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Introduction What is a nation? [Definition]

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Making of the Modern World

Nationalism in the Modern World (week 8 Lecture notes)


  1. Introduction

  2. What is a nation? [Definition]

The Latin root of the word 'nation' (nascere, natio) is used to define the descent or lineage of a person. In mediaeval times the term natio/nationes was used at universities. Students were divided into groups, according to their language and where they came from: the French nation, the German nation, the Bohemian nation, etc.

In early modern times the term nation was often applied to those with political rights. In most cases, it applied only to the nobility of a specific state or empire.

The modern sense of the term nation, i.e. to describe the entirety of citizens of a sovereign state, has only been in use since the French Revolution, when subjects became citizens of a state.

  1. Theories of nation building

There are three main lines of thought. They differ regarding the question whether modern nations existing today are the result of a natural and inevitable development and are based on historical forerunners or whether they are a purely modern occurrence.

One group ascribes a primordial quality to the nation, in other words looks upon it as a given. Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744-1803) argues that nations should not be identified with states, they exist as cultural units long before they have a state.

Most modern historians, however, agree that nations are a modern phenomenon. This view owes much to the French sociologist of religion, Ernest Renan (1823-1892). According to the modernists the modern nation developed concomitantly with industrialisation, social and technological modernisation and the necessity of more intensive communications in modern industrial societies (Karl Deutsch, Ernest Gellner, Eric Hobsbawm, Benedict Anderson).

There is also a third, intermediary, position between primordialists and modernists. Anthony D. Smith argues that nations are based on older social networks with their own particular traditions and symbols. It is the mixture of ethnic elements with political, territorial, economic, and legal elements, which is particularly characteristic of most modern nations. Definition:

“A nation can therefore be defined as a named community with its own history and culture, which occupies a cohesive territory, with a common economy, education system and equality before the law. “(Anthony D. Smith, National Identity, p. 43.

  1. Nationalism

Definition: Nationalism is an identical movement for attaining and maintaining the autonomy, unity and identity of an existing or potential “nation”. (Anthony D. Smith, The Origins of Nations, p. 108)

It is a theory of political legitimacy 'which requires that ethnic boundaries should not cut across political ones, and in particular, that ethnic boundaries within a given state … should not separate the power-holders from the rest.' (Ernest Gellner, Nation and Nationalism, p. 1).

Nations can be formed in different ways and this has also consequences for the type of nationalism, which dominates in these nations. In the case of a civic nation the state existed before the nation did (France, Netherlands, Britain). In the case of an ethnic nation, the nation existed before the nation state. In a civic nation a civil society exists, which is governed by law. Sovereignty is located in the individual citizen. His national identity is the sense of political community with his fellow citizens within a demarcated territory. Belonging to the nation and being the citizen of the state is congruent. According to Hosbsbawm nationalism is here civic and democratic.

Second group: An ethnic nation is determined by descent. Nationality is not linked to a state but obtained by birth and native culture. Ethnic nation building means that the sense of belonging to a certain nation and the sharing of a common culture with other individuals exist before there is a state, in which all or at least the greater part of the nation lives (Examples: Italy and Germany). Nationalists and national movements are here the driving force of nation building. Nationalism is here based on ethno-linguistic diversity.

In reality, every civic nation has ethnic elements and every ethnic nation has civic national components.

5. German nation building

If we follow the line of argumentation of the modernists, Germany was not a nation in 1870 but only became one in the subsequent decades. In 1800 there was still the Holy Roman Empire of German with a very weak centre and very strong member states but there was a flourishing of German culture and language. The middle classes began to identify more with the idea of Germany than with their specific state. In the Napoleonic period part of the country was under French influence or inspired by France. Remnants of feudalism and many borders disappeared. The road to German nation building was prepared. France provided an enemy, an essential element of national mobilisation. German national identity was forged in the wars against Napoleonic France.

In the first half of the century political liberalism was still inseparable from nationalism. After the failure of the revolution in 1848 the authoritarian Prussia took the lead in German unification. One of the demands of nationalism is to bring the political borders in congruence with the perceived national (natural) and ethnic borders. German nationalism in this sense became a potentially revolutionary factor in Europe. For Bismarck Germany was “sated”, but German nationalists did not agree.

6. War and nation

Many nations are made in wars: nation states emerge out of the rubble of empires defeated in war, other nation states are formed in so called wars of liberation or decolonisation (actually some South American nation states are older than many European states, including the German state), others are the result of civil wars or separatist wars.

Some historians have even argued that the British nation was forged in the trenches of the Western Front in the First World War, when (at least according to the dominant narrative) soldiers of all classes fought together and many sacrificed their lives for God, King and Country.


The nation state is still the most common form of political (state) organisation. Nationalism is a powerful mobilising force, it can be a force for democratisation, but also can become destructive. Most nations have been made in wars.

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