“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 Isaiah Berlin’s words, is not “resurgent”—it never died.2 But for many years it did not get much concentrated attention. All that is now changing, as is attested by the appearance of the books reviewed here and many others besides.3

William Pfaff, who is concerned as much with the political implications of the new situation as with its origins and nature, is distinctly pessimistic. He sometimes exaggerates, as when he writes, “Throughout most of the region [of ‘east-central Europe’] surviving Jews and Gypsies still meet hostility and invidious discrimination, burdened by genocidal memory.” Things are indeed bad for gypsies, especially in Romania. It is true that there have been verbal attacks on Jews in Poland and Slovakia, where very few remain, and in Budapest, where many of them live. But most of the surviving East European Jews have relatively little to complain about. Such sweeping statements, of which there are a number in this book, do the author a disservice; Pfaff knows his subject and presents it well. His survey of contemporary nationalisms is global in its ambitions, embracing Asia, Africa, and North America, although in each case his conclusion is the same: nationalism is a, perhaps the, modern problem, not just an archaic impediment to progress. Nationalism, he writes, “is the reality of our century, and needs to be understood in a more complex way than is ordinarily the case. It is a contemporary expression of social and moral realities at the core of human existence.” Readers of his book will be left in little doubt that nationalism—whatever that is—is something to be taken seriously.

The difficulties entailed in understanding nationalism—and the concept of the “nation,” which is not the same thing—are part of the reason for the pained surprise occasioned by their re-emergence as a force in public life.4 In Michael Ignatieff’s words, there has been widespread “cosmopolitan disdain and astonishment” at the ferocity of peoples’ demands for their own nation-state. For a long time, the conventional wisdom was that such “tribal,” ideological allegiances were passé, at least in Europe. For liberals and Marxists alike, national attachments and their attendant emotions made no rational sense in the contemporary world. For liberal scholars the era of nation-state–making was the necessary prelude to a world of constitutional states and equal citizens. It therefore made sense that liberalism and nationalism were intertwined in nineteenth-century European politics. Traditional liberal thinkers, however, could not sympathize with the later problem of smaller communities within or between such states, such as the Slovaks or the Flemish, seeking a distinctive national and international identity in preference to, and often instead of, civic equality and democratic rights. Rightly regarding these demands as a threat to the liberal state, historians and political theorists grew unsympathetic to nationalism, treating its presence as a pathological condition of incomplete “modernity.”


Today’s cosmopolitan critic of particularism is thus a direct descendant of John Stuart Mill, who made the following disparaging observation about regionalist sentiment in France:

Nobody can suppose that it is not more beneficial to a Breton or a Basque of French Navarre to be…a member of the French nationality, admitted on equal terms to all the privileges of French citizenship, sharing the advantages of French protection and the dignity and prestige of French power than to sulk on his own rocks, the half-savage relic of past times, revolving in his own little mental orbit, without participation or interest in the general movement of the world.5

This was a view widely held during the nineteenth century by administrators and intellectuals alike—Heinrich Heine made the same point in a characteristically wittier fashion: “The people I saw in the [French] provinces all looked like milestones that had written on their foreheads their greater or lesser distance from the capital.” Its most recent expression in Western Europe today can be found in the writings of Paul Thibaud, who brusquely dismisses contemporary French interest in regionalism as a “quasi-refeudalisation” of public life. 6

The standard Marxist account of nationalism was curiously similar. For reasons related to its inability to account for its own demise, Marxism had no place for nationalism in its scheme of things. Marx himself divided mid-nineteenth-century Europe into “historic” nations and others; the latter, mostly small Slav peoples, were consigned to eventual oblivion. His heirs treated national sentiment as an illusion, induced by manipulated ignorance and a collective misapprehension of interest.7 Marxism could not, however, account for the persistence and resurfacing of national sentiment during and after communism, or for the apparently deep-seated attachment to ethnic or other affiliations of people who could not indefinitely be dismissed as suffering from a collective hallucination. Accordingly, a more recent version of the theory incorporates not only the fact of nationalism in postcolonial societies but also contemporary literary and anthropological fashions. In this perspective, nationalism, and nations, are inventions, whether of rulers or intellectuals. They are images of an identity that does not “really” exist, even though the belief that it does so has significant material consequences.8

This approach is altogether more sophisticated. It is clearly correct in treating nations as modern creations and nationalism as the invention of intellectuals and educators.9 Many of the most “ancient” traditions, dates, and ceremonies associated with expressions of national identification in Europe are inventions of the last century—it could hardly be otherwise when for most people in the past the geographical scale of a modern nation was unthinkable.10 Most Hungarians, for example, did not know that their nation had been born in AD 896 until late-nineteenth-century patriots told them so.

There is, however, a limit to the insights to be had from this way of thinking about nationalism. Although some national identities are undoubtedly creations of recent vintage, even within living memory, they now exist; they are a fact, invented or not—the Palestinians are a case in point. Nor, as is sometimes assumed in such approaches, is national or regional separatism always a collective psychic compensation for social or economic inadequacy: witness the cases of Catalonia, Lombardy—or Slovenia, where it is the most successful community within a state that wants either to assert its distinctive presence or simply to get out. Lastly, by concentrating attention upon “invented traditions,” “imagined communities,” “illusory” beliefs, “representations” of identity, and so forth, one risks once again treating nationalism in all its forms as a historical mistake, a cognitive error to be made good by clear-sighted analytical demystification.11 Whatever insights are thereby gained, the conclusion returns us to our starting point in the older school of historicist critics, liberal and Marxist alike: nationalism and national identity are taken seriously but not on their own terms, and so they elude understanding.


