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  • From Nationalizing Empire to Postcolonial Nation
  • From the Editors

The confluence of imperialism and nationalism is one of the most confusing and startlingly understudied historical topics. In the popular imagination fed by journalists and policy experts as much as by fantasy books and films, empire is naturally expected to pursue constant expansion in the name of the superior race or people. Moreover, an empire is inconceivable without servicing the Herrenvolk (ruling people) and performing the role of "prison of nations." Not necessarily inaccurate, these assumptions are very modern.

The origins of these terms, originally bearing meanings very different from their later usage, marked the rise and demise of Romanticism – just a few artistic styles and epistemological stances ago. Thinking in categories of individual spiritual and collective civilizational development, Johann Gottfried Herder suggested that "only a politically mature people can be a 'ruling people' [Herrenvolk]," meaning the popular sovereignty rather than hegemony over other peoples (so that the people can be Herrenvolk "only if it holds the administrative reins in its own hands and participates decisively through elected representatives in the selection of its political leaders can a people be called mature").1 In 1792, he added pronouncedly: [End Page 9] "Let one have no pet tribe, no favorite people [Favoritvolk] on the earth."2 A Romantic litterateur, Astolphe-Louis-Léonor, Marquis de Custine, visited Russia in 1839 to confirm his politically and religiously conservative ideals. The contrast between their actual realization under Nicholas I (unattainable under the constitutional regime of Louis Philippe in France) and Custine's expectations caused him to bitterly blame the Russian mirror for their ugly face in La Russie en 1839 (1843). He announced that "this Empire, immense as it is, is no more than a prison of which the emperor keeps the key."3 There was nothing about nations and nationalism in Herder's and Custine's Romantic reasoning, or about controlling other nationalities by the empire or its "favorite people." It took decades of the notion of volk's biologization to transform the idea of spiritual kinship into a synonym of race.4 Parallel to this, the rise of transborder nationalisms ("pan-movements") produced empire-like entities of the German Reich and the Kingdom of Italy, and caused the regimes of the Russian Empire and the Ottoman Empire to reinvent themselves as national states of pan-Slavic and pan-Turkic entities.5

The modern notions of an empire as "prison of nations" and its Herrenvolk suppressing minority nationalities crystallized only by the outbreak of World War I (which itself largely resulted from the radical transformation of the social imaginary). In April 1914 Vladimir Lenin coined the formula "Russia is a 'prison of nations.'"6 In October 1916, opening the first issue of the anti-imperial magazine The New Europe with a programmatic article, Thomas Masaryk announced that "Darwinism … was utilised to argue the rights of big and powerful nations; while Nietzsche's Darwinistic 'Uebermensch' (superman) and 'Herrenvolk' (ruling race) were especially accepted in a Pangerman sense. … Pangermanism is a programme for the final solution of the Eastern question."7 [End Page 10]

So, even in the early 1840s, despite his romantic involvement with the Polish émigré Ignatius Gurowski and thus exposure to "Polish propaganda,"8 Custine believed that the Russian Empire was a prison not of "nations" but of individual subjects. By 1917, it was already common knowledge that the Russian Empire was oppressing its numerous nationalities, and that Germans perceived themselves as the ruling race dominating the Untermenschen from the East (Slavs, later joined by Jews and Roma). But how exactly did this transformation happen in the popular imagination and in practice? What did it take for the liberating concept of nation and the anational (or antinationalist) political-epistemological formation of empire to merge into the most toxic and deadly combination of nationalized and nationalizing empire? These questions are largely ignored in historiography, because the state of empires during the last decades before their collapse is perceived (paradoxically) as their most typical stage. A rare exception is the comprehensive edited volume Nationalizing Empires, which, although it presents interesting studies of individual national movements, it does not clarify the problem.9 The editors...


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