Nationalism needs to be redefined

Nationalism is the principle that the nation must be the foundation of political order. "The nation" can be defined differently depending on the historical, political and social circumstances and interests. States must be nation-states, and a sovereign state is the symbol of the nation's freedom. Nationalism is arguably the most powerful cultural system of the present and recent past. It has an integrating effect and ensures cohesion in the modern, anonymous mass society, but also contains demarcation, aggression and violence.

The nationalist worldview

In contrast to other political worldviews, nationalism is not characterized by a comprehensive theoretical foundation. Rather, it is based on presenting its fundamental postulates as if they were self-evident and do not require any further explanation: that every person belongs to a nation and that their nationality is thus a decisive component of their individual identity. Benedict Anderson (1988, p. 15) suggests not classifying nationalism under political ideologies, but treating it conceptually as "religion" or "kinship": as a cultural system and social phenomenon.

Nations are often tied to criteria such as a common language, culture, ancestry, religion or history, none of which are clear and objective. Rather, they are imagined communities (Anderson 1988), which exist primarily in the imagination of their members, who imagine themselves with other people, for the most part completely unknown to them, in a national community.

Precisely because nationalism is so vague and changeable, it could and can be used in many situations and by many groups to enforce their interests: in the anti-colonial liberation struggle, to create new states by uniting smaller ones or dissolving larger ones, for the Attack on dynastic rule as if to secure it. Nationalist ideas can be combined with all major political ideologies such as liberalism, conservatism and socialism / communism.

Associated with the nation is a promise of fellowship, of equality among its members, and of comradeship and brotherhood. The nation should stand above particular interests. Conversely, loyalty, selflessness and willingness to make sacrifices are demanded.

Nations are never universalistic, but necessarily define themselves as differentiating them from others. The "we" is defined by the "other". Nationalism is therefore regularly associated with national stereotypes, with hostility towards those who are not counted as part of one's own nation, and often with war. It is this potential for violence inherent in nationalism that is summarized in Franz Grillparzer's bitter epigram from 1849:

The path of modern education is going
Of humanity
By nationality
To bestiality.

A nationalist-oriented history politics plays an important role in the formation of nation states: Nationalists often construct the history of the nation by interpreting historical events in a way that is appropriate to their political goals, often ahistorical. The memory of national heroes or common wars, victories, defeats and sacrifices connect the living members of the nation with the dead. There is a large repertoire of nationalistic symbolism such as hymns, flags and monuments. The beginnings of the nation are often mythologized. For example, depending on what the country's history has to offer, they are attributed to courageous and visionary founding fathers or seen in a distant past.

Inwardly, nationalism postulates a cultural homogenization that is seen as the task of state politics. This can be done, for example, through the dissemination of majority culture via the education and media system or language and cultural policy through which minorities are to be assimilated. In extreme cases, especially in times of war and crisis, this policy can go as far as the expulsion or even mass murder of minorities who, due to their nationality, are portrayed as not integrable and as a "threat to the nation" or "enemy within". Conversely, the actual or perceived discrimination of minorities, for example because their language represents a career obstacle, can lead to demands for border changes or greater autonomy, which are not readily compatible with the idea of ​​national unity. If there are neighboring states that feel ethnically connected to the minorities and act as their protective powers, there is again material for interstate conflicts, for example if border changes are required.

The historical development of nationalist thought

Nationalism and nations in the terms used today are products of the modern age. In the Middle Ages it was not nations but hierarchical relationships between people and dynastic rule that formed the basis of the political order. The geographical boundaries of rulers changed regularly due to inheritance, marriage or war between the rulers; political boundaries usually did not correspond to language boundaries. In line with most people's experience horizons, most communities were localized and based primarily on personal acquaintance. In addition, there were the large sacred communities that went beyond political boundaries, such as Christianity, Islam and Confucianism, with their universalist claim and their own languages ​​that were not used in everyday life.

The relativization of the religious worldview, the expeditions and the invention of the printing press were important for the dissolution of this system. Its markets essentially had linguistically defined limits and created anonymous communication communities that were no longer based on personal contact, but also not universalistic. This is where the cultural and economic roots of the territorialized worldview of the modern age lie.

The changes in the economy, communication and transport provided the basis for a political program aimed at the replacement of the old, hierarchical and static forms of rule and the creation of a new type of state that would become the political housing for the new communities: nationalism. It first became effective as an emancipatory, revolutionary ideology in the North and South American colonies and in the French Revolution. The "interests of the nation" could be brought into position against traditional dynastic systems of rule. Thus the nation is at its roots a bourgeois state model. With the populist promise of equality for all citizens and the prospect of political participation, the masses could be mobilized.

The dominant model of the nation in America and Western Europe sees its point of reference primarily in demos, so in the people as a political community based on a common political order to which its members are committed. Political participation and solidarity of citizens are postulated: freedom, equality, fraternity. In principle, anyone can belong to the nation who is committed to its political and social principles.

