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History: Review of BooksAn admirable survey of a complicated and important subject.
— Kelly McFall
"A book of the best possible originality. It presents a theme that has been hotly debated in modern scholarly circles with a novel freshness, while drawing the attention of the reader to the urgent relevance of such debates to the history of modern Europe. This is a book of quite exemplary clarity. It deserves to be widely read and will doubtless spark off lively discussion among scholars."--Peter Brown, Princeton University
"In this compelling historical treatise, Geary debunks the myth that modern European national and ethnic groups can be traced to distinct ancient or early medieval peoples. . . . [H]is arguments are important in light of the nationalistic excesses of the 20th century, and his conclusions are sure to provoke controversy among scholars."--Publishers Weekly
"An admirable survey of a complicated and important subject."--Kelly McFall, History: Review of Books
"Patrick Geary's The Myth of Nations is more timely than he could have anticipated. . . . Since 1989, this period--between the third and eighth centuries--has been persistently misrepresented by Europe's nationalist and racist populations, who claim to find in the Middle Ages some kind of justification for their policies. . . . Demythologizing the early Middle Ages entails first understanding how the myths were created in the 19th century. Geary is blunt ... it is impossible to map linguistic or ethnic identities onto national territories. . . . Ethnicity is 'impervious to mere rational disproof.' This is why Geary's message is so compelling, and why it matters to keep faith with reason: getting Europe's medieval past straight gives a bearing on its future."--J.L. Nelson, London Review of Books
A Poisoned Landscape: Ethnicity and Nationalism in the Nineteenth Century
Modern history was born in the nineteenth century, conceived and developed as an instrument of European nationalism. As a tool of nationalist ideology, the history of Europe's nations was a great success, but it has turned our understanding of the past into a toxic waste dump, filled with the poison of ethnic nationalism, and the poison has seeped deep into popular consciousness. Cleaning up this waste is the most daunting challenge facing historians today.
The real history of the nations that populated Europe in the early Middle Ages begins not in the sixth century but in the eighteenth. This is not to deny that people living in the distant past had a sense of nation or collective identity. But the past two centuries of intellectual activity and political confrontation have so utterly changed the ways we think about social and political groups that we cannot pretend to provide an "objective" view of early medieval social categories, unencumbered by this recent past. Not only is ethnic nationalism, as we currently understand it, in a certain sense an invention of this recent period, but, as we shall see, the very tools of analysis by which we pretend to practice scientific history were invented and perfected within a wider climate of nationalism and nationalist preoccupations. Rather than neutral instruments of scholarship, the modern methods of researching and writing history were developed specifically to further nationalist aims. Since both the object and method of investigation aresuspect, it is only fair to recognize the subjective nature of our investigation at the outset by briefly reviewing the process that led to their invention.
Ethnic Nationalism and the Age of Revolution
The story of the emergence of nationalism in the eighteenth century and the early nineteenth century has been told many times. The ethnically based nation-states of today have been described as "imagined communities," called into being by the creative efforts of nineteenth-century intellectuals and politicians, who transformed earlier, romantic, nationalist traditions into political programs. Indeed, a rash of books and articles—some scholarly, others aimed at a general public—argue that many "age-old traditions," from national identities to Scottish plaids, are the recent and cynical invention of politicians or entrepreneurs. There is much truth to this characterization, especially since it draws attention to the formative role played in the recent past by individuals and groups in the elaboration of supposedly ancient ideologies. At the same time, however, it would be absurd to suggest that, because these communities are in some sense "imagined," they should be dismissed or trivialized, or to imply that "somehow imagined" is synonymous either with "imaginary" or "insignificant." First, while the specific forms of ethnically based nation-states of today may indeed have been called into being by the efforts of nineteenth-century romantics and nationalists, this does not mean that other forms of imagining nations did not exist in the past—forms equally powerful as, even if very different from, those of the modern world. Nineteenth-century scholars, politicians, and poets did not simply make up the past; they drew on pre-existing traditions, written sources, legends, and beliefs, even if they used them in new ways to forge political unity or autonomy. Second, even if these communities are in a sense imagined, they are very real and very powerful: All important historical phenomena are in some sense psychological, and mental phenomena—from religious extremism to political ideology—have probably killed more people than anything but the Black Death.
