Nationalism and the Historians

Krishan Kumar. The Sage Handbook of Nations and Nationalism. Editor: Gerard Delanty & Krishan Kumar. 2006. Sage Publishing.

‘Historians,’ says Eric Hobsbawm, ‘are to nationalism what poppy-growers in Pakistan are to heroin addicts: we supply the essential raw material for the market’ (1996: 255). This calculatedly malicious remark points up the evident link between history, historians and nationalism. A nationalism that does not appeal to history is unthinkable. Whatever the differences of definition, all concepts of the nation include some reference to the past, to history or tradition. A nation is something that is formed in and by time; it ‘presupposes a past,’ as Ernest Renan says (1990 [1882]: 19). A social group that does not have, or cannot invent, a past is not and cannot be a nation: ‘nations without a past are contradictions in terms’ (Hobsbawm 1996: 255). It is difficult, of course, to think of any social group other than the most ephemeral that does not have a past. But the past of the nation is not simply deeper and longer than in the case of other social groups; it is virtually constitutive. That is why historians have been central to the task of establishing claims for nationhood, and in the elaboration of nationalist ideologies (Kohn 1960, 1961; Deletant and Hanak 1988; Woolf 1996: 2-8; Hall 1997; Berger et al. 1999; Suny 2001b: 345-8; Breuilly 2002: 84). Think of Karamzin in the case of Russia, Palacky in the case of the Czechs, Hrushevsky for Ukraine, Treitschke for Germany, Michelet for France.

Even in the relatively ‘non-national’ case of England, such definitions of national identity as there are have come predominantly from historians, as in A. E. Freeman’s powerful evocation of the Anglo-Saxon character of English identity (Burrow 1983; Mandler 2002: 36), or Herbert Butterfield’s charting and eventual championing of ‘the Whig interpretation’ of English history as the bedrock of the English political tradition (Butterfield 1945,1951 [1931]; cf. Breuilly 2002: 56).

But historians have also played an equally important role in another way—not as nationalists or the nourishers of nationalism, but as commentators on and critics of nationalism (cf. Smith 1999b; Suny 2001b: 347). This follows, in a sense, from the very idea of the nation as a historically formed community. For if such is the nationalist claim, who but historians are best equipped to assess it? If the French nation, say, is seen by French nationalists as having its birth in the struggle against the English in the Hundred Years War, or—equally and alternatively—as only being formed much later, by the ideas and conflicts of the French Revolution, it becomes a matter for historians qua historians to investigate these assertions and to report on their findings. Whether their findings delight or disconcert French nationalists is not the historians’ affair. Ernest Renan famously said that ‘forgetting, I would even go so far as to say historical error, is an essential factor in the creation of a nation, which is why progress in historical studies often constitutes a danger for nationality’ (1990 [1882]: 11). For Hobsbawm this means that ‘no serious historian of nations and nationalism can be a committed political nationalist,’ because ‘nationalism requires too much belief in what is patently not so’ (1992: 12). Certainly nationalist commitment can get in the way of good history, as has been clear in the critical responses to such works as Fernand Braudel’s L’Identité de la France (e.g. Noiriel 1996: 36-41; Suny 2001b: 357), or the controversies surrounding Pierre Nora’s grand project of nationalist historiography, Les Lieux de mémoire(Englund 1992; Jackson 1999: 242-4). At the same time nationalism has been the spur to some great works of history, as in Jules Michelet’s History of France (1833-67) or Theodor Mommsen’s History of Rome (1856). At any rate there can be no doubt that, whether as partisans or critics, the work of historians is central to the idea of the nation and to the evaluation of nationalist claims.

There is a third way in which history and historians are crucial to nationalism. This is in the narrative of nationalism itself, in the tracing of the origins of nations and the rise of the ideal or ideology of nationalism. There was a time when, it seems, there was no such thing as nationalism, and perhaps also no such thing as the nation, at least as we have come to understand that term. That, at any rate, has been the claim of a powerful group of ‘modernist’ theorists of nationalism, as against the ‘perennialists’ or ‘primordialists’ who see nations and nationalism as having existed since time immemorial (Smith 1998). Certainly sociologists and other social scientists have weighed in on this question, as shown in the influential contributions of Karl Deutsch, Ernest Gellner, Benedict Anderson, Anthony Smith, Tom Nairn, Walker Connor and others. One can even say that it is they, rather than the historians, who have raised the question in the first place. But it is notable the extent to which all of them have had to engage with history in grappling with it. If nationalism is a recent thing, how and why did it come into existence? What was the state of things before nationalism, to which nationalism is the contrast and against which it can best be measured? Can there be ‘nations before nationalism,’ that is, the existence of national consciousness and national identity before the rise of the ideology of nationalism?

