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date: 25 February 2021

Introduction: Concepts, Approaches, Theories

Abstract and Keywords

Nationalism is the most historically minded of ideologies but there is little in the way of historical studies of nationalism, except in the form of the history of ideas. The main reason for this is that nationalism is treated by professional historians as one aspect of national history rather than a subject in its own right. This means it becomes absorbed into detailed and well-researched national historiography. The challenge in this handbook is to break with that link between the history of nationalism and national history while at the same time maintaining the empirical detail and accuracy of professional historical writing. One way of doing this has been to focus on the history of nationalism as politics in particular regions, both before and after nation-state formation. This is the basis for the twenty-one chapters in Parts 3 and 4. A second set of chapters deal with the history of nationalism as ideas, sentiments, and cultural movements both before and in the modern era of nationalism. A third set considers the history of nationalism in relation to other subjects such as religion, socialism, globalization, race, international relations, and historiography.

Keywords: Nationalism, National history, National historiography, Politics, Culture, Ideas, Sentiments, Region, Nation-state

The Challenge

Some years ago Oxford University Press suggested to me the idea of editing a handbook on nationalism. I declined the proposal on the grounds that there were already a number of good handbooks on the subject and that in any case, as an historian, I was not competent to deal with the many non-historical aspects of nationalism. However, on looking more closely at those handbooks, I realized that they contained little history, and most of that was contemporary.1 So I suggested a handbook on the history of nationalism.

I begin with this point because it poses a challenge. Of all modern political ideologies, nationalism appears to be the most through and through historical. Political ideologies oriented to religious beliefs have transhistorical referents. Liberalism, democratic radicalism, and socialism are based on universal values of individual freedom, democracy, and social justice. Conservative ideology does present itself in historical form but typically by shifting from an implicit endorsement of customary social relationships to an explicit defence of tradition against challenges from non-conservative ideologies. Nationalism shares with liberalism, radicalism, and socialism a claim to universal validity—the world is divided into a series of nations—and like them begins as a challenge to the status quo. Paradoxically, however, the claim to validity takes the form of an insistence on the unique character of each nation, even if nationalists wax most lyrical about their own nation. We can succinctly define the political ideology of nationalism as one which claims that there exists a unique nation, that this nation has a special value and therefore right to existence and recognition, and (p. 2) that to secure this right the nation must possess autonomy, often understood as a sovereign nation state.2 The most basic tenet of nationalism—the unique nation—is grounded historically. In principle one could identify a nation non-historically (genetic make-up, language, foundational moment) but that identity is soon embedded within the unique history which produced that phenotype, language group, or revolutionary act.3

This historical grounding of nationalism was reinforced by its close ties with the emergence of professional academic historical writing.4 To this day, the most basic divisions between modern historians are national. When someone says she is a German historian, that refers to the nationality of the history, not of the historian.

Yet, while there are good general studies of liberalism, radicalism, socialism, and conservatism, they are lacking for nationalism. This is a sweeping claim, but I think it can be sustained. What purport to be general studies of nationalism can be placed in one of three categories. (I omit historical surveys of the literature on nationalism.) First, general theories of or approaches to nationalism selectively cite historical evidence in their support.5 Second, historical surveys usually take the form of a collection of national histories, treating nationalism as one aspect of these histories. A distinguished example is by Hugh Seton-Watson.6 Third, there are histories of ideas that make few detailed connections to the role nationalism plays in political movements and organizations (including nation states) and in providing people with a sense of identity.7 Some comparative historical studies try to combine elements of these approaches but they are selective in their range of cases.8 By contrast, general studies of the other ideologies combine attention to ideas, politics, and sentiments, often by focusing on the history of political parties associated with those ideologies.9

The short explanation for this absence is that the history of nationalism—except when treated as a history of ideas—is conflated with national history. By contrast, because liberalism, radicalism, and conservatism can be treated as political positions within the national framework, they can be considered as distinct from that framework. The great strength of history as a discipline is its attention to the particular. The concept of the nation serves to delimit a field of modern history but, having done that work, national historians labour away in their respective fields without paying much attention to what is going on elsewhere.10 Thus nationalism is neither a specific object of study within or beyond the national frame. The object of study becomes national history rather than the history of nationalism. It is perfectly possible for historians to write national histories that treat nationalism negatively, yet such studies deepen rather than challenge the sense that each national history is unique, along with its ill-defined nationalism.11

To write any general history of nationalism one must break this conflation of national and nationalism. Unfortunately, making this break usually takes one away from history. Other disciplines such as sociology, psychology, political science, anthropology, literary and art history start to take centre stage. Much of this work is non-historical either because it uses ahistorical concepts such as those of identity and interest or because of a contemporary or even near-future perspective. Social scientists (p. 3) frequently generate their own data in such forms as surveys, participant-observation, and experiments. The main exception is historical sociology, which has produced valuable work on nationalism.12 Nevertheless, historical sociology with its explicit use of theory, comparative perspective, and principal dependence on secondary literature, differs even from those historians who explicitly use social-science concepts, by virtue of their engagement with original sources from which they construct accounts of sequences of events. That usually takes us back to national history. To understand how we might escape from these positions, we need to consider more closely how historians came to the study of nationalism.13

Nationalism as such first attracted the attention of historians because of its political significance in the aftermath of the First World War. The war aims of the states involved were formulated in nationalist or anti-nationalist terms.14 The Habsburg fear of Slav nationalism accounts for its drastic response to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand on 28 June 1914, triggering the sequence of events that rapidly transformed a local conflict into general war. The post-war settlement that emerged from the Versailles Treaty included the establishment of new ‘nation states’ in central Europe, justified by US President Woodrow Wilson’s doctrine of national self-determination. The publicity given to this doctrine raised nationalist expectations across the world, also stimulated by the near-simultaneous declarations by Vladimir Ilich Lenin and the Bolsheviks in favour of national liberation. Disappointment with the (inevitably) partial and biased implementation of the principle of national self-determination served to intensify such nationalism.15

The challenges confronting nation states in central Europe—winners and losers—generated increasingly extreme nationalist claims. Apart from disputes about national boundaries, there developed national minorities within the various states, minorities that then looked to their ‘homeland’ state for support.16 To this can be added the economic problems in the post-war period, especially the great depression from the late 1920s that brought fascist movements to prominence and, in two deadly instances, power.