The specific process through which nationalism emerged as a potent political ideology has varied by region across Europe and well beyond. In regions lacking political organization, such as Germany, nationalism provided an ideology to create and augment state power. In large states, such as France and Great Britain, governments and ideologues ruthlessly suppressed minority languages, cultural traditions, and variant memories of the past, in favor of a unified national history and homogeneous language and culture that could claim to extend far into the past. In polyethnic empires, such as those of the Ottomans or Habsburgs, individuals identifying themselves as members of oppressed minorities used nationalism to claim the right not only to a separate cultural existence but also, as a consequence, to political autonomy.
A fairly typical version of how the ideology of nationalism gives rise to independence movements, particularly in Eastern and Central Europe, posits three stages in the process of creating these imagined communities. They include, first, the study of the language, culture, and history of a subject people by a small group of "awakened" intellectuals; second, the transmission of the scholars' ideas by a group of "patriots" who disseminate them throughout society; and finally, the stage at which the national movement reaches its mass apogee. With minor variations, this process can be traced from Germany in the eighteenth century across much of the Ottoman, Habsburg, and Russian empires in the nineteenth century, and, ultimately, to colonial and postcolonial Asia, Africa, and the Americas in the twentieth century.
Most students of nationalism would not dispute this general description of the process of national awakening and politicization. Hotly disputed, however, is whether the original reflection by "awakened" intellectuals merely acknowledges a pre-existing and repressed people or if these intellectuals invent the very people that they study. The historian of Croatia, Ivo Banac, for example, differs from many when he argues that "In order to be accepted, an ideology must proceed from reality. Nationalism can attempt to deal with the conditions of its group's subjugation, but it cannot manufacture the conditions." At one level he is certainly correct: If individuals do not experience subjugation and discrimination, promises of remedies are unlikely to be effective. However, understood in a different sense, such a formulation is potentially dangerous: It implies that the groups—potential nations, as it were—exist even before intellectuals recognize them; that the conditions of subjugation are peculiar to a given group; and that nationalism is the appropriate cure for these ills. In other words, while nationalism may not create the conditions, it can certainly manufacture the nation itself. In the nineteenth century, under the influence of revolution and romanticism, and with the apparent failure of the old aristocratic order in the political arena, intellectuals and politicians created new nations, nations that they then projected into the distant past of the early Middle Ages.
The intellectual context in which modern nationalism was born was initially the fascination with the ancient world on the part of European scholarly elites, particularly in France and Germany. Fascination with classical culture and civilization—cultivated especially in the Netherlands and then in France and in German universities such as Göttingen—set the stage for a radical reversal of self-perceptions and identity, sweeping away centuries of very different social identities.
Group Identity Before Nationalism
During the high Middle Ages and the early Renaissance, "nation"—along with religion, kindred, lordship, and social stratum—provided one of the overlapping ways by which politically active elites identified themselves and organized collaborative action. However, a sense of belonging to a nation did not constitute the most important of these bonds. Nor did a common national identity unite the high and low, lord and peasant, into a deeply felt community of interest. Even less did intellectuals and social elites find their primary self-identification by projecting their national identities into a distant past of the migration period. Rather, to the extent that they looked to the ancient past for solidarity, they identified self-consciously with Roman society and culture.
