Date: Thu, 17 Jun 1999 21:43:07 -0500 (CDT)
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Subject: Monde Diplomatique—on Inventing national identity
Article: 67872
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Democracy softens forces of change: Inventing national identity

By Anne-Marie Thiesse, 17 June 1999

In the dispute over who owns Kosovo, Serbian and Albanian nationalists brandish arguments from history going back to antiquity or the Middle Ages. Yet nations are a recent creation, barely two centuries old. They were literally invented. And, once invented, they were consolidated by founding myths—and sometimes by bouts of ethnic cleansing. The recent upsurge of nationalism in Europe reflects above all a failure of politics and the difficulty of forging new collective identities based on a genuine political project.

Over a century ago the French historian Ernest Renan predicted the death of nations in Europe. Nations are not eternal. They had a beginning and they will have an end. And they will probably be replaced by a European confederation (1). His prophecy would be about to come true as the millennium draws to a close, were it not for an inherent contradiction in European politics. Just as the maturing European Union is beginning to supersede the nation-state, the banner of nationalism is being raised all over the continent—not only in former communist countries but also in Western European states like Spain, Belgium and the United Kingdom.

The supranational prospect held out by EU appears to be threatened in two ways: by a deficiency of European identity, in striking contrast to the continuing vigour of national identities, and by a process of fragmentation into micro-nations. The real issue in this month's European Parliament elections is a supra-national Europe versus a union of nation-states. But these alternatives raise crucial questions that need to be squarely faced. In the first case, supra-national sovereignty must be based on a European people . But how is such a people to come into being? In the alternative case, how are the number and composition of the constituent nation-states to be decided?

Nations are much younger than their official histories would have us believe. No nation in the modern, that is political, sense of the word existed before the ideological revolution that began in the 18th century and conferred political power on the people . From that time on, the nation was conceived as a broad community united by a link different in nature both from allegiance to the same monarch and from membership of the same religion or social estate. The nation no longer derived from the ruler. It was henceforth independent of the contingencies of dynastic or military history. This powerfully subversive concept opened the way for entry into the age of democracy; but if it was to succeed, the future had to be justified in terms of loyalty to the past.

In order to move from a Europe of kings to a Europe of nations, disparate population groups had to be convinced that despite their obvious differences they shared an identity that was the basis for a collective interest. This was no easy matter. In 1800 the common identity of a Prussian landowner and a Bavarian craftsman, a Magyar nobleman and a peasant on his estates, or a burgher of Florence and a Calabrian shepherd, was far from self-evident. It was, in any case, far less certain than identities based on social status, religion or attachment to a fairly restricted local area. To produce Germans, Hungarians or Italians, it was necessary to postulate a community of birth and continuity of filiation through the ages.

We have become used to distinguishing between two opposing concepts of the nation: the French concept, based on free, rational allegiance of the individual to a political collectivity, and the German concept of objectively determined membership of an organic body. However, the construction of European nations has always involved a mix of both of these concepts, even if the proportions have varied with the political and social context. For generations of French schoolchildren, the teaching of civic rights and duties has always gone hand in hand with the rote learning of a unified national history starting from the Gauls that ignores or glosses over wide differences in regional experience.


Paradoxically, what Europeans most have in common is the fact that for the last two centuries their forbears were engaged in a joint endeavour to manufacture national identities which, though superficially specific, share an underlying similarity. It is easy enough to draw up a list of the symbolic and material items which any real nation needs to possess: a history establishing its continuity through the ages, a set of heroes embodying its national values, a language, cultural monuments, folklore, historic sites, distinctive geographical features, a specific mentality and a number of picturesque labels such as costume, national dishes or an animal emblem.

The list is prescriptive, as proved by the systematic emphasis placed on all these items by nations that have recently achieved political recognition as well as those whose claims to nationhood have not yet been recognised. But in 1800 we were still in the first stages of fabricating what Benedict Anderson has called imagined communities (2). The common model for the generation of national identities was forged by European intellectuals in the course of the 19th century through a process of mutual observation, imitation and transfer of ideas and expertise. The writing of national histories according to liberal ideology, the concept of historic monuments, the idea of ethnographical surveys and the painting of emblematic landscapes are the fruit of this ongoing commerce in symbols.

Codification of the national languages that were gradually introduced in place of a mosaic of dialects was also part of a joint undertaking. The procedures involved extended as far as providing assistance in the development of national identity to nations that suffered from an initial deficit of native intellectuals as a result of their political situation. German, French, English and Russian scholars helped to establish national identities in Balkan countries emerging from Ottoman rule. The constitution of a cultural heritage of the Southern Slavs and the development of Serbo-Croat began with support from Austrian and German scholars, including the distinguished philologist, Jacob Grimm. Shortly after the massacre at Chios in 1882, the French scholar, Claude Fauriel, took it upon himself to prove that modern Greeks had a true national identity and a cultural heritage undoubtedly derived from ancient Greece. This concern may seem strange. It reflects the fact that, up to 1848 at least, the struggle for the nation and the construction of national identities coincided to a considerable extent with the struggle for freedom and modernity waged against absolutism and the remnants of the feudal system. Progress on either front could appear beneficial to all.