Clearly, since claims of priority and temporality are involved in these disputes, we are once more in the province of the historian. Hence, one again, the prominence of historians, not this time as nationalists or anti-nationalists, but as students of nationalism. No discussion of nationalism and its problems could be considered adequate without taking into account the contributions of historians such as Hans Kohn (e.g. 1944), George Mosse (1975), Hugh Seton-Watson (1977), Eric Hobsbawm (1992), John Breuilly (1994) or Miroslav Hroch (2000). These have all considered nationalism in the round, in the grandest, most comprehensive, perspective. To them we would also want to add those historians whose accounts of particular cases or episodes have had a significant impact on theories of nationalism. These would include Eugen Weber’s impressive study Peasants into Frenchmen (1976), with its emphasis on the lateness of French national integration and the key roles played by the school and the army in this process; it would also include such works as Peter Sahlins’s Boundaries (1989), with its Barthian focus on the way in which national boundaries influenced the creation and negotiation of French and Spanish identities in the Pyrenees. Then there is Linda Colley’s Britons (1992), which has sparked a whole industry of reflections on British and English national identity and its problems. Nor can, or should, one ignore the sparkling essays of the great historian Lewis Namier (e.g. 1958, 1964) on the European revolutions of 1848, ‘the springtime of nations’ and a key moment in the evolution of nationalist thought and policies.

Creator, commentator/critic, narrator: here are three roles in which historians have shown the importance of history to our understanding and assessment of nationalism. Let us look at these in more detail.

Historians Define the Nation: The Case of France

France affords us as good an example as any of the ways in which historians have shaped the understanding of the nation. One could start with the assertion, one that set off a wide-ranging historical controversy in eighteenth-century France, that the French nation was essentially constituted by its nobility, and that this nobility was of direct descent from the original Frankish ‘nation’ of Charlemagne’s empire. Such was the view, buttressed by a host of historical arguments, of Henri, Comte de Boulainvilliers, a view enthusiastically endorsed by the aristocratic parlements in their struggles with the crown (Ellis 1988; Bell 2001: 57-9). It was countered first by the royalists, who reiterated the traditional view that the monarchy was the embodiment of the nation; then, more emphatically and more dramatically, by the Abbé Seyès in 1789 with the claim that it was the ‘Third Estate’—in effect, the common people—that constituted the nation. All sides necessarily resorted to history to support their arguments, such that ‘most political discussions of the nation from this period took the form of… history (Bell 2001: 58).

The French Revolution staked out what was to become, in the end, the official definition of the French nation as a secular republic of equal citizens. But this took a long time. Not until late in the nineteenth century, during the Third Republic, did it achieve canonical status. Before then, and even for some time afterwards, there were differences aplenty as to the identity of France, and how best to represent the nation (Gildea 1996; Hazareesingh 1994: 124-50). History, once more, was to be the guide and tutor. The historian and statesman François Guizot, in his History of Civilization in Europe (1828), put the case for a French constitutional monarchy on the English model, arguing that it was this—rather than Jacobinism or Bonapartism—that was in the true tradition of European pluralism and individualism (Crossley 1999). The most crushing response to this was Jules Michelet’s monumental and coruscating History of France. Written over a period of more than thirty years (1833-67), Michelet’s history—especially in the separate volumes published as the History of the French Revolution—aspired to show that ‘the people’ were and always had been the hero of French history, and that the republic of free and of equal citizens was France’s natural destiny (Mitzman 1990). Another historical work, Alexis de Tocqueville’s The Ancien Régime and the Revolution (1856), bravely conceded the point, even though it went against the grain of Tocqueville’s aristocratic temperament and even though he showed that the French monarchy had as much part to play in that outcome as the French people. Cutting across this divide was the current that wished to give due recognition to the Bonapartist strand in French political culture, even if regretting the excesses to which Napoleon himself had pushed the idea. Such was the position of the liberal Adolphe Thiers’s History of the Consulate and Empire (1840-62); while Victor Hugo, in his historical epic Les Misérables (1862), also found it difficult to conceal his admiration for the achievements of the emperor.