All this made it apparent that nationalism had acquired a character and significance which took it beyond this or that national history. Among the first historians to rise to the challenge of writing a history of this nationalism was Carlton Hayes. From the perspective of the USA, Hayes saw nationalism combining with other ideas such as Jacobinism, Anglo-American liberalism, imperialism, and fascism (his term was ‘integral nationalism’), shifting from one combination to the next from the late eighteenth to early twentieth century. Hans Kohn, writing during the Second World War, saw the liberal democratic nationalism of Britain, France, and the USA pitted against the imperialist-racist nationalism of the Third Reich, Fascist Italy, and Imperial Japan. (Kohn found no place for nationalism in the last major participant: the USSR.)17

Treating nationalism as ideology enabled Hayes and Kohn to write a general, transnational history, but this had its limitations. How does one explain origins, changes, and varieties as outlined by Hayes and Kohn? Hayes did it by turning nationalism into a function of other ideologies, so that the task was to explain the (p. 4) shifts from Jacobinism to liberalism to imperialism and so on. Kohn reverted to conflating nation and nationalism, linking his two types of nationalism to two types of nation: the western and the eastern.18 Intellectual conservatives like Elie Kedourie treated nationalism as an ideology that spreads like a disease, first infecting alienated intellectuals and then large groups disoriented by war, economic upheaval, or rapid social change. Nationalism is either reduced to a function of something else (other ideologies, the nation) or is depicted as an incredibly powerful idea that can shape the world in its image.

There is another option. This is to devise a general approach that does not commence with national history or ideology. An attempt in this direction was made by Marxist politicians in the late Habsburg Empire who engaged with rather than dismissing the manifest existence of nationalist conflicts within the empire’s labour and socialist movement. Otto Bauer and Karl Renner argued that the growth of popular political participation had promoted and would continue to strengthen national identity, which was grounded in language. This bound members of different classes into a ‘community of fate’ while simultaneously dividing members of the working class. This went against orthodox Marxism, which envisaged working-class consciousness growing at the expense of national consciousness. Bauer and Renner argued that the challenge for socialists was to insulate national cultural differences from economic and political class conflict. They sought the answer in a programme of ‘national cultural autonomy’ based on personal identity.19

The Austro-Marxists failed. Marxism after 1918 followed the Bolshevik path, which accepted national difference as a matter of objective cultural identity that was to be recognized and valued but always subordinated to the higher priorities of socialism. However, Bauer’s idea that national consciousness was rooted in communication was taken up by non-Marxist social science. Karl Deutsch, not coincidentally an émigré to the USA from the former Habsburg Empire, moved away from the organic, romantic language of Bauer (‘communities of fate’) to explore the relationship between nationalism and ‘social communication’.20 In the early 1980s the two most important contributions to a modernist social-science understanding of nationalism, by Ernest Gellner and Benedict Anderson, elaborated on this relationship between communication and nationalism. Gellner highlighted the impact of industrialism on communication, or what he called ‘culture’, while Anderson emphasized ‘print capitalism’ and its capacity to generate imaginings of national community. Subsequent debates about nationalism are responses to these arguments, seeking variously to deepen and expand them, to challenge them by disputing the modernity of nationalism, and to move beyond them to postmodern arguments about nationalism as discourse.21

However, little of this debate engages closely with historical research. The preoccupations of most social scientists are with contemporary issues and they see little need to ground these in a deep historical perspective. If nationalism is understood, for example, as an ideology used instrumentally by elites, one needs to concentrate upon those elites and their interests. Political-science studies of contemporary ethnic conflict generally construct mass datasets that are used to test for relationships. Apart from neglecting (p. 5) history, this approach is often suspicious of narrative history, regarding it as an arbitrary selection of anecdotes that cannot be subjected to scientific tests concerned with causal explanation.

If, by contrast, nationalism is related to enduring ethnic identity based on the construction and reproduction of myths and memories, this leads towards contemporary ethnography or long-run accounts of myths and memories. However, these accounts are usually oriented to what one might call folklore studies and detached from the political focus of most national history. There is additionally the danger that material used in such studies was actually generated by earlier nationalist efforts at a recovery of national culture in such forms as collections of national epics and folk song. When an author advances a general argument about nationalism on the basis of such material, it is usually handled in highly selective ways. Specialist historians, if they take note of such writing, often dismiss it as simplistic and inaccurate. When historians do contribute to debates on nationalism, it is usually to insist on the special relevance of their field of study without placing it within the larger framework of such debates.22

We constantly find ourselves between a rock and a hard place. Studies of nationalism as a distinct subject are non-historical or produce historical work that is speculative by professional historiographical standards. Professional historians working within national fields, including the study of nationalism, do not use the concepts and methods of the social scientists in their work. National historiography grows richer and generates its own debates but these are rarely generalized beyond the national frame or used for explicit comparison.23

Comparative history apparently offers a way out of this dilemma but it has its limitations, some of which I have already mentioned. Historians falter when moving from their special field to look at more cases over time and/or space. As the cases and their variations multiply, they outrun the capacity for systematic comparison. Then one reverts to narrative history in which ‘nationalism’ means either the politics leading to nation-state formation or aggressive interactions between nation states. This tends to produce two kinds of historical work, one focused on oppositional movements and one on states, but both embedded within the national frame. However hard one tries, the starting point is the ‘nation’. To write a history of Japanese or German, Serbian or Romanian, Iraqi or Egyptian, Nigerian or Indonesian nationalism, one starts with the territory that comprises the state which later acquires that national name.

It quickly becomes apparent that some names have a long history whereas others do not. This leads to a distinction between ‘old’ and ‘new’ nations.24 Already questionable assumptions have been made. Just because a word naming a nation has a long history, does that mean it has some stable referent with an equally long history? The problem is clear when one tries to write a long-run national history of Nigeria or Indonesia, but is it any less problematic to write such a history of France or Japan? What do such national names have to do with nationalism? How do we write about nationalism without treating it as one aspect of a larger ‘national history’? How do we deal with (p. 6) nationalisms without nation states or any kind of autonomy? How do we detach the history of nationalism from that of the nation state?

The Plan

There are no perfect answers to these questions but there are partial ones. They start with three decisions arrived at in the planning of this volume:

  1. 1. The subject of the Handbook is the history of nationalism, not nationalism as an aspect of the history of nations or nation states.

  2. 2. The history of nationalism is primarily a history of politics, of a political ideology, and of the movements and organizations (including states) that subscribe to nationalist ideology.

  3. 3. Such nationalism is specific to the modern era.

All three propositions are debatable. The first decision was taken so as to avoid ‘methodological nationalism’, that is, placing nationalism within a national framework rather than leaving open to question the nation/nationalism relationship. The second is a matter of emphasis. Nationalism can be treated as doctrine (as in the history of ideas), as sentiment or identity (as in studies of ‘everyday’ or ‘banal’ nationalism), and as cultural movement. Chapters in the book consider these topics. However, detailed historical studies of nationalism are concerned with politics, for reasons already outlined. As for the third proposition, although there are many persuasive advocates of pre-modern nationalism, they address themselves mainly to ideas and sentiments as well as discourses in which national terms figure, rather than to politics. Peter Burke’s chapter (Chapter 2) touches upon these issues, but otherwise I found it difficult to envisage a contribution to this Handbook that would go beyond summarizing relevant studies.25

Emphasizing nationalism as modern politics makes pivotal the moment of nation-state formation, as this changes the relationship of nationalism to the major power-container of modern times: the territorial state. The two distinctions—ideas/sentiments and politics, before and after the nation state—provide the basis for the book’s organization in Parts I to V, with a final chapter examining historical writing and nationalism.

The next question concerned the character and content of individual chapters. So far as the first was concerned, as this is a handbook, not an encyclopaedia, there was no attempt at comprehensive coverage—even if this were possible. The probable result would be many short and disconnected descriptions that can easily be obtained elsewhere. Instead I asked each author to write an interpretative essay, even if at the cost of excluding relevant cases and narrative detail. Such essays illuminate those cases that are considered and provide ideas for readers seeking to understand comparable cases.

(p. 7) Contents

Part I: The Emergence of Nationalism: Ideas and Sentiments

This section considers nationalism as ideas, sentiments, and cultural movements before the era of nation states. Peter Burke (Chapter 2) looks at ideas about the nation in late medieval and early modern Europe, paying particular attention to the impact of religion and the increasing use of vernacular languages in print. Chapters 3 and 4 by by Erica Benner and Andreas Eckert belong to the sub-discipline of the history of ideas. Benner analyses concepts of nation and nationalism in the work of major European thinkers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Johann Gottlieb Fichte, arguing that these are ideas to take seriously in their own right. Eckert’s chapter analyses the national idea as developed by various African and Asian intellectuals, arguing that rather than contrasting ‘western’ with ‘non-western’ thought one should approach this as a transnational history of ideas. John Hutchinson (Chapter 5) looks at nationalism as a cultural movement, emphasizing both its integrity (it is not a disguised form of politics) and also its relationship to political nationalism.

Parts II and III: Politics and Power: The Emergence of Nationalism and Nationalism in a World of Nation States

The challenge of avoiding methodological nationalism was greatest for these two sections. The obvious and easy decision is for chapters on French and German, US and Brazilian, Chinese and Indian, Nigerian and Kenyan nationalism, and so on. Apart from the danger of going into encyclopaedic mode, and even then failing to be comprehensive, this would establish a presumption in favour of successful cases, defined as those that ended up with their ‘own’ nation state. Not every nationalism manages to achieve autonomy, let alone a nation state, but that does not make those cases less real as examples of nationalism. Selecting only nationalisms that resulted in a nation state and writing their history as one of origins, rise, and success can make it appear that they were bound to succeed, which is precisely what their nationalist apologists claim. It can also make nationalism appear strong where autonomy has been achieved and weak where it has not. There is also the danger of neglecting entirely ‘vanished’ nationalisms.

Historians cannot and should not entirely give up the advantage of hindsight, but any effort to outline alternative futures is severely constrained by the decision to call the subject ‘French’ or ‘Nigerian’. It is admittedly no more possible to prove that events might have taken a different course as that they were inevitable. Historians cannot re-play the past as a series of experiments, testing for causal relationships. However, they (p. 8) can establish that even the most committed nationalists did not see their success as preordained. There were powerful obstacles in the path of every nationalist project as well as conflicts of values and visions within every nationalist movement. Contemporaries anticipated and worked towards different futures than the one that came into being, and were often surprised by the actual outcome. The challenge for the historian of nationalism is to retain that sense of contingency while drawing on a rich national historiography and making the actual sequence of events appear as something more than chance.

