The Wrath of Nations: Civilization and the Furies of Nationalism
Ethnonationalism: The Quest for Understanding
Nationalism: Five Roads to Modernity
Blood and Belonging: Journeys into the New Nationalism
“For a long time we did not understand the revolution we are witnessing,” wrote Joseph de Maistre in 1794. “For a long time we took it for a mere event. We were wrong: it is an epoch, and woe to those generations present at the epochs of the world!” De Maistre, of course, had in mind the great French Revolution of 1789, but his gloomy reflections are pertinent to Europe today, in the wake of the revolutions of 1989. The ancien régime of post–World War Two Europe now seems far away—Who now believes in the idyllic prospect held out before our eyes in the late 1980s, the dream of a prosperous, united (Western) Europe, shorn of frontiers, passports, and conflicts? Or in the distinctly less plausible but no less widely touted promise of “real” socialism in Europe’s eastern half? It too offered a solution to national conflict, civic inequality, and small-state irridentism. And what of the even more recent hopes of the domestic champions of democracy in that same Eastern region, with their schemes for a “return to Europe” to bury their countries’ troubled pasts and fragile international standing in the warm embrace of the old continent’s better self?
In place of these universal Europes of our fond imaginings we are faced now, it might appear, with a bizarre resurrection of the ghosts of particularism. In “Far Eastern” Europe, from Estonia to Romania, no sooner are small countries back on the map than their first order of business is to set up language tests to determine who is and is not a “real” Latvian, Ukrainian, etc. In central Europe there is once again a state called Slovakia (first seen under the unfortunate auspices of Father Tiso and his fellow collaborators after Hitler’s destruction of Czechoslovakia), whose mere existence raises fears and hostility among its large Hungarian minority, and therefore in domestic Hungarian politics too. In Western Europe the Flemish are choosing an assertive local identity over the comfortable anonymity of Belgium; Catalans and (latterly) Lombards distance themselves from Spain and Italy and look toward Brussels in a new alliance of region and supranationality (echoed in last year’s French referendum where Brittany and Alsace in particular voted heavily in favor of Maastricht). Extreme-right-wing parties in Germany, France, and Italy are conducting a brisk (and cynical1 ) electoral trade in racist and anti-immigrant xenophobia. Northern Ireland continues to burn. And then there is, or was, Yugoslavia.
Taken separately, each of these developments has a distinctive and local origin and explanation. But taken together they point to a shift in the emphases of public life and language in contemporary Europe. Even though the Western European concern has been with regional differentiation or privilege, whereas farther east there has been a drive toward state-making, the distinctions are in emphasis, not kind. Everywhere there has been a growing absorption in what Freud called the “narcissism of minor differences.” None of this began recently, born again as it were in 1989. Nationalism, in…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.