- New Approaches to Nationalism
Whatever nationalism is, whether ideology, civic religion, popular sentiment, or mass psychosis, its influence on modern society, politics, and art has been profound, perhaps more influential than the political movements of liberalism, fascism, and communism, all of which it underlay, interacted with, and powerfully defined. Whether analysts view nationalism as a beneficial or detrimental historical force, they tend to agree that this potent and multifarious phenomenon warrants sustained and rigorous analysis. The recent burst of academic studies is, in part, the product of that consensus.
The current wave of nationalist movements around the globe not only provides powerful additional evidence for this assertion, but also presents interesting difficulties for those who study the topic. The three works under review here provide an opportunity to consider the challenges of analyzing nationalism in what is an increasingly nationalistic moment. In their respective strengths and weaknesses, these books confirm that our efforts to come to terms with nationalism as an historical artifact are always entangled to some extent with our sense of it as a contemporary political problem, and therefore, that we need to find ways of dealing with that entanglement in an honest and productive manner, so that we can elucidate nationalism without unwittingly perpetuating the errors that characterize its history.
In Confronting the Nation: Jewish and Western Nationalism, the historian of modernity George Mosse brings his formidable knowledge and analytical skills to bear on the cultural and political construction of the modern nation and the ways in which European Jews confronted [End Page 184] an evolving nationalism that at first aided their social and political liberation but eventually led to their exclusion, oppression, and extermination. While Mosse is not primarily interested in taking a political stand on the events he recounts, his analysis has a political bias that ultimately leads him to propose reenlivened liberal nationalism as a solution to the ongoing problem of intolerant right-wing nationalism. This final move raises illuminating questions about the links between these competing visions of nationalism, links that Mosse does not in the end fully probe, although they pose important problems for the solution he proposes.
Confronting the Nation argues that European nationalism has undergone a distressing transformation over the past two centuries: primarily animated during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by a desire for political self-determination that tolerated a range of political, social, and religious attitudes, it became early in this century a “civic religion,” wherein the cult of the nation facilitated the rise of “heightened and irrational” forms, like France’s “integral” nationalism or Germany’s “völkish” nationalism (1). According to Mosse, this dangerous, chauvinistic nationalism was the result neither of human nature nor of this or that politico-economic system or ideology. It grew out of an unfortunate confluence of unprecedented historical circumstances and groups of particularly opportunistic right-wing politicians and intellectuals who exploited those circumstances to their advantage. What they recognized more fully and responded to more effectively than their liberal and socialist counterparts was the fact that in the face of modernity’s bewildering upheavals, Europeans desperately wanted the kind of stable psychological “shelter” (5) they had once found in organized religion: the radical right’s innovation was to realize the potential of nationalism to serve as modernity’s civic religion.
Mosse’s greatest strength as an analyst of modernity is his success in accounting for modern nationalism’s historical contradictions. His analysis of Jewish negotiations with the modern nation demonstrates the point. It begins by tracing the role played in the process of Jewish assimilation in nineteenth-century Europe by Enlightenment liberalism, which sustained both an ideal of inclusive tolerance and an “allegiance to national ideals” (4). Ironically, this investment in liberal nationalism left the Jews “ill-prepared to confront the new civic...