"Nationalism" is the pathology of modern developmental history, as
inescapable as neurosis in the individual, with much the same
essential ambiguity attaching to it, a similar built-in capacity
for descent into dementia, rooted in the dilemmas of
helplessness thrust upon most of the world (the equivalent of
infantilism for societies) and largely incurable".
A Short History
- Benedict Anderson
Although some scholars trace the roots of nationalism to the
ancient Greeks or Hebrews, it wasn't until the 19th century
that nationalism became a widespread and powerful driving
force in politics. During this period, nationalism took a
particularly strong hold in Germany, where thinkers such as
Johann Gottfried von Herder and Johann Gottlieb Fichte
developed the concept of Volk.
However, the nationalism that inspired the German people to rise
against the empire of Napoleon I was conservative and strongly
bound to tradition rather than liberal and progressive. When
Germany was finally unified as an empire in 1871, it was a
highly authoritarian and militarist state. A sense of
nationalism also drove Italy towards national unification and
freedom from foreign rule, but certain areas such as Trieste
were excluded from the new state, and this gave rise to
irredentism. In the US of A, where nationalism had evinced
itself in the doctrine of Manifest Destiny, national unity was
maintained at the cost of the Civil War.
In the latter half of the 19th century, nationalist movements
arose within the supranational empires (Austrian, Ottoman, Ireland under the British rule, and
Russian-controlled Poland). Whilst much of this nationalism was
in a revolutionary spirit, increasingly nationalism became the a
sentiment of conservatives. It was both turned against
international movements such as socialism, and used as a rallying cry
for imperialism. Nationalist struggle and conflict were the
antecedents of World War I.
At the end of the Great War, the Paris Peace Conference
established the principle of national self-determination, upheld
by the League of Nations and later by the United Nations.
While self-determination is a principle of nationalism, it also
recognizes the basic equality of all nations, large or small,
and therefore transcends a narrow nationalism that claims
superiority for itself.
It was this latter type of ultranationalism that arose in Nazi
Germany, and fed into the extreme nationalist sentiments of
Italian fascism. At the same time, Asian and African colonial
territories mobilised nationalist rhetoric as a way to combat
imperialism. Most famously of these was the Indian National
Congress, which struggled for Indian independence for over 60
years. Post-World War II nationalism spread at such a fast pace
that dozens of new nations were created from former colonial
territorial holdings. Although globalisation has fundamentally
challenged ideas of homogenous nations, the past few decades has
seen a rise in ultranationalist movements.
Why did Nationalism happen?
Nationalism is a discourse that constructs meanings with
influences; and organises both our actions and our conception of
ourselves around the idea of the nation. Nationalism is not a
timeless or perrenial phenomena, as national cultures actively
imagine meanings about the nation with which each individual can
identify. To quote sociologist Benedict Anderson;
"It is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation
will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even
hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their
At the heart of Anderson's theory is his idea of "print
". As the nations underwent industrialisation, they
adopted print-based information
technologies. For reasons of
economies of scale
, technology such as the printing press
demands homogeneous spelling, grammar, and vocabulary. This
homogeneity developed into the idea of nationhood - a homogenous
mass who share ideals based upon their shared, common literature.
and print (as a commodity) spread throughout
nations, the dominant religious culture was gradually superceded
by national culture because literate individuals were provided
with a different imaginary source of identity and community
Nationalism quickly became something that nations aspired to, and
modern nation-states actively participate in its creation.
So, I'm looking to stir up nationalist fervour. What
do I need?
As nations are imagined constructs, Stuart Hall elaborates on
Andersons work by identifying five discursive strategies by which
nations are created. You'll need to tap into these:
- The narrative of the nation, as it is simulated in national histories, the media,
literature, and popular culture. These, as Hall comments "provide
a set of stories, images, landscapes, scenarios, historical
events, national symbols and rituals which stand for, or
represent, the shared experiences, sorrows, triumphs and disasters
which give meaning to a nation". Try creating some sort of story
that starts with the words "Four score and seven years
- An emphasis on origins, continuity, tradition, and
timelessness. National culture is imagined to be both
changeless and eternal, stemming from an indeterminate past, and
continuing into a definite future. Play games that involve
- A foundational myth: a story that locates the origin of
a national culture "so early that they are lost in the mists of,
not 'real', but 'mythic' time".
- The invention of tradition. Nationalism tends to
selectively appropriate pre-existing traditions, often which are
arbitrary historical inventions . Folk culture is often borrowed
from, and then celebrated as part of high culture. Steal myths
from the locals that you may have slaughtered when you first
colonised the place.
- The imagining of a pure, original culture or folk. At
the very worst, nationalism descends into the rhetoric of racial
purity and xenophobia. Avoid this.
Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities, London, Verso,
Stuart Hall (ed.), Modernity and it’s Futures, Cambridge, Polity