The strategy adopted has been to select regions both before and after they became organized along nation-state lines. The notion of a ‘region’ is itself problematic. It might be based on long-established polities (China, Japan); new imperial domains (British India, Dutch East Indies); projections by the powerful (Southeast Asia as a US-designated strategic region;26 the ‘East’, whether Near, Middle, or Far, as a view from the ‘West’); or a geographical zone (the Americas, sub-Saharan Africa). Names and concepts of regions have been proposed, contested, and changed over time, such as the post-Soviet notion of ‘Central Europe’ or the rejection of the term ‘Balkans’ as a demeaning term for south-east Europe. Nevertheless, such regional designations, however arrived at, enable one to gain distance from the political geography of nation states while drawing upon the historiography of national and area studies.

To regional focus was added the selection of types of nationalism. Miroslav Hroch and Theodore Weeks (Chapters 9 and 10) look at separatist nationalist movements in the multinational states of the Habsburgs and Ottomans, the Romanovs and the Soviets. Hroch draws comparisons between such nationalisms in two different empires at the same time; Weeks within one region but across time as one imperial state was succeeded by another. My own Chapter 8 analyses another type of nineteenth-century nationalism—unification nationalism—comparing German, Italian and Polish nationalism.

Michael Rowe (Chapter 7) deals with a European region but defined by the key events of the period, that of the French Revolution and Napoleon Bonaparte. The common challenges posed by France as bringer of war and empire to those living in territories that subseqently became such nation states as Spain, Germany, Italy, and Poland enable Rowe to transcend the national frame. Oliver Zimmer (Chapter 21) writes about Europe during another period that witnessed the rise of distinctive forms of nationalism, those generated in the aftermath of the First World War and culminating with the end of the Second World War. Likewise, Sabine Rutar (Chapter 26) deals with another set of European nationalisms that took shape in the transition in south-east Europe from communist nation states to post-communist nation states, accompanied in the case of former Yugoslavia by violent nationalist conflict and the formation of new nation states. More generally, John Darwin (Chapter 17) looks at nationalism in the major European nation states, as this relates to global imperialist conflict between those states.

In the Middle East, there is a complex interlinking of pre-modern empire (principally that of the Ottomans) and modern empire, above all British and French. Both (p. 9) within and beyond that region (in north Africa) pan-nationalism—principally Arab but also African and Islamic—has drawn the attention of historians as well as the nationalisms associated with nation states such as Egypt, Iraq, and Syria. This enables a series of overlapping chapters. Aviel Roshwald (Chapter 11) looks at the emergence of nationalism in the Middle East under Ottoman as well as Western imperial rule, including Zionism and Arab nationalism. Readers can compare the nationalisms of the Ottoman Middle East with those of Ottoman Europe considered by Miroslav Hroch in Chapter 9. Another comparison can be made between Roshwald’s regionally focused treatment of Arab nationalism and Cemil Aydin’s chapter on pan-nationalism (Chapter 34), where Arab nationalism in turn is related to Pan-Asianism, Pan-Africanism, and Pan-Islam. Fred Halliday (Chapter 22) writes about the different forms nationalism took in the post-colonial Middle East, stressing its close links to earlier and continuing anti-imperialism and the fundamental importance of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

In Northeast Asia the principal cases are Japan and China (with some consideration for Korea), well-established imperial-monarchical states before the era of nationalism. By comparing these cases Rana Mitter and Aaron Moore (Chapters 14 and 23) escaped the constraints of the national frame. Their essays also make it clear that the history of nationalism within this region is one of constant entanglement, from Chinese and Korean nationalism being shaped by Japan as both model and enemy, to post-1945 Japanese nationalism responding to the rise of a powerful China.

David Henley (Chapter 13) compares two imperial zones within Southeast Asia: French Indochina and the Dutch East Indies. He poses the question of why these zones moved out of the colonial era on different trajectories: one towards a plurality of nation states (Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos), the other to one nation state (Indonesia), something that was not widely anticipated at the time. John Sidel (Chapter 24), dealing with the post-colonial period in the region, selected three pairs of cases for comparative analysis in order to understand why nationalism took different forms.

In the case of India there was both an extensive pre-modern state (Mughal India) and a modern imperial state (the British Raj). Given its size, complexity, and rich historiography, it was not practical to place India within a larger region. Joya Chatterji (Chapter 12) introduces a comparative perspective by considering the alternative forms of nationalism that took shape under the Raj: Hindu and Muslim, secular and religious, and the reasons for their varied achievements, often unanticipated, by 1947. For the subcontinent in the post-colonial period Christophe Jaffrelot (Chapter 25) continued such comparisons, now in relation to the three distinct cases of nationalism in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.

European imperial rule in sub-Saharan Africa took yet a different form. There was a relative absence of pre-modern empire compared to those of the Mughals or Ottomans. (However, there were kingdoms such as those of the Ashanti, Ganda, and Zulus.) European states made formal imperial claims (unlike in China and Japan) but in fragmented ways (unlike in Indochina, the East Indies, and India), with the formation of Belgian, British, Dutch, French, German, Portuguese, and Spanish colonies. The (p. 10) region is instead defined in terms of geography and climate: sub-Saharan Africa. John Lonsdale and Bruce Berman wrote separate chapters for the colonial and post-colonial periods (Chapters 16 and 18) but also co-authored a common introduction (Chapter 15) and took careful account of each other’s chapters. They identified particular kinds of nationalism, linked to pre-colonial legacies, the forms of colonial rule, and the continued global pressures exerted in the post-colonial era. They also placed this history within a wider context, making comparisons with earlier ‘Western’ nationalism, challenging the influential view of African nationalism as special, a variant on methodological nationalism.