The French Revolution remained, throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the touchstone for national definition. What was the Revolution, and how far did it accord with the deeper historical currents of French life? Was its legacy benign or malign? The answers to these questions were meant to sum up the essence of France, to try to find in its past the elements, for good or bad, that made up its character. For Hippolyte Taine, in his Origins of Contemporary France (1875-94), the verdict was clear: the Revolution had been a disaster for France. Following Edmund Burke, he argued that France had been misled by the abstract and utopian ideas of the philosophes of the Enlightenment. Their nemesis was the Terror of the Jacobins and the dictatorship of Napoleon. France had had to live with the consequences, one of which was a spirit of revolution that expressed itself repeatedly in destructive bouts of frenzy, the latest of which had been the Paris Commune of 1871.

Taine’s work was enormously influential (Cobban 1968: 47; Jones 1999). Its rebuttal was to come in Ernest Lavisse’s massive enterprise, the 27 volumes of the History of France (1900-12). Lavisse was ‘the evangelist of the Republic,’ the ‘nation’s teacher’—teaching by means of history (Nora 1984: 247; see also Nora 1986). Rallying the French after the crushing defeat of the Franco-Prussian War of 1871, and following on the internal crises of the Third Republic in the 1880s and 1890s (Boulanger’s attempted coup, the Dreyfus affair), Lavisse aimed at a comprehensive rehabilitation of the French republican ideal. The histories written under his editorship became the standard fare in schools and universities, reduced and adapted where necessary in student textbooks. Here was a story that placed the Republic at the centre of French national history. Everything in the past flowed towards it; everything in the future took its point of departure from it.

French historians of the twentieth century continued the debate, in works mostly dealing with the French Revolution, its causes and consequences. Left-wing versions—Jean Jaurès, Albert Mathiez, Georges Lefebvre—jostled restatements of the orthodox or ‘bourgeois’ republican positions—Alphonse Aulard and his followers (Cobban 1968; Furet 1981; Lebovics 1992). In all this it was clear to everyone, authors and readers alike, that what was taking place was a struggle for the soul of the French nation. Even when the political passions stilled somewhat, the various histories produced by writers such as Fernand Braudel and Pierre Nora were fundamentally attempts to define the nation, as the controversies surrounding them showed (Lebovics 1992: 1-6; Jackson 1999: 241-4). Further controversies, again involving historians as much as sociologists, were fuelled by the debate over immigration, and the extent to which France could be called a ‘multicultural’ or ‘immigrant’ as opposed to a homogeneous nation (see e.g. Noiriel 1996; Jackson 1999: 244-7). Historians could not avoid taking part in the public debates. Called upon to explain and justify the nation, they willingly responded, even if they could not agree on its nature.

The Historian as Critic of Nationalism

If historians, as public figures, have been central to the making of national consciousness, they have also been among its sternest critics. An early counterblast—directed partly against his great contemporary John Stuart Mill, who had championed nationality—came from the English historian Lord Acton. Writing in 1862, he proclaimed that ‘the theory of nationality is a retrograde step in history … Nationality does not aim either at liberty or prosperity, both of which it sacrifices to the imperative necessity of making the nation the mould and measure of the State. Its course will be marked with material as well as moral ruin, in order that a new invention may prevail over the works of God and the interests of mankind’ (Acton 1996 [1862]: 36-7).

Such denunciations were unusual at the time, when nationalism was generally regarded, especially in Britain, as a progressive force. But they gained in force in the first half of the twentieth century, in the works of historians such as Arnold Toynbee, Johan Huizinga, Edward Carr and Alfred Cobban (e.g. Carr 1945; Cobban 1945; Huizinga 1959 [1940]). Indeed, for Anthony Smith historians have generally displayed ‘scepticism, even hostility,’ to nationalism. They have portrayed it as ‘inherently absurd and destructive,’ culminating in the European case in the excesses of fascism and Nazism (Smith 1999b: 45; cf. Breuilly 2002: 62-8). Against this is the view of several historians that, in a certain sense, the opposite is true. The historical profession, they point out, came of age at precisely the time, in the late nineteenth century, that nationalism itself reached its apogee. History as a practice took the nation-state as its natural unit of analysis. Historians have been complicit in diffusing the view that all history is essentially national history, and that the important identities are national identities. In that sense the historians, not only as public intellectuals but as professionals, have been on the side of nationalism (Potter 1962: 924; Tyrell 1991; Woolf 1996: 2-3; Breuilly 2002: 73; Suny 2001b: 337; Sluga 2004).

