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National Identity


NATIONAL IDENTITY. The appearance, extent, and character of nationalism in European society has attracted much debate among historians and sociologists. Although there is little consensus regarding the forces responsible for its manifestation, most specialists on nationalism believe it to be an essentially modern phenomenon, appearing in the late eighteenth century in Europe and North America.

Three theorists stand out in the genealogical debate over nationalism. Eric J. Hobsbawm defined nationalism as the popular realization of political rights in a sovereign state. A populace linked itself to a limited national territory and was embodied through a centralized government, an event Hobsbawm believed first occurred during the French Revolution. If nationalism was a modern invention, so were nations: the nation-state was the result, rather than the origin, of nationalist discourse. Ernest Gellner adopted an economically reductionist approach, deeming nationalism a necessary function of industrialization. Because industry required skilled labor, a common vernacular, and high rates of literacy, he argued, the need developed for a national "high culture," promoted by a state-run educational system. Simultaneously, the old agrarian order faded away and societal anonymity replaced provincial distinctness, facilitating the creation of a homogenous national culture. Like Hobsbawm, Gellner sought to dispel teleological notions of the nation as eternal; nationalism was a modern invention, created in response to the needs of a new economic system, even if it represented itself as a natural, historical phenomenon.

The theory of the nation as invention was taken further by Benedict Anderson, who saw nationalism as a process of "imagining communities." The decline of universal religious paradigms and the rise in print capitalism allowed for this cultural construction to flourish in the eighteenth century. The mass consumption of newspapers and novels enforced a common vernacular, linked a populace to urban centers, and encouraged common participation in a shared (imagined) culture. Anderson implied that the Reformation and the printing press did more to encourage nationalism than did the advent of industrialization. Despite their differences, all three of theseprominenttheoreticiansidentifiednationalism, and by association the nation-state, as a phenomenon of the last few centuries.

If nationalism is a modern novelty, then what came before? Certainly the terms nation, patrie, and Vaterland were used before the modern period. What did they mean? Faced with this question, modernists distinguish between nationalism as political ideology and nationalism as cultural identity. Most postulate that the former occurs only in modern society, starting with the French Revolution, while the latter had early modern antecedents. The early modern variant is usually referred to as "national identity" or "proto-nationalism," and it implies an awareness by the populace, at least in part, of a common national culture not yet manifest as a motivating political ideology. Cultural bonds could be found in common language, religion, and custom as well as in the common social condition of being dynastic subjects. Citing these bonds, some historians see modern nationalism making an appearance as early as the sixteenth century.

Conversely, the historian Eugen Weber has argued that if the modern definition requires that nationalism be popular in scope, then nationalism did not permeate the French countryside until the late nineteenth century, when public schools and railroad access exposed the rural population to cosmopolitan cultural norms and formalized instruction in the French language. These latter two interpretations call into question the importance of the French Revolution in the development of modern nationalism.

Time, then, is not the most useful tool for categorizing nationalism or national identity. Nationalism appears irregularly and is dependent on a variety of historical factors or "accidents" that escape structural categorization. And one cannot simply label national identity as embryonic nationalism: not all national identities function within nations, and not all nations have "proto-national" origins. Moreover, national identity should not be seen as something that replaces local attachments. Identities were conterminous, and awareness of national belonging was appended to local and provincial identities. The historian Peter Sahlins has described early modern identity as a series of "counter-identities," in which local communities defined themselves through a multitude of attachments: village, county, province, nationall of which were distinguishable from the "other," that is, the foreigner.

Throughout the early modern period, the character and intensity of national identity varied widely from place to place. Spain is an excellent example of the potential ambivalence of early modern identity. Spanish subjects generally did not think of themselves as Spanish, but rather as Castilian, Valencian, or Catalan; the formation of a Spanish identity was further hindered by the presence of multiple kingdoms in Spain and the unwillingness of the Habsburg monarchs to promote their association with the Spanish state, particularly in their Castilian exclusivity. Identity was further complicated by the Jewish and Moorish populations on the peninsula, which added a racial character to Spanish identity construction. Nonetheless, Catholic beliefs were widely shared among the inhabitants of Spain.

In Italy, certain Renaissance writers encouraged national awareness through an appeal to an ancient Roman homeland and by evoking civic pride in the cultural accomplishments of the Renaissance. Certainly some contemporary writers idealized Italy: Francesco Guicciardini's revealingly titled Storia d'Italia (History of Italy, written 15361540) describes the decline of independent Italian states during the early sixteenth century. The Italian Wars resulted in Spanish occupation of much of the peninsula, and local elites became Spanish clients. Additionally, the papal resurgence during the Counter-Reformation discouraged national consciousness, as the papacy claimed a universal jurisdiction that transcended national limits. Italy remained a geographical expression rather than a nation, and national identity only resonated in elite literary circles. The situation in Germanyconceived of as the homeland of the ancient Germanic tribes, the descendants of whom shared a common ethnicity (as members of a single Volk )was similar. Germany was a patchwork of small principalities under the nominal authority of the Holy Roman Empire, but the empire was divided between Protestant and Catholic communities; it was not exclusively Germanic; and it lacked a strong central government. German identity was not political or territorial; rather, it was a cultural affinity consisting of linguistic, ethnic, and historical associations.