The perspective changed when victory was in sight and demands for independent statehood according to national criteria were on the point of succeeding. A practical problem arose. How was national territory to be defined and the boundaries of the nation decided? Unlike monarchies and empires, nations cannot invoke the right of conquest. Their claim to territory can be based only on ancestral rights of possession. A nation worthy of the name can never admit to aggressive intentions towards its neighbours. It always claims to be acting in defence of its inalienable heritage and right to freedom, come good or ill (which is why nations sometimes commemorate their defeats as well as their victories).

And so history, ethnography and philology were invoked to establish national property rights over territories on which different populations had coexisted or succeeded each other through the centuries. Commenting on the controversies surrounding the drawing of new state boundaries in the wake of the first world war, the French sociologist and anthropologist Marcel Mauss remarked angrily that it is almost comical to see little-known, poorly investigated items of folklore invoked at the Peace Conference as proof that the territory of this or that nation should extend over a particular area because a certain shape of dwelling or bizarre custom is still in evidence (3). Such controversies are all the harder to resolve as the national principle will hardly tolerate a statute of limitations on the earlier occupation of territory. To accept such a statute would be to legitimise the right of possession by invasion or the right of a third party to establish itself on a territory which the previous occupants had been forced to leave.

Serb nationalists accuse the Albanians of having taken advantage of the Serbian kingdom's defeat by the Ottoman Empire in order to settle in Kosovo. Albanian nationalists retort that their own ancestors, the Illyrians, whom they claim as the founders of their nation, lived in the territory hundred of years before the Slavs invaded the Balkan peninsula. In the 20th century, as the claims of prior occupation escalated, archaeology and physical anthropology were added to the range of sciences that could be enrolled in support of nationalist demands. They have been invoked, for example, in the dispute between the Israelis and the Palestinians, and also in support of the conflicting claims to Transylvania. The Romanians claim to be descended from the Dacians, a people romanised after their defeat by the imperial armies and immortalised in the bas-reliefs on Trajan's Column. The Latin nature of the Romanian language, purged of its Slavonic elements and transcribed in the Latin alphabet from 1848 onwards, was a major constituent in the construction of a Romanian identity. But although the Romanians insist that their ancestors have occupied a territory that includes Transylvania uninterruptedly for 2,000 years, the Hungarians deny any continuity between the Dacians and the Romanians. They claim that the earliest presence of Romanians in Transylvania is attested several hundred years after the ancestors of the Hungarians established themselves there. This latter-day Dacian war, which began 200 years ago, continues unabated in academic publications and on the Internet.


The first world war gave birth to the League of Nations, the second to the United Nations Organisation. In each case the word nations was used, not states . For in the 20th century the nation is considered throughout the world as the only legitimate basis for the state. The struggles against European colonial powers were conducted by national liberation movements, and any claim to secede from an existing state necessarily involves proclamation of the existence of a specific, oppressed nation.

Nevertheless, the formation of nation-states raises a major problem: how can state and nation be made to coincide? The nationality principle , regularly invoked since the 19th century to justify the political division of a geographical area on a democratic basis, is an attractive universal moral principle that disguises the economic and military power relations at work in the formation of states. And even if the principle were to be fully respected, the problem would not disappear: the area within the boundaries of any state is intrinsically heterogeneous and contains populations that can claim to belong to various nationalities.

There are, however, other ways of making states nationally homogeneous. The most violent method is to expel the national minorities . The tragic ethnic cleansing operations in former Yugoslavia are only the most recent examples of this method. It has been applied frequently in the course of this century, as witness the massive population exchanges between Greece and Turkey after the first world war, the expulsion of the Sudetan Germans from Czechoslovakia after the second (in response to Nazi annexation of the region), and above all, the Nazis' attempt to render Germany Judenrein. The extreme right-wing movements of the present day continue unhesitatingly along the same path with their calls for the expulsion of immigrant populations in the name of national salvation.

Still other ways of achieving national homogeneity have been attempted. They have consisted in denying the existence of different nations within the state. For this purpose politicians have resorted either to coercion or to inculcating a feeling of belonging to a single unit. Coercion has been more frequent in states lacking proper democratic process. Examples are the forced Magyarisation of the Slav minorities in the Hungarian part of the Austro-Hungarian empire following the 1867 Compromise, the repression of demands for regional autonomy in Spain under Franco and, more recently, the forced Bulgarisation of the Turkish minority (who were even required to change their patronymics) by the dying communist regime in Sofia.