There is no necessary contradiction between these views, of course; the difference may be largely in the evaluation of the morality and ‘progessiveness’ of nationalism. One can admit the reality of the nation and the nation-state without admiring their ends. Historians, it might be argued, have to accept the nation-state as the framework for their investigations because that form of organization has been the dominant fact at least of the modern period. That still leaves them free to deplore the consequences of nationalism. On the other hand, one can be highly sceptical of nationalist claims while at the same time arguing for the necessity and functionality of nationalism. Two of the leading theorists of nationalism, Ernest Gellner (1983) and Benedict Anderson (1991), fall into this camp. Nationalism, they would say, does not have to be true in its beliefs to be useful or desirable. The ‘nation-state’ may be a myth, in the sense of resting on a fiction; but it is a necessary fiction.

Nevertheless it is true that historians have played a leading role in debunking nationalism, and that whether this is their intention or not they have given much ammunition to those who regard nationalism as an aberration at best and a poison at worst. Particularly effective has been the idea of ‘invented traditions’ (Hobsbawm and Ranger 1984; see also Hosking and Schöpflin 1997). The view here is that much of what nations and nationalists regard as sacred or essential to their identity are historical myths and fabrications: the implication being that to explode the myth is to undermine the claim to authenticity. Thus Hugh Trevor-Roper (1984) evidently derives great enjoyment from showing that the kilt and the clan tartan, far from being the long-established emblems of Scottish Highlands tradition that Scots nationalists claim, were in fact thought up by a shrewd English manufacturer at the end of the eighteenth century. David Cannadine (1984) shows how much of the supposedly ancient ritual and mythology of the English monarchy—the coronation ceremony, the royal jubilees, the investiture of the Prince of Wales—was invented in the late Victorian era by a handful of royal publicists. For Germany Alon Confino (1997) traces how a powerful gemeinschaft expression of the traditional local community, the concept of heimat, became the ideological basis of the newly unified Germany in the late nineteenth century so that the new state could preserve the illusion of continuity with an idealized past. Paschalis Kitromilides (1989) has analysed the nationalist myth which portrays the Greek nation as surviving virtually unchanged since Homeric times and, suppressed for centuries, finally achieving its liberation in the War of Independence (1821-28). ‘Greece’ was a literary idea, he shows; the reality was a backward region of the Ottoman empire split into semi-autonomous mountain communities, ruled by local brigands, divided by scores of different dialects and even different languages, and presided over by an ecumenical Orthodox church that was profoundly hostile to nationalism. Only in the course of the nineteenth century were these disparate elements welded into the semblance of a nation through the homogenizing agencies of a national army and a national educational system (cf. Weber, 1976 on France). As an example of another kind we could take the symbol of the battle of the White Mountain (bílá hora) (1620) in Czech national consciousness (Petran and Petranova 1998). ‘White Mountain … was not a national conflict, but a feudal one’ (Zacek 1994: 174). But it was retrospectively baptized as a great national struggle, and a great national defeat. What in historical reality was simply one of the many battles of the Thirty Years War, involving the defeat of the Czech nobility and their incipient Protestantism by the Catholic forces of the Holy Roman Emperor, was in the early nineteenth century turned into a composite populist myth linking the White Mountain, heroic Hussite resistance, the medieval St Wenceslas as the symbol of the Czech people, and the Czech vlast, the Czech homeland or patria as conceived by the Czech nobility. The White Mountain became the messianic symbol of the revival of the Czech nation and the throwing-off of oppressive Habsburg rule. Such a pattern of nationalist ideology, involving the persistence of a defiant nation after a crushing military defeat followed by centuries of rule by a ‘foreign’ power, is to be found in several Central and East European nations, as with the battle of Kosovo (1389) for Serbian mythology and the battle of Mohacs (1526) for the Hungarians. What Armenians call the ‘Genocide of 1915’ by the Turks plays a similar role in the collective memory of Armenians (Suny 2001a: 884-5). Out of the catastrophe of defeat will come regeneration and resurrection.

