A closer examination of the American experience, and the general perception that is subconsciously generated by American Foreign Policy specialists onto the rest of the world, has been to belittle the role of Ethnic Nationalism in politics. It’s an understandable misconception, as after all, and at least apparently, people of varying ethnic origins live side by side in a relative peace. Within two or three generations of migratory flows, ethnic identities are attenuated by cultural assimilation and inter-marriage, with the notable exception of the Muslims, of course who never integrate in any society where the host country is non-Muslim, henceforth the erroneous American perception that things cannot be so different in other parts of the world. Unfortunately they are.
More than once I personally noticed within my circle of friends and acquaintances within the US Academia and legal profession is that Americans find the very concept of Ethnic Nationalism disturbing both intellectually and morally. Social scientists go to great length to demonstrate that it is a product not of nature but of culture, often deliberately provoked, and ethicists will scorn and attack any value system based on narrow group identities rather than cosmopolitanism.
In my opinion and as an historian I find the “sweeping under the carpet” of the reality of Ethnic Nationalism by multiculturalists a very serious underestimation of the subconscious psychological pull that Ethnicity has on the human mind, and ignoring it will not simply make it go away. A closer examination to migratory flows shows that though most immigrants to the United States, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the UK, arrive with a manifest determination to settle professionally and socially in their new country (as always the exception to this rule are Muslims as only a small percentage come to a new country with that intention) the ethnic pulls are very strong, in fact and in what is mostly a subconscious phenomenon, each will automatically settle, at least initially in an area very the ethnic mix is not so different from the country left behind. Therefore, Italians will try and settle in an Italian area, the Irish into an Irish one, the Poles into a Polish area, and so on. This is normal as most first wave migratory flows in general have little or scant knowledge of the language of their newly adopted country, therefore, in order to better adapt, and settle in the new country which can be in itself a pretty daunting individual ordeal, the initial process has to go hand in hand with the protection and solidarity that, theoretically, is found by equal ethnicity already settled in the host country. Though the process of adaption to the new country, new language, societal habits and customs is slow, it nevertheless begins and will need a couple of generations to stabilize, what is commonly ignored by multiculturalists are the people who remain behind in the original countries, where the ancestors of the migrants have lived for generations, if not centuries, where political identities often take Ethnic form, producing competing and more often than not violent competing communal claims to political power. The creation of a peaceful regional order of nation-states has usually been the product of a violent process of ethnic separation. In areas where this separation has not yet occurred politics is apt to remain ugly and very brutal. A clear example of this has been the War in Balkans.
A common argument in European and American 20th Century history argues that Ethnic Nationalism led to War in 1914 and again in 1939. Thereafter, the story goes, Europeans concluded that nationalism was a great danger and gradually abandoned it, In the postwar decades the Europeans enmeshed themselves in a web of transnational institutions, culminating in the European Union (EU).
Has it solved the problem of Ethnic Nationalism? No it hasn’t! Actually in a way it has made it worse.
After the fall of the Soviet Union and their sphere of influence both economic and military in Eastern Europe the process of assimilation into the EU has spread Eastwards encompassing countries like Poland, Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania. Europe therefore entered a post national era, which, according to federalists and multiculturalists, is not only a good thing, but also a model for other regions. Ethnic Nationalism under this belief had been a tragic detour of history on the road to a peaceful liberal democratic order.
The problem is that this story, because it is a story that has little base of reality, is widely believed by most educated Europeans and even more so, perhaps, by educated Americans. This generates intellectual aberrations like the recent argument by fellow historian and university professor Tony Judt, (who I have a great respect for), which Israel ought to give up its claim to be a Jewish State and dissolve itself in a sort of bi-national identity with the Palestinians. “The problem with Israel”, says Professor Judt “Is that it has imported a characteristically 19th Century separatist project into a world that moved on, a world of individual rights, open frontiers, and international law. The very idea of a Jewish State or a Palestinian one……is an anachronism.”
