- The Myth of Nations: The Medieval Origins of Europe, and: Who We Are: A History of Popular Nationalism
Both Robert H. Wiebe's Who We Are: A History of Popular Nationalism and Patrick J. Geary's The Myth of Nations: The Medieval Origins of Europe present profitable introductory histories of nationalism that are geared toward general audiences. Each author keeps endnotes to a minimum, with extensive citations replaced by recommendations for further reading. Wiebe's recommendations take the form of a forty-page bibliographical essay that will prove a valuable resource for students seeking a quick-and-dirty history not only of general studies of nationalism [End Page 248] from the 1950s on, but also of a wide range of particular nationalisms.While both authors ground their books in contemporary concerns, Geary is especially alarmed by the rise of neonationalism and the attendant threat of racial and ethnic violence in Europe. Wiebe, on the other hand, worrying that the late-twentieth-century prospects of global capitalism's triumph over nationalism "looks more and more like tomorrow's dead end" (p. 215), provocatively concludes that nationalism, along with socialism and democracy, might prove to "live on as resistance movements, channeling aspirations that the current universe of states has frustrated" (p. 220). As these concerns and conclusions imply,Wiebe and Geary take entirely different routes in their discussions of nationalism.
Wiebe aims his study squarely at what he identifies as aWestern intellectual demonization of nationalism that avoids dealing not only with the popular appeal of nationalism but also with its capability to resist foreign imperialism. In response to this demonization,Wiebe does two things: he refuses to cast nationalism as an elitist ruse—"Rather than a gigantic fraud perpetrated time and time again on the individual masses, nationalism thrived because it addressed basic human needs" (p. 11)—and he refuses to see global capitalism as an unproblematic, albeit, new, enlightenment—"Economic motivations are not inherently rational and village identities are not inherently backward. Ethnic pride is not the mark of a first-class grudge, a second-class citizen, or a third-class mind" (p. 218). It is this stance that underwritesWiebe's history of nationalism as a response to a nineteenth-century breakdown of social life. Just as nationalism—a "fictive kin composite" (or ethnicity) with a "political objective" (p. 18)—arose as a response to the dissolution of the family under economic pressures, parallel disruptions in working and public life produced socialism and democracy. It is the state, always "ambitious to devour all other loyalties for its own purposes" (p. 47), that Wiebe makes culpable for violence done in the name of a co-opted nationalism (or socialism, or democracy, for that matter). In this view, nineteenth-century Europe was an ideological battle royal in which socialism, democracy, and nationalism vied for survival by combining with the "other great dividers of the nineteenth century: language, race, and religion" (p. 53). Identifying these "great dividers" as accessories added to nationalism rather than characteristic or perhaps even productive of it is a too easy exculpation of nationalist doctrine, and Wiebe's reluctance to discuss these "great dividers" more fully highlights this argument's service to Wiebe's larger thesis that nationalism retains the potential for answering to vital modern political needs. [End Page 249]
Wiebe, before discussing the spread of nationalism, turns his attention to the United States, arguing that two factors contributed to the development of democracy in America: its weak central government and its definition of social boundaries along a white-black racial axis. Both factors facilitated the assimilation of European immigrants, at least in the North; the South developed a nationalism that derived from racism. Nevertheless, Wiebe maintains that America functioned as a negative of the picture in Europe, with democracy as its "proxy nationalism," uniting and defining the population.
This turn to the United States is...