State centralization played an essential role in the development of national identity in France. The vicissitudes of the Hundred Years' War (13371453) imbued the French monarchy with a national character that, though threatened during the Wars of Religion (15621598), was reinforced over the course of the seventeenth century. The crown was a powerful unifying factor in French society, and belonging to the French nation meant allegiance to the French king. Royal patronage of art, literature, and historical writing promoted French culture, and the international acceptance of the French language and Parisian styles as the epitome of civilization at least among European elites, contributed to the sense of its distinctiveness and superiority. The monarchical association with the patrie faded only during the eighteenth century, as Enlightenment discourses posited the French people, rather than the king, as the legitimate repository of national sovereignty.

Before nationalism became central to French revolutionary discourses, the Netherlands and Great Britaintwo relatively isolated North Atlantic Protestant statesseem to have developed strong national identities, the Dutch in the seventeenth century and the British in the eighteenth. They may thus meet the key criterion set out by modern definitions of nationalisma widely held political ideology that identifies the nation-state as a distinct and sovereign representation of a particular people and as the embodiment or defender of its culture. In the cases of both the Dutch and the British, national identity was deeply entwined with religion, economic wealth, and political revolt. Protestantism was essential to the creation of both nationalisms. Protestant theologians' insistence on widespread vernacular literacy, combined with the rise of print capitalism, facilitated the creation of a national religious community. Urbanization and a rising middle class gave common people a vested interest in the political order, and as the historian Linda Colley has shown, patriotism and profit went hand in hand. Daniel Defoe's The Complete English Tradesman (1726) provides an excellent example of this growing national identity, as it explicitly links the social benefits of international trade to national pride in being English. Military crisesparticularly the struggles against a Catholic "other"augmented Britons' burgeoning national sentiment by juxtaposing religious and national sovereignty against the fear of foreign invasion.

Significantly, both the Dutch and the British endured severe political crises that resulted in the demise of monarchical regimes. The resulting insecurities over political legitimacy necessitated justifications for revolt, and contemporary writers constructed a new kind of legitimacy based on a pseudo-historical national ethos. Dutch and British writers used classical allegories as reflections of contemporary political conflicts and as means of constructing essentialized notions of national uniqueness. Seventeenth-century coins, medals, and pamphlets associated the new Dutch Republic with the Batavians, ancient barbarians who fought Julius Caesar, or, more often, with the Israelites. The Dutch saw themselves as a chosen people threatened by subjugation, and they deployed such images to distinguish themselves from surrounding peoples and states. In the British case, even if the English, Scots, and Welsh had individual claims of separate identity, they all knew that they were fundamentally different from the Catholic French. Protestantism for them became synonymous with "Britishness," hence the litany of characteristics the British believed themselves to exemplify: freedom, prosperity, and rationality, contrasted forcefully against the perceived superstition and impoverishment of the oppressed French.

The concept of national identity is complex, and its intensity, character, and origins vary with time and place. Some areas of Europe were completely ambivalent to national sentiment, while populations elsewhere could be considered exceedingly patriotic. Different classes and orders could display varying degrees of national identification, and there could be differences between urban and rural populations as well. While the development of national identity remains a difficult historical problem, several general conclusions may be offered. Although most early modern European societies did not develop national identities to the same degree as the British and the Dutch, they did readily contrast themselves with their neighbors. In the early modern mind, "nation" might primarily mean place of birth, yet it also carried cultural weight: one's nation connoted perhaps ethnicity, perhaps language, but almost certainly religion. Religious homogeneity played a vital role in the construction of national identity, not just for the cases cited above, but also for the Scandinavian states and for Russia and much of eastern Europe. One can state with fair certainty that most people saw themselves as part of a wider community, one that was occasionally national in scope, and that religion, language, and local political structures played prominent roles in determining that identity.

See also Dutch Republic ; England ; Enlightenment ; France ; Germany, Idea of ; Holy Roman Empire ; Sovereignty, Theory of .


Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities. New York and London, 1991.

Colley, Linda. Britons: Forging the Nation, 17071837. New Haven, 1992. An excellent case study on the formation of national identity.

Gellner, Ernest. Nations and Nationalism. Oxford, 1983.

Gorski, Philip S. "The Mosaic Moment: An Early Modernist Critique of Modernist Theories of Nationalism." American Journal of Sociology 105, no. 5 (March 2000): 14281468. The author applies modern theories of nationalism to early modern Dutch and English society.

Hobsbawm, E. J. Nations and Nationalism since 1780: Programme, Myth, Reality. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1990.

Ranum, Orest, ed. National Consciousness, History, and Political Culture in Early-Modern Europe. Baltimore, 1975. This collection reviews six cases of early modern national identity, primarily from the perspective of contemporary literature and histories.

Sahlins, Peter. Boundaries: The Making of France and Spain in the Pyrenees. Berkeley, 1989. This book emphasizes the role frontier communities played in the construction of national identities.

Schama, Simon. The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age. London and New York, 1987.

Weber, Eugen. Peasants into Frenchmen: The Modernization of Rural France, 18701914. Stanford, 1976.

Erik J. Hadley

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