No one could accuse Walker Connor of failing to take nationalism, or what he calls “ethnonationalism,” seriously and on its own terms. For nearly three decades he has been publishing steadily on the subject, and his latest book is a collection of essays, the first of which appeared in 1967. His theme is clearly stated—indeed his work has over time taken on a rather sleeve-tugging, nagging quality. Taking his cue from Max Weber, he relentlessly reminds us that a nation is a group of people who entertain a belief in their common ancestry, what he calls a “myth of common descent.” It has nothing to do with a state, which may or may not be a “nation-state,” although it usually isn’t—by Connor’s account only Japan, some Scandinavian countries, Portugal, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands qualify for the description. Nor is a nation to be defined by language, culture, religion, territory, or political arrangement, though all of these may be symptoms of a shared identity.

Of what, then, does Connor’s “ethnonation” consist? Its definition seems to be left up to the subjects themselves, but this is confusing since he rejects some kinds of subjective descriptions as illusory but offers no consistent criterion for what it is about a subjective ethnonational affinity that makes it real in his eyes. Thus regionalism, for him, may or may not be “true nationalism,” which is not very helpful. Nonetheless, and in spite of its rather relentless taxonomic focus, Connor’s concentration on certain characteristics of nationalism has allowed him to predict most of the renascent expression of national and regional sentiment in recent years.

In any attempt to clarify the concept of nation, two features stand out. The first is the importance of language. It is not a coincidence that Croatian nationalists today are purifying their vocabulary of alien (Serb) terms just as French patriots are pressing for linguistic tariffs to protect their national language from the polluting effect of English; meanwhile Flemish separatists in northern Belgium—whose forebears were satisfied with achieving official bilingualism a century ago—now demand a unilingual Dutch-speaking territory. Linguistic homogeneity was not a major problem for nineteenth-century German nationalists, since the propensity to speak German was part of what defined the nation in the first place; but in Giuseppe Mazzini’s vision of a united Italy there was from the start a practical difficulty in that at the moment of unification fewer than 3 percent of the inhabitants of the peninsula spoke official Italian. Here as elsewhere a system of national language education was needed in order to create both nation and state alike.

Those who insist that nations were constructed and invented, rather than primordial givens, can point to the history of local languages farther east. Czech nationalist historians may cite the fifteenth-century followers of Jan Hus as the first to speak Czech in preference to the German of their rulers, but it was not until Josef Jungmann prepared his early nineteenth-century dictionary of the Czech language that urban intellectuals had a respectable indigenous tongue in which to make their case. In Prague as in Budapest, German-speakers dominated until the late years of the last century when migration from rural regions to the growing cities shifted the balance in favor of Czech and Hungarian, respectively. In both Slovakia and Croatia what was to become the national language was a virtually arbitrary selection among competing local dialects. In the southern Balkans, when Greeks and Albanians quarreled over some territory in Epirus before World War One, Greek authorities sent in questioners to ascertain the national identity of the local population; most pro-Greeks answered in Greek, just as most pro-Albanians responded in Albanian. But in some villages the inhabitants would answer “I am a Greek”—in Albanian.12

It is of course possible to have, or to have had, a national identity without speaking the language associated with it; that is one of Connor’s points. Because this was the condition of an increasing number of emancipated Jews in the late nineteenth century, cultural Zionists such as the turn-of-the-century writer Ahad Ha’am made a point of emphasizing language-learning as the core of any program of Jewish national revival, arguing, in Ahad Ha’am’s words, that “language provides a full national form to the inner life of the child.”13 Jews, of course, also had religion, although religious leaders were mostly opposed to the Zionist program. An organized faith, especially one with a full battery of equipment—text, liturgy, clergy—was a crucial adjunct not only to established states (witness the sacral role of the monarchy in medieval and early-modern France) but also to vulnerable nations.

Thus when their lands were partitioned between Prussia, Russia, and Austria, nineteenth-century Polish patriots emphasized the Catholic practice of Poles as perhaps the defining quality of Polishness which distinguished them from Orthodox Christians to their east, Uniate Christians to the south, Lutherans to their west, and Jews in their midst. Between the world wars, with only 69 percent of the Polish state’s population speaking Polish as their native tongue, and 35 percent practicing a religion other than Catholicism, this isomorphism in Polish thinking between nation and religion was to be a source of tension. Here as elsewhere, even though religious practice has declined, religion remains a marker, a guide to past divisions and allegiances echoed in obscure modern antipathies. In Belgium there is a loose correlation between Catholic practice, political conservatism, and Flemish separatist sentiment. French-speaking Walloons (who are in the minority) are on the whole less religious, politically further to the left, and more favorable to a continued Belgian state. But the religious variable is probably the least important of the three. In Ulster, in former Yugoslavia, or in the Ukraine different religious affiliations symbolize and reinforce other conflicts—and are in some cases being revived by them.

The further back one goes the more obvious it is that “nation” and nationhood had a different meaning from what we understand today. The Polish or Hungarian “nations” of the seventeenth century, like Luther’s “German nation,” were, in the French phrase, the pays légal. They consisted of those nobles or gentry who together with the king or emperor lived off the peasants and other suppliers of labor and goods. For the mass of the population things were very different. Nineteenth-century farmers in the region north-west of Warsaw spoke a language they thought of as “Mazovian” and described themselves as Mazovians, not Poles. According to István Deák many recruits to the Austro-Hungarian army as late as 1889 still did not even know their family name, much less their national affiliation. 14 In a recent book, Daniel Patrick Moynihan reminds us that many Eastern European immigrants to the US around 1880 only learned of (and thus acquired) their previous nationality upon arrival in their new home.15 The citizens of newly independent Italy certainly knew that this was the state in which they lived, but their motives for favoring its existence usually had more to do with longstanding local conflicts (Sicilians fighting for independence from Naples, the inhabitants of Ancona resentful of local Roman domination) than with nationalist fervor. They remained, and in many cases remain still, local patriots first, Italians a distant second.

