A world of nations and states is here to stay

Olympic Summer Games - Closing Ceremony
Athletes with flags from all nations make their way into the stadium as part of the 2012 London Olympic Summer Games at the Olympic Stadium, Olympic Park, London, England, UK on August 12th 2012 (Photo by AMA/Corbis via Getty Images)
Despite globalisation, the nation state retains its privileged position in world politics.
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The nineteenth century may have been the age of nationalism but the twentieth was the age of nation-states, and the era of nationalism is very far from coming to an end. In 1900 there were just over fifty formally sovereign states (without counting statelets) nineteen of which were states in Europe. In 1960 there were over one hundred. Today there are more than two hundred.

How and why have states proliferated over the last 150 years? The debate over whether the state is growing or shrinking rages on, fuelled by the difficulty in defining the state. The new states were formed either by secession – breaking away violently or peacefully from a wider unit (e.g. former British colonies, Norway from Denmark, Slovenia from Yugoslavia) – or by unification imposed from above, as was the case with Italy and Germany in the second half of the nineteenth century. Secession is by far the norm, absorption is rare. 

Each new state, however small, maintains all the paraphernalia of sovereignty largely established in the nineteenth century: passports, borders, armies, uniformed police, currencies, national anthems, national days, and central banks – later even airlines, national football teams, and entrants in the Eurovision Song Contest or the Miss World competition. 

Though some European states have adopted a single currency and abolished border controls, all of them celebrate a ‘national’ culture, have at least one or more national television channels that give priority to national news, and impart their national history in schools where children are taught to be proud of their country, even though most would agree that there is no personal merit in being born in any one particular place. They are given a somewhat embellished account of the birth and development of their nation. 

The litany is fairly similar – a literary genre – poised between lachrymose self-pitying victimhood and vainglorious accounts of heroic deeds. ‘We’, it says, have been around for centuries, or even more (1066 in Britain; 966 in Poland; since Romulus and Remus in Italy; since Plato and Aristotle in Greece). We have written glorious pages of history and they would have been even more glorious had it not been for the dastardly acts of our oppressors. Eventually we achieved our freedom, our independence, our happiness, and we, who are unlike everyone else (for we are Croats and not Slovenians, Italians and not Austrians, French and not Germans, Ukrainians and not Russians, etc.), can finally be like everyone else: members and possessors of a country, a nation, defenders of a remarkable literature, a major culture, a beautiful language, and a unique landscape.

We tend to think that a state is defined by its borders, but the borders and boundaries of most of today’s sovereign states are a relatively recent creation. This is as true in European states as across the globe. An Italian state has existed, in any shape or form, only since 1861, but Venice and its region was incorporated into Italy only in 1866 and its capital, Rome, only in 1870; the current borders with Austria have been extant only since 1919. Although an island, the present boundaries of Great Britain are even more recent. In 1707 England and Scotland united and, in 1801 Ireland became part of the United Kingdom. Boundaries changed again in 1922 when the Irish Free State came into being. 

History has dealt with borders and population in a cavalier way and determined that a place could be part of a state for reasons that had nothing at all to do with national feelings – a relatively simple task since in most cases such feelings did not exist. Had Immanuel Kant been born in 1946 in Kaliningrad rather than in 1724 in Königsberg (as it then was), he might have been a Russian philosopher rather than a German one. Had Arthur Schopenhauer been born in Polish Gdansk in 1946 rather than in German Danzig – as it was when he was born in 1788 – he would have been Polish. The inhabitants of Corsica are now French, whether they like it or not (and some don’t), only because France acquired it in 1770. Had this not happened, Napoleon (born in 1769) would not have made history. The people of Nice are French today because it was handed over by Piedmont to the French in 1860. Had that not happened its inhabitants would have felt as Italian as those of Genoa and would have supported Italy’s national football team and not that of France. The city of St Louis in Senegal is an older French city than Lille since St Louis became French in 1659 while Lille was annexed to France by Louis XIV in 1668. Lorraine became French only because Louis XV married Maria Leszczyńska, the daughter of the Duke of Lorraine. Yet for much of the twentieth century the children of Lorraine were taught in French schools that they were descendants of nos ancêtres les Gaulois (‘our ancestors the Gauls’). Even this belief that the Gauls were the ancestors of the modern French came about only in the nineteenth century.

French boundaries may have been unstable but they look as solid as rock when compared to those of Poland. The Polish state celebrated ‘its thousand-year history’ in 1966. Yet, its borders have expanded and shrunk constantly. In 1634 ‘Poland’ was very large (it included Lithuania as well as bits of Moldavia and Prussia). Then Poland began to shrink and, after the Second World War, it ‘shifted’ to the West as it acquired former ‘German’ territory and lost some to the Soviet Union.

