Forging Nationalism in Modern Europe

Natlsm in Europe

One cannot discuss modern European history without devoting much of the discussion to the topic of nationalism.  In fact, it the story of modern European history could be seen as the invention and subsequent ebb and flow of nationalism as nation states began to replace monarchies across the continent.  The four works that we read for this session offer insight into the processes involved in nation building, and each shows that these processes neither run smoothly, nor can one find a “standard” path of nationalism’s development.  David Waldstreicher and Celia Applegate offer fresh ways of thinking about how nationalism works and its relation with the people and the state.  Mark Mazower’s short history reveals nationalism’s violent side, yet somewhat problematically talks about nationalism as if it is something quantifiable that can be exported to distant areas of the globe.  Lastly, Maria Tadorova explores the ways in which nationalities, though constructed in recent history, appear to be timeless and can thus be used to construct powerful discourses about the state of the world.

At first, Applegate’s book, Bach in Berlin, seemed to be an unusual choice for discussing nationalism, for Applegate is a music historian.  But this work explores how by the 19th century, Germans came to see themselves as a musical nation (if not the musical nation).  By framing it in this way, she deftly shows how music indeed had a central role in defining a German nationalism, even before a German nation state was formed. The book circulates around an 1829 performance of J.S. Bach’s the St. Matthew Passion that was composed by Felix Mendelssohn and led by Carl Friedrich Zelter.  It is important to note that Applegate does not believe that this single event created German nationalism, but she does argue that “appreciation of Bach reinforced the integration of the many strands of German cultural experience into a coherent, unified national culture” (9).  In that sense, the performance can be seen as one of those rare historical moments in which events come together into a powerful culmination to make something new and remarkable.

In discussing the emergence of a German nationalism, Applegate grants central importance to the power of print and print culture.  She demonstrates that literature already held the high position of being the “essential expression of German identity” (52).  So, as cultural shifts in the late eighteenth century forced musicians to leave their traditional spheres of the church and the court, they had to find a way to make their profession important – if not essential – to the cultured elite of the German people. The emergence of music periodicals coincided with the spread of the German Enlightenment.  The work of Johann Gottfried Herder concentrated on a philosophy of history that focused on particularities.  This had implications for Germans who could now see German culture as having an essence all its own (52).  Music journalists could then employ this train of thought and argue that not only was German music important, but that music was an essential and vital expression of a deeper, true German culture, a German national soul.

Such discussion laid the groundwork for a movement for musicians and all cultured Germans alike to rediscover German music.  This set the stage for the success of Mendelssohn’s revival of Bach’s Passion.  Another aim of the music periodicals was to cultivate taste, that is define what good and German music was.  Moreover, this was a task for all cultured Germans, not something restricted to a small elite.  So, there was a push to get amateur musicians involved (thus the success of the Berlin Singakademie). “Music journalists wanted to influence how people judged music, and they did so in ways that tied musical judgments to German culture as a whole” (82).  While many music periodicals joined in this effort, she points to Adolf Bernhard Marx’s Berliner Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung in particular.  Marx’s project, Applegate states, was to insist that by knowing Bach (and German music in general), “one would come to know oneself as a German, because knowing Bach entailed understanding not only the Christian, Protestant heritage of Germany, not only the intellectual, inward turn in German character, but also the musical complexity that was as much a part of being German as was the German language itself” (119).    That is why, in 1829 at the time of the famous performance, the conditions were ripe for the culmination of many processes into a lived experience of the power of German culture and German nationalism.  The German Enlightenment had shown that German culture could be separate and essential; music periodicals cultivated the understanding of German music as an art form, and moreover, it taught Germans how to receive, appreciate, and judge the 1829 performance as an expression of their national culture.   In this way, “music journals were a part of the process of building a cultural homogeneity, not a late, specialized product of homogeneous culture” (83).

In In the Midst of Perpetual Fetes, David Waldstreicher presents nationalism not as an abstract ideology that was the object of philosophers’ discussions.  Instead, nationalism is presented as a political strategy, something that must be played out or enacted by “perpetual fetes.”  This is an important twist on the understanding of nationalism, because this conceptualizes nationalism as something that is created, not as the creating force.  Nationalism is created through rituals such as parades, celebrations, toasts, and printed commentary of these events.  In this light, events such as the celebration of the Fourth of July, are not because of nationalism, but are instead creating a feeling of consensus, a sense of nationalism.  These celebrations are spaces in which national politics are taken outdoors, out of the hands of a few, and taken to the streets where “ordinary” people could participate.  However, Waldstreicher avoids setting up an “elite vs. street” dichotomy of politics by showing that both the political elite and the normal people were equally active in constructing narratives during these celebrations.

