routinely when they write about non-American reality, i.e. about other nations, or when they criticize some aspect of American life. However, they almost exclusively use “American patriotism” to describe a positive relationship with the nation. Many Anglo-Saxon writers, however, are aware of the low expressive value of the term „nationalism“ and look for some other terms, especially “patriotism”. The eminent anthropologist Cliffort Geerts speaks of “unquestioning loyalty”. Significantly, Lemberg defines nationalism as value-neutral by not relating it to the nation in its own sense. Indeed, he defines it as “unconditional loyalty to a super-personal whole”.
In both the European and American mainstream, “nationalism” dominates as a label for all attitudes and activities that refer to an entity that they call, essentially a nation. It is thus a largely critical or at least distancing designation of an attitude that grows out of a relationship to a group, a community that, in the opinion of these critics, is artificially created or, in the worst case, even manipulatively constructed by “nationalists” seeking to gain power or achieve other egoistic goals. Such a notion may be valid for the formation of “nations” on the territory of non-European continents, especially former colonies, but in the case of European nations it is at odds with the empirical data we know not only about Europe as a whole but also about individual nations. Above all, I stress that the term ‚nationalism‘ cannot be used to analyse the process of nation-building and its historical roots in Europe, and that it cannot be transposed to the history of the continent that is the cradle of the modern nation.
Before proceeding to the next component of our topic – the historical analysis of the formation of nations – it will be necessary to summarize the considerations of the terminology associated with national existence and Europe. This analysis works with three terms that originated in Europe to denote processes and attitudes that began on that continent – nation, patriotism, nationalism – and were subsequently applied to similar (but not identical) non-European processes and returned, as it were unnoticed, to Europe as a tool for the scientific analysis of the processes from which they were originally derived. But these terms – having undergone globalisation of various kinds – no longer signify what they originally meant.
This is not just a criticism of the use of the term ‚nationalism‘ itself – we can avoid using that term after all – but above all a reflection on Europe, on its place in the world, and such a reflection cannot be grounded except historically.
The nation was formed in Europe as a cultural value
One of the basic facts I want to stress and justify in this essay is the European anchoring of the nation. The modern nation – and the identity with this nation – was formed and shaped under the conditions of European modernization on the basis of specifically European historical or cultural traditions. It is therefore a term denoting a specifically European formation and a corresponding term that has been gradually exported outside Europe to countries with quite different cultural and religious traditions and different socio-economic structures.
Thus, if I attempt a historical interpretation of this fact, I must take into account the interconnectedness of the changing social reality on the one hand and the terms used by the times for these transformations on the other. By this reality we mean nineteenth-century Europe, when the commonality referred to by the term nation was considered a natural commonality and a value, and when the relationship to it, in Czech referred to as patriotism, was understood as a commitment. Nationalism was the designation of a certain type of attitude towards the nation and, as already mentioned, it emerged as a term only at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, at a time when most European nations were already fully formed. It was therefore a derivative of the term “nation”, unlike the term “natio” which has its roots in the Middle Ages. As I have already indicated, the current list of European values does not mention the nation or patriotism.
So we are faced with the question: how did it begin? Where did the foundations grow from? However, the foundations of what? – The nation as an “idea” or as a social group? Here it will be necessary to return to the distinction between the two levels of the nation’s existence that I characterized in the introductory section. I have already stated that it is not usually distinguished whether one means the nation as an abstract concept, an idea, or the nation as a concrete social formation. Rather, there was a difference in emphasis: some people emphasized the idea more and automatically included the commonwealth under it, while others – of whom I am one – tended to analyse the social group which – insofar as it accepted the idea of national community – was also decisive for the successful formation of the modern nation.
I will begin my search for the origins with the abstract concept of the nation, its idea, since the term itself was inextricably linked to it. The medieval Latin term “natio” was given new meanings in the languages of the nation (nation, nation, etc.), and its content was gradually transformed along with it. Originally, it referred to a certain group, a class of people, certainly not to the entire community in a certain territory. The example of university “nations” is well-known, which was a designation for students coming from a certain region or state; we can also find a certain analogy in church councils. Socially exclusive was the Hungarian “Natio Hungarica”, including only the Hungarian nobility, similarly as the “Natio Polonica” included the nobility of the Polish Rzecz Pospolita. Equally socially exclusive was the 16th century German “Deutsche Nation”. By contrast, the 16th century English “nation” also included the cities – along with the nobility, of course. For the Czech 17th century humanist Comenius, the nation (in Latin “gens”) included the whole community of people speaking one language and living in one territory. His definition could be seen as a parallel to the understanding of nation in England at that time.