Thus each nation state builds its own special ‘national’ history, however chequered. Montenegro (or, in Slavonic, Crna Gora, ‘Black Mountain’; Montenegro is the Venetian name) is one of the ‘newest’ European states, but it had been sovereign before the First World War (though its tiny borders changed over time), having successfully resisted complete subordination to Ottoman rule. It was amalgamated into Yugoslavia in 1919, and regained its independence in 2006 when it seceded from what was left of Yugoslavia (i.e. from Serbia). It acquired its own constitution, but not its own currency, having decided to use the euro even though it was not actually in the European Union. It had a diplomatic corps and its own armed forces but not its own language since everyone speaks Serbo-Croat. Local nationalists nevertheless insisted that their version of Serbian should be called Montenegrin, an assertion of identity that older states such as Belgium, Switzerland, and the USA have refrained from: no one speaks Belgian, Swiss or American but Montenegrins, apparently, speak Montenegrin. The country also has a new national anthem, Oj, svijetla majska zoro (‘Oh, Bright Dawn of May’), based on a nineteenth-century folk tune with words that have been changed to fit the prevailing politics. Montenegro has fewer than 700,000 inhabitants – fewer than Birmingham in England or Tucson in Arizona but more than at least twenty other sovereign states (including EU members such as Malta and Luxembourg). Formally speaking, Montenegro is as ‘sovereign’ as the United States, but in practice sovereignty is limited by the power of other countries. Its inhabitants can affirm their pride in their country, but this is not much different from the inhabitants of Cornwall or Lombardy being proud to be Cornish or Lombard, even though neither has ever been a sovereign state. 

Our new brave globalised world is thus also a world of ‘them and us’, of states, large and small (mainly small), trying to make their presence manifest, taking offence, being proud, and defending, sometimes hypocritically, the sanctity of their borders against secessionist claims by even smaller ‘nations’ simmering within and aspiring to get out. This is the situation Georgia faces with the recalcitrant inhabitants of South Ossetia and Abkhazia who do not feel they share the same ancestry as those Georgian nationalists who, in a remarkable flight of imagination, trace theirs to the Hittites in 1600 BC. Ukrainian nationalism stands on similarly shaky foundations: Ukrainian nationalist historians, such as the popular Yurii Kanyhin, strongly endorsed by the first president of Ukraine (and former communist), Leonid Kravchuk (1991–4), even claimed that Ukrainians are mentioned in the Bible and are descended from Noah. Even Uzbekistan, a former Soviet republic, once it obtained independence rewrote its history books making Timur (Tamerlane in the West), once regarded as a cruel tyrant, the founding hero of the country. His equestrian statue now graces the spot where Karl Marx’s statue once stood. 

The idea of a nation is constructed out of a mish-mash of myth, legend, history, and wishful thinking. The inhabitants of those self-governing units that prevailed before 1800 were seldom self-conscious members of a nation, but were held together by a sovereign, or a religion or a language or by force of arms or the self-interest of the local elites, or because it was in the interest of foreign powers to let them survive. Central Europe, in particular, was a complex conglomeration of such states and statelets. 

Within the boundaries of what today we call Italy, there were at the time of the French Revolution almost twenty such self-governing units. By 1870 all these states and statelets had been amalgamated into a single state: Italy, a state with a history it claimed to be ancient and a language, Italian, only a minority of its inhabitants could speak or spoke habitually. This state joined a system of European states that turned out to be generally stable on its western flank but unstable on the eastern one (the main exceptions to the rule of western stability after 1880 were the birth of the Republic of Ireland in 1922 and the formalization of Norwegian and Icelandic independence). 

The awesomely multiplication of states between 1880 and 2020 is almost entirely due to the collapse of the three great empires of the nineteenth century as a consequence of the First World War: the vast Ottoman Empire, the Tsarist Empire, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. 

In the course of the nineteenth century the Ottoman Empire ‘lost’ Albania, Macedonia, Greece, Crete and Cyprus, Wallachia and Moldavia, Bulgaria, and most of present-day Serbia, as well as Bosnia and Herzegovina. Further ‘Balkanisation’ occurred after 1918 with the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but was limited by the creation of Yugoslavia in 1945. Finally, the disintegration of Yugoslavia in the 1990s led to further multiplication of states. 

While the Ottoman Empire continued to shrink, the Tsarist Empire, whose formal birth had occurred in 1721, survived thanks to the Soviet Union, (though it lost Poland and Finland as well as the Baltic states reoccupied during the Second World War). The fall of communism, however, brought about an entirely new situation. Countries whose claims to nationhood had been more linguistic and cultural than political had to rapidly develop a brand of nationalism relevant to their newly acquired statehood, won without a significant struggle of national liberation. Russia, much reduced in size, appeared to belong exclusively to Russians. Yet, far from being mono-ethnic, the new Russian Federation is home to a considerable variety of ethnic groups, and, as in the Tsarist Empire, numerous languages (twenty-four officially recognised). 