Progressively, however, from the Renaissance on, European intellectuals in France, Germany, and Eastern Europe began to identify with the victims of Roman imperialist expansion, the Gauls, the Germans, or the Slavs. This transformation of identity took place within political contexts that determined their directions. In Renaissance France, which experienced tremendous continuity in its monarchy, the reality of the state was never in doubt but the existence of a single French people was. In Germany, ever since the ninth century, authors occasionally spoke of a German people, but, in the absence of a unified German state, the identification of a German cultural tradition did not necessarily demand a corresponding political tradition. In other areas, such as Poland, a "national" sense was claimed as the exclusive domain of the aristocracy, who felt little, if any, solidarity with the peasants who worked their lands.
French theses concerning the identity of the French developed within the context of royal absolutism and aristocratic or popular opposition. The right to rule was disputed between the king and the nobility, or first estate. Both king and nobility based their claims on the assertion that, since the time of Julius Caesar, the commoners, or third estate, constituted a race of slaves—conquered Gauls who had lost their liberty—and, as a debased population, had no right to political self-determination. This characterization drew on an older tradition, developed in the Middle Ages, that justified serfdom by a variety of intellectual constructs that reduced peasants to an inherited, almost subhuman status. The aristocracy, by contrast, was not of Gallic descent. Rather, they were the descendants of the Franks, that is, the "free" warriors who had entered Gaul, defeated and expelled the Roman lords, and established their rights to rule. Such claims drew on the image presented by the first-century Roman historian Cornelius Tacitus, who glorified the free Germans in contrast to Romans of his day. Such claims also demanded a particular reading of the works of Gregory of Tours and other early medieval sources to emphasize the free, Germanic identity of the nation française.
Who actually held this right to rule—the aristocracy, as a collectivity, or the king—was a primary point of debate. In 1588 the royal propagandist Gui de Coquille went so far as to argue that Hugh Capet, founder of the royal lineage from which all subsequent French kings descended, had been of Saxon stock. This Saxon Germanic background made his royal successor a true Frenchman, a vrai François. In the eighteenth century, aristocrats such as Louis de Saint-Simon, François de Salignac de Fénelon, and Henri de Boulainvilliers, agreed that the population of Gaul in Late Antiquity was essentially a race of slaves. In the fifth century, free Frankish warriors had acquired Gaul by right of conquest. They alone, and their descendants—the nobility—were the true French. The king should share power with them, as had been the case in the days of Charlemagne.
An analogous tradition developed in Poland, where elites attempted to deny that they were of Slavic origin altogether. As early as the mid-sixteenth century, Polish chroniclers had claimed that the Polish elite should be identified not with the masses of Slavic peasants who worked the lands but with the Sarmatians, an ancient steppe people mentioned by Greek and Roman ethnographers. By the seventeenth century, the Sarmatian origins thesis had become a vehicle by which the elite szlachta differentiated themselves ethnically from their social inferiors.
The French Revolution changed everything and nothing in this vision of the past. Particularly in France, the popular propaganda of the revolutionary period accepted this bipartite schema of Franks and Gauls, but reversed the values derived from it. In his influential pamphlet on the third estate, the French revolutionary theorist Abbé Sieyès accepted the Germanic origin of the nobility, but argued that this made them a foreign, conquering element in France. The true French people, descendants of the Gauls, had long borne the yoke of foreign servitude, first under the Romans and then under the Franks. It was time to send this alien race back to the forests of Franconia and return France to the third estate, the one true nation.
However, this nationalist claim ran counter to official revolutionary ideology that, while proclaiming the independence and sovereignty of each people, denied that a "people" could be defined by language, ethnicity, or origins. Rather, a willingness to support the common good against particular interests, to accept the liberties and laws of the Republic, were all that should be required. Nevertheless, on a more practical level, the implicit assumption persisted that a shared cultural tradition, particularly embodied in the French language, defined the French nation.