From a purely Utopian angle that may well be, however reality is somewhat different. As can be seen over the last decade by the experience of hundreds of African or Asians who perish each year trying to reach European shores by landing on the coasts of Spain and Italy show that European frontiers aren’t so open, and as the present economic situation worsens they close down even more. Furthermore a simple analysis of Europe in the 1900 shows that then there were many states without a single overwhelming Ethnic group or dominant nationality, the very same analysis of Europe in 2010 shows that today there are only two, Belgium which is close to breaking point, because of Ethnic differences between the Dutch speaking Flemish and the French speaking Walloons, and the very stable Switzerland – where the balance of power between the four cohabiting Ethic Groups, French, German, Italian and Romanic are regulated by strict citizenship laws.
In reality in Europe “the separatist project” has not so vanished as a lot of very intelligent people would like to believe, but it has triumphed.
Far from having been superannuated in 1945, in many respects Ethnic Nationalism was at its apogee in the years immediately after WWII. European stability during the Cold War was in fact due partly to widespread fulfillment of the Ethno Nationalist project. And since the end of the Cold War Ethnic Nationalism has continued to reshape European borders. In short Ethnic Nationalism has played a more profound and lasting role in modern history than most intellectuals and politicians want to admit or are willing to understand and try and ignore this reality under a “blanket” of political correctness.
In truth, and setting aside the politically correct, the process that led to the dominance of Ethnic Nationalist state, and its influence on migratory factors and the consequent separation of Ethnic groups in Europe are likely to reoccur elsewhere. Increased urbanization, literacy, and political mobilization; differences in the fertility rates and economic performance of various Ethnic Groups; and the consequent migratory flow will challenge the internal structure of states as well as their borders. Therefore whether politically correct or not, Ethnic Nationalism will continue to shape the world well into the 21st Century.
There are two major ways of thinking about national identity.
1) Is that all people who live within a country’s borders are part of the nation regardless of their ethnic, racial, or religious origins.
2) Or that people who live within a country’s borders are defined by shared heritage, which usually includes a common language, a common faith, and a common Ethnic ancestry.
The first view of the definition of national identity, the more liberal one has often lost to the second one throughout history. In fact it is really the second one that has traditionally dominated through most of Europe, and has recently reappeared in the United States, where for substantial stretches of US history, it was believed that only people of English origin, or those who were Protestant, or white, or hailed from Northern Europe were real Americans. It was only in 1965 that the reform of the US Immigration Law abolished the system of national-origin quotas that had been in place for several decades. This system excluded Asians entirely and radically restricted migration flows from Eastern and Southern Europe. Since 9/11, the G.W Bush Administration, and its consequences on the US economic reality, the election of Barak Obama, we have seen a progressive return of this form of Ethnic Nationalism in the US, embodied mainly by political phenomenon’s such as Sarah Palin’s Tea Party, a new breed of Christian fundamentalists Republican Congressmen and women, and clear secessionist pulls from the less developed and culturally inadequate Southern States of the US, defined as the Bible Belt, where in fact extreme Christian Right Wing commentators, such a Rush Limbaugh, or Right Wing Media Groups like Fox have a great popular following in support of what are clearly populist Ethnic Nationalist movements fomented by a certain political, religious and industrial class.
Ethnic Nationalism draws much of its emotive power from the notion that the members of a nation are part of a extended family, ultimately united by ties of blood. It is the subjective belief in the reality of a common “WE” that counts. Of course, the markers that distinguish the in-group vary from case to case and time to time, and the subjective nature of communal boundaries has led to some discount in their practical significance. But as Walker Connor, an astute student of Nationalism has, quite rightly, noted, “It isn’t what is, but what people believe it is that has behavioral consequences.” And the central tenets of Ethnic Nationalist belief are that each nation exists, that each nation ought to have its own state, and that each state should be made up of the members of a single nation. The conventional interpretation of European history asserts that nationalism was primarily liberal in Western Europe and that it became more ethnically orientated as one moved east. Now there is some truth in this but it does disguise a multitude of sins as well. It is more accurate to say that when modern states began to form, political and ethno-linguistic boundaries largely coincided in the areas along Europe’s Atlantic coast. Liberal nationalism, that is, was most likely to emerge in states that already possessed a high degree of Ethnic homogeneity. Long before the 19th Century countries such as England, France, Spain, Portugal, and Sweden emerged as nation states in polities where ethnic divisions had been tempered by a long history of cultural and social homogenization.
In the center of the European continent, a population of German and Italian speakers was fragmented into hundreds of small units. But in the 1860s and the 1870s the problem was resolved with the creation of Germany and Italy as nation states. Moving further east the situation changed again. As late as 1914, most central, eastern and southeastern Europe wasn’t made up of nation states but Empires. The Hapsburg Empire comprised what are now Austria, Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia, and parts of what are now Bosnia, Croatia, Poland, Romania, Ukraine and more. The Romanov Empire stretched into Asia, including what is now Russia as well as parts of what now is Poland, Ukraine and more. The Ottoman Empire covered what is now modern Turkey, and parts of today’s Bulgaria, Greece, Romania, Serbia, and extended through much of the Middle East, and North Africa as well. Each of these Empires was composed of numerous ethnic groups, but they were not multinational in the sense of granting equal status to the many people that made up their populace. The governing monarchy and landed nobility often differed in language, ethnic origin and religion from their peasantry. In the Hapsburg and Romanov Empires for example, merchants were usually Germans or Jews. In the Ottoman Empire, they were often Armenians, Greeks and Jews. Furthermore in each Empire, the peasantry was itself ethnically diverse. Up through the 19th Century, these societies were largely agrarian: most people lived as peasants and only were few were literate. Political, social, and economic stratification usually correlated with ethnicity, and people didn’t expect to change their social status within the system. Until the rise of modern nationalism such “status quo” went largely unchallenged. Moreover, in the social structure of these Empires people of one religion, language and ethnicity were scattered all over. There were, for example, ethnic Germans not only in the areas that became Germany, but all over the Hapsburg and Romanov Empires. There were Greeks in Greece, but also millions of Greeks residing throughout the Ottoman Empire, as thousands of Ethnic Turks residing in Greece. The Jews were all over the place as they had no state of their own.
The funny thing is that today people tend to take the nation state for granted, and consider the age of Empires as an anomaly. But history teaches us the opposite, in fact the reverse is closer to the truth. Most people lived historically in empires being the nation state the exception to the rule. So what changed?
In effect the rise of Ethnic Nationalism and the very basis of the nation state have been propelled by some of the deepest currents of modernity. Military competition between states created a demand for an expanded state resources and hence continual economic growth. Economic growth, in turn, depended on mass literacy and easy communication, spurring policies to promote education and a common language – which led directly to conflicts over language and communal opportunities.
Modern societies are based on the theoretical egalitarian notion that anyone can aspire to any economic position. Nice theory, but practice shows the reverse, as everyone doesn’t have equal likelihood of upward economic mobility, and not simply because individuals have different innate capabilities. For such advances depend in part on what economists call “cultural capital”, that are part of the skills, and behavioral patterns that help individuals or groups to succeed. Groups with traditions of literacy and engagement in commerce tend to excel, for example, whereas those without such traditions tend always to lag behind. As they moved into the cities and got more education during the 19th and early 20th Centuries, ethnic groups with largely peasant backgrounds, such as the Czechs, the Poles, the Slovaks and the Ukrainians found that key positions in the government and the economy were already occupied by ethnic Germans, Armenians or Jews. Speakers of the same language come to share a sense that they belonged together and to define themselves in contrast to other communities. It was only a matter of time before these ethnic groups began to demand their own state, a state where they would be masters, dominating politics, staffing the civil service and controlling the economy.
Ethnic Nationalism has a psychological basis as well as an economic one. By creating a new and direct relationship between individuals and the government, the rise of the modern state weakened the individual’s traditional bonds to intermediate social units, such as the family, the clan, the guild and the church. And by spurring social and geographical mobility and a self-help mentality, the rise of market based economies did the same. The result has been inevitably an emotional vacuum that is filled by new forms of identification, often along ethnic lines.