Finally, we move beyond the interconnected land masses of Africa, Asia, and Europe to their long, entangled histories with the Americas. Though there is a shorter historical connection with Europe, European imperial rule came to this region earlier than in Africa and Asia. In an age before steamships and railways, telegraphs and industrialization, it had a different character. For the colonial period two historians, Don Doyle and Eric Van Young, brought together their expertise in North and South American history respectively to co-author a chapter that transcends the usual frames of colonial American historiography (Chapter 6) and thereby illuminates the study of nationalism in the whole region. With the end of formal colonial rule in most of the Americas by the early nineteenth century, the focus shifts to the different forms that nationalism took in the USA and the multiple states of South America. Susan-Mary Grant (Chapter 20) emphasizes the relative unimportance of the central state in the USA or even a clear delimited territory until the Civil War and later, raising the important questions of whether ‘US’ nationalism was also of little importance in that earlier period, whether other nationalisms mattered more, and how subsequently nationalism developed. Nicola Miller (Chapter 19) also stresses the weakness of independent states in Latin America for much of the nineteenth century (also accompanied by boundary shifts and inward penetration) and considers the intertwined histories of nationalism and state-building.

Part IV: Nationalism in a World of Nation States: Ideas, Sentiments, and International Relations

We return to nationalism as a series of ideas and sentiments but now in a world of nation states. Chapters in this Part also look at how nationalism is handled in the international order and the character of nationalist movements opposed to the existing nation state. James Mayall (Chapter 27) considers nationalism and international relations, especially the relationship between principles of state sovereignty and national self-determination, the first formulated before the era of nation states and at odds with nationalist claims made against existing nation states. This raises issues about external intervention into the affairs of a sovereign state, especially in relation to internal nationalist conflicts. Richard Caplan (Chapter 28) looks at changes in the principle (p. 11) and practice of external intervention, especially since the end of the Cold War that had frozen the political geography of nation states in many parts of the world. Montserrat Guibernau (Chapter 30) looks at one internal dimension of this—nationalist challenges within nation-states—in relation to the cases of Scotland and Catalonia.

The idea that humankind is divided into races has a long pedigree, but more as a cultural than a biological concept. Initially it was distanced from nationalist ideas that highlighted differences within broad race groups, especially white Europeans. That changed in the twentieth century, and Roger Eatwell (Chapter 29) analyses how race came to play a role in the ideas of fascist and other extreme forms of nationalism. Finally, nationalism as sentiment becomes a mass phenomenon following the creation of nation states that become increasingly implicated in the lives of their citizens. The ways in which national identity figure in everyday life is the subject of the final chapter in this section by Yves Déloye (Chapter 31).

Part V: Challenges to the World of Nation States

Nationalism is not the only powerful political ideology or movement at work in the modern world. Nationalism, nation states, and an international order based on the principle of nation-state sovereignty have always been challenged. From the nineteenth into the twentieth century one such challenge came from socialist internationalism, which made class instead of nation the keystone of its social theory and projected a vision of a classless society rather than a series of nation states. John Schwarzmantel (Chapter 32) shows how misleading it is to see the relationship between nationalism and socialism as one of simple opposition but rather considers the interactions and combinations involved. Nationalism has also been regarded as a political religion, displacing in a secular age the loyalties and values attached to traditional religion. Others have argued that religion and nationalism complement, even reinforce, each other. Peter van der Veer (Chapter 33) takes the argument beyond such notions of competition or complementarity, showing how modernity shaped concepts of both religion and nationalism in similar ways.

Pan-nationalism has often been treated as a failure, given that no African, Asian, Arab, Slav, or Islamic state has been founded. Cemil Aydin (Chapter 34) argues that pan-nationalism was of major significance as a response to the global imperialism of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. It was also a powerful influence upon ‘successful’ nationalist movements. Finally, nationalism is often depicted as belonging to a stage in modern world history associated with the creation of an order of nation states, a stage that is being brought to an end by the more recent processes of globalization. Jürgen Osterhammel (Chapter 35) shows how misleading is this view, first because the two concepts are incommensurable (nationalism is a distinct orientation to the world, globalization is a range of processes) and second because nationalism can only be understood as an aspect of globalization.

(p. 12) Part VI: Nationalist Historiography

In the last section we return to the starting point of this introduction, the relationship between nationalism and historians. Paul Lawrence (Chapter 36) considers not just the national focus of modern professional historical writing but also the ways in which nationalism has been treated by historians and how it relates to a distinctively modern way of regarding the past.

Concluding Points

As already mentioned, this Handbook does not attempt a comprehensive, encylopaedic coverage of its subject. Instead it is organized in relation to aspects of nationalism (ideas, sentiments, politics), the division between nationalism before and after the nation state, and considers nationalist politics in relation to distinct regions and types of nationalism. Authors have written interpretative essays rather than narrative accounts, using comparison to show how nationalism works historically.

This organization led to many empirical omissions that were unavoidable, which was not in itself a major problem. Other kinds of omission are more serious. Certain regions have been neglected. With the exception of some parts of Russia and the USSR in the essay by Theodore Weeks, central Asia is not considered. A chapter comparing nationalism in Afghanistan and in Persia/Iran would have fitted well into the Handbook, but I could not find a suitable author. Lands of white settlement that did not engage in nationalist opposition to the homeland state (Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa) also merited consideration.

There are also types of nationalism that a regional focus cannot capture. The original plan of the Handbook included a chapter on ‘settler nationalism’, cases where populations of European origin, regarding themselves as still connected to the ‘homeland’, developed a distinctive form of nationalism in relation to that homeland and to indigenous peoples. Examples would be Algerian pieds noir, Ulster Protestants, British settlers in east-central Africa. However, such a chapter did not materialize. There has also been a growing interest in the closely related subject of ‘diaspora nationalism’, though here the focus is on involvement with the ‘homeland’ (e.g. Ireland and Irish-Americans, Israel and Jews living in other countries). Aspects of both kinds of nationalism are touched upon in the chapters on the Americas (settler nationalism) and the Middle East (Zionism).

