In Eastern Europe, nationalism has since 1915 passed through five stages:

At the Congress of Vienna in 1815, the whole of Eastern Europe was divided between three empires. Previous little statelets, survivors of medieval fragmentation, were absorbed into the three large units. Life was greatly simplified for the political map-makers: henceforth they would need only three colours to accomplish their task.

The three empires were largely indifferent to the national principle. Each of them was based on a dynasty and on identification with a religion: Sunni Islam, Counter-Reformation Catholicism and Orthodox Christianity respectively. Faith and dynasty were held to be natural, adequate and appropriate foundations of political order. Each of the three empires was ethnically very diversified, but virtually none held this to constitute an obstacle to political viability. Many of the culturally and linguistically distinct proto-ethnic groups were barely conscious of themselves as ethnic groups. For instance, in Sarajevo, if someone was referred to as a ‘Turk’, this did not mean that he spoke or even knew a Turkic tongue or that his ancestors had come from central Asia via Anatolia; it simply meant that he was Muslim, and was perfectly compatible with being of Slav speech and indigenous ancestry. By contrast, at present, what is in effect an ethnic group, defined by a shared Slav-Muslim cultural background (but no longer associated with proper adherence to a faith), calls itself Muslim, and it secured the recognition of this expression as an acceptable category for official purposes such as the census. Just as a gentleman was not a man who knew Greek and Latin, but one who had at least forgotten these languages, so a ‘Muslim’ is no longer a man who believes that there is no God but God and that Mohammed is His Prophet, but one who has at least lost that faith. The irony is that in the days when religion really mattered socially, an ethnic term was used to define the community of believers; nowadays, when it is ethnicity that matters, a religious term is used to define an ethnic community.

Many of the groups possessed a base in the social structure rather than in territory: they were associated with a distinct social and economic function rather than with some piece of land. Those cultural groups that were linked to the land were nevertheless linked to it in an incredibly complex patchwork, rather than in neat compact blocks. The important thing is that when the masters of Europe assembled in Vienna in 1815 and carved up the political real estate in total disregard of ethnicity, this was deemed perfectly normal. No wave of protest swept Europe. The sacred right of Ruritanians to self-determination, to their own cultural home and political roof, was ignored, without arousing much or any indignation on the part of either Ruritanians or anyone else. Most Ruritanians did not even notice, and were hardly aware of being Ruritanians.

Soon, all this was to change. The nineteenth century rapidly became a century of nationalist irredentism. The nationalist principle, proclaiming that the legitimate foundation for the state was the nation, acquired ever more passionate and committed adherents. In Eastern Europe, the Magyars more or less succeeded and the Poles did not; various Balkan ethnicities benefited from the weaknesses of the Ottoman empire and secured diverse degrees of independence; in central Europe, the Italians and the Germans achieved unification.

Why this change of mood? Why did something which seemed acceptable and even natural in 1815 lose its legitimacy in the course of the century? From inside the nationalist vision the answer is simple: the nations had not been dead, they had merely been dormant. Thanks are due to devoted Awakeners, intellectuals eager to revive ancient political and cultural glories, or alternatively to codify the tongues and cultures of ‘un-historic’ nations, which had not previously boasted either a state or a court literature. The latter might be devoid of past glories, but the Awakeners were willing to invent them or seek new ones. The Awakeners worked hard, and the Sleeping Beauty nations in the end responded with passion to their kiss. Wide awake at last, they claimed their legitimate rights. In the light of Hegel’s observation that nations only enter history when they acquire their own state, they insisted on securing their place on the historic stage. If denied it—and of course the old power-holders did not abdicate simply on request—they often reached for the gun.

Those who are not in sympathy with the new nationalist politics often accept its own image of itself, and merely invert the valuation without changing the picture. The most widely held theory of nationalism is, I suspect, the one that believes it to be not merely the reawakening of cultures, but the re-emergence of atavistic instincts of Blut und Boden in the human breast. Ever latent but long restrained by religious faith or other factors, the loosening of bonds allowed the barely restrained monster to re-emerge. The Enlightenment ideals of reason and fraternity, or the merely superficial, instrumental links of a market Gesell-schaft, were too abstract, too bloodless, too cerebral to compete with libidinous and turbulent Dark Gods. Much Romantic nineteenth-century literature gave great encouragement to such a picture of man and so in a way endorsed its political implications. It receives further confirmation from Darwinism, which after all teaches that man is a beast. From this it would seem to follow that you cannot expect too high, and above all too rational, a standard of political behaviour from him. Realistic politics must adapt itself to its clientele, and if society is really a herd, we’d better adjust both its authority structure and its symbolism to this fact.