The Austrian Empire, after its defeat by Germany in 1866 reconstituted itself by sharing the task of governing what was an increasingly complex multi-national state with Hungary. The Austro-Hungarian was born in 1867 to the dismay of Croats and Slovakian minority: within every majority there is always a minority that, once its minority status is enshrined formally, will struggle to get out.

Of the twenty states that existed in Europe in 1880 only nine had existed in the eighteenth century and only seven of these survived into the twenty-first century. But continuity had hardly been the norm even in apparently long-lasting states. 

Even in northern Europe the situation was far from static. Denmark ‘lost’ Norway in 1814 (to the Swedish Crown) and the provinces of Schleswig and Holstein to Prussia in 1864. Iceland obtained autonomy from Denmark in 1874 but became independent only in 1944. Two new major states were created in the course of the nineteenth century: Italy in 1861 and Germany in 1871. Belgium and Greece had been created in 1830, though Greece in the 1830s was far smaller than it is now and much of its present-day territory still lay in the Ottoman Empire. 

There were, of course, plenty of ‘nations’ in nineteenth-century Europe without a sovereign state and many still exist such as the Welsh, the Flemish, the Catalonian, the Breton, the Corsican, and the Basque. 

Thus, contrary to the terminology that contrasts the Old World – Europe – to the New (the Americas), many of the states that existed in Europe in 1880 were no older than those of North or Latin America. This fragmentation is not new. Since time immemorial, no single state or conqueror has been able to unify Europe or even to build a large and stable empire such as China, which survived for at least two thousand years, or the Mughal in India for at least two hundred years.

European fragmentation, already pronounced in the nineteenth century, reached new heights in early twenty-first century Europe. By 2020 there were, in Europe, forty-two states if we include Turkey (but not statelets such as Andorra, Monaco and San Marino) and all former Russian republics east of Turkey (thus excluding Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan, which, however, are members of the Council of Europe – adding them would simply strengthen the point about fragmentation). The increase in European states since 1980 – when there were ‘only’ thirty – was entirely due to the end of communism, as the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia broke up and the Czech Republic and Slovakia separated. There was only one merger: the DDR was (re-) united with the Federal Republic of Germany. No one expects any new mergers while further secessions or separation (Belgium, Scotland, Catalonia) are possible.

Most of the two hundred or so states members of the United Nations today have a recent history. State formation coincides with the recent history of globalised capitalism. The economic imperative of the state managing the economy was the key mechanism that favoured the growth of states. Capitalism is often seen as trying to straddle the world, but this is an abstract notion. In reality each variety of capitalism must be nurtured by a state and shaped according to local conditions. There is no single path. Strong states have helped the development of capitalism. Weak states have faced problems industrialising. States that are not effective states, states that became states recently, or that have been subjected by other states, fare worst of all. Our globalised world thus remains a world system of states which call themselves ‘nations’ (after all we talk of the United Nations –the term United States having already been taken). Nationalists celebrated and continue to celebrate the transformation of the nation into a sovereign state, the idea being that the state embodied the people, something quite different from the states of old, embodied in a sovereign. Friedrich Nietzsche saw this clearly in 1881 when in Thus Spoke Zarathrusta he exclaimed:

The state? What is that? Well then! Now open your ears, for now I shall speak to you of the death of peoples. The state is the coldest of all cold monsters. Coldly it lies, too; and this lie creeps from its mouth: ‘I, the state, am the people.’

This ‘coldest of all cold monsters’ straddling the world is far from disappearing in spite of all talk of globalisation and internationalism. Today the forces of nationalism are stronger than those of cosmopolitanism, although it is after all a very ancient idea. Diogenes, asked where he came from, is reported to have said (by a Greek biographer writing in the first half of the third century): ‘I am a citizen of the world’ (kosmopolitês). And yet politics is still overwhelmingly a national politics. Citizens may not trust politicians but they trust their own more than those of other countries. They expect their governments to protect their own interests above those of those who come from outside, those who have the ‘wrong’ nationality. People still live in their nation as if they were in a village, their hearts fluttering at the sight of their own flag.

Donald Sassoon

Donald Sassoon is Emeritus Professor of Comparative European History (Queen Mary, University of London). He is the author, among others, of Mona Lisa, One Hundred Years of Socialism, The Culture of the Europeans and, recently, The Anxious Triumph (a history of global capitalism 1860-1914). His Morbid Symptoms (already out in Spain and Italy) will be out in the UK in January 2021.

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