the nation-building process in Europe

The nation has been an inseparable accompaniment of modern European history. It is not difficult to ironize over the record of ‘nationalism’ in past and present, to criticize its role and to award good or bad marks to different groups, personalities or even nations, in the process. There is a public that finds this procedure to its taste, but it is not to be confused with a scientific approach to the subject. Historians are not judges; their task is to explain actual historical transformations. There has been a significant amount of new literature on nations and nationalism in recent years, much of it produced by social scientists developing theoretical frameworks, and then illustrating their generalizations with selected examples. Historians prefer to start with empirical research, and then move to broader conclusions. My own work has not sought to advance a theory of nation-building, but rather to develop effective methods for the classification and assessment of experiences of nation-building as a process set within a wider social and cultural history—treated not as so many singular and unrepeatable events, but as part of a broad transformation of society that is amenable to controlled generalizations.footnote1 But it is important to stress at the outset that we are very far from being able to explain all the major problems posed by the formation of modern nations. Every historian of national movements agrees there are numerous data gaps in our understanding of them. In this sense, all defensible conclusions still remain no more than partial findings, and all ‘theories’ should be taken as projects for further research. Polemically, one might say that at the moment we have an over-production of theories and a stagnation of comparative research on the topic.

This misfortune is, I think, in part due to a widespread conceptual confusion. For today the process whereby nations were formed in Europe is typically represented as the unfolding or spread of the ideas of ‘nationalism’. This is perhaps especially true of recent Anglo-Saxon literature.footnote2 In my view, this is a basically misleading way of looking at the subject. For the diffusion of national ideas could only occur in specific social settings. Nation-building was never a mere project of ambitious or narcissistic intellectuals, and ideas could not flow through Europe by their own inspirational force. Intellectuals can ‘invent’ national communities only if certain objective preconditions for the formation of a nation already exist. Karl Deutsch long ago remarked that for national consciousness to arise, there must be something for it to become conscious of. Individual discoveries of national sentiment do not explain why such discoveries recurred in so many countries, independently of each other, under different conditions and in different epochs. Only an approach that looks for the underlying similarity of reasons why people accepted a new national identity, can shed light on this problem. These reasons may be verbalized, but below the level of ‘high politics’ they are often unverbalized.

Now the ‘nation’ is not, of course, an eternal category, but was the product of a long and complicated process of historical development in Europe. For our purposes, let us define it at the outset as a large social group integrated not by one but by a combination of several kinds of objective relationships (economic, political, linguistic, cultural, religious, geographical, historical), and their subjective reflection in collective consciousness. Many of these ties could. be mutually substitutable—some playing a particularly important role in one nation-building process, and no more than a subsidiary part in others. But among them, three stand out as irreplaceable: (i) a ‘memory’ of some common past, treated as a ‘destiny’ of the group—or at least of its core constituents; (ii) a density of linguistic or cultural ties enabling a higher degree of social communication within the group than beyond it; (iii) a conception of the equality of all members of the group organized as a civil society.

The process whereby nations were built, around such central elements, was not preordained or irreversible. It could be interrupted, just as it could also be resumed after a long hiatus. Looking at Europe as a whole, it is clear that it went through two distinct stages, of unequal length. The first of these started during the Middle Ages, and led to two quite different outcomes, which provided contrasting starting-points for the second stage, of a transition to a capitalist economy and civil society. At that point the path to a modern nation in the full sense of the word proceeded from either one or the other of two contrasted socio-political situations (though, of course, there were transitional cases). Over much of Western Europe—England, France, Spain, Portugal, Sweden, the Netherlands—but also farther East in Poland, the early modern state developed under the domination of one ethnic culture, either in absolutist form or in a representative-estates system. In the majority of such cases, the late feudal regime was subsequently transformed, by reforms or revolution, into a modern civil society in parallel with the construction of a nation-state as a community of equal citizens. In most of Central and Eastern Europe, on the other hand, an ‘exogenous’ ruling class dominated ethnic groups which occupied a compact territory but lacked ‘their own’ nobility, political unit or continuous literary tradition. My own research has been concerned with this second type of situation. It is an error, however, to think that it never existed in Western Europe as well. The plight of the ‘non-dominant ethnic group’ has come to be identified with lands in Eastern and South-Eastern Europe—as the fate of Estonians, Ukrainians, Slovenes, Serbs or others. But there were originally many similar communities in Western and South-Western Europe too. There, however, the medieval or early modern state assimilated most of them, although a significant number of distinctive ancient cultures persisted through such processes of integration—Irish, Catalan, Norwegian and others (in Eastern Europe, the Greeks perhaps form an analogy).footnote3 There was also an important set of transitional cases, in which ethnic communities possessed ‘their own’ ruling class and literary traditions, but lacked any common statehood—the Germans and Italians, or later (after the loss of their commonwealth) the Poles.