Michael Goebel
03 April 2019

Nationalism from a Historical Perspective

Michael Goebel, Associate Professor of International History and Pierre du Bois Chair Europe and the World, gave a Lunch Briefing on “Is Nationalism Contagious?”, which provided historical depth to the current debate. In an interview, he explores the topic further.

What is your definition of nationalism and are there different types?

I mostly work with the definitions of two well-known scholars of nationalism, rather than my own. Ernest Gellner held that nationalism is a “primarily a political principle, which holds that the political and national unit should be congruent”. Anthony Smith meanwhile called it “an ideological movement for the attainment and maintenance of autonomy, unity and identity of a human population, some of whose members conceive it to constitute an actual or potential ‘nation’”. It should be noted that Gellner’s definition is significantly wider than our everyday usage of the term nationalist, which we often use pejoratively to denote the scapegoating of foreigners. Gellner’s definition of nationalism as a “principle” is also more capacious than Smith’s “movement” and this has different implications for the contagiousness of nationalism: The spread of a principle differs from that of a movement.

Has nationalism evolved from past to present? If so, how?

When historians have looked at the past global dissemination of nationalism, or of Gellner’s principle, the discussion has mostly been focused on the rise of the nation-state as the predominant form of political organisation. “Nationalists” were the people advocating the implementation of the principle of the nation-state where it did not exist, notably in multinational empires. Although such aspirational nationalisms aiming at the foundation of new nation-states exist today – think of Scottish, Catalan or Kurdish nationalism – the theoretical principle of the nation-state nowadays, in contrast to the past, legitimises most states the world over. So, when Foreign Affairs dedicated its current issue to “the new nationalism”, most authors do not have in mind Catalonia, but right-wing populists who polarise their societies in the name of the “nation” or the “people”. As the redrawing of borders on the political map is rarely their main priority, they differ from many past nationalisms – even though they too couch their claims in the rhetoric of nationalist principles, that is, the supposed necessity of a congruency between nation and state and the allegation that this principle is being violated by the “enemies of the people”.

You said that in brief, nationalism is contagious. Why?

In some ways, the differences between the past’s and present’s mechanisms of contagion are greater than the ideological and rhetorical differences between past and present-day nationalism. In the past, multinational empires and federations have often served as major conduits for outbreaks of nationalism, if you allow the epidemic vocabulary. Since the breakup of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, these vehicles are mostly gone. Throughout the short twentieth century, international principles and organisations – think of the echoes of the Wilsonian and Leninist principles of the self-determination of people/nations or the League of Nations and its mandate system – have also served as such vehicles. Today, this is a little less true in my opinion. Transnational admiration, cooperation and emulation of nationalist-populist leaders, fueled by social media, plays a much more significant role; even as I am not sure that the world population has actually on average become “more nationalist”, if such a comparative even exists.