In these circumstances, it can indeed seem as though nations were the arbitrary constructions of nineteenth-century teachers, journalists, and philologists, carefully sewing together dialects, beliefs, folk tales, local antagonisms, and the rest into a nationalist quilt. But doubts remain. Peter Sahlins has brilliantly demonstrated the way in which the inhabitants of a frontier region caught between Spain and France came to be at once Cerdan (the local district), Catalan, and French—or Spanish. And they acquired these identities, independent of linguistic distinction (languages could be and were used interchangeably, for different purposes), long before the French or Spanish states got around to serious programs of linguistic or cultural unification from above.16 Likewise, the regional sensibilities of Bretons, Scots, or Catalans certainly took the form they did as a result of modern ideas and possibilities—notably communications, which in the Breton case made the region accessible to the rest of France after the First World War. But there had to be something already there in order for this newly honed identity to take on meaning in the particular context. Nationalist intellectuals may well invent a tradition, but they cannot invent just any tradition—it must fit within some recognizable continuum of distinctive local features.17

That something was usually memory—personal, oral, recorded, or imparted. And in almost all cases it was the memory of conquest at the hands of others, or of the successful rebuffing of attempts at conquest. Hence the symbolic importance of battles—that of the defeat of the Serbs by Turks at Kosovo in 1389, or the defeat of the Irish (and their French allies) by the English at the Boyne in 1690. Nations, in short, are concerned with independence—lost, defended, or yet to be attained, which is why “freedom” for modern nationalists is so often defined not as liberal political institutions but as self-rule, in whatever institutional form.

It is therefore worth asking how and when most of them came into being as nation-states, and the answer is instructive. In the overwhelming majority of cases, the modern European (like the modern African and Latin-American) state was born from the collapse of empire. The defeat of Napoleon gave rise to modern Germany and indirectly to the new entity of Belgium, just as the first significant indication of the decline of Habsburg power in central Europe was the independence and unification of Italy. The steady crumbling of the Ottoman Empire explains the emergence of Greek, Serbian, Romanian, and Bulgarian states in the course of the last century, while the precipitous crash of Habsburg, Ottoman, and Russian empires alike in 1918 produced twentieth-century Poland, the Baltic states, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Yugoslavia, and Austria, and would have given birth to a Ukrainian state had the Poles and Russians between them not decided otherwise. The second collapse of the Russian Empire in 1989 has had similar effects, this time most notably in central Asia.

Nations that failed to profit from the collapse of an empire have had few other chances to stake their claim. Nations are not arbitrary constructions, but their success or failure as collective actors is largely a matter of historical chance. The independence won by Finns or Czechs after 1918, or by Ukrainians following the fall of the Soviet Union, has been denied to Kurds, Palestinians, Crimean Tartars, and others, or else conceded on virtually unworkable territorial terms as in Armenia. Nation-making is historically not so much the assertion of a right but the pursuit of opportunity—imperfect opportunity. Very, very few of the states born of crumbling empires have been nation-states, in the sense used by Walker Connor. After World War I Czechoslovakia, Poland, Yugoslavia, and Romania, to name only the most egregious cases, were mini-multinational empires in their own right, just as linguistically and culturally mixed as the empires from which they had been torn, and, for all their complaints against imperial rule, distinctly less tolerant. They contained within themselves national minorities, of which the largest was often from the old imperial ruling nation—German, Hungarian, Turkish, Muslim, or Russian 18—and they added to previous grievances an increased sense of collective insecurity and vulnerability, at home and abroad. It was the prospect of just such an outcome that caused Tomás Masaryk, the eventual founder of Czechoslovakia, to seek a solution to the nationalities problem within the frame of a reformed Austrian state, a strategy he only abandoned, with some reluctance, during the First World War.

The response to this intra-national promiscuity has always been some kind of ethnic cleansing. The Turkish massacre of Armenians during World War One, the forced exchange of Greeks and Turks in 1922, Stalin’s evacuation of Poles from their annexed eastern territories in 1939 to 1941, the Nazis’ destruction of Jews and the subsequent expulsion of Germans from Poland and Czechoslovakia in 1945 to 1946, the partial expulsion of Arabs from the territory of the new Israeli state, the steady departure of the surviving Jews from postwar Poland and Romania, and most recently the well-publicized campaigns of Serbs and Croats in the Balkans: all follow a depressing and established pattern. Ideological cleansing, too, has its place in this story. The collapse of the intellectual imperium of Marxism has produced a burst of enthusiasm in some former socialist countries for the purging of communism not only from the national culture but also from its history.


The breakup of empires and the social and administrative disruption that follow help to explain why national states come into being and why people feel a need to have one of their own. But to account for the different and distinctive shapes taken by the nationalist ideologies that purport to legitimize the outcome, we must look elsewhere. There have been many attempts to write the history of nationalism as a distinctive intellectual phenomenon. The difficulty has always been that it is either seen as the product of a particular culture, so that one speaks of the history of nationalist thought in France, in Germany, etc; or else it has lent itself to speculative, psycho-historical abstraction. As Michael Ignatieff puts it in his book under review, “There is only so much that can be said about nationalism in general.” Attempts at a full-scale synoptic account, at once analytically ambitious and context-sensitive, have been rare, and not notably successful.

Liah Greenfeld’s recent book is thus courageous and ambitious. She has reversed the usual assumptions, presenting as her central claim the view that the modern world is a result of nationalism and indeed is defined by it. She also argues that in every case but one nationalism was the outcome of a crisis of identity born of an unsatisfactory encounter with other, external forms of power, and not a product of domestic social conflicts or purely indigenous concerns. Her book is a learned, dense, and exciting effort to combine political and intellectual history with broad sociological theorizing, and if it is not always convincing it remains the most original attempt in years to get an analytical grip on the entire problem.

Greenfeld’s reasoning is far too complex and subtle for a short synopsis to do it justice, but her basic argument can be summarized fairly briefly. England, she claims, discovered “nation-ness” during the sixteenth century. When the Tudor state broke away from Catholic Europe, Protestantism, together with Parliament’s claim to a share in government, became the emblems of English identity. Reinforced through a century and a half of conflict with France, this sense of the particularities of Englishness produced a self-confident civic nationhood against which foreigners would henceforth be measured and found wanting.

In France the idea of a nation came later, around 1750 in Greenfeld’s reading, and was born of opposition to the crown by a resentful aristocracy. Abetted by the philosophes, French aristocrats accepted the idea of the state as created by Richelieu and Louis XIV, but justified their opposition to it by claiming to seek its transformation in the name of and for the purpose of serving the “nation.” Initially Anglophile, they turned against the English in the middle years of the eighteenth century, when France was steadily losing in the competition between the two states, and defined French nationalism not by representative institutions but by the idea of the people-become-state. Combining the historical claims of the Bourbon kings with this new language of popular political legitimacy, the French produced a crusading universalist nationalism that would prove a faithful echo and heir to the crusading ambitions of the Catholic kings.

The suggestion that a crucial formative element in French nationalism was anti-English resentment, or what Greenfeld, after Nietszche, calls ressentiment, is then developed further in her discussion of Russian nationalism.19 Russian writers observed the efforts of Peter the Great and Catherine to emulate Western political and administrative reforms but also noted how little apparent impact these had on the deeply backward condition of the Russian state and society alike. Torn between admiration for the West and defensive praise for the special virtues of non-Western Russia, they shared with the Russian nobility, deprived like their French cousins of any practical function or political influence, a growing frustration that alternated between morose self-criticism and angry resentment. The sentiment Greenfeld is trying to describe is well captured by Denis Fonvisin, writing toward the end of the eighteenth century:

How can we remedy the two contradictory and most harmful prejudices: the first, that everything with us is awful, while in foreign lands everything is good; the second, that in foreign lands everything is awful, and with us every thing is good.

To this was added the idea that whatever was good and pure about Russia must be in the people, since the ruling elite was soiled by its contact with the outside. It would be the task of a new leadership to forge from the spirit of the people a renascent Russia, not only freed of its inhibiting sense of insufficiency but blessed with a sense of purpose born precisely of that same difference from the West, now a sign not of inadequacy but of superiority.

The theme of ressentiment also figures prominently in Greenfeld’s account of German nationalism, shaped by the early Romantic writers (Fichte, Herder, Friedrich Schlegel, and Ernst Moritz Arndt are the names most frequently invoked) and burnished in the humiliation of military defeat. Here Greenfeld traces three parallel strands: the first is the Pietist religious tradition, with its emphasis upon the dissolving of the individual in a community of sufferers to be redeemed by struggle and death. This, she suggests, bequeathed to German Romanticism and its heirs a special taste for bloody conflict as the path to communal salvation.

Secondly she notes the role of the Bildungsbürgertum, the educated “middle” class who suffered from what she describes as “status inconsistency,” the fact that they had no standing or influence—and often no jobs—in late eighteenth-century Prussia. Despised by the aristocracy and the court, who treated with disdain their own German writers and preferred to read and speak French and the works of the French Enlightenment, the frustrated “intellectuals” of this class imagined for themselves a spiritual “Germany” in which their place would be assured. Resentful of French thought, and unconstrained by reality or experience, they conceived of a Germanness in which all would have a part, where the alienated world of the unnoticed intellectual would be subsumed into the oneness of a truly “human” existence.

The third element, of course, was the anti-French and reforming drive among the Prussian authorities themselves in the aftermath of the defeat at Jena in 1806. Here, so it seemed, the political interests of the ruling class and the emotional and aesthetic inclinations of the Romantics came together and gave birth to German nationalism, a potent mixture of anti-French sentiment, emotional fusion between individual and state, and a yearning for violent and total transformation.

Readers familiar with the literature in this field will recognize the outline of the argument, even in the caricature of this summary.20 Greenfeld does add a twist of her own when she suggests that Karl Marx was not only heir to many of the moods and metaphors of German Pietist and Romantic thought but was, in essence, a German nationalist himself, sharing similar feelings of ressentiment and with equally millenarian visions of individual authenticity to be achieved through fusion with the whole, and collective fulfillment attained through violent, apocalyptic conflict. This seems to me to go a little far. But on the whole Greenfeld’s use of her literary and philosophical sources is exemplary, the more so since she uses all of them (English, French, Russian, and German) in the original language.

By relating each major European nationalist ideology to its origins in the resentment of local failure and the success of others, Greenfeld not only provides a unifying theme but also explains an important but neglected quality of much nationalist thought—its curiously ambivalent feelings toward the object of ostensible adoration. William Pfaff is quite wrong when he notes that Hitler was disappointed in the German people and concludes that “Germans were means to his ends. He was no German nationalist.” Nations frequently prove unworthy of nationalists. Mussolini felt let down by his Italians; the Royalist Charles Maurras had little but distaste for the France in which he found himself; Ulstermen, for whom loyalty to Britain is everything, nonetheless regard the mainland British with something approaching contempt, and so on.

Professor Greenfeld’s work, however, suffers from the defects characteristic of its genre. By covering so broad a historical span and proposing such an ambitious model she exposes herself to some predictable criticisms. It is surely anachronistic to speak of “nationalism” in sixteenth-century England, even for the purposes of presenting England as a sort of “Urnation” against which all others would measure themselves. Does Shakespeare, in Henry V for instance, really have the modern concept of “nation” in mind when he puts it into the speeches of his characters? Was Charles I, in his Writ for the Collection of Ship Money, invoking the ancient habits of the English “nation” in a usage congruent with later understandings of the word?

