Nationalism in Europe & America: Politics, Cultures, and Identities Since 1775 by Lloyd S. Kramer (review)
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Nationalism, Cultural identity, Tradition

Nationalism in Europe & America: Politics, Cultures, and Identities Since 1775. By Lloyd S. Kramer. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 2011. Pp. 272. Cloth, $65.00.)

In Nationalism in Europe & America, a revised and updated version of a book first published in 1998, Lloyd S. Kramer offers a broad, well-argued introduction to the literature on the history of nationalism. Kramer makes two main arguments. First, nationalism—the idea that states should represent culturally unified peoples—is a modern invention. Second, nationalism is a cultural force that speaks to human beings' deep yearning to be connected to something outside themselves. Both claims are well argued and provocative, and challenge other scholars.

The first claim is intended to challenge those who believe that nationalism's roots lie in the mists of time. Kramer is not claiming that shared cultural identity is modern. What was new was the idea that this shared collective identity must be linked to political self-government. As Kramer writes, nationalists believe that "state power should represent the collective will of a particular population or 'citizenry' " (29).

This ideal emerged, Kramer argues, in the wake of the American and French revolutions, and spread across Europe with the French Army. As divine-right monarchy came under challenge, theorists from John Locke forward posited the idea that legitimate government must derive from the consent of the governed. Rights and collective self-government became linked in theory and in popular ideas. This meant that the early history of nationalism, especially in the American Revolution, was "liberal and revolutionary rather than conservative and reactionary" (34). [End Page 345]

Nationalism was successful, however, because "it gives people deep emotional attachments to large human communities and provides powerful stories to explain the meaning of public and personal lives" (7). Like Robert Wiebe in Who We Are: A History of Popular Nationalism (Princeton, NJ, 2006), Kramer recognizes that nationalism gives people a sense of belonging in a complex world, and thus is housed in real human needs and hopes. Thus, Kramer concludes, despite nationalism's roots in political revolutions, it is fundamentally cultural.

Kramer's book is oriented around proving that nationalism's causes are not political nor economic—as many other scholars argue—but cultural. Nations emerge textually through "land, language, & writing" (57). Ordinary people come to attach special meaning to particular bounded plots of land through textual representations that endow the land with meaning. As Benedict Anderson recognized in Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (New York, 1993), the spread of print culture meant that people could identify with one another across space. Kramer, building on this insight, argues that it was through the circulation of texts that nationalism achieved cultural coherence.

In one of the most interesting chapters in the book, Kramer explores how nations co-opted the language and symbolism of religion in order to endow themselves with "the transcendent meanings that can transform a national cause into a sacred cause" (81). Kramer makes clear that nations' ability to shape our identities and gain our loyalties is due to their ability to provide an answer to "human anxieties about death" (83), thus serving the same psychological function as religion. By placing individuals in national time—as part of a human community with a past, present, and future—nations offer meaning in a meaningless world.

Nationalists relied on the "familiar icons and languages of Christian churches" (89). In some cases, nationalists literally appropriated religious symbols and buildings within national contexts, but Kramer's larger point is that nationalists offered people icons (like flags), canonical sacred texts (like Shakespeare in England), stories about traitors (Benedict Arnold as Judas Iscariot), and the hope of redemption through sacrifice. In many cases, moreover, religion has bolstered nationalist movements.

Like Craig Calhoun in Nationalism (Minneapolis, 1997), Kramer argues that nationalism since the age of revolutions has had uniform elements—and that nations exist when those factors are present and gain popular support. Kramer lists several factors common to all nationalisms: [End Page 346] the interweaving of "civic" and "ethnic" languages; claims based on specific geographic territories and histories; cultural education that places people...