The precursors to German nationalism, Johann Gottfried Herder and the Göttingen historians, also drew on the Tacitean myth, but initially within the context of a linguistic, cultural unity, which neither presupposed nor demanded political unity. Since the rediscovery of Tacitus's Germania at the end of the fifteenth century, humanists had become fascinated with the image of a free, pure Germanic people. From Conrad Celtis's Germania illustrata (1491) to Jacob Wimpleling's Epitome rerum Germanicarum, to Heinrich Bebel's Proverbia Germanica, and beyond, authors sought a German unity and history. However, this unity remained purely cultural, not political. German-speaking regions had never been united in a single, culturally homogeneous kingdom. Even in the Middle Ages, the "Holy Roman Empire" had always included important Slavic and Romance regions. Moreover, the deep divisions caused by the Reformation and the disasters of the Thirty Years' War ensured that political and social unity would remain outside the sphere of this cultural perspective until the nineteenth century.
Still, within this cultural nationalism emerged the characteristics that, when politicized, would become formidable tools of political mobilization. These included the belief that a German "nation" had existed as early as the first century, when Arminius defeated the Roman general Varus and destroyed his army in the Teutoburg Forest in 9 C.E. These cultural nationalists also exalted the German language, which they saw as the embodiment of German identity, and emphasized the importance of education as a means of continuing and intensifying the appreciation of this heritage.
Not that this belief in the existence of a German "nation" implied a political mission, especially not an expansive one. Nothing is stronger evidence of the lack of a political dimension in Herder's thought than the idea that not only Germany but, indeed, every nationality was entitled to its own development in concord with its own genius. His enthusiasm for the Slavs was perhaps even greater than his enthusiasm for the Germans, urging the Slavic world to replace the "declining Latin-German culture" with their own. The "nationalism" of Herder and the Göttingen circle remained one of culture, not of political action.
German political nationalism emerged haltingly during the Napoleonic era in response to the French defeats of Prussia and the occupation of the Rhineland. A major force behind the creation of a popular resistance to the French, which would eventually lead to a spirit of insurrection in the populace, was Freiherr vom Stein, the Prussian minister of State (1804-1808). He urged poets and writers to contribute to the image of a unified German nation once the French were ousted. The geographical outlines of this German nation were, of course, uncertain: The former Holy Roman Empire was only about 25 percent German-speaking. Prussia was a kingdom in which at least six languages, in addition to German, were used. These included Polish, Latvian, Lusitian, and Estonian, while much of the intelligensia spoke French. German-speaking regions were divided not only by politics but by dialectical differences, religion, and a history of animosity dating back to the Thirty Years' War. Moreover, even the king of Prussia was wary of any mass movement that would involve the people in an educational or political role.
Thus, avowals of cultural unity by authors such as Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock, Herder, and Gotthold Ephraim Lessing initially found no political resonance: The German princes had no interest in political concert, and the middle-class public had no political interest or agenda. Varnhagen von Ense, an educated upper-class Prussian, recalled no patriotic concern on watching the king depart Berlin in 1806 after his disastrous loss to Napoleon in the battle of Jena. He and others of his background felt sorry for him, but "were simply unable to muster any genuine political zeal that might include an exclusive preoccupation with political reports and communiqués all day long." On the contrary, many German intellectuals with political interests were liberals and greeted Napoleon's victories with optimism.
What support there was for a politicization of Herder's cultural ideals came neither from the mainstream of the German intellectual world nor from the Prussian king but from the British, who sought to generate popular opposition to the French in the East that would continue to pressure Napoleon. The British hoped to open a "second Vendée"—an internal guerrilla resistance movement similar to that pursued by royalists in that stubborn region of France—by supporting insurrectionists in Prussia. This British goal coincided with that of Freiherr vom Stein, who was convinced that the Junker class was incapable of saving Prussia and sought to develop a sense of patriotism among the educated and cultural elites of the kingdom in order to create a more effective resistance to the French. This end was to be accomplished through a mobilization of the elements of earlier generations of cultural nationalist feeling: an emphasis on common language (rather than a common religious or political tradition, both of which were entirely lacking); a program of national education; and an emphasis on the place of the citizen as the link between the past and future of the nation. Stein's interests thus dovetailed with those of the British, who funded intellectuals willing to combine culture and politics.
