Lloyd Kramer: Why the History of Nationalism Matters in a Global Age, Part 2

This is the second in a series of three guest posts from historian Lloyd Kramer, author of Nationalism in Europe and America: Politics, Cultures, and Identities since 1775. You can read Part 1 here.–ellen

Atlantic Revolutions and the Politics of Nationalism

I noted in my previous post that Nationalism now influences all modern states and public institutions, but I argue in Nationalism in Europe and America that the distinctive forms of modern nationalist thought emerged in the Atlantic world during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Nationalist ideas spread steadily thereafter through the increasing global exchanges in modern communications, education, and travel. By the twentieth century nationalism was shaping major events in all parts of the world—including the extremely costly world wars, the anti-colonial revolutions against large empires, and the massive expansion of modern economies.

The American and French Revolutions provided early models for how modern states should embody the political will and collective identity of a self-conscious national population. National political cultures had also begun to emerge in other places such as England and the Netherlands, but the Americans and French first declared the key nationalist themes in their famous revolutionary documents. In most general terms, nationalists have always asserted that the people who live in a specific geographical territory share unique historical and cultural traditions and that the people in such territories have the inviolable right to live in an independent political state.

The “people” as a whole rather than a king or small social elites are the sovereign entity in modern nations, so modern national states claim to represent the political independence of an entire (coherent) population. To protect this popular sovereignty, America’s Declaration of Independence famously proclaimed, “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed” (1776). The same theme appeared in France’s influential “Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen” (1789), which asserted that “The principle of all sovereignty resides essentially in the nation.” Similar claims for the irrevocable sovereignty of the people have established the political foundations for all modern national states in democratic and authoritarian societies alike.

The Cultural and Social Themes of Nationalism

Although the political autonomy of a “sovereign people” is essential for nationalist movements and governments, nationalisms always require cultural identities that go beyond the affirmation of independent political rights.   Nationalists discover and promote shared cultural identities that connect each person to large and supportive social groups that can provide security and emotional satisfaction. Individuals gain a stable sense of selfhood in their national communities, in part because the links with a nation offer assurance that they are never completely alone; everyone belongs to a protective social group.

Nationalists therefore believe that personal well-being depends on the power and well-being of their national society and state, so threats to the nation are also perceived as direct threats to the individual national citizen. Nobody is born with an innate national identity, however, which is why the meaning of one’s personal connection to the national community has to be learned and frequently reiterated. All nationalist cultures thus foster personal identifications with the national community through a nation-centered education.

Children grow up in schools and families that teach the meaning of a shared nationality and show how their individual lives are connected to the larger life of their nation. Each personal identity becomes entangled with a collective national identity through nationalizing processes such as the pedagogical activity that the Italian nationalist Giuseppi Mazzini recommended in the 1850s. Talk to your children, Mazzini advised, and “speak to them of their Country, of what it was, of what it ought to be.” National stories give people a deep bond with the nation and help them see how the nation’s survival ensures their own survival.

The eternal life of the nation also provides consolation for the deaths of its citizens, whether they die in wars or simply in the inescapable cycles of human existence. As Abraham Lincoln noted in his famous praise for deceased soldiers on the battlefield at Gettysburg, “these dead shall not have died in vain” because “this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and . . . shall not perish from the earth.” Everyone dies, but their nations live on forever.

Nationalism thus resembles traditional religions by affirming a kind of national “life after death” and emphasizing the need to honor a higher power that transcends the self. Like most religions, nations teach the moral value of making personal sacrifices to advance a higher cause.  As one of the religious advocates for America’s revolutionary war against Britain explained in a New England church (1777), the American cause was “the cause of heaven against hell” and also the “cause for which the Son of God came down from his celestial throne.” For many nationalists, love for the Nation fuses with love of God to become a source of permanent truths (as set down by Founding Fathers) and an entity for collective worship—which suggests why the national flag is regularly venerated in quasi–religious rituals.

In addition to education for the young and frequent fusions with religion, nationalism requires historical narratives about the nation’s past achievements, heroes, martyrs, and “sacred” texts. The national Constitution, for example, can become as venerated as the national flag. Given the link between nations and specific geographical territories, nationalist songs, poems, and political speeches typically celebrate the beauty or mysteries of the national land; and the boundaries of the national land must be protected as steadfastly as memories of the national past.

Finally, the national identity merges with the history of families, the descriptions of “manliness” or “womanhood,” and the raising of children. Nationalists insist on the essential virtues of a well-ordered family life and warn against the dangers of immoral behaviors. “To sanctify the Family . . . and to link it ever closer to the Country,” the Italian Mazzini wrote in one of his essays, “this is your mission.” For the most fervent nationalists, a strong nation always stands on the bedrock of strong families.

Does American nationalism differ from European nationalisms?

Many Americans assume that the United States has always differed from Europe and that the politics and culture of the New World have created a very different national society on this side of the Atlantic. The historical argument in my new book, however, draws on the nationalist themes I’ve laid out above to challenge the popular historical belief in American “Exceptionalism,” but I’ll explain my view of transatlantic “similarities” in another post.

Lloyd Kramer is professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is author of Nationalism in Europe and America: Politics, Cultures, and Identities since 1775 and Lafayette in Two Worlds: Public Cultures and Personal Identities in an Age of Revolutions. You can listen to the podcast of Kramer’s August 2, 2011, radio interview with D.G. Martin on WCHL.