There is little in this Handbook on what one might call state-led nationalism. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, it is impossible to detach the history of such nationalism from that of the individual nation state. Apart from the fact that this is well covered in national historiographies, it is difficult to see how state-led nationalism could go beyond the individual nation state and the particular interactions it has with (p. 13) its citizens. One could in principle try to identify broader themes such as education and nationalism, economy and nationalism, immigration and nationalism, irredentism and nationalism, but it would be the nation state that was at the centre of attention, not nationalism. Only when one can explore a distinct form of nationalism shared by a number of states, such as John Darwin’s treatment of imperialism (Chapter 17) or Oliver Zimmer’s of fascism (Chapter 21), could I see a case for a chapter.

I am less concerned about thematic omissions. There are more potential themes than could ever be covered. Many are considered, albeit usually with little historical perspective, in various handbooks on nationalism.27

I did not ask the authors to take a particular approach towards their subject. Historians are not easily shepherded, precisely because they are sensitive to the complexities and nuances of the subjects about which they write. Different authors have different views of nationalism. Some consider ‘nations’ as realities distinct from nationalism that in turn condition that nationalism; others see nationalism as preceding, even constructing nations; yet others are sceptical as to whether ‘nation’ has meaning beyond its uses by nationalists. Some historians emphasize the destructive and irrational features of nationalism; others its contribution to promoting cultural diversity and autonomy; whereas for yet others it is always Janus-faced. Some historians regard nationalism as an analytic concept rather than a force in the world with moral qualities, be they good or bad or both. In part such disagreements relate to the types of nationalism about which different historians write, in part to the concepts and methods they bring to bear, in part to their moral perspective.

What mattered was not such differences of approach or perspective but that the authors be good historians with expertise in the subject about which they were writing. In addition they needed that rare capacity to distil their knowledge and understanding into a short, well-organized, clearly written essay which advanced an interpretation that took one beyond simple narrative.

As for what readers might learn from this book, that is for readers to decide and not for the editor to suggest. Instead I will finish by briefly stating some of the things I have learnt, starting with some background arguments.

I have suggested we can distinguish between nationalism as ideas, politics, and sentiments. Conceptually we might consider this the basic sequence in the historical development of nationalism: the formulation of the idea, its translation into politics and, especially following the creation of nation states, its diffusion to large numbers of people as sentiment. This resembles Miroslav Hroch’s distinction between three phases of nationalism: intellectual and cultural, elite politics, and mass movement.28

One can trace pre-modern versions of the idea (not just the terminology) of nation, although this is rarely if ever presented as comprehending the whole of a society but only privileged elements, or translated into an explicit political programme, let alone a movement. The idea of the nation as inclusive and participatory is a democratic one. In pre-modern societies democratic arrangements were small-scale, as in the ancient Greek polis, and one can detect anticipations of later nationalist ideas, underpinned by broader distinctions between the Greeks and barbarians.

(p. 14) However, only with the formation of territorial states with large populations and pressures to extend participation beyond privileged elites is there a systematic shift of the national idea to be inclusive and participatory and political. These conditions were met in abundance on the Atlantic seaboard of Europe in the early modern period as a plurality of such states competed both in and beyond Europe, as commercial capitalism reshaped the relationship between old power and new wealth, as dissident religious movements challenged the hierarchical and privileged position of established Churches. It is no coincidence that the most persuasive accounts of pre-modern nationalism are about this region.

Furthermore, groups exhibiting nationalist sentiments can be located in these contexts—those demanding parliamentary reform in Britain, enlightenment radicals in France, and the British and Spanish settlers in the Americas. Both competition between these states (above all, at a global level, Anglo-French conflict) and internal conflict increasingly used the language of nationalism.

However, this is only a conceptual sequence. This is because the history of nationalism is transnational. A nationalist idea used to good effect in one place can be taken up somewhere else but, given a different set of conditions, will work in a very different way. Not only ideas can travel in this way but also styles of political organization and action and even sentiments and senses of identity. C. A. Bayly, for example, has argued that nationalist ideas, politics, and sentiments translated into India by British imperial rule interacted with existing forms of ‘patriotism’ to give a distinctive character to nationalism.29 One can identify typical shifts from one period to another in modern global history, but at best this is only a rough template for tracing the transnational history of nationalism.30 One can see something of this shifting, complex history in the chapters of this book. The power of nationalism resides precisely in this flexible capacity to combine ideas, politics, and sentiments in a variety of modern contexts, enabling people to identify friends and enemies and to orientate themselves quickly to the mass politics of the emergent territorial state as well as the conflicts between such states.

Yet despite all these variations, nationalism is an historical subject distinct from national history. If the Handbook persuades readers of that basic point alone, it will have been worth producing. So understood, nationalism matters. It is not just a reflex of non-national material and ideal interests such as class or race or state. However, one must not go to the other extreme and treat nationalism as some deeply felt idea, sentiment, or political commitment that operates independently of, even against, such interests. Detailed consideration of how nationalism works historically in particular regions and periods is the best way of bringing out the complex interrelations between the different aspects of nationalism and the other interests and conditions with which it combines.

Once one treats nationalism as an historical subject distinct from the nation or nation state, it can also be seen as global. This does not just mean that, by contributing to the formation of a world of nation states, nationalism demonstrated its global reach, but that nationalist intellectuals, politicians, and citizens were constantly responding to (p. 15) other nationalists on a global scale. This theme crops up again and again and so I will just select examples at random. Roger Eatwell (Chapter 29) writes of the impact that Japanese nationalism had upon race ideas in Italian fascism. Cemil Aydin (Chapter 34) demonstrates how Pan-Asianism influenced Pan-Islamism. Michael Rowe (Chapter 7) shows how forms of nationalism developed in revolutionary and Napoleonic France were diffused to other regions of Europe. John Sidel (Chapter 24) argues that the ways in which different states in Southeast Asia either were or were not integrated into a US-dominated global economy, political system, and culture shaped the nationalism of those states. Nationalism also changes globally over time. Nationalism in mid-nineteenth-century Europe, shaped by the dominant examples of Britain and France, takes a different form from that of the period in the decades up to 1914 when global imperialism and ideas of the state harnessing modern science and industry play a bigger part. In the epoch of world wars nationalism in Europe was associated with ethnic and race ideas and a propensity for violence. As the European imperial order was dismantled under the aegis of the two new superpowers after 1945, nationalism took on yet other shapes.

