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June 2002 · Historically Speaking Richard Blanke A World of Nations,After All Historians tryingto make sense ofdifficult national problems often turn for analytical and contextual assistance to the extensive theoretical literature on nationalism, most ofit ofsocial-science provenance . As often as not, theycome away disappointed . Atleast, this has been myexperience, whether the specific problem was the ability of Prussian Poles to maintain their position against a supposedly powerful German Empire, or the peculiarly difficult situation thatfaced the one million Germans consigned to resurrected Poland after World War I, or the phenomenon of "Polish-speaking Germans "whoinsisted on a national identitythat ran counter to their native language, or the complexofemotions, experiences, and rationalizations that made possible history's greatestethnic -cleansingoperation: the removal of approximately 17 million Germans, mosdy from eastern regions oftheir own country, in and after 1945. These are just four ofthe many historical examples diatdemonstrate the force and centrality ofnationalism; none ofthem has been persuasively analyzed, accounted for, or even addressed by the most influential works on nationalism published since the 1960s. As for nationaldevelopments in Eastern Europe since the collapse ofCommunism, steepingoneself in this literature before 1990 would have provided no better preparation for what actually happened than a major in Soviet Studies prepared one forthe collapse itself. Butwhile the methodological assumptions of Soviet Studies have been subjected to a great deal ofjustified criticism, the field of"Nationalism Studies " does not seem to have undergone a comparable critique (or self-critique). When we turn from contemporarynationalisttheoryto the contemporaryworld, this is what we find: first, that nationalism itself (in the general sense that most people identify with political or cultural communities called nations, whose interests andvalues take precedence over odier forms ofsocial organization, and believe that national communities and political units should coincidewhere possible) remains the world's primarypolitical ordering principle. Formostindividuals, the nation continues to function as Rupert Emerson's "terminal community," the largest community that, when the chips are down, commands theirloyalty. National identities and loyalties— in some parts oftheworld these are still called "ethnic" or "tribal"—demonstrate a continuing ability to defy the most powerful regimes and to confound the mostsophisticated elites; to prevail over the competingdemands oftraditional polity, social class, economic interest, multi-national construct, topography, and common sense; and to engenderlevelsofindividual commitment and group action about which advocates ofclass or gender solidarity can onlyfantasize. Onlyreligion demonstrates, . . . ethnic-national consciousness . . . is probably no more 'imagined' or 'invented9 than any otheraspect of the cultural environment in whichpeople live. in some situations, a comparable appeal. And once-confidentpronouncements bysome dieorists that nationalism was a passing phase in human historywhose hold was alreadyweakening have been rudely challenged by recent developments, and notjustin Eastern Europe. Second, it is hard to ignore the fact that language and ethnicity, while they may not underlie all forms of national assertiveness, continue to provide the foundation for most expressions ofnationalism. Tb be sure, some successful nation-states have arisen on otherthan -ethnic foundations, notably in Western Europe. But we should not forget that such states were once common to Eastern Europe aswell; exceptthattheyhave disappeared from that region. The classic examples were the multi-national Russian, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman empires, which gave way to a new system of alleged nation-states after WorldWarI. Butsome ofdienewstates, e.g., the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia, were also multi-national constructions , and now theytoo have capitulated to the forces of ethnic nationalism. And this second wave of destruction of multi-ethnic polities maybe even more instructive dian die first, for these latter states (and the Soviet Union most obviously) had very powerful means ofpersuasion at their disposal, and did not hesitate to apply them. Nonetheless, Europe consists today, for the first time in its history, almostexclusivelyofnation-states. Third,while fewwould argue(assomedid indie 19th century) diatlanguage necessarily prefigures national identity, it does seem to function in most cases as the leading indicator ofethnic nationality, ifnot its synonym. Tb be sure, while a common language may invite people to see themselves as a national group, it clearly does not oblige them to do so. Other considerations, e.g., differences of religion, may take precedence. In today's Europe, Croats, Bosnians, and Serbs, who speak a common language...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1944-6438
Print ISSN
1941-4188
Pages
pp. 5-7
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-04
Open Access
No
Archive Status
Ceased Publication
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