The Invention of Nationalism

Not many people realise that Nationalism is a relatively new phenomenon. Most think that it has a long history dating back centuries if not millennia. It’s common to hear modern people draw a connection between themselves and ancient people and nationalists often consider themselves following the footsteps of historic heroes. How many times have the Irish been called a proud and ancient race, with traditions dating back thousands of years? Historic battles and leaders are painted in national lines, even though people at the time wouldn’t have recognised the terms or given them much notice. Most believe that nations have always existed, after all didn’t the Irish always know they were Irish? What else could they consider themselves?

Yet not many realise that nationalism is a 19th century invention and that before that, there was no shared national identity linking people together. Before the Industrial Revolution, people only had loyalty to their family, their village and their lord, there was little concept of a nation. There wasn’t a common national culture, history or even language. But if people weren’t French, Irish, German etc, then what were they?

Back in Medieval times, most people had little contact with the world outside their village. Travel was difficult and rare, and in a world of illiteracy, it was very hard for news to spread. As a result people had little contact with others and therefore felt little connection with them. Villages were mainly self-sufficient, so had little need for the outside world. This isolation also manifested itself in the form of dialects and regional variants of languages. There was no one French, German or even English language, instead there was dozens of minor dialects and regional accents that meant that if even two people spoke the same language, they mightn’t understand each other.

Even nations that we currently view has having a strong and unified identity dating back centuries, like France, are actually relatively new creations. At the time of the French Revolution, there was no one French identity, instead the country was divided among many regional groups. In fact, French was not even the main language of the majority of French people. There wasn’t one French identity, there was Breton, Occitan, Alsatian, Corsican, Basque, Burgundy etc. all with their own language, culture and identity. It took over a century of strong centralised rule to break down local loyalties and forge a national one. It wasn’t until the First World War that French nationality had solidified and all French people spoke French.

This process occurred across Europe. Until the 19th century, Italy and Germany were merely geographical locations and abstract ideas. They were divided into many independent states and dialects. It took a strong state to unite them and give them a common identity, although even nowadays there are still strong regional identities in Italy. There was a wave of new interest in old customs across the continent as intellectuals tried to “revive” old traditions and in the process sometimes created new ones. Some national traditions that are claimed to be ancient, in reality date to this time, while others were modified and modernised.

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But even if they didn’t consider themselves Irish, Italian etc how did people not realise that they were living in Ireland, Italy etc? The thing is that Ireland only existed as a geographical concept. There were some broad cultural similarities, but no national solidarity. People had loyalty to their tribe, clan or feudal lord, not to the nation. In exchange for land and protection, they would serve their ruler and that was as far as their loyalty went. The nationality of the lord was irrelevant and rarely matched that of their subjects, but no one expected it to, lords were obviously a very different class to peasants. This is why labelling medieval maps with modern names like Hungary, Poland, Spain etc is misleading, as the people rarely had the same identity as their rulers. The Hundred Years War is often presented as a war between England and France, but many of the “English” lords spoke French while many of the “French” lords did not.

To give a modern example, most people in Europe don’t have a strong European identity. If you are born and live in Europe then technically you’re European, but most people have little contact with other Europeans. Although there is a clear geographic identity, there is no European nationalism. There isn’t a shared culture, history or identity. In fact, most of European history is about Europeans fighting other Europeans, just as most of Irish history was Irish people fighting other Irish. What is celebrated as a victory for one nation is often mourned as a defeat by another. There are attempts to create a European identity, both by the European Union and by the far-right (they wish to draw battle lines between “European” and “Islamic” culture and history) but without much luck so far. Perhaps centuries in the future, there will be a common European identity and European nationalists will create a history dating back centuries. Just as nowadays it is hard to imagine the Irish considering ourselves as anything other than Irish, perhaps future Europeans will wonder how we considered ourselves anything other than European?

Another example is White identity, or rather the lack of one. Although I am White, that doesn’t have much meaning to me. I don’t feel solidarity with other white people based on our shared skin colour. I don’t believe in any common white history or white culture. White nationalism is a fringe hate group that few support and is an example of how nationalism cannot be assumed or taken for granted. Just as ancient legends of regional wars like the Cattle Raid of Cooley were not seen as an Irish civil war, but rather as a war between two distinct regions of Ireland (Connaught and Ulster), so too are the World Wars seen as wars between distinct nations and not as a European or White civil war.

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So where did nationalism come from? Most historians view nations as “imagined communities” and that many of their traditions were “invented”. This is not meant in a derogatory way and doesn’t mean that nationalism is fake or artificial. Instead it means that nationalism is a social construction like most human beliefs and institutions. Let me explain.

