Europe and Ethnicity: World War I and Contemporary Ethnic Conflict, and: Global Convulsions: Race, Ethnicity, and Nationalism at the End of the Twentieth Century
A generation ago nationalism was an apparent irrelevance, discredited by its associations with the destruction of World War II and the Holocaust. The development of global institutions such as the United Nations, GATT, and the International Monetary Fund; the rise of the superpowers; organized blocs according to rival universalist principles; and the drive to a European Union seemed until recently to indicate the supersession of national identities and illusions of sovereignty. These assumptions ran deep in much of the scholarship on nationalism. But with the end of the Cold War, it is now clear that we are in the midst of a global nationalist resurgence, and one that in many contexts is allied to that other supposed dinosaur, religion. Having seen off the multinational dynastic empires earlier in this century, nationalism has now dispatched communist internationalism. Many of the problems subsequent to the Soviet collapse seem disturbingly similar to those encountered after Versailles. Are we marching back to the future? Or is nationalism also threatening to devour the nation-state? And will globalization throw up new political forms of multicultural community that will tame the nationalist tiger?
These are some of the questions addressed by two books that examine the question of nationalism in the twentieth century. Europe and Ethnicity, edited by Seamus Dunn and T. G. Fraser, most of whose contributors are from the University of Ulster and must confront the past daily in their present, is the more historical: it looks back to World War I and its settlement to understand the present European predicament. Global Convulsions, edited by Winston Van Horne and arising from a conference held at the University of Wisconsin in 1993, is more global in its reach and contemporary in its preoccupations. Each contains valuable essays, but neither offers a deep historical framework that situates the current wave of nationalism as only one of several that has arisen since the late eighteenth century. Each suffers from the same odd oversight: the lack of an extended discussion of the development [End Page 494] of international or supranational institutions, which alone offer prospects of a civilized future.
As international relations scholars remind us, the international system has normally operated as powerful reinforcement of existing states, with few cases of successful secession without the support of powerful external sponsors. Although it is war that above all serves to nationalize states, it is also war that overthrows or creates the crisis of the state, which allows national minorities to seize their moment. World War I above all demonstrates this, since the new states of Czechoslovakia, Finland, Ireland, Poland, Yugoslavia, Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia, among others, were formed in the aftermath of the disintegration or weakening of the great empires and of the Versailles settlement and its related treaties.
The Dunn and Fraser collection focuses not on the war as such, but more narrowly on Versailles. In the words of the editors (p. 6), its theme is that “many of the current flash points in the western and mid-eastern worlds...can be traced back to the compromises and failures of that settlement.” There follow ten chapters, examining first the Wilsonian concept of self-determination that developed in the course of the peace process, then a series of cases (Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Tyrol and Trentino, Hungary, Ukraine, the Baltic states, the Middle East, Ireland), and finally a chapter on the enduring legacy of Versailles.
The standard of the chapters is high, and a broad theme emerges. Versailles is revolutionary because traditional (and predemocratic) balance-of-power perspectives of international relations were challenged by President Woodrow Wilson’s (democratic) concept of basing state legitimacy on self-determination. But, as Alan Sharp’s chapter reveals, Wilson himself was deeply confused about its meaning, unaware of its capacity for exciting nationalist passions in mixed populations. In practice the victors qualified it with geopolitical considerations to ensure the weakness of the defeated. Entirely new conglomerate states (Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia) were encouraged by the Allies, justified by considerations of military or economic practicality. In addition, Czechoslovakia was given the German Sudetenland, Romania a large minority in Transylvania, and Italy the German-speaking South Tyrol, to provide these states with defensible frontiers or economic advantage. As Antony Alcock observes (p. 9) in his incisive discussion of the South Tyrol, the irony of Versailles was that the new or enlarged states it brought into being “far from being the monocultural political entities expected came to be as multicultural as the [End Page 495] multinational empires that had been overthrown in the name of monoculturalism.” A second principle of the settlement, the protection of minorities, designed to mitigate the inability to provide self-determination for all, was never adequately implemented.
Just how devastating this victors’ peace was to the defeated is well brought out in Raymond Pearson’s discussion of Hungary, left with a territory one-third of its former size and with one-third of its nationality reduced to a minority status in nearby states. Resentment at the skewed application of the self-determination principle was one of the reasons for the coalition of powers that fought World War II to overthrow Versailles. Their failure, although it altered (sometimes substantially) the Versailles apportionment of territories and peoples, did leave intact some of the mismatch between ethnic and political boundaries, again justified by geostrategic considerations, and now frozen into place by the Cold War.
But if Versailles bears a responsibility for World War II, how far can it be blamed for present difficulties? Alan Lane and W. V. Wallace argue in the cases of Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia, respectively, that not much more could have been expected of the peace makers. Was the major problem the war itself, which had induced the collapse of states based on an imperial principle and thereby produced the need in the interests of security to find some other concept to organize populations among whom nationalism was already embedded? Ken Ward on the Baltic states and Andrew Wilson on the Ukraine make little mention of Versailles and implicitly suggest this. Seamus Dunn, when analyzing the problem of partition in Ireland, indicates that the war itself was more significant than Versailles for Irish division by generating different myths (for Protestants, the “blood sacrifice” of the Marne, and for Catholics, the “blood sacrifice” of Easter 1916) and by creating acute time pressures that prevented considered negotiation.