Such ‘beatified defeats’ (Petran and Petranova 1998: 160) have often played a key role in the collective memory of nations—Masada (AD 70) for the Jews, Hastings (1066) for the English, Culloden (1746) for the Scots, Jena (1806) for the Germans, Sedan (1870) for the French, Gallipoli (1916) for the Australians. They function as historical markers, announcing some critical turning point, some founding moment in the life of the nation. Even if, as they often are, they are episodes of extreme anguish and even humiliation, in the narrative of the nation they serve as rallying points. They are constant reminders of what must be avenged, what must still be striven for, what, as a common experience of heroism or suffering, binds the members of the nation together. ‘Suffering in common,’ said Renan (1990 [1882]: 19), mindful of the humiliation inflicted on France in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, ‘unifies more than joy does. Where national memories are concerned, griefs are of more value than triumphs, for they impose duties, and require a common effort.’

‘Collective memory’ lends itself almost by definition to historical scrutiny and analysis. Sociologists, spurred on by Durkheim and Halbwachs, may, once more, have given the lead in pointing to the phenomenon (Olick 2003), but it is historians who have played the major part in the accounting and interrogation of national memories (see e.g. Teich 1998; Jarausch and Geyer 2003; Confino 2004; Todorova 2004). Here once more they tend to appear in a critical role, testing cherished memories against the cruel facts of history (cf. Nora, 1996). It is important to stress though that historical debunking of this kind is not in every case tantamount to an anti-nationalist stance. It is true that some historians—Marxists especially—have certainly seen their work in this way. Their task, they feel, is to explode or ‘deconstruct’ the nationalist myth, considered often as the source of an obfuscating ‘false consciousness’ that papers over more fundamental divisions and antagonisms. But to dissect is not the same as to reject. It is quite possible to show the historical inaccuracy of a remembered item or episode without denying the legitimacy and efficacy of such collective memories in the life of a nation. Christopher Hill (1986), for instance, is fully apprised of the amount of invented history in the myth of ‘the Norman yoke,’ but that does not stop him from appreciating the enormously energizing force of the myth in the struggles of the ordinary English people over several centuries.

In the historical critique of nationalist historiography, historian is pitted against historian. The historian as creator encounters the historian as critic: Sir Edward Coke comes up against Butterfield (1951[1931]), Michelet against Furet (1981), Palacky against Pekar (Zacek 1994: 178-81). But this is not simply a case of the older, ‘uncritical,’ historian coming up against the modern ‘scientific’ historian, telling it ‘as it really was.’ Often it is simply one version of nationalist historiography offering itself as a truer, more accurate, account than that of its rivals: Butterfield’s ‘Tory’ interpretation of English history, for instance, opposing itself to Coke’s ‘Whig’ one, Pekar’s stress on the ‘aristocratic’ component of Czech culture rebutting Palacky’s ‘people’s history’ of the Czech lands, Furet’s conservative view of the French Revolution and its place in French history setting itself up against Michelet’s populist and radical portrayal. However much historians might like to see themselves as the fearless defenders of historical truth against the fabrications of nationalists, they too very often are players in the same game. The stakes are too high for them to stay out.

Narrating the Nation

The nation exists in time. That by itself is enough to lend importance to historical study, in the tracing of the evolution of particular nations and the development of national consciousness. This can be done in celebratory mode, especially in the case of those nations—Eastern European, African, Asian—that have lived for centuries under imperial rule. Their rise to national consciousness can be portrayed as a story of a nation’s discovery of itself and of its struggle for liberation. Of such a kind are many Third World narratives of the nation, such as Jawaharlal Nehru’s The Discovery of India (1946) or the historical works on China of Sun Yat-Sen (Prakash 1990; Duara 1996: 159-60; Young 2001: 165-73).

Even where the mood is not celebratory, the nation can be elevated to the role of the principal agent of history, its moving force and ultimate telos. The nation, in this account, is always present, even if it does not always recognize itself. The historian’s task is to show the structures beneath the surface, to indicate the often slow process by which nations achieve definition and fulfilment in the nation-state. ‘Nations,’ said Hegel, ‘may have had a long history before they finally reach their destination—that of forming themselves into states’ (in Gellner 1983: 48). This understanding became the leitmotiv of a powerful school of nineteenth-century European historiography, led by the great German historian Leopold von Ranke. Its truth was seemingly confirmed by the very thing it took as its premise: the rise and triumph of the nation-state as the most successful and apparently most natural form of political organization (Woolf 1996: 3; Suny 2001b: 344). Here, once more, in their very historiographical principles, historians willingly offered their services as builders of the nation.