It should be added that in humanism and later in the Enlightenment the term nation was connoted in all linguistic variants in a mostly positive or at least neutral way. Perhaps because of this, it was not difficult to give this term and concept a new content during the last third of the eighteenth century, or at the threshold of the nineteenth century: the nation came to be seen as a value in itself, a contribution to the cultural multiplicity of humanity. The nation acquires a new value as the natural, self-evident home of all its members – citizens, it becomes a refuge but also, for example in the case of the French Jacobins, a commitment of solidarity and usefulness of the individual to the whole. All this, of course, in the position of an ideal, like the idea of a link with the idea of a civilizing or cultivating mission of the nation. Paradoxical as it sounds, in the view of the nation – I am still speaking of an abstract value position – there was an obvious convergence of the Herderian and revolutionary “Jacobin” and later Romantic conceptions of the nation, however much they used to be contrasted.
The positive connotation of the term nation did not fall from the sky: we can look for ancient roots, which include in the first place the Old Testament notion of a “chosen nation” to which all its members have an obligation. We must recall that this is probably where the Reformation ethos of equal members of the community grew from. The secular roots were probably in Enlightenment regional patriotism, which committed the educated individual to responsibility for the welfare of the common people of his country, his region. Usually associated with the nation as an idea was the notion of the nation as an eternal commonwealth. Such a “nation in itself” does not count on how many people consciously subscribe to it; what is decisive is that it lives as an idea, as a “nation in hearts”.
The Enlightenment made the term nation one of the common tools for analysing social and political problems. We are familiar with reflections on national pride, on national character, we know the praises of national languages. The adoption of the term nation with a positive connotation went hand in hand, as it were, with the Enlightenment regional patriotism of the educated (not to be confused with the landed patriotism of the nobility, who were concerned with the preservation of noble privileges). This patriotism was an ethical requirement that obliged the educated to work hard on behalf of their country for the upliftment of its inhabitants. Connected to Enlightenment patriotism was the notion that the state (its ruler, its elites) as a secular institution should provide every individual with basic education and civic training. In the Netherlands, in the second half of the 18th century, the term patriots referred to participants in a political, civic movement. Whatever context the term nation appeared in at that time, it was a designation of a value, a term that carried a positive charge.
In contrast to secular patriotism, at the same time J. G. Herder, for whom the nation (defined by a common language and culture) was created by God and called to be the fundamental instrument of humanity, the signpost and pioneer of the path to the ennoblement of humanity, came forward. Probably in Herder we can observe the roots of a kind of “dualism” in the understanding of the nation: it consists in imagining the nation on the one hand as a work of God, as an abstraction that is a moral and cultural value in itself (the latter is dominant in Herder), on the other hand there is the idea of the nation (for Herder a kind of accompaniment) as a large group, a community of concrete individuals who need to be convinced that they belong to that value abstraction since ages.
All this dates back to a few decades before the French Revolution, with which the common superficial stereotype associates the beginning of the glorification of the nation as an abstract construction, which was to spread from there through Europe after the Revolution. In fact, revolutionary France merely institutionalized and glorified an abstract ideal of the nation that was born of Enlightenment patriotism or Herderian pre-Romanticism of previous eras. I see the real revolutionary innovation of the term elsewhere, in that the Revolution gave it a new social content: it declared it as a community of citizens acting in equality and solidarity, regardless of wealth, noble birth or education. All citizens (not just the enlightened educated) were obliged to work for the country, which meant working for progress and freedom. This was certainly the basis for the application of the principle of citizenship. At the same time, however, citizens, members of the nation, were to adopt the written form of their mother tongue and thus gain access to the historically created, often forgotten, values of national culture. This long overture, the historical grounding that established the myth of the nation as a positive value, can only be found in Europe.
The nation as social reality and civil society
It is only when we are aware of this intellectual overture that we can understand the process of the formation of the nation on the other level – the nation as a concrete community or social group. This nation as a community of equal citizens sharing not only a consciousness of belonging as a value, but also communicating with each other, with a certain degree of organisation, was born out of the crisis of identities brought about by the gradual disintegration of the old values and bonds of feudal society.
It is not decisive whether we label the system in crisis as feudal or pre-modern. Nor is it important whether we label the system that took the place of the old one with the adjective modern, capitalist, industrial. The crisis and the resulting transformations took place slowly in some countries and in some spheres of life, while in others they were rapid and revolutionary. There is not enough space here to describe this crisis, which shook the sphere of serfdom, challenged the authority of the Church and the authorities, established, albeit only formally, the equality of people before the law, etc. For a better understanding, I give a brief summary of the most important examples of these changes.