What is an imagined community? It is a way to describe the bond between people of the same nation, even if they have never met. For example, as an Irishman, I feel a bond with all Irish people even though I will never meet 99% of them in my life. We have a shared concept of our history (valuing the same events and people as important) and identity (the idea of Irishness even if we can’t quite define it). Even though there are huge differences between Irish people in terms of age, occupation, religion, politics, hobbies, interests, location, lifestyle etc we still have a common bond based on the shared idea that we are Irish. Even if I was to meet a stranger who was the complete opposite to me in every way, if she was Irish, we would have something in common. We are all members of this abstract community.

This bond extends not only to the living, but also backwards to the past. People form a bond with heroes who died long before they were born. I’ve heard Irish use the term “we” when describing the actions of rebels in the War of Independence despite the fact it happened a century ago. Despite not being alive when it happened, some people feel a link with what happened. This is also true for villains, for example some Irish nationalists still blame English people for the crimes of Oliver Cromwell and the Famine, and demand an apology.

Where did this idea of community form? It is not an ancient idea that people always had, instead it is a modern notion that came around the time of the Industrial Revolution. The printing press allowed people to communicate and hear about the world outside their village, which laid the seeds for a common identity. There was a flurry of national revivals as interest in traditions grew. Old stories were now written down and reached new audiences. These stories were often changed to better fit modern situations and to conform to modern ideals. New symbols were created like flags and national anthems to unite people. People now had shared experiences based on reading the same news and same stories.

The increase in trade and improvements in transportation (such as the railways) put new areas in contact with each other. It also put people into contact with foreigners which highlighted national differences. The growth of manufacturing also disrupted traditional village life as people left for the cities. Village identities were no longer relevant, so how could people view themselves? With the ending of feudalism, ordinary people no longer had a local lord to give allegiance to, so the nation took its place. The clan faded away and was replaced by the family of the nation, which fulfilled many of the same needs such as protection, community and mutual aid.

The State played an important role. The rise of mass education lead to increased literacy and a standardisation of the national language which meant that a literate population could communicate. The promotion of a standard written language in public education was a crucial if not always deliberate factor. This lead to the creation of national myths as local legends and stories became nationalised. This wasn’t always deliberately done by the state, so while the Gaelic Revival had its roots in the growth of mass media and mass literacy, this was not the intention of the British Empire. As Europe veered away from Monarchs and towards Republics, legitimacy no longer came from ancestry or divine rights, but rather from the state’s role as representative of the nation.

Wars played a crucial role in forging national bonds, as they required the uniting of people and resources. In the era of total war, the entire nation had to pull together in order to fight. The glorification of common struggle made allies out of groups that previously had little in common.  They created common national heroes and events in the battle against a common foe. Victories inspire the nation, but so do defeats and massacres, and every nation has its hallowed martyrs. The role of the common foe is also crucial as nationalism is as much about who is not part of the nation as with who is.

So while many believe that nations have a long history and that most of history can be categorised as one nation fighting another, nationalism is actually a surprisingly recent invention. Many traditions that are claimed to date back 500 or 1,000 years actually only date to the 19th century when they were either modernised or created afresh. None of these invalidates nationalism or means its “fake”. The way we view ourselves and our society is always changing, and nationalism is one of the major changes. It is merely a warning against viewing the past through a modern lens.

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6 thoughts on “The Invention of Nationalism”

  1. From your reading of the Bible, don’t you get the impression that the writers were fairly nationalistic for the nation of Judah? I do, at least, but I’m not as careful a reader as you are.

    1. Again, Judah was a tribe or clan and the word nation is a translation of the Greek words ethnos, genis, but would often refer to the “house” of Judah.

    2. It’s hard to know because according to the Bible, their connection is with God, not each other. They are expected to serve and die for God, not for Judah. There were no common national symbols and stories, instead religion was the linking factor.

      I think it better suits the description of tribe (especially as Israel was divided into 12 tribes).

  2. The Romans were a nation, Greeks were a nation, Egyptians and others. And what we can see is that “the nation” created incredible prosperity and welfare for all citizens.
    In “the dark ages” nations were obliterated by mercenary armies and terrible persecutions.
    By the time of the Renaissance “nations” started developing again and once again fantastic progress is witnessed.

    Mr Nielsen, you really have NO useful arguments to counter the benefits of a large group of people forming a contained coherence.

    The evolutionary emergence of the USA Constitution protects the individual rights of the citizens and reduces the possibility of that coherence becoming a danger to other states and countries. An unfortunate disconnect happened when the USA population became arrogant and apathetic and was gradually annexed by elements and agencies which is driving against the US Constitution. The end result is the total collapse of all prosperity in America that was built up since 1776.

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