But there was also a different question, a different kind of narration, that called for the historian’s skill. It was a question, or a series of questions, usually posed by sociologists. Are nations in fact ‘natural’? Have they always been there? Do nations, as Gellner (1998: 90-101) rather mischievously posed it, have navels? Must we concern ourselves with their real as opposed to invented origins? For Renan (1990: 20), ‘nations are not something eternal. They had their beginnings and they will end.’ If so, how did nations originate and when and why did the belief in the naturalness of nations arise? Why, in other words, nationalism? And if nations are not natural or eternal, what came before them, and what might succeed them?

The sociologists could of course couch their answers to these questions primarily in theoretical or general terms. The ‘primordialists,’ for instance, could try to point to certain constant biological features of the human condition (e.g. van den Berghe 1981, 1995), the ‘perennialists’ to the simple fact of the antiquity and perhaps ubiquity of the national form (e.g. Armstrong 1982; Grosby 1999), the ‘modernists’ to the special and novel conditions of modernity (e.g. Gellner 1983; Taylor 1998). But even this strategy involved, as many recognized, historical presuppositions—at least for the perennialists and modernists. If, for instance, nations in something like our current understanding of them were shown to be in existence well before the coming of modernity, then modernist theories of nationalism would be put severely in question. It could then be argued that nationalism, perhaps, as an ideology, may be modern, dating from the late eighteenth century; but nationhood and national consciousness must be much older, demanding therefore a different explanation and account from those which attribute them to the requirements of a modern social order (see e.g. Smith 2001: 22). If, on the other hand, attempts to demonstrate the existence of ‘nations before nationalism’ were unconvincing, modernists could feel vindicated at the expense of perennialists and primordialists. Sociologists therefore were forced to turn to history to sustain and test their theories, the result being some impressive comparative inquiries into the history of nations and of the principle of nationality (e.g. Armstrong 1982; Smith 1986, 1999a; Brubaker 1992; Greenfeld 1992; Gorski 2000; Geopolitics 2002; Ichijo and Uzelac 2005; and see also Delanty and O’Mahony 2002: 83-90).

It was inevitable that for historians, even more than for sociologists, the question of the antiquity or modernity of nations and nationalism would become the central object of their inquiries. Indeed Anthony Smith has argued that this debate ‘forms the core of historiographical discussion and disagreements’ in the study of nationalism (2000: 4; see also 2001: 14, 2003; Hastings 1997: 9). How could it be otherwise, given the nature of the historical enterprise and the significance of timing and periodization in the dominant theories of nationalism. Here was a task that historians could take to with relish, employing all their skills of unearthing and interpreting past phenomena.

This is not the place to attempt an assessment of the historians’ contributions on this question, still less to resolve the disputes between ‘perennialists’ and ‘modernists’ (these labels themselves being a clumsy shorthand that hide a great variety of positions). All one can do is to indicate some of the work that has been produced with a more or less conscious intent to stake out a position. Most magisterially there are Eric Hobsbawm (1992,1996) and John Breuilly (1993, 1996: 149-54, 2002: 76-7) who state regularly and repeatedly that nations and nationalism are modern—i.e. post-eighteenth-century—phenomena and that they must be distinguished, conceptually and historically, from all manifestations of ethnicity. For Hobsbawm, nationalism is a political programme—‘in historic terms a fairly recent one’—that holds that ‘groups defined as “nations” have a right to, and therefore ought to, form territorial states of the kind that have become standard since the French Revolution.’ Ethnicity is neither programmatic nor political, though nationalists will where possible appeal to an assumed common ethnicity in pursuit of their political goals. They often, however, recognize that the desired ethnicity is lacking, in which case they are quite prepared to go ahead in the spirit of Massimo d’Azeglio’s famous statement following the unification of Italy in the 1860s: ‘We have made Italy, now we have to make Italians’ (Hobsbawm 1996: 256-7).

For Breuilly, what distinguishes ethnicity from nationalism is that ‘pre-modern ethnic identity has little in the way of institutional embodiment beyond the local level. Almost all the major institutions which construct, preserve and transmit national identities … are modern: parliaments, popular literature, courts, schools, labour markets, et cetera.’ The only two pre-modern institutions which could have played such a role—dynasties and churches—were in principle transnational and in most cases regarded nationalism as a threat to their authority (Breuilly 1996: 154). The relative lateness of nation-building, even in those societies traditionally associated with a strong sense of national identity, has been vividly chronicled by Eugen Weber (1976) for France. Weber shows that it was only in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that the French state, using the agencies of the school and the army, managed to forge Frenchmen and—women into something like a French nation. In the process it had to overcome a host of obstacles based on linguistic, cultural and historical differences. Such an awareness, of the relatively late period in which a real sense of nationhood can be said to be present in even old European societies, has been growing in recent historical work (see e.g. Schulze 1996; Zimmer 2003).

The work of these historians largely goes along with the views of social scientists such as Ernest Gellner and Benedict Anderson on the modernity not just of the ideology of nationalism but of the construction of nations. Such a position is stated even more strongly by a historian like Patrick Geary (2002), who in a pioneering analysis of early medieval ethnicities in Europe shows the illusory basis of many of the claims for the ethnic origins of nations—whether among ‘Celts,’ ‘Franks,’ ‘Gauls, ‘Goths,’ ‘Huns’ or ‘Serbs.’ None of these groups, he shows, was what we think they are today. In many cases they took even their names from those given to them by Roman observers, mostly hostile. Often loose coalitions of different tribes, their leaders appropriated, for their own purposes, many of the genealogies constructed by Roman writers.

The history of European peoples in Late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages is not the story of a primordial moment but of a continuous process. It is the story of political appropriation and manipulation of inherited names and representations of pasts to create a present and a future. It is a history of constant change, of radical discontinuities, and of political and cultural zigzags, masked by the repeated appropriation of old words to define new realities. The Franks ‘born with Clovis’ are not the Franks of Charlemagne or those of the French people Jean Le Pen hoped to rally around his political movement. (Geary 2002: 156-7; cf Reynolds 1983: 375-9; Schulze 1996: 100)

Such an account would not necessarily be regarded as threatening by those scholars, such as Anthony Smith, who assert the reality of ethnicity and the importance of core ethnies to the formation of nations. They have always recognized the role of myth and invention in the evolution of ethnic as much as of national identities. But they, and other prerennialists, are undoubtedly heartened by the work of other historians who have in recent years made bold claims on behalf of the antiquity not simply of ethnicities but of nations. Here too sociologists have led the way. Liah Greenfeld (1992,2001), for instance, has attempted to show that nationalism was invented by the English in the sixteenth century, after which various Europeans took up the challenge posed by this first powerful assertion of nationhood. Philip Gorski (2000) has made similar claims on behalf of the sixteenth-century Dutch, in their struggle against the Habsburgs at the time of the Dutch Revolt.

But the historians have gone even further. Colette Beaune (1991) and Bernard Guenée (1985) have argued for the birth of French nationalism during the Hundred Years War against the English; Bruce Webster (1997) has discerned the stirrings of Scottish nationalism in the struggle, also against the English, of the ‘Wars of Independence’ (1296-1371); while British historians such as Patrick Wormald (1994), John Gillingham (2000) and Rees Davies (2000) have claimed to discover the existence of a vigorous English nationalism at work in the creation of the ‘first English empire’ from the eleventh to the fourteenth centuries—if not even earlier, in the time of Bede (see further Kumar 2003: 60-88; 2005). A wide-ranging work by Adrian Hastings (1997) synthesized much of this recent historical research to advance the view that ‘nation-formation and nationalism have in themselves almost nothing to do with modernity,’ but are rather the product of ‘a typical medieval and early modern experience of the multiplication of vernacular literatures and of state systems around them, a multiplication largely dependent upon the church, its scriptures and its clergy’ (1997: 205). Echoing the view of the religious historian Steven Grosby (1991,1999,2002), Hastings goes further in seeing an even more ancient origin of the concept of nation, one found in biblical times. ‘The Bible … presented in Israel … a developed model of what it means to be a nation—a unity of people, language, religion, territory and government … [I]t was … an all too obvious exemplar for Bible readers of what every other nation too might be, a mirror for national self-imagining’ (1997: 18).