Although one can argue that nationalism is a distinct global historical subject that needs to be considered outside the frame of national history, it is so various in time and space and combines ideas, sentiments, and politics in so many different ways, that it is difficult to see how there could ever be a satisfactory account, let alone theory, of ‘nationalism as such’. Just as it was impossible for a contemporary in 1850 to predict the forms nationalism would assume by 1900, and in turn for someone then to predict its forms in 1950, so I doubt those who make predictions today, such as about the inevitable decline of nationalism in the face of globalization. Nationalism is a distinct, complex, and significant subject, and the best—perhaps the only—way of understanding it is historically.

Suggested Further Reading

Anderson, B. (1991) Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism, London.Find this resource:

Anderson, B. (1998) The Spectre of Comparisons: Nationalism, Southeast Asia and the World, London.Find this resource:

Bauer, O. (2000) A Question of Nationalities and Social Democracy, Minneapolis.Find this resource:

Bayly, C. A. (2004) The Birth of the Modern World 1780–1914, Oxford.Find this resource:

(p. 18) Breuilly, J. (1993) Nationalism and the State, Manchester.Find this resource:

Breuilly, J. (2000) ‘Nationalism and the History of Ideas’, Proceedings of the British Academy, 105, 187–223.Find this resource:

Breuilly, J. (2005) ‘Changes in the Political Uses of the Nation: Continuity or Discontinuity?’, in Zimmer, O. and Scales, L. (eds.) Power and Nation in European History, Cambridge.Find this resource:

Breuilly, J. (2011a) ‘Nationalism as Global History’, in D. Halikiopoulou and S. Vasilopoulou (eds.) Nationalism and Globalisation: Conflicting or Complementary?, Basingstoke.Find this resource:

Breuilly, J. (2011b) ‘Theories of Nationalism and the Critical Approach to German History’, in Müller, S. O. and Torp, C. (eds.) Imperial Germany Revisited: Continuing Debates and New Perspectives, Oxford.Find this resource:

Brubaker, R. (1996) Nationalism Reframed: Nationhood and the National Question in the New Europe, Cambridge.Find this resource:

Brubaker, R. (2004) ‘The Manichean Myth: Rethinking the Distinction between “Civic” and “Ethnic” Nationalism’, in Brubaker, R. (ed.) Ethnicity without Groups, Cambridge, MA.Find this resource:

Delanty, G. and Kumar, K. (eds.) (2006) The Sage Handbook of Nations and Nationalism, London.Find this resource:

Deutsch, K. (1966) Nationalism and Social Communication, New York.Find this resource:

Gellner, E. (2006) Nations and Nationalism, Oxford.Find this resource:

Hayes, C. (1931) The Historical Evolution of Nationalism, New York.Find this resource:

Hirschi, C. (2012) The Origins of Nationalism: An Alternative History from Ancient Rome to Early Modern Germany, Cambridge.Find this resource:

Hobsbawm, E. (1992) Nations and Nationalism since 1780: Programme, Myth, Reality, Cambridge.Find this resource:

Hroch, M. (1985) Social Preconditions of National Revival in Europe: A Comparative Analysis of the Social Composition of Patriotic Groups among the Smaller European Nations, Cambridge.Find this resource:

Hroch, M. (1996) ‘From National Movement to the Fully-Formed Nation: The Nation-Building Process in Europe’, in Balakrishnan, G. (ed.) Mapping the Nation, London.Find this resource:

Hutchinson, J. and Smith, A. D. (eds.) (1994) Nationalism, Oxford.Find this resource:

Kedourie, E. (1961) Nationalism, London.Find this resource:

Kohn, H. (2005) The Idea of Nationalism: A Study in its Origins and Background, New York.Find this resource:

Manela, E. (2007) The Wilsonian Moment: Self-Determination and the International Origins of Anti-Colonial Nationalism, Oxford.Find this resource:

Nimni, E. (ed.) (2005) National Cultural Autonomy and its Contemporary Critics, London.Find this resource:

Ozkirimli, U. (2010) Theories of Nationalism, London.Find this resource:

Porciani, I. and Raphael, L. (eds.) (2010) Atlas of European Historiography: The Making of a Profession, 1800–2005, Basingstoke.Find this resource:

Roshwald, A. (2006) The Endurance of Nationalism: Ancient Roots and Modern Dilemmas, Cambridge.Find this resource:

Seton-Watson, H. (1977) Nations and States: An Inquiry into the Origins of Nations and the Politics of Nationalism, London.Find this resource:


(1) A good example is G. Delanty and K. Kumar (eds.) (2006) The Sage Handbook of Nations and Nationalism, London. This is divided into three sections: theories and approaches; themes; contemporary historical studies under the general heading of ‘Nations and Nationalism in a Global Age’.

(2) There is a good section on definitions on the web page ‘The Nationalism Project’ <> as well as at the start of J. Hutchinson and A. D. Smith (eds.) (1994) Nationalism, Oxford.

(3) One debate within nationalism concerns the possibility of ‘civic’ nations defined as a voluntary commitment to a set of political values and institutions, in contrast to ‘ethnic’ nations. It is generally agreed that no nationalist ideology has ever proposed such a nation. From a large literature on the subject, see R. Brubaker (2004) ‘The Manichean Myth: Rethinking the Distinction between “Civic” and “Ethnic” Nationalism’, in R. Brubaker (ed.) Ethnicity without Groups, Cambridge, MA.