In democratic states a less brutal approach is generally preferred. The method is to inculcate a feeling of national unity by the use of mass propaganda over a long period. School is of course the main instrument, but the effort extends to all areas of daily life, from ordinary individual pursuits and leisure activities (particularly sport) to public holidays, which have increased considerably in the course of the 20th century and provide a setting for the celebration of collective identity. In this system, unification does not involve the denial of diversity. Rather, a hierarchy of values is established in which everything on the territory of the state derives from the nation, and local particularisms have meaning and legitimacy only within that framework.

In the 19th century attempts were made to construct national identities in Brittany and Provence in accordance with the common European model (codification of the language, writing of a continuous specific history, emphasis on cultural and historical monuments, etc.) Since the economic, political and social context was not propitious, they were reformulated as regional identities within the framework of the French nation-state—i.e. components of national identity that are valuable in themselves but subordinate to the whole (4). Since the aim is to demote local identities rather than eradicate them, the violence involved in this type of homogenisation is symbolic rather than physical. The fact that it can be denounced, at the end of the 20th century, as cultural genocide requiring reparation is one of the signs of a general crisis of confidence in the ability of the existing nation-states to guarantee the rights of their citizens.

The nation was conceived as a secular brotherhood—at once protector, vehicle of democracy, and supreme ideal for which people should be prepared to lay down their lives if necessary. However, the industrial revolution, the principles of which were established at the same time as the national principle, gave birth to new social groups and competing political aspirations. A new collective identity began to be constructed in the middle of the 19th century—class-based internationalism as opposed to nationalism based on union between classes. The struggle between the two, which has been a major theme of European history in the 20th century, appears to have ended in the victory of the nation. Although this outcome was probably due to the failure of attempts to replace capitalism with another mode of production, it also testifies to the power of the idea of the nation as a community of solidarity, in which individuals are guaranteed a place not solely dictated by their economic status.

The battles for civil rights guaranteed by public authorities and for a relative redistribution of wealth were fought and won in the framework of democratic nation-states. So now, at the end of the 20th century, when the globalisation of capitalism is restricting state control over the production and distribution of wealth, the nation appears as a refuge - and its disappearance as a terrifying threat to social cohesion and the living conditions of the most disadvantaged.

Although nationalism was discredited by the appalling slaughter that took place in Europe in the course of two world wars, attachment to the nation is making a powerful comeback. The upsurge of micro-nationalisms within established nation-states of Western Europe probably reflects a belief that reconstituting the state on the basis of a more authentic nation will better protect the rights and interests of citizens—especially where the territory of the would-be nation has strong economic potential. Respect for the right of nations to independent statehood has been relatively scant so far, but it could lead to the emergence of a still unpredictable number of small nations and national minorities in Europe. The method of constructing a national identity is sufficiently well established for it to be applied rapidly—witness the invention of Padania by Umberto Bossi in Italy.


In the former communist countries the sudden collapse of the system raised the urgent problem of forging a new social link that could serve as the basis for rebuilding civil society, promoting the idea of a collective interest and legitimising state authority. The national idea could be used for that purpose, with a view to establishing democracy. But it proved just as easy to use it to avoid the real problems and exacerbate nationalist feelings that divert attention from economic disaster, the criminalisation of public life and the dramatic impoverishment of the population. The groundwork for this disaster was laid in the last decades of communist rule, when demands for democracy were diverted by drumming up nationalist passions to the point where the regimes in power—especially in Ceaucescu's Romania or Enver Hoxha's Albania—could properly be described as national-communist (5).

Nations are not eternal. Nationalism's present vigour may be better explained by the fact that politics has not yet caught up with economics. The nation, in the modern meaning of the word, appeared at a time when an enormous economic and technological mutation was beginning. It was the binding force that permitted the development of a form of political and social organisation commensurate with the upheavals that were transforming the lives of whole populations. Now another radical mutation is beginning, to which the nation is probably no longer appropriate. There is nothing tragic in this, provided the idea of the nation is replaced by a new cohesive force that can guarantee democracy. Such a force will not be produced automatically by the future forms of economic life. (And let us hope that we are not necessarily destined to blind submission to market forces). The history of nations clearly shows that the formation of a collective identity is a militant undertaking involving a political project.


(1) Ernest Renan, Qu'est-ce qu'une nation , lecture given at the Sorbonne in Paris on 11 March 1882.

(2) Benedict Anderson, Imagined communities : reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism, Verso, London, 1991.

(3) Marcel Mauss, Nations, nationalites, internationalisme, in Oeuvres, Editions de Minuit, Paris, 1969.

(4) See Anne-Marie Thiesse, Ils apprenaient la France. L'exaltation des regions dans le discours patriotique, Editions de la Maison des sciences de l'homme, Paris, 1997.

(5) See Pierre and Bruno Cabanes, Passions albanaises, de Berisha au Kosovo, Odile Jacob, Paris, 1999, and Catherine Durandin, Histoire des Roumains, Fayard, Paris, 1995.