While national celebrations appear to be about consensus building, Waldstreicher argues that to miss the politics (the divisive and partisan nature) of the celebrations is to miss the point of the event itself.  This exposes the paradoxical nature of these celebrations, for they unified while simultaneously divided the populace.  While all parties involved promoted loyalty to the nation (unifying power), the factions promoted their idea of the nation (divisive nature).  Thus, nationalism – far from being some ultra-conservative, unifying power that stamps out all difference – could foster deep divides among the people, and Waldstreicher understands political factions as results of nationalism, not hindrances to it.

Part of the paradox of nationalism was the way that while it increased participation in politics (by drawing all of the white men into participation, instead of just a select few), it also firmly excluded women and blacks.[1]  For example, the American Colonization Society was a nationalistic organization to send all free blacks out of America, and its existence highlighted the problem of a “free nation” in which the equality of a number of its free citizens was denied (302-304).  But, Waldstreicher argues that free black Americans put the whites to shame by using the same tools of nationalism to create a new, African nationalism of their own (347).

Taken together, Applegate and Waldstreicher’s books provide interesting insight into nationalism.  Most importantly, both authors present nationalism as something tangible, not simply something thought about by philosophers and enacted by elites.  On the contrary, nationalism was created by many people.  Moreover, this tangible experience had to be felt by those participating in order to create the feeling of nationalism, of a common history and a common purpose for the future.  That is why Applegate endows the 1829 Passion performance with so much importance: it was a moment in which the thousands who saw the performance experienced themselves as a deeply historical, cultural nation.  For Waldstreicher, it was the act of participating in these celebrations that created nationalism (even while it created separate ideas of what the nation was).  For example, getting to see George Washington on one of his tours created a sense of unity that crossed partisan lines, and it encouraged political participation across lines of class and gender (119). Print culture is also important to Waldstreicher’s understanding of nationalism.  Newspaper commentary should not be viewed simply as primary documents that record and discuss the political rituals, he argues, but instead should be seen as part of these rituals, shaping how people should interpret them, and setting the stage for how future celebrations “should” be enacted.

The Atlantic sphere appears more prominently in Waldstreicher’s book than in Applegate’s.  In fact, in can be argued that American nationalism was only possible in the realm of the Atlantic world.  The British Empire was the reason for American opposition, but also acted as the point around which a unified American nationalism was galvanized.  We can also see an Atlantic connection in the ways in which the French Revolution was utilized by different American political factions to achieve their own nationalism (the ways in which the Republicans of the 1790s used the French Revolution to criticize what they saw as a growing aristocracy in America, for example, 115).  While the Atlantic does not play a prominent role in Applegate’s book, we can see how German nationalism is often formed in by what it is not (a theme that is central to Todorova’s book).  For instance, Italian music was portrayed as superficial and associated with “transient pleasures” while German music represented the seriousness of the German nature (115).

Mark Mazower’s The Balkans: a Short History, represents a narrative of the rise of nationalism in the region known today as the Balkans.  It seems to me that Mazower’s work presents a more traditional view of nationalism, one in which nationalism is an ideology with a specific point of origin (Western Europe) and which then spreads to different parts of the world with varying speeds.  Though Mazower’s book is short, he succeeds in explaining the ways in which a variety of ethnicities emerged in the Balkan region.  While all of the details that he provides are interesting and important in their own right, what is most important for our discussion is the fact that he questions the causal link between nationalism and ethnicity.  In other words, did ethnicities create nationalism in a fight for a state, or was it the other way around?  “Ethnicity,” he concludes, “was as much the consequence as the cause of…unrest; revolutionary violence produced national affiliations as well as being produced by them” (99).  The first one hundred pages of the book are meant to justify this claim, for he argues that religion, not ethnicity, was the deciding basis of identity for the peoples of the Byzantine and Ottoman empires, which ruled the Balkan region before nation-states emerged in the 19th century.