This raises two questions. First, is the theme of the book overly narrow in focusing primarily on the settlement rather than the larger effects of the war? Was not the Bolshevik revolution one of the consequences of the war, and have not Soviet nationality policies had a decisive part in shaping present conditions in Eastern Europe? Second, with a longer perspective the larger issue might be whether there exists a viable multinational political model to contain ethnically scattered populations. Alcock speculates tentatively that a European Union based on the regions rather than the nation-states ought to be a model for the future, but how much can one rest on current and possibly temporal conditions when the absence of an obvious great power for the first time in modern European memory allows for all kinds of communitarian [End Page 496] fantasies? What is instructive and disillusioning is the disappearance of entities, such as Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia, that proposed themselves for new Switzerlands.
In comparison, Global Convulsions is a much more heterogeneous set of chapters, global in its reach, and composed by social scientists (and some historians). The chapters are grouped into three parts. The first set of six analyze the themes of race, religion, and nationalism; the second set of four address the current struggle for national rights in Northern Ireland, Israel, Palestine, and Kurdish territories; and the third set of six discuss nationalism and the crisis of the multiethnic state, focusing on the Soviet and post-Soviet experience, Lithuania, Yugoslavia, China, Nigeria, and Quebec. The volume contains several excellent contributions, but has weaknesses as a collection.
The major problem lies with the lack of a clear framework around which to organize the contributions. This is obvious in the first section. Here there are two outstanding chapters. Brian Porter provides a superb overview of the concept of nationalism in history. We might question as overly mechanical his explanation of the current ethnonationalist revival by reference to the modern state’s neglect of the ethnic dimension of the nation, but one cannot fail to be stimulated by his analysis of ethnicity as the “true realities” of the world. Kosaku Yoshino provides an original analysis of how globalization results in the reproduction of cultural nationalism in contemporary Japan. Here, business elites convinced of Japan’s uniqueness have sponsored cross-cultural manuals to equip the Japanese to negotiate with the West, but ironically the result is to create stereotypical polarities that reinforce a sense of national distinctiveness. He suggests a distinction between formal and informal nationalism. The former is inculcated in children at school, but adults consume nationalism indirectly through such manuals.
By comparison, the other chapters in this section are disappointing. The three essays on race are uneven in quality and utility. Linda Vigilant’s essay offers a good outline of the lack of a biological basis to “race,” but while educational, how does this help us understand the revival of racist movements? Winston Van Horne’s essay polemicizes against the authors of The Bell Curve, who for their sins are situated (p. 73) within the “racialist tradition of Jefferson, Taney, Lincoln, and Brown.” Perhaps he might have added Winston Churchill and Adolf Hitler to his hit list. Martin Bernal’s essay on race in history is useful, but in making his claim that racism until recently was restricted to people of European descent, it is a pity he does not address Frank Dikotter’s work on China. All three lack obvious application to the questions explored [End Page 497] elsewhere in the book. None of these chapters proposes an explanation for the rise of racist political movements and the genocides of the twentieth century in and outside Europe. Why do groups select phenotypical rather than cultural symbols as a basis of identity? And what is the relationship between nationalism and racism? Martin Marty’s essay on ethnonationalism and religion is bland and overgeneralized. The reader will learn nothing here about current revivalism among Muslims, Hindus, Orthodox Jews, Buddhists, or Russian Orthodox and the implications for nation-states.
Given that one of the themes of the book is the global reach of nationalism, it is the more surprising to have no chapter on the rise of world and international institutions and their possible role in resolving nationalist disputes. This weakens the second section, which provides analyses of current hot spots, some of which have been the subject of international interventions. The essays, though well presented, here are largely descriptive accounts of current popular attitudes to the disputes. But the situation has changed since these essays were written (for the better in the case of Northern Ireland, and for the worse in the Middle East), and this robs these chapters of part of their value.
The third section also lacks a thematic and contextualizing essay about the problems facing multiethnic states and their possible solutions. Instead, with one exception there is a succession of single-country chapters, many of which lack any general reference. The exception is Mark Beissenger’s discussion of the relentless pursuit of the nation-state in the wake of Soviet disintegration. This is an expert analysis, which argues that the second phase of state-seeking (state-building) is coming into tension with a new round of state-seeking by galvanized national minorities. Nonetheless, it is overspecialized for the purpose of the volume. It lacks a long historical context, is quite narrow since it does not explain the origin of the drive for this behavior (when did a concern for national identity and freedom begin to animate populations?), and does not explore what the preconditions for establishing a successful state might be.
Other essays are unnecessarily limited in their single-country focus. Alfred Senn discusses Lithuania with only the most cursory glance at the comparative conditions in the other Baltic states. Claude Ake’s analysis of political ethnicity and the failure of state-building in Nigeria is courageous under the circumstances, but surely he might have considered its relevance to the larger African context. In contrast, Robin Remington’s chapter on Yugoslavia provides a superb explanation of its disintegration that offers both historical context and a cogent institutional analysis. David Beck’s chapter on ethnonationalism [End Page 498] in China is also valuable. Although he argues that the aspirations of minority nationalities are checked by Han demographic and political power, his contention that Han identity is itself an overlay on reviving regional (southern) identities, many of which have an anti-northern bias, offers scope for reflection about the future of China as a highly centralized great power. The final essay by Marc Levine furnishes an intelligent discussion of the recent rise of separatism among the Francophone population of Quebec and its prospects for success.
The failure, however, to furnish a clear framework for this topic will date Global Convulsions, even more than is readily apparent. This is not remedied either in the wandering introduction or in the epilogue. Of the two books, it is the Dunn and Fraser volume that is the more valuable by virtue of its firm intellectual focus, outlined in its introduction and conclusion. Its strong historical grip on the events of the century contrasts with the more contemporary perspectives of Van Horne’s collection, which are also more case-specific, requiring the reader to draw out the general import of its findings.