Traditional social ties and dependencies based on privilege and feudal land tenure, whether in the form of serfdom or serfdom, began to be challenged and eliminated.
The closed world of the patrimonial or seigneurial system was loosening, becoming less restrictive, and status barriers seemed more permeable to the flow of information and the movement of people in an increasingly assertive and modernizing state.
An increasing proportion (though still a minority) of people could cross the boundaries set by the estate, the domain, and sometimes it was even possible to leave permanently the restricted world in which generations of their ancestors had lived: partly in search of a livelihood, partly in pursuit of higher education.
Craft production (organized into guilds) in the cities began to compete with large-scale production, first in the form of manufactories, later in the form of factories, forcing the mass of craftsmen to seek new ways and new solutions.
Religious tolerance and secularization gradually asserted themselves, and with it the church’s control of intellectual and cultural events receded: for a growing part of the population, religion ceased to be the mainstay of their identification.
The religious legitimation of the inequality of the people by birth and the privileged authorities of feudalism was increasingly challenged, and with it the traditional value system.
Slowly, the idea that people were equal before the law, and therefore before state institutions, was promoted – first among the educated – and from there the idea that all individuals were of equal value, regardless of whether they were of noble, bourgeois or serf origin.
All these (and many other) transformations took place unevenly across the European territory, i.e. at different times, in different combinations and with different durations. Everywhere, however, they stimulated, first and foremost among the educated, a disquiet and a crisis of identities, the formation of new bonds, the search for a new commonality. It was only at a certain level of education that another precondition for the formation of a new commonality was created – the capacity for imagination – the ability to imagine that the commonality to which I claim, with which I should identify, includes people I do not know and will never meet, and who live in a territory I will never travel, and which nevertheless is referred to as my homeland.
The emergence of new ties, communication links, a new type of group – in this it is not centrally important what to call it – however, the term suitable to designate the new entity has already been “prefabricated” here from the past and applied in the conditions of some states in Europe. It was the term nation. It was not important in this whether state-organized or not – the decisive thing was the determination by a common language, past, culture. Thus, with the advent of civil society, new great communities were born in Europe, – and these were given the old term nation, which originally did not denote a civil society.
Such nation-formation took place in Europe, to put it simply, in a twofold way, and resulted in the two types of nation that still exist today (with a few transitional cases). I distinguish between these two types according to the initial situation from which the formation of the nation took place.
The starting situation of the first type was the state, which had its continuity from the Middle Ages, an advanced “national” culture in its own language, and elites, specifically, there were nobility and bourgeoisie who shared and developed this culture. On the soil of this state, from a certain crisis period onwards, an internal (i.e., national) transformation of a statist society of unequals into a civil society that declares itself as a nation of equal citizens – this state-nation provides the citizen with protection, and possibly also prestige externally, but at the same time demands from its member solidarity with the “nation” as an abstract commonwealth. France, the Netherlands, Portugal, Denmark Sweden, England, Spain, a minority of contemporary European nations, belonged to this type of nation formation. For the sake of better understanding, I choose the name “state nations” for them.
The initial situation of the second type was more complex. It was the situation of an ethnic community living in the territory of a multi-ethnic empire. It was therefore a situation of a community with an incomplete social structure, i.e. without economic and academic elites, without its own state, and with a broken or absent continuity of culture and literary language. The path to nation-formation was a purposeful effort by the leaders of this group, the patriots, to acquire all the attributes of a full-fledged national existence, which we call a national movement, where only the members of an ethnic group, first those who have acquired higher education, decide to belong to the nation. Here, too, the first stimulus was the experience of the crisis of the old society described above, the crisis of the old legitimacies, the old value systems. On the one hand, the ideas of equality of people, on the other hand, the market links, as well as social emancipation, the most important component of which was usually the so-called liberation of the peasants, had their significance. Social emancipation was followed or accompanied by political emancipation, opening the way to political participation.
The national movements in Europe were asynchronous, and the composition of their programme and their objectives differed. However, cultural, linguistic, social emancipatory and political demands were always represented in this programme, albeit with different accents and different dates. Their course also followed the same trajectory. On the threshold stood the period I refer to as Phase A, which was characterized by a predominantly scholarly interest in the language, culture, history, and customs of an ethnic group that is increasingly, though not always, referred to by the term nation. Sooner or later, the idea that members of an ethnic community – a nation – should realize their belonging to a nation as something valuable, as a value set to be committed to, matured on the ground of this scholarly interest. Thus began agitation phase B, which mostly, but not always, succeeded in gaining support in broad sections of the population, so that the national movement entered its mass phase, which I refer to as phase C. It was usually only during this phase that not only the academic but also the middle classes and business elites, or a section of them, began to identify with the nation, so that we can speak of a fully formed nation, whether or not it achieved statehood.
Whether one likes it or not, the vast majority of European national movements were successful and resulted in the establishment of a nation state. However, it was a different type of state than the one born of the modernisation of the nation state. Its inhabitants shared different stereotypes and a different value-based view of the world. That is why I refer to them as ‚small nations‘, where the adjective ‚small‘ is not a quantitative characteristic but a typological one. That is why I do not classify the Danes as a small nation, but rather the six times more numerous Ukrainians. The characteristics of a small nation include, for example, the stereotypical idea of the selflessness of national existence, the feeling of external threat, the desire to prove the right to general recognition, and doubts about whether self-existence as a nation makes sense. But there are also objective circumstances, of which I mention at least one: small nations did not participate in European colonial expansion, and their members therefore have a different relationship to racial issues, as well as to the inhabitants of other continents, which was clearly manifested in the recent immigrant crisis.
The two paths of nation-formation are also reflected in a semantic dualism: it is the difference between the English and the Central European (simplistically speaking) conception, consisting in the fact that the English “nation” is very close to the state, essentially implying the existence of a nation-state, or at least a claim to a nation-state of its own. In contrast, in both Czech and German terminology, a nation is defined by a common culture, language and possibly even history. A nation in our linguistic tradition thus denotes a community that can exist without a state.
For the sake of precision, it should be added that between the two basic types of European nation-formation just mentioned, we know of a third type, a kind of intermediate one, to which the Germans, Italians and Poles belong. In these three cases, communities with a full social structure, with an advanced culture in a national language, but without a nation state of their own, were at the beginning of nation-building in the 19th century. Here, too, there is talk of a national movement, but its basic aim was to create a unified state. That is why these movements are often referred to as unification movements.
In the formative period, the term patriotism – with equivalents in different languages – was usually used to describe the relationship of an individual to the nation. It was only later, on the threshold of the 20th century, that, as we know, the term nationalism began to be increasingly used to identify an individual with the nation.
Nation and nationalism in the whirlwind of globalisation
The terms nation and nationalism, which historically originated on European soil, became export commodities during the 20th century, after they had formed modern nations. I won’t trace how this happened, but the result is important: the ubiquitous term “nation” as a state-national entity has been eclipsed by the increasingly frequent (and even more nebulous) “nationalism”. This export, however, was far from being directed to an environment that was the same or similar everywhere. On the contrary, between continents and within continents there were territories at different stages of development and with different cultural traditions, and the vast differences were to be somehow covered up by this very importation of the term “nation” and especially the term “nationalism”. It was a successful overlay, which does not change the fact that it did not correspond to reality. What I mean by this is that the entities which in various parts of the world refer to themselves as ‚nation‘ are far from being identical to those which in Europe have mostly been formed as modern nations since the 19th century. Sometimes they have in common just that designation – and, of course, the claim that all the inhabitants of the state identify with it.
Therefore, it may be useful to briefly recall what types of companies were involved before the advent of this “nationalisation” imported from Europe. These were, firstly, large state formations, centralised monarchies with one long-dominant culture and language, albeit with ethnic minorities, such as China, Japan, Persia or the Ottoman Empire. In these cases, we know some parallels to the European path of nation-states. Further, it was that part of the colonies that were forced to adopt partly or wholly the language and culture of their colonial power, but whose elites successfully sought to emancipate themselves politically from the ‚mother country‘. This includes, on the one hand, the Latin American states and, on the other, multi-ethnic India. However, some colonies, such as Indonesia and Vietnam, have retained their cultural and linguistic distinctiveness. In most of Africa, independent states (calling themselves nations) became liberating colonies whose territories were so ethnically heterogeneous that their emancipating educated elites retained the language of the colonial power, but within these liberating colonies movements sometimes arose to argue for ethnic identity and their own language. These movements, which are also known from Asia, are typologically closest to European movements (e.g. Tamils, Ibo, Taiwanese, Kurds). Finally, mention should be made of non-European peoples whose national identity and possibly culture was formed as a result of national politics in the pre-Stalinist period of the multi-ethnic USSR, but who, after its collapse, have become independent and are building a state-national identity linked to cultural distinctiveness. Here the idea of an ethnically defined nation came “from above” but took hold.
For all the differences, the common characteristic that applies to all these groups (with the exception of the American continent) is that the European tradition of the pre-modern nation and the other characteristics that make Europe European (ancient heritage, Christianity, the Reformation, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment), i.e. the moral humanist heritage (and content) of the nation, were and are missing everywhere. The protagonists of the nation-building processes in Asia and Africa simply appropriated (perhaps with the copious input of Western European theorists) a European term that had a positive connotation, and they did not mind that they and their compatriots lacked the European historical experience built up over generations from which the reality of the nation grew. This was consequently linked to the consciousness – or if you like – the myth of a common past, or a common origin.
Whether these new “nations” were created through struggles against colonial oppression or against the oppression of despotic monarchs, they were always primarily the result of a power struggle in which the local political and military elite played a decisive role, defining themselves primarily against an external enemy. Of course, the formation of European nations by way of national movements also included, from a certain stage of their success, a struggle for power. This struggle, however, was for the rights or interests (whether real or fictitious) of an already existing nation as a cultural value community, or in terms of a national movement in its agitation phase B. In non-European situations, the struggle for political power, for the creation of a political entity “nation”, had priority. In this struggle, to which the vulgarizing simplification was given the name “nationalism”, the idea that the state they controlled or built should present itself at the same time as a “nation” dominated.
To sum up in a few points, what is the difference between a nation in Europe and a “nation” outside Europe in terms of their genesis?
- The Herderian-Romantic idea of the nation as a value in itself
- The ethical humanist postulate inherent in national existence: identification with a nation implies a commitment to work for that nation
- Hence another postulate: to serve humanity by serving the nation (the common roots of these two ethical postulates are sometimes more in the Christian tradition, sometimes more in enlightened patriotism)
- Cultural qualities and cultural specificities as one of the foundations of national existence – again with the understanding that to develop national culture is to help develop the culture of all humanity
- In this context, the residue of the state-power component of national existence (at least in the Central European terminological tradition): it is possible to imagine a nation without a state, but not a nation without a distinctive culture and without a common destiny
- Hence the historical dimension of the European nation and the historicism of national identity here
- The European nation was born – with few exceptions – in the course of the modernization process – that is, simultaneously with the striving for human equality, for political freedoms, but also simultaneously with rationalization, industrialization, urbanization – in the national self-concept this was reflected in the stereotype of the progressiveness of the nation.
This summary could be a nice conclusion, but unfortunately it would only be a partial conclusion because it is based on a historical analysis of the process of nation formation. It characterizes the classical model of the European nation in the 20th century, but it is questionable whether it applies to today. Globalisation and the associated advent of the digital era have taken not only the circulation and uniformisation of goods to a new qualitative level, but also the circulation and glossing over of ideas and stereotypes. Thanks to this circulation, the globally distorted terms “nation” and “nationalism” have also affected Europe, returning to the place of their birth in a devalued and emptied form. Leaving aside the problem posed by their use to analyse and interpret specifically European processes, this is a problem more for other scholars. I will stick to the question of how this ‚return‘ has affected the very European idea of the nation and the meaning of its existence. What is left today of those ties and values that are associated with the 19th century European nation?
- The humanist imperative of service to one’s national community is now alien to most people bred by neoliberal individualism.
- The national interest has become a political slogan used by various groups for their particular interests.
- The link between the idea of the nation and the idea of progress has been compromised by the horrors inflicted on humanity by the world wars.
- Traditional historicism as a consciousness of a common destiny is being eroded – albeit to varying degrees in different nations (remaining strong in Poland or France, very weak in Czech case).
- In most countries, language has lost its status as a value to be cherished and has ceased to be a symbol of national identity.
It is a significant circumstance that, at a time when almost all European nations are fully formed, have a full social structure and their members take nationality for granted, that in this situation the level which works with the nation as an abstract community of values, as an “idea”, is receding into the background, and the nation is more often, or almost exclusively, observed precisely in the position of a large social group which is increasingly more a network than a structure.
All this is not to say that identity with the nation has been corroded forever: it has merely receded into the background and taken on a new form – not only in the context of globalisation, but also in indirect dependence on the transition to the computer age. Its strength has been manifested in some tense situations, such as the reunification of Germany or the break-up of Yugoslavia; it has also been manifested as a reaction to the economic crisis in some countries, it has been manifested in discussions about limiting the import of consumer goods and so on – and above all it has lived a tumultuous life among sports fans. The common characteristic of most of these manifestations of persistent identification with the nation, however, is that most of its bearers above all expect and cheerfully welcome when something beneficial and pleasing to them results from a national achievement that they regard as ‚theirs‘. The nation is there for them, but are they also there for the nation? All indications are that they are willing to do or sacrifice much less than their ancestors for their national identity. In this respect, the distinction between European and non-European national identity may already be fading or reaching a new position.