‘Nationalism’ is a much-abused concept that can be used to explain everything—hence, nothing at all. Unless rooted in concrete analysis of the national and class politics of a given state or area, it runs the risk of becoming analytically vacuous. Ernest Gellner’s work has long been distinguished by its recognition of the salience of nationalism as a force shaping the modern world. Unlike many liberal or socialist writers, Gellner has never simply condemned national movements as diversions from the path of human progress. The great value of his brief essay on ‘Nationalism and Politics in Eastern Europe’footnote is that its scope and ambition allow one to focus on more fundamental issues lurking behind the concept of ‘nationalism’. The following comment is put forward in a spirit of appreciative response, which seeks to bring out more clearly the specifically political moment in nationalism and its history.

Gellner’s approach is to examine one hundred and sixty years of Eastern European history and deduce a progression of five, temporally demarcated, phases of nationalism: (1) the zero point (1815); (2) the triumph of ‘the nationalist principle’ (the nineteenth century); (3) the creation of nation-states (1918); (4) brutally conducted ethnic ‘purification’ (the Second World War); and (5) the decline of nationalism (the future). For an approach of this kind to be successful, it must be based on a consistent theoretical framework and a good knowledge of the history of the area. Unfortunately, Gellner’s text can be faulted on both counts. To begin with, a confusion is created by his frequent conflation of ethnicity, nationality and statehood. More generally, it is doubtful whether such an approach could work at all given the nonsimultaneity of the political and economic dimensions of state formation in Central and Eastern Europe (and not only there).

Gellner’s reference point throughout is Western Europe, and he describes nineteenth-century nationalism in Eastern Europe as an ‘inescapable corollary of the new socioeconomic order’ brought by ‘modernity and industrialism’. Yet, though ‘industrialism’ first triumphed in the European West, this West was/is not organized in accordance with the principle of one-nation/one-state (for example, Britain, Belgium, Switzerland). In the European East, equally, that principle was not always followed: several self-consciously multinational states came into being in 1918. Furthermore, it is not clear from what Gellner tells us whether East European societies simply repeated the experience of Western Europe, or whether what they did was (also) a compensation for not being ‘there’.

It is necessary to stress that in much of Eastern Europe the victory of the national idea predates industrialization. In 1848, the year when all the component nationalities of the Habsburg monarchy formed their national programmes—programmes which, incidentally, survived practically intact until 1918 and in many ways even thereafter—most of the societies they inhabited were overwhelmingly agrarian. Indeed, most of Eastern Europe remained agrarian until after the Second World War.

From when should we date the entry of nationalism onto the scene in this part of Europe? Was there ever a ‘zero point’? Gellner’s account of the situation up to and including 1815 is fundamentally inaccurate, not least because the division of much of Eastern Europe between three empires predates the Congress of Vienna. It is inaccurate also because it misses out the earlier phase of ‘historic nationalism’ (for example, the partition of Poland did not lead the Poles to forget they had once had a state; and anti-German poems were already common in seventeenth-century Hungary and Croatia), and because it disregards the impact of the French Revolution. Metternich knew better: at the Congress of Vienna he emphasized the danger posed not only by the liberal, but also by the national idea to the conservative order in Europe. Nationalism—far from remaining to be born—was already perceived as a political force in its own right.

Contrary to what Gellner claims, the three empires at this point were not equally indifferent to the national principle, nor were the national elites living within them. It is true that the nobility reserved the word ‘natio’ only for itself. However, once the Habsburg state dropped Latin as its official language in favour of German (which happened before the French Revolution), the multi-ethnic—multi-lingual—nature of the Empire became visible. Why, the Magyar nobles asked their German king, should our Diet speak German, when we are Hungarian? They then busily got down to learning their ‘native’ language. At this point the old ‘historic nationalism’ began to change into ‘national nationalism’.

But the real impetus came with the French Revolution. Polish and Italian enthusiasm for the Revolution was inspired also by the desire for a reconstituted Poland and a unified Italy. The French invasion encouraged the Russian aristocracy, as Tolstoy describes, to begin to speak Russian (rather than French). Once official documents and journals appeared in the national languages in French Illyria, there was no going back to German or Italian in present-day Slovenia and western Croatia. The Serb national uprising, to take a different example, was already a fact. If these peoples were not represented at the 1815 Congress, it does not mean that they accepted its conclusions as legitimate. The progress of nationalism in this part of Europe is a far more complex, uneven and contradictory process than Gellner suggests, or the blanket term ‘nationalism’ implies. But one thing is certain: 1815 was not the zero point. ‘The long wave’ began much earlier, and was deeply rooted in the de-Latinization of Europe.