In Britons: Forging a Nation Linda Colley makes a better case for British nationalism as a product of eighteenth-century developments, and she treats Protestantism as a complex of real popular beliefs, and not just a convenient language of difference to be mobilized from above. Was it really the French nobility, in their struggle with the Bourbons, who invented the term “nation” in the sense that it came to be used by nineteenth-century Republicans? French historians have made a stronger case for its appearance as a legitimizing language in the early stages of the Revolution, with complex and not always intended consequences as events unfolded.21

Most seriously of all, Greenfeld seems to see in German nationalism something fully formed in 1806, with the sinister tone and crypto-racist implications that would carry it in an unbroken line to the anti-Semitism of the Wilhelminian era and the paranoid mayhem of Hitlerian fantasies. That such prospects were already being held out as early as the 1830s is certainly true; Greenfeld does not quote Heine’s famous prophecy in “Concerning the History of Religion and Philosophy,” though she could certainly adduce it in her support.22 But her doom-laden account of the trajectory of modern German thought has an old-fashioned air to it, curiously impervious to the contingencies of history. As she tells it, nationalism in Germany and also in Russia seems a natural disaster waiting to happen.

A rather different tone can be found in Steven Zipperstein’s excellent new biography of Ahad Ha’am, a fascinating and important book about the foremost exponent of a humanistic, liberal Zionism. Ahad Ha’am was the pen name of Asher Ginsburg (1856–1927), who helped to shape Jewish “cultural” nationalism in its formative years. He has been the subject of a number of reverential biographies, as befits one of the Israeli nation’s “founding fathers.” Zipperstein indulges no such pieties. Indeed he makes clear that he does not regard Ahad Ha’am as an original thinker and finds it striking how often he managed to impress greater thinkers than himself—men like Hayyim Nahman Bialik and Gershom Scholem. But in the course of his highly detailed account Zipperstein effectively brings out the significance of his subject’s contribution to nationalist thought.

Ahad Ha’am was a pure product of the Russian Jewish intelligentsia of the late nineteenth century, caught between separatism and assimilation, Judaic religious tradition and post-emancipation Jewish secular culture. Believing the Jews should not rush to the homeland but should prepare themselves by developing a secular Jewish culture, he was by 1900 perhaps the best-known Zionist critic of “Palestinophilism.” But he was always peripheral to the European Zionist movement, more familiar to a coterie of cosmopolitan Jewish intellectuals in Odessa than to the Central European audience that embraced Theodor Herzl and his grandiose projects for a Jewish state. He wrote relatively little and was self-effacing in public—though Zipperstein argues convincingly that this was a device, perhaps half-conscious, to place himself in the line of descent of rejected Jewish prophets. In any event, his brand of skeptical cultural nationalism was illadapted for the kind of public audience sought by mainstream political Zionists, and by the time of his death in Palestine in 1927 he was more of an icon than a leader, worshiped for ideas and ethical positions to which a new generation of political Zionists paid lip service at best.

Ahad Ha’am held the view that what the Jewish people needed above all was not political independence but cultural renewal. His greatest fear was the extinction of the Jews through assimilation and cultural impoverishment. Religious traditions, he believed, had been a rabbinical substitute for national autonomy following the destruction of the Second Temple and the dispersal of the Jews into the long night of the diaspora; but with emancipation and Haskalah (Jewish enlightenment) something else was required if Jewry was to sustain its distinctive spiritual identity. In the circumstances of late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Russia it made increasing sense to envisage such a cultural renewal in a Jewish state, in Palestine. But the state was a means, not the goal.

Ahad Ha’am accepted the general Zionist line that the objective was a “normalization” of the Jewish condition—just as the search for similar “normalizations” had shaped the thinking of an earlier generation of liberal nationalists like Mazzini. But by “normalcy” he meant above all an opportunity for his people to free themselves from the impossible choice of a constricted Jewish religiosity or else a flourishing, but non-Jewish life in someone else’s culture and language. By his standards the deracinated, German-speaking Zionist leaders in Vienna had lost whatever it was that made it worth asserting one’s Jewishness, and their obsession with territory and political state-making risked making things even worse.

It was for these reasons that Ahad Ha’am was so prescient about the possible costs of national redemption, in a way that makes him rare not only among Zionist thinkers but among nationalist thinkers of any kind. He noted, in 1891, very early in his political career, that Palestine was not “empty,” and that the integrity of the Jewish enterprise there would be judged by the settlers’ treatment of the Arab residents. He wrote a devastating review of Herzl’s novel Altneuland in which he wondered sarcastically how it was that Jews from throughout the world had settled in this utopian site without displacing a single Arab or making enemies of the indigenous populace. And in 1913 he reflected sadly upon his observations of life among the first generation of Jewish settlers: “If Palestinian Jewry is unable to exercise restraint and decency now that it holds little power, how much worse will it be when we control the land and its Arab inhabitants?”

It would be wrong to say that Ahad Ha’am foresaw the dilemmas of modern Israel or that he fully understood and sympathized with the tragedy of the Palestinian Arabs; here Zipperstein is a scrupulous biographer and never claims for his subject more than the sources can sustain. After all, it was Ahad Ha’am who asserted that Jews must eventually form a majority in their own land, “a land in which our historic rights are not in any doubt…and in which in an atmosphere infused with a sense of history our national lives will be permitted to develop according to their own distinctive spirit.” He was silent on the fundamental moral ambiguity of Zionism—the right of Jews to claim unique hegemony over a land in which others were both present and, at the time, in a majority. This silence was understandable, for whatever other solutions might have presented themselves to cultural nationalists in the 1880s had been foreclosed by pogroms, by the radicalization and growing secularization of Jewish youth—and by the collapse of the Russian Empire, a collapse which was to leave Jews, like so many other small and scattered peoples in Eastern Europe, at the mercy of unfriendly successor states founded on principles of territorial monopoly and with no respect for the cultural claims of the minorities in their midst.