The belief in the biblical origin of nationhood has always had its adherents (see Smith, 2003), though usually as an idea or ideal waiting to find its proper sociological form. It is certainly difficult to sustain it as in any sense a practicable norm, given the overwhelming preponderance of empires and other forms of dynastic and ‘universal’ states for much of the ancient and early medieval period. Ethnicity, perhaps; but ‘nation’ sounds highly anachronistic. Hence it is not surprising that for most historians concerned to discover an early origin of nations and nationalism, it is the medieval period that has seemed most promising (Stringer 1994: 11-12; Johnson 1995). This has been true for an earlier generation of historians as well as more recent ones (see Tipton 1972; Connor 1994: 211-12). The most influential recent account of this kind has come from Susan Reynolds (1983, 1997). While Reynolds herself is careful not to extrapolate too directly from her findings to modern nationalism, she has lent much ammunition to those who do wish to find nations before nationalism by emphasizing the existence of strong collective identities among medieval peoples. In the medieval kingdoms or ‘regnal communities’ of England, France, Germany and even Italy, she argues, their peoples -gentes, populi, na íl ones—were normally thought of as social and political communities having high degrees of collective solidarity, backed up by myths of common descent. Medieval peoples did not, as the modernists like to think, live fragmented and localized lives, united only by the wider framework of Christianity. On the contrary medieval solidarities were ‘much more like the different groups and networks to which modern people feel they belong than the sociological stereotypes admit’ (1997: 335).

‘Regnal communities’ were not, however, as Reynolds admits, modern nations. Moreover they were, from the thirteenth century onwards, undermined by new descent myths that emphasized the divisions of ranks or ‘estates’ and so destroyed the unity of the regnal community (1983: 390). All this goes to show the extreme complexity of tracing the history of nations and nationalism. Like the grin of the proverbial Cheshire cat, nations appear to come and go. Of course much turns on the definition of nation. A ‘civic’ nation, one constituted by common citizenship, is likely to turn up earlier in the historical record than the ‘ethnic’ nation, where the criterion of belonging is linked to membership of a group with strongly held beliefs about blood ties and common descent. Thus one might argue that there was a British nation (civic) long before the idea of an English (ethnic) nation took root (Colley 1992; Kumar 2003), just as it has been conventional to see ‘old’ (civic) nations in France, Spain, Portugal and the Netherlands before the rise of ‘new’ ethnic nations such as Greece, Serbia and Germany (see, e.g. Seton-Watson 1977).

There is a certain paradox in this. Common citizenship, the citizenship of all classes, arguably did not occur anywhere until the French Revolution or even, in the full sense, until the early twentieth century. Ethnicity, by contrast, is taken as an immemorial feature of groups. But the claim that all states should be based on the ethnic nation was a radically new one—an impossibility, if not an absurdity, before the nineteenth century. Hence the plausibility, at least, of the view that the older states with well-defined territorial boundaries, centralized rule and common systems of law came closer to the national form than was possible in those communities lacking such features. In the European case, this meant that ‘Western’ civic nationalism came before Central and East European ethnic nationalism. If, in the event, the ethnic concept of the nation seemed to win out as the national ideal was diffused throughout the world, this only serves to underline the tortuous, zigzag history of nationalism.


It is widely held today that the ‘nationalist narrative’ has broken down, at least in the developed societies of the West (e.g. Maier 2000; Mandler 2002: 94-103). History has lost not just its authority but its ability to knit past, present and future together. History is now mainly ‘heritage,’ a tourist pastime to be enjoyed for the pleasure of antique objects and exotic locations. It can no longer give shape or meaning to national life or national identity. If history is at all relevant to identity now it is the new ‘global history’ that attempts to provide an historical framework for a globalizing world.

That certainly is not how it appears in other parts of the world. Since the collapse of communism and the break-up of the Soviet Union, nations throughout Central, Eastern and South-Eastern Europe, together with many nations in Central Asia, have been busily ransacking their history to provide, or invent where necessary, acceptable genealogies for their new states. History has become a fiercely contested arena of competing claims (Kumar 2001; Suny 2001a). Nor is it only the smaller nations that feel this need. Russia, for long the hegemonic power in the region, has been no less deeply exercised by historical memory in the past decade as it struggles to find a new, post-imperial, identity for itself. And has it not been a marked feature of recent discussions of the American empire’ to appeal to competing versions of the American past (see e.g. Ferguson 2004; Gaddis 2004)? Throughout the world, as new nationalisms arise and old ones revive, history is the indispensable resource in the construction of identities and the struggles with rivals. ‘Not only the living, but also the dead speak in the national will,’ declares the Armenian nationalist Edik Hovhannisian (in Suny 2001a: 886).

History has done without nations before, as Renan reminded us, and may well do so again sometime in the future. But nations and nationalism remain central realities of the contemporary world, whatever their future. So long as this is so, the past will remain a vibrant part of the present. Nations may not need navels, in the strict sense of an authentic lineage. But nations without history, real or imagined, are impossible to imagine.