Chief among these German intellectuals was Johann Gottlieb Fichte, who was eager to politicize Germanic culture and did so by equating the Romans of the first century with the French of his day, and the Germanic resistors to Roman expansion with himself and his German contemporaries. The touchstone for a unified German identity thus became the descriptions of the German virtues in Tacitus's Germania and the account of Arminius and his destruction of Varus and his legion in Tacitus's Annales. This was a means of finding a German unity preceding the political complexities of the Holy Roman Empire and of showing how, in the past, Germans had resisted a Romance-speaking invader. As developed by Fichte in his Addresses to the German Nation, a unique German identity contrasted, on the one hand, with the Slavs, who "do not seem as yet to have developed distinctly enough in comparison with the rest of Europe to make it possible to give a definite description of them," and, on the other, with Romanized peoples of "Teutonic descent," that is, with the French. In contrast to each of these, the central virtue of German identity rested on its continuity in geography and its language. The relationship between language and identity was certainly nothing new in the nineteenth century. More than half a century earlier, the French philosopher Étienne Bonnot de Condillac had argued that "each language expresses the character of the people who speak it." Fichte, however, developed this tradition in very specific and provocative ways. As he stated in his Fourth Address, the Germans alone among the "neo-Europeans" remained in the original dwelling place of their ancestral stock and retained their original language. It was this language, in particular, that united the German people and put them in direct contact with God's creation in a way that peoples such as the French, who had adopted Latinized language, could not hope to achieve. The reason was that, unlike Romance languages that built words from Latin and Greek roots, themselves formed in distant regions, German derived entirely from Germanic elements, originally coined to describe the world still inhabited by Germans. This language, therefore, was immediately transparent and comprehensible to all German speakers, placing them in immediate relationship with their environment and with each other.
Fichte's Addresses must certainly be understood within their immediate context: They might be termed "survivalist texts," intended to give hope and foster resistance in the immediate context of a French occupation, an occupation that was widely expected to last for many years. The rapid destruction of the French Empire ended the specific need for such sentiments, but their afterlife proved of enormous consequence.
The involvement of intellectuals such as Fichte in the cause of politics may not have had much influence on the outcome of the Napoleonic wars, but it connected them to the world of politics and action in a new way. While involving them in the sphere of political action, it brought them new prominence, financial rewards, and official patronage. This potent combination did not end with the Congress of Vienna, assembled in 1815 to restore Europe after Napoleon. Stein, who had taken the leadership role in recruiting intellectuals during the war, strengthened the connection between scholars and politicians in search of a unified Germany. In 1819 he founded the "Society for Older German Historical Knowledge (Gesellschaft für ältere deutsche Geschichtskunde)," whose motto, Sanctus amor patriae dar animum (The holy love of the Fatherland gives spirit), summarized a program rather than a truism. The Gesellschaft was a private organization, founded in consultation with such noted intellectuals as Goethe; Wilhelm von Humboldt; the Grimm brothers, Friedrich Carl von Savigny, and Karl Friedrich Eichhorn. Contributions from various German states and the German Bund financed the Gesellschaft, which dedicated itself to editing and publishing the Monumenta Germaniae Historica or the Historical Monuments of Germany. Initially, these contributions were hard to come by; the German states were not eager to contribute, and Stein was inclined to reject, for patriotic reasons, contributions from foreigners such as the Russian czar. Only gradually, as politicians realized that patriotic history could counterbalance revolutionary ideology, did Stein find the funding he needed to continue his project.
However, funding was only one problem. The other was determining just what the historical monuments of Germany were. These were discovered according to the principles of scientific, Indo-European philology, which were being developed by classical philologists in the Netherlands and, more recently, in Göttingen.
Excerpted from The Myth of Nations by Patrick J. Geary. Copyright © 2002 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.