Ahad Ha’am’s worries are similar to those addressed by Yael Tamir in Liberal Nationalism. She presents her book as a work of political theory, which aims to provide a solid ethical grounding for nationalism according to liberal principles and thus to overcome the presumptive opposition between the two forms of thought; but the book is also pervaded by a sense of the dilemma of the Zionist project. Liberals, Tamir argues, consistently undervalue nationalism, failing to recognize that there are human needs for fulfillment and creativity, for which a national community is a necessary condition. The propensity of liberal thought to reason mainly in terms of individual rights and constitutional states, but to neglect issues of community, identity, and preference, is a self-imposed political handicap. For Tamir there is nothing a priori wrong with nationalism, and she has no time for those theorists who have called it “the starkest political shame of the twentieth century.”23

Beyond noting that human beings do as a matter of fact have or seek out collective identities, and that any account of the world that consistently treats this as an aberration misses something crucial, Tamir adduces two sorts of arguments in her support. The crucial ethical step for human beings according to her is not from the self to the abstract universal, but from the self to someone else. The bases upon which we recognize and respect people within our own community—our reasons for treating them properly and living at peace with them—are the only secure starting point for the establishment of enduring relations of mutual empathy and respect with people in other communities. A well-tempered nationalism, in short, may be the necessary condition for civil society.

Tamir’s second approach is to extrapolate from contemporary rights theory: if individuals have a right to equal respect, then they have a right to respect for the forms of public culture and expression that they freely choose for themselves. There is, in short, a right to cultural self-determination—the right to a shared language, shared social practices, a shared past. And if these cultural identity tags add up to nation-ness, then, in Tamir’s words, “The right to national self-determination is merely a particular case of the right to culture.” If all such national claims are truly expressions of these sorts of cultural rights, then they are the necessary condition for the well-lived life, and need not be mutually incompatible. This raises one obvious question: What happens when one form of cultural expression (the wearing of a scarf by Arab schoolgirls in France, for example) is treated by members of another culture (French secular republicans) as incompatible with something important about their own way of life? The answer is that the majority imposes its own preferences all the more easily in a culture like that of France, where collective interests not infrequently “trump” individual claims. Tamir, though, believes strongly that in principle such conflicts are resolvable and that one can achieve a satisfactory compromise without ceasing, to paraphrase Ronald Dworkin, to take cultural rights seriously.

Tamir is careful to make clear that people may have cultural rights, and indeed may flourish as a culture, without having or craving political sovereignty. In her own logic she is of course correct—there is nothing about cultural or religious or any other elective affinity that requires territorial frontiers. Tamir sees our best hope as lying in intersecting circles of autonomy of different national groups within territorially defined states, although, like Michael Walzer, she accepts that borders are inevitable and that nations on the whole do less harm to themselves and others when they are free to celebrate their identity. But it is surely not enough to say that minorities within majoritarian states should be accorded cultural rights and left to flourish, with past injustices and inequities set aside. As a liberal objective this is unimpeachable. But it is an unpleasant fact about nationalists that many of them define their commitment precisely by invoking past inequities and consider that the flourishing of a minority culture in their midst is the problem they must address. It is hardly surprising that the representatives of such vulnerable minorities harbor doubts about intra-territorial autonomy alone and would prefer their own nation-state.

There is a disappointingly dry and abstract quality to this book. When we consider the importance for Tamir of the cultural varieties and claims that make up nationalism, the fact that she provides few detailed examples and goes into none of them at any length is a self-imposed handicap. As a result everything hinges on the logic and consistency of the concepts she uses, and here I feel Tamir’s avowedly optimistic account makes two missteps. Let us accept that there are such things as universally recognizable and recognized cultural communities. What are we to do if the values that one of them seeks to share and protect are exclusive and intolerant? Existing as a minority in someone else’s territory, such a community may well behave in ways that cannot be reconciled; acting as a majority it will refuse to accord its own minorities the rights it claims for itself. When individuals in a given community are uncooperative, we can resort to the legitimate coercive powers of the state; but it is in the nature of Tamir’s reasoning that the sort of structure that could administer such coercion across communities is difficult to envisage. As for her neo-Rawlsian attempt to imagine compatible intersecting nationalisms (see pages 108–113), this too seems brittle.

Behind a veil of ignorance about actual nations and their claims, a well-meaning person might indeed construct a workable model of liberal nationalism. But that is just because that person in this thought experiment has already been vested with certain qualities of a liberal (and nationalist) kind, notably an awareness that nations exist and are the building-blocks of international public life. If we know that much, then the veil isn’t hiding anything significant. And if we don’t know it, if we have no prior grounds for imagining a world divided in the ways ours is, would we really invent such divisions, however liberal, as the best way of proceeding?

“Nationalism,” as Greenfeld shows, is what nationalists do. And Tamir concedes that most nationalists would reject her approach: because it recognizes and sympathizes with interests beyond its own, because it is self-critical, and because it builds into its version of identity the crucial variable of free choice. In Tamir’s vision, the individual human being may authenticate his or her existence by freely choosing a nation or a culture. If that were a plausible account of our world then liberal nationalism would indeed be an elegant solution to its problems. But if it were a plausible account, then liberal nationalism would be redundant, since the problems it sets out to address would not exist.

The problems that really do exist are very well laid out in Michael Ignatieff’s Blood and Belonging. Ignatieff is an intellectual historian turned journalist—his book accompanies a BBC television series—and he is familiar with all the usual theories of nationalism and nation-building. But in his beautifully written and often moving book he confines himself for the most part to description, with only brief excursions into historical background or social theory. He admits that he started his inquiry with the usual liberal distaste for nationalist excess, and throughout the book his anger at the brutality in Bosnia and elsewhere, and his amazement at the extremes of ideological self-delusion are palpable. But as the work progresses his understanding grows and with it his grasp of just what it is that drives Croatians, Ukrainians, Crimean Tartars, Ulstermen, Kurds, and others to fight for a place of their own against overwhelming odds and at such a high price.