(4) See Chapter 36 by Paul Lawrence. The links are traced out in detail in I. Porciani and L. Raphael (eds.) (2010) Atlas of European Historiography: The Making of a Profession, 1800–2005, Basingstoke.

(5) Such as B. Anderson (1991) Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism, London; E. Gellner (2006) Nations and Nationalism, Oxford.

(6) H. Seton-Watson (1977) Nations and States: An Inquiry into the Origins of Nations and the Politics of Nationalism, London.

(7) The pioneering work is E. Kedourie (1961) Nationalism, London. I have analysed this in some detail in J. Breuilly (2000) ‘Nationalism and the History of Ideas’, Proceedings of the British Academy, 105, 187–223.

(8) J. Breuilly (1993) Nationalism and the State, Manchester; E. Hobsbawm (1992) Nations and Nationalism since 1780: Programme, Myth, Reality, Cambridge; M. Hroch (1985) Social Preconditions of National Revival in Europe: A Comparative Analysis of the Social Composition of Patriotic Groups among the Smaller European Nations, Cambridge. Hroch’s study is unique in that it is based on original research and makes detailed comparisons within a rigorous theoretical framework. However, this was only possible because Hroch concentrated on a particular set of cases—‘small-nation nationalism’ in nineteenth-century Europe—and adopted a Marxist approach. See Chapter 9 by Miroslav Hroch.

(9) Admittedly not always satisfactorily, as when historians of liberalism treated as a history of liberal parties write rather differently from historians of liberalism defined as a set of political ideas or as an aspect of a political culture.

(10) As for interactions between national histories, that is assigned to the sub-discipline of ‘international history’ which usually ignores the internal affairs of the individual states. ‘Nation’ thereby acquires a double meaning—national society and nation state—but just how these two meanings relate to each other is rarely explored.

(11) I develop this point in relation to just such a type of German historical writing. J. Breuilly (2011b) ‘Theories of Nationalism and the Critical Approach to German History’, in S. O. Müller and C. Torp (eds.) Imperial Germany Revisited: Continuing Debates and New Perspectives, Oxford.

(12) Such as by Rogers Brubaker, Michael Mann, and Charles Tilly.

(13) This next section overlaps with Chapter 36 by Paul Lawrence.

(14) British and US aims were initially framed in the universal language of liberal democracy, typically dismissed by German writers as Anglo-Saxon humbug, but the rhetoric of everyday propaganda took the self-referential form of nationalism.

(15) For the global impact of Wilson’s ‘Fourteen Points’ and subsequent declarations, see E. Manela (2007) The Wilsonian Moment: Self-Determination and the International Origins of Anti-Colonial Nationalism, Oxford. One could do with another study entitled ‘The Leninist Moment’.

(16) R. Brubaker (1996) Nationalism Reframed: Nationhood and the National Question in the New Europe, Cambridge.

(17) C. Hayes (1931) The Historical Evolution of Nationalism, New York; H. Kohn [1944] (2005) The Idea of Nationalism: A Study in its Origins and Background, New York.

(18) This relates to the debates about civic and ethnic nationalism, for which see note 3 above.

(19) O. Bauer (2000) A Question of Nationalities and Social Democracy, Minneapolis; E. Nimni (ed.) (2005) National Cultural Autonomy and its Contemporary Critics, London. See also Chapter 32 by John Schwarzmantel.

(20) K. Deutsch (1966) Nationalism and Social Communication, New York.

(21) The literature is huge. For a good introduction, see U. Ozkirimli (2010) Theories of Nationalism, London.

(22) Thus some historians of Anglo-Saxon England claim that this was the first nation or nation state without much concern for what these concepts mean, and then are often cited by generalist writers on nationalism as providing ‘proof’ for the early existence of nations or nation states. See J. Breuilly (2005) ‘Changes in the Political Uses of the Nation: Continuity or Discontinuity?’, in O. Zimmer and L. Scales (eds.) Power and Nation in European History, Cambridge.

(23) A good example is in the field of Risorgimento historiography where the recent work of Alberto Banti has stimulated vigorous and fascinating debates about the nature and role of nationalism in the process of Italian unification, but largely confined to Italian historiography. See my Chapter 8 on unification nationalism for references.

(24) As made by Seton-Watson (1977). One can add a third category of nations that so far have not achieved autonomy, whether as a sovereign nation state or in some lesser form such as federalism.

(25) One such study is by a contributor to this volume, Aviel Roshwald. See A. Roshwald (2006) The Endurance of Nationalism: Ancient Roots and Modern Dilemmas, Cambridge. A debate on his book, in Nations and Nationalism, 14/4 (October 2008), 637–63, features contributions from Roshwald, myself, and another author in this book, Susan-Mary Grant. A recent study making a case for pre-modern nationalism is C. Hirschi (2012) The Origins of Nationalism: An Alternative History from Ancient Rome to Early Modern Germany, Cambridge.

(26) See the introduction to B. Anderson (1998) The Spectre of Comparisons: Nationalism, Southeast Asia and the World, London.

(27) The Sage Handbook (see note 1 above) devotes 20 of its 45 chapters to ‘Themes’ and many of the other chapters take the form of ‘nationalism and X’.

(28) Apart from his chapter in this book (Chapter 9), see his short presentation of the argument in M. Hroch (1996) ‘From National Movement to the Fully-Formed Nation: The Nation-Building Process in Europe’, in G. Balakrishnan, G. (ed.) Mapping the Nation, London.

(29) See the essays by Chatterji, Eckert, and Osterhammel, as well as C. A. Bayly (2004) The Birth of the Modern World 1780–1914, Oxford.

(30) I have tried sketching out such an argument in J. Breuilly (2011a) ‘Nationalism as Global History’, in D. Halikiopoulou and S. Vasilopoulou (eds.) Nationalism and Globalisation: Conflicting or Complementary?, Basingstoke.