Mazower’s book is different from Applegate’s and Waldstreicher’s in particular, because he argues that nationalism had to be violently forged by a small number of educated elites, forcing ethnic homogeneity, rather than emerging from it (109 & 70-72). Interesting for our discussion is the violent nature of nationalism.  The ideology of nationalism drew lines and created divides where there were none, Mazower argues.  Markers of nationality (language, schools, armies) had to be taught to pre-national peoples that consisted mainly of peasants whose loyalties were to a church or empire, not to any “innate nationality” (89).  These divisions were not drawn peacefully, and the resulting violence “represented the extreme force required by nationalists to break apart a society that was otherwise capable of ignoring the mundane fractures of class and ethnicity” (148).  This violence is central to Mazower’s understanding of nationalism, for a nation (an ethnic people) needs a state, or more specifically, a nation-state: a territory defined and governed by an ethnic/national majority.  An important aspect of this nation-state, according to Mazower, is its monopoly on violence as a tool to secure the interests of the nation (epilogue).

Maria Todorova’s Imagining the Balkans also focuses on the tendency of nationalism to divide and exclude.  Interestingly, while the Balkans are the center of her study, she ultimately sheds light on how other “Western” societies define themselves by defining what the Balkans are (or are not).  Central to her arguments is the concept of othering, an essential process of identity building that allocates the negations of one’s own identity into the identity of “the other.”  Todorova utilizes this concept in an attempt to discover the roots of the West’s unfairly negative view of the Balkan region.  Todorova’s book is very theoretical, but she can help us answer questions that we brought up last session (namely, What is Europe?) by forcing us to reframe the question into How did “the Europeans” define themselves?  Through her discussion of the Balkans, she shows that Western Europe has a long history of “othering” the Balkans.  This helped Western Europeans define themselves, and the Balkans became a “dumping ground” for Western Europeans to place everything that they felt they were not.  Beginning in the twentieth century, with the violence of the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization, the Balkans went from simply being viewed as an exotic other to being discussed as a hotbed of violence, backwardness, and ethnic hatred.  Moreover, Torodova stresses that, unlike the West – which enjoys a place of political superiority in the world, and therefore does not need to take into account how other societies define the West – the peoples of the Balkans internalized the West’s discourse, thus dramatically affecting their self-understanding.

Even as the Balkans began taking on very “European” characteristics (nationalist movements, independence movements based on liberal self-determination, and even capitalistic reform) – and indeed even as some from the Balkan region began referring to themselves as Southeast European, “real” Europe continued to construct differences between the Balkans and the West by characterizing the violent nature of the region.  Todorova lambasts the West for being hypocritical and forgetting its own violent past and exporting all of its own racist and imperialistic problems onto the Balkans (because of the fact that most of the Balkans’ inhabitants are white and predominantly Christian, Europe can deny any allegations of racial or religious bias in defining itself, Torodova claims, 188).

Torodova’s book is important because it calls attention to what she calls symbolic geography, the assigning of meaning to geographic locations, giving the appearance that the particular geography produces particular character traits.  Granted, Mazower’s “long history” approach shows that geography (the incredibly mountainous character of the region, for example) does indeed impact the way societies develop, but Torodova’s contribution is to urge us to question which of these attributes are “real” and which have been created by the needs of politics.  “After all, it is not symbolic geography that creates politics,” she writes, “but rather the reverse” (160).

In conclusion, each of these books makes us question our understanding of nationalism and the process of nation building.  Applegate and Waldstreicher demonstrate that nationalism is created by peoples, and is something that peoples participate in.  The importance of Torodova’s book is that it calls attention to how we speak about nationalism, and particular nationalities in particular.  Mazower’s book reveals what the rest also discuss:  the nation and the state are two separate (though interrelated) entities. Just like the state itself (territory and government), the nation must also be created, and a number of tools are necessary for this creation (or at least have been proven to be the most efficient):  maps, flags, common languages, and perhaps most importantly, a sense of a common past.  These all coalesce the best, as Applegate and Waldstreicher have shown, in cases in which the people can feel and experience tangible expressions of their commonality.

[1] However, I want to question Waldstreicher’s conclusion here, based on his own definition of nationalism.  While whites were drawn into a particular expression/type of national politics, women and blacks never stopped hosting festivities and celebrations, thus they never stopped practicing nationalism and national politics, according to his own definition.

Books under Review: 

David Waldstreicher, In the Midst of Perpetual Fetes: The Making of American Nationalism, 1776-1820. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.

Celia Applegate, Bach in Berlin: Nation and Culture in Mendelssohn’s Revival of the St. Matthew Passion. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2005.

Maria Todorova: Imagining the Balkans. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Mark Mazower, The Balkans: A Short History. New York: Modern Library, 2002.

Creative Commons License
Forging Nationalism in Modern Europe by W. J. Newsome is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.


For more books on modern European history, see my full list of book reviews. 

Categories: Book Review, Modern European History | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

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