Ignatieff is quick to pick up the essential messages from the regions he has visited. Recoiling from Croatian soldiers’ destruction of the museum at Jasenovac, site of one of the worst World War II Ustashe atrocities, he writes: “Some quite amazing hatred of the past has taken hold of the people who did this.” Later he talks of Belgrade Serbs’ obsessive conviction that “no one understands us.”24 In Northern Ireland, Ignatieff notes, it is neither religion, ethnicity nor politics that drives local sentiment. It is fear—fear of the past, fear of the future, fear of domination. A similar fear hangs over Kurdistan, where ideological talk of Kurdish national rights matters less than the sight of the victims of Saddam Hussein’s genocidal gassing of the population of Halabja. Here, as Ignatieff wisely remarks, “Autonomy will never do. It is a stopping point…. But it can never be the end of the road. For Halabja happened, and for a people who have known genocide, there is only one thing that will do: a nation-state of their own.”

In Germany as elsewhere he finds and reflects upon the phenomenon of nationalists who despise the country they live in for its tolerance of minorities and whose essentialist vision of human differences is utterly non-negotiable—“We are Germans. They are Turks.” But his best essay concerns Quebec. Ignatieff was born in Canada and he uses his local knowledge, and the interviews he conducted there, to illustrate an important point. Québecois today have few of the grievances expressed thirty years ago, when the region was economically depressed and its language and culture in decline. The educated francophone population is no longer so afraid of losing its children to an English-speaking world—less so than the French themselves, it would seem. And yet nationalism in Quebec is a very real thing, drawing on past grievances that, as Ignatieff writes, “do not cease to be actual, just because they are in the past.” Everywhere he goes, at least within the nationalist orbit, people tell him the same thing: “We just want to be at home, with ourselves…a majority in our own place.”

If that is what nationalism means in a French-speaking province of federal Canada, one of the world’s more fortunate places and with little to fear, then the prospects for nonterritorial, state-sharing, overlapping cultural nationalisms of a liberal (or any other) kind seem slim indeed. If the electors of the Italian Northern League don’t feel “at home in their own place” with Sicilians, what hope is there for Greeks and Macedonians, Slovaks and Hungarians, Estonians and Russians, Armenians and Azerbaijanis, Israelis and Palestinians? In the words of Daniel Bell, “Nationalism is potent because it recapitulates psychologically the family structure. There is authority for protection and there is identification and warmth.”25 If this is so, then it is here to stay, and has every chance of flourishing in our post-imperial world. Recent illusions—that international communications, multinational corporations, regional and global administrative and judicial authorities (the European Union, the World Court, a strengthened UN, and so forth) would put an end to parochial political divisions—have been laid to rest. There is no reassuringly convergent relationship between international economic trends and domestic political practices.

The liberal interlude of the past two centuries has been confined to a few fortunate peoples and places. That interlude, the world of the European Enlightenment, rested upon an optimistic universalism which bequeathed us both liberalism and socialism, competing versions of a progressive, emancipatory project. The demise of socialism is for many people a cause for optimism; but it is also a reminder that liberalism, too, may be mortal. As Michael Ignatieff notes, it may be that liberal civilization “runs deeply against the human grain and is only achieved and sustained by the most unremitting struggle against human nature.” If that is true, and if nationalist particularism is the more familiar mold into which most human beings pour themselves, then we need to learn not only how to understand it but also when and by what criteria to encourage or curtail its aspirations.

Some multinational states will continue to survive and thrive, their citizens finding security not in common ethnic affinities but in the rule of law and its recognition and enforcement of individual rights and duties. This will probably be the case for Great Britain, Switzerland, Spain, Belgium, and others besides. However, these may not be readily exportable models. We may say—we are correct to say—that Kurds, or Bosnians, or Crimean Tartars have a right to equal respect for themselves and their way of life, even though they live among more powerful nations who see things differently. But in that case, what are we willing to do to enforce the claims of one group against another—and on what grounds? International charters and conventions are of little help—indeed on this very issue they are notoriously self-contradictory.26

The one option that scholars and diplomats alike do not now have is to ignore the problem of nationalism, or call it something else and pass by on the other side. For many people today, nationalism tells the most convincing story about their condition—more realistic than socialism, more immediately reassuring than liberalism. One reason for this is that nationalists acknowledge, indeed thrive upon, the apparent incompatibility of competing claims and values. They make a political virtue out of what, for many desperate peoples, may seem to be an existential necessity. If we wish to counter such views we have to begin by acknowledging that they contain a kernel of truth. There are incommensurate goals and unresolvable problems, and the unequal and conflicted division of the world into nations and peoples is not about to wither and shrivel or be overcome by goodwill or progress. The revolutions of 1789 and 1917 were born of the benevolent illusion that such untidy and unpleasing features of our world are transient and of secondary importance in the great scheme of things. The revolutions of 1989 and their aftermath offer a timely opportunity to think again.

This Issue

May 26, 1994

  1. 1

    Gianfranco Miglio, the “theorist” of Italy’s Northern League, recently suggested that “civilized” Europe (= the West) should take advantage of the growing atavistic nationalism of “barbarian” Europe (= the East) as a “frontier guard to block the Muslim invasion.” He is quoted in Le Monde Diplomatique, No. 478 (January 1994), p. 21. 

  2. 2

    See Isaiah Berlin, “Two Concepts of Nationalism,” The New York Review, November 21, 1991. 

  3. 3

    See, e.g., Anthony D. Smith, National Identity (Penguin, 1991); Peter Alter, Nationalism (London: Edward Arnold, 1989), first published in German as Nationalismus (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1985); Sharon Macdonald, editor, Inside European Identities (Berg, 1993). 

  4. 4

    “In many ways it is easier to “grasp” nationalism, the ideological movement, than nations, the organizational cultures.” Anthony D. Smith, The Ethnic Origins of Nations (Blackwell, 1987), p. 2. 

  5. 5

    On Representative Government, in John Stuart Mill, Three Essays, edited by Richard Wollheim (Oxford University Press, 1975), p. 385. A version of this same passage is quoted in Eric J. Hobsbawm, Nations and Nationalism since 1870 (Cambridge University Press, 1990), p. 34. 

  6. 6

    Heinrich Heine, “The Romantic School” (translated by Helen Mustard) in Heine, The Romantic School and Other Essays, edited by Jost Hersnand and Robert Holub (Continuum, 1985), p. 126. For Paul Thibaud, see his “La Nation désoeuvrée” in Lettre Internationale, No. 36 (Spring 1993), p. 6. 

  7. 7

    This is not to say that individual Marxists did not have acute observations to make about the phenomenon; among the most interesting contributions, understandably, were those of the so-called “Austro-Marxists” of the late Habsburg monarchy, particularly Otto Bauer and Karl Renner, who had good reason to pay attention to national sentiments. 

  8. 8

    One such influential approach has been that of Benedict Anderson. See his Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (Verso, 1991), a book whose metaphorical reach exceeds its historical grasp. 

  9. 9

    Though hardly original. From an utterly different perspective, Sir Lewis Namier made a similar point in his 1848: The Revolution of the Intellectuals (Doubleday, 1964). 

  10. 10

    John Clare, the eighteenth-century poet from rural Northamptonshire, wrote that “I had never been above eight miles from home in my life…and I could not fancy England much larger than the part I know.” Quoted in Linda Colley, Britons: Forging the Nation 1707–1837 (Yale University Press, 1992), p. 17. 

  11. 11

    See the essays in Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger, The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge University Press, 1983). These excellent essays have given birth to a minitradition of “disabused” history of distinctly lesser quality. 

  12. 12

    See Elie Kedourie, Nationalism (London: Hutchinson, 1966), p. 124. 

  13. 13

    Quoted on page 184 of Steven Zipperstein’s biography of Ahad Ha’am, reviewed here. 

  14. 14

    István Deák, Beyond Nationalism: A Social and Political History of the Habsburg Officer Corps 1848–1918 (Oxford University Press, 1992), p. 51. For the “Mazovians,” see Jerzy Tomaszewski, “The national question in Poland in the twentieth century,” in Mikulas Teich and Roy Porter, editors, The National Question in Europe in Historical Context (Cambridge University Press, 1993), pp. 293–317, notably p. 296. 

  15. 15

    D.P. Moynihan, Pandaemonium: Ethnicity in International Politics (Oxford University Press, 1993), p. 2. 

  16. 16

    Peter Sahlins, Boundaries: The Making of France and Spain in the Pyrenees (University of California Press, 1989). 

  17. 17

    For an interesting discussion of this point, see the unpublished paper by Professor Drago Roksandic of the University of Zagreb, “Shifting References: The Celebration of Uprisings in Serbia and Croatia,” given to a conference at the Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen, Vienna, September 5, 1993. 

  18. 18

    As a result of the breakup of the Soviet Union, about twenty-six million Russians are now stranded in someone else’s state. 

  19. 19

    For an enlightening discussion and use of the term ressentiment, in a different but related context, see Michael Andre Bernstein, Bitter Carnival: “Ressentiment” and the Abject Hero (Princeton University Press, 1992), notably part three, “The Poetics of Ressentiment.” 

  20. 20

    Many historians have worked through the German material, coming to more or less similar conclusions. On Pietism, see Koppel Pinson, Pietism as a Factor in the Rise of German Nationalism (Columbia University Press, 1934). The best introduction to the whole period is now James J. Sheehan, German History 1770–1866 (Oxford University Press/Clarendon Press, 1989), notably chapters three and six. Among previous students of nationalism, Kedourie anticipates most of Greenfeld’s themes, at least concerning Germany. See Elie Kedourie, Nationalism. As for the debate over the “Tudor Revolution in Government” and its consequences, that goes back to G.R. Elton’s classic work, The Tudor Revolution in Government (Cambridge University Press, 1953). 

  21. 21

    See the entry under “Nation,” by Pierre Nora, in François Furet and Mona Ozouf, editors, Dictionnaire Critique de la Révolution Française (Paris: Flammarion, 1988), and the essays by Keith Michael Baker in his Inventing the French Revolution (Cambridge University Press, 1990), notably “Representation Redefined,” pp. 224–252. 

  22. 22

    “Don’t smile at my advice, the advice of a dreamer who warns you against Kantians, Fichteans, and nature philosophers…. Thought precedes the deed as lightning precedes thunder…. German thunder is of course truly German; it is not very nimble but rumbles along rather slowly. It will come, though…and a play will be performed in Germany compared with which the French Revolution might seem merely an innocent idyll.” See “Concerning the History of Religion and Philosophy in Germany” (1834) in Heine, The Romantic School and other Essays, p. 243. 

  23. 23

    John Dunn, Western Political Thought in the Face of the Future (Cambridge University Press, 1979), p. 55. 

  24. 24

    For a representative example of Serb efforts to “be understood,” see Bosnia-Herzegovina: Chronicle of an Announced Death, published last year in Milici, Bosnia, under the auspices of the Center for Geopolitical Studies in Belgrade. This pamphlet is illustrated with examples of Croatian and Bosnian “atrocities,” and strong stomachs are advised. For the Croatian version, this time in the form of historical revisionism, see Boze Covic, editor, Roots of Serbian Aggression (Zagreb: AGM, 1993), a collection of maps, documents, and articles purporting to trace Serbian territorial and other ambitions deep into the Balkan past. 

  25. 25

    Daniel Bell, “Nationalism or Class? Some Questions on the Potency of Political Symbols,” in The Student Zionist (May 1947), p. 10, quoted in Moynihan, Pandaemonium, p. 60. 

  26. 26

    Chapter 1, Article 1, ii of the United Nations Charter includes among the purposes of the UN “respect for the principle of…self-determination of peoples.” Article 2, iv defends the “territorial integrity or political independence of any state” against threats or force by any UN member states. See Ian Brownlie, Basic Documents on Human Rights, third edition (Oxford University Press/Clarendon Press, 1993).