When I was a freshman in college, I took a course on the American Revolution and French Revolution. One of the main themes was that nationalism hadn’t existed before, roughly, the battle of Valmy in 1792 when the French citizen army overwhelmed the invading Prussian professional army. Goethe, who was there, consoled his Prussian comrades, “From this place, and from this day forth begins a new era in the history of the world, and you can all say that you were present at its birth.”
That’s a good story, but it always struck me that it seems as if there were plenty of examples of nationalism before then. I would bring up the obscure tale, promoted by James Boswell, of the Republic of Corsica resisting the French invasion of 1768-1769 (whose heroic failure, ironically, made a newborn Corsican named Napoleon Bonaparte a Frenchman).
But the notion that nationalism only dates from the later 18th Century remains one of I-Went-to-College things you are supposed to know. It’s associated with Ernest Gellner, although as early as 1977 it was supposed to be obvious to history majors. For example, from the Financial Times last month, here’s an example of the conventional wisdom in action
In a globalised era, even a country as big as America can feel small. Mark Mazower on why politicians such as Donald Trump are in fashion
The flags are flying, the anthems ring out. We live in the time of the homeland, of Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen and the Freedom party’s presidential candidate Norbert Hofer, fresh from his resounding victory in the first round of the Austrian presidential poll.
Trump has called on Americans to resist “the false song of globalism”. “In a huge number of European countries, patriotic movements are surging vigorously,” was how Le Pen greeted news of Hofer’s victory last weekend.
Nationalism is back like it never went out of fashion and, with it, the head-scratching, the puzzlement. How to explain the irrational, the commentators ask. Doesn’t the Brexit camp realise leaving the European Union is a crazy idea? Don’t Trump’s millions understand that he is promising the impossible?
There is still no better place to look for an answer than in a little polemic written more than 30 years ago. Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities (1983) remains a classic effort to explain nationalism’s durability and to come to terms with the passions it can unleash. Nationalism, Anderson argued, is not an ancient phenomenon, nor did it emerge in Europe as most commentators seemed to think. Quite distinct from the dynastic appeals of Shakespeare’s Henry V — it is easy to forget that the battle-cry “God for Harry, England and Saint George” is uttered in the play by the king himself — modern nationalism originated, in Anderson’s view, around the time of the American wars of independence.
Eh … The inherent tensions between royal dynasticism and territorial nationalism are an ongoing theme in European history. King Henry V of England had personal dynastic reasons for invading France, but the English soldiers Shakespeare’s hero addresses — not to mention Shakespeare’s audience in the 1590s right after the repulse of the Spanish Armada of 1588 — were less motivated by dynastic technicalities than by the emotions of English nationalism.
You’ll notice that the English royal family has stopped marrying foreign royals and switched to marrying attractive English girls, with a subsequent rebound in the Windsors’ popularity.
… Anderson wanted to acknowledge its durability rather than to demonise it, and he asks us to think about what the changes in the modern world were that brought it into being and have kept it going over two centuries and now into a third.
Connecting its emergence to the spread of capitalism, the rise of modern bureaucracies and mass literacy, Anderson argued that its unexpected midwives were colonial civil servants with an appetite for enumerating and classifying their subjects. In his telling, the idea of the nation was then taken up by anti-colonial revolutionaries, who enshrined the idea of the new kind of community in maps, hymns, museums, and monuments. …
Anderson, who died late last year, had an intuitive sympathy for nationalism’s anti-imperial origins. … Another thing his Indonesian expertise taught him was the key importance of the colonial periphery in nationalism’s emergence. De-centring the usual story was one way of drawing attention to the relative historical novelty of the phenomenon, gleefully showing up the absurdity of all those European claims — themselves mostly the product of romantic 19th century historians — that their nation was rooted in some centuries-old tradition.
Anderson was struck by Europeans’ deep need to believe in the antiquity of their national pasts. (Even French peasants, as another historian, Eugen Weber, reminds us, began thinking of themselves as French only rather recently.) …
The nation-state is basically no more than two centuries or so old, and in some places it is much younger than that. …
Mark Mazower is professor of history at Columbia University and author of ‘Governing the World: The History of an Idea’ (Penguin). ‘A Life Beyond Boundaries: A Memoir’ by Benedict Anderson (Verso £14.99/$24.95)
This seems to be mostly an argument over whether the nationalism glass in the past was partly full or, as everybody who has been to college has been instructed, partly empty.
Here’s an interview with an LSE professor, Anthony D. Smith, who started out a true believer in his professor Gellner’s fashionable theory that nationalism was invented barely before 1800, but over time has come to realize that the real story is a lot more complicated than the conventional wisdom holds. The historical glass going back to the ancient Egyptians, Hebrews, and Greeks is also partly full.
My view is that England, due perhaps to its partly protected geographical location, is the straw that stirred the European drink over the last millennium. English nationalism catalyzed French nationalism as a defensive reaction against English predation (notice that Henry V is giving his do or die speech about once more unto the breach speech not on English soil, but on the Continent), which set the billiard balls in motion across the rest of Europe.