The alternative model takes up elements of Romanticism and was initially influential in Germany (especially in Prussia), later also in Italy and Eastern Europe. It was a reaction to French nationalism, which it rejected, but at the same time adapted and reinterpreted: the nation is not political, it is ethnic and is based on a common ancestry, culture, traditions and language. Nationality and citizenship are not necessarily the same. State borders should be based on the historical or current settlement areas of ethnic groups. Demands, as they became clear before and in the revolutions of 1848, were initially the formation of a nation state (through the amalgamation of smaller states or through the separation of new states from "multi-ethnic states"), but also freedom and political participation It must be emphasized that both models are ideal and can also occur in combination in different situations and in different groups.

From the second half of the 19th century, many traditional dynastic rulers reacted to the nationalist challenge by adopting and reinterpreting their symbolism and rhetoric, stylizing themselves as leaders and the embodiment of the nation, and thus using the mobilization potential of nationalism to secure their rule. For example, Wilhelm II described himself as the "first among the Germans". In the old "multiethnic states" in particular, this strategy was unsuccessful. In Austria-Hungary, for example, the introduction of German instead of Latin as the administrative language - not a nationalist, but a pragmatic, modernizing measure - put non-German-speaking citizens at a disadvantage and strengthened national movements. In the aftermath of the First World War, the large multiethnic states finally collapsed, with the exception of the Soviet Union, where this process was postponed by communist rule until 1991.

The nation state principle, the European state order and national minorities

Nationalism has played an important role in numerous domestic and international conflicts over the past two centuries and has served to justify violence and coercion. Outwardly, competing territorial claims and the demand for border changes in order to create nation-states are explosive in the international state system.

Since the 19th and early 20th centuries, the establishment of nation states led to profound changes in the political map, particularly in Eastern and Southeastern Europe. The revolutions of 1848/49 showed that many nationalist, democratic movements had emerged which raised demands for "national self-determination". With Greek independence (1830) the formation of sovereign nation states began in the Balkans, which continued in the 1870s with the independence or autonomy of Bulgaria, Romania and Serbia.

A number of new states also emerged after the First World War. US President Wilson in particular wanted to make the "peoples' right to self-determination" the basis of the post-war order. In Europe, however, this was understood less in terms of democratic and more of ethnic-national self-determination. In the post-war treaties ("Paris suburbs"), the Habsburg and Ottoman empires were divided according to national principles: Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, the Baltic states and others were founded. Austria and Turkey also became nation states. A large number of boundary changes have been made.

However, the increasing application of the nation state principle as the basis of the European order was less a solution to existing problems than a source of new conflicts. Numerous ethnic minorities ("nationalities") lived in almost all of the new nation states of the 19th and early 20th centuries. The Paris suburb agreements stipulated that minority interests in the new states were to be constitutionally protected. Nevertheless, the "nationality question" harbored considerable potential for conflict. Members of minorities felt discriminated against and under pressure to assimilate. For members of the majority nationality, defined as the state people, the special rights of the minorities contradicted the newly established national sovereignty. Language, education and cultural policy, access to careers in the public service and agricultural reforms were controversial in many countries. Social, redistributive and modernizing measures were often carried out in the name of the nation at the expense of minorities, especially the Jews. Not least in these conflicts, terms such as "the German East" or "the Sudetenland" were coined, which obscured the multiethnic and multicultural character of these areas and served to justify political demands.

From Lausanne to Yugoslavia - forced migrations and ethnic cleansing in Europe in the 20th century



Anderson, Benedict
The Invention of the Nation: Towards the Career of a Successful Concept / Benedict Anderson. - Frankfurt / Main [among others]: Campus-Verl., 1988. - 216 S .. - (Campus series; 1018)
Einheitsacht .: Imagined communities
ISBN 3-593-33926-9
Signature (s): A 93-202

The standard work that convincingly portrays nations as anonymous, fictitious communities held together by the cement of nationalism.


Gellner, Ernest
Nationalism and Modernity / Ernest Gellner. Translated from the English by Meino Büning. - 1st edition - Hamburg: Rotbuch-Verlag, 1995.
ISBN: 3-88022-358-0

Gellner shows how the modern idea of ​​the nation emerged from the demands of the industrial revolution.


Hobsbawm, Eric J.
Nation and Nationalism: Myth and Reality since 1780 / From d. Engl. By Udo Remert. - Frankfurt / M. [i.a.]: Campus Verl., 1991. - 239 S. Bibliogr. Pp. 225-234
Uniformity: Nations and nationalism since 1780
ISBN 3-593-34524-2
Call number (s): A 91-5752

The British historian examines the phenomenon of nationalism from a Marxist point of view. While Anderson primarily focuses on the cultural and political elites, Hobsbawm is also interested in "popular nationalism" in the lower classes.


Langewiesche, Dieter
Nation, nationalism, nation state in Germany and Europe / Dieter Langewiesche. - Orig.-Edition. - Munich: Beck, 2000. - 266 p.: Ill .. - (Beck'sche Reihe; 1399)
Bibliography Pp. 231 - 240
ISBN 3-406-45939-0
Signature (s): A 00-5807

Collection of texts with a focus on German history. Langewiesche emphasizes the "Janus-faced nature" of every national movement, which is always accompanied by a promise of participation and aggression.


Langewiesche, Dieter
Nation, nationalism, nation-state. Research status and research perspectives.
In: Neue Politik Literatur 40, 1995, pp. 190-236.
Signature (s): X 1039

Comprehensive research report with numerous references.


Gerrit Schäfer


To the source texts

Literature from the library of the library of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung

to the top