What makes a nation

NATIONAL IDENTITY: What is a nation


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Since the end of the Roman Empire, or rather since the relocation of the empire of Charlemagne, Western Europe appears to us divided into nations, some of which, in certain epochs, tried to dominate the others without ever succeeding in doing so. What Charles V, Louis XIV, and Napoleon I were unable to do, probably no one will be able to do in the future either. Building a new Roman Empire or a new Carolingian Empire has become impossible. The division of Europe goes too deep for the attempt to establish comprehensive rule not to quickly bring about a coalition that would push the ambitious nation back within its borders. For a long time a kind of equilibrium has arisen. France, England, Germany, Russia will exist for centuries, and in spite of the adventures they have embarked on, the historical individuals, the decisive figures in a chess game, the fields of which are constantly changing their meaning and size, never become whole and even melt together. Nations understood in this way are something quite new in history. Antiquity does not know them: Egypt, China, the old Chaldea were not in the least nations. They were hordes led by a son of the sun or a son of heaven. There were no Egyptian citizens any more than there were Chinese citizens. Classical antiquity knew republics and city kingdoms, confederations of local republics, empires: the nation in our sense did not know it. Athens, Sparta, Sidon are centers of admirable patriotism, but with rather small territory. Before Gaul, Spain and Italy were absorbed by the Roman Empire, they were collections of peoples, often allied with one another, but without a central institution, without dynasties. The Assyrian Empire, the Persian Empire, the Empire of Alexander were not fatherlands either. There have never been Assyrian patriots, and the Persian Empire was a vast feudal being. No nation traces its origins back to the colossal adventure of Alexander, even though it was so immensely momentous in the history of civilization.

The Roman Empire was much more likely to be a fatherland. The Roman Empire, which was initially so oppressive, was soon loved for the immense benefit of the decline in the wars. It was a great association - synonymous with order - of peace and civilization. In the last days of the empire there was a real feeling of a "pax romana" in contrast to the threatening chaos of barbarism among high-spirited souls, among the enlightened bishops, among the educated. But the empire, which was twelve times the size of today's France, was not intended to form a state in the modern sense. The split between the West and the East was inevitable. In the 3rd century the approaches to a Gallic empire failed. Only the Germanic invasion brought the principle that later became the basis of the nationalities. So what did the Germanic peoples do before their great invasions in the 5th to the last Norman conquests in the 10th century? They hardly changed the core of the races, but they imposed dynasties and a military nobility on more or less large parts of the old western empire, and these parts of the empire bore the names of the invaders from then on. Hence France, Burgundy, Lombardy. The rapid superiority which the Frankish Empire gained restored the unity of the West for a moment. But this empire fell irrevocably around the middle of the 9th century. The Treaty of Verdun outlined the ultimately irrevocable borders, and since then France, Germany, England, Italy, and Spain have broken through many detours and under countless adventures towards their full national existence as we have before us today.

What is it that really defines these different states? It is the amalgamation of the populations that inhabit it. In the countries mentioned, nothing corresponds to what you find in Turkey, where the Turk, the Slav, the Greek, the Armenian, the Arab, the Syrian, the Kurd are still as different today as they were on the day of the conquest. Two major factors contributed to this. First of all, the Germanic peoples adopted Christianity as soon as they came into more permanent contact with the Greek and Latin peoples. If the victor and the vanquished belong to the same religion, or better: if the victor accepts the religion of the vanquished, then the Turkish system, the absolute separation of people according to their religion, is no longer possible. The second fact was that the conquerors forgot their own language. The grandchildren of Clovis, Alaric, Albuin, and Rollon already spoke Roman. This in turn was the result of another important peculiarity, namely that the Franks, Burgundians, Goths, Lombards and Normans had very few women of their race with them. For several generations the leaders married Germanic women; but their concubines were Latin, as were their children's wet nurses. The whole tribe married Latin women. As a result, the "lingua franca", the "lingua gotica", had only a short life since the Franks and Goths settled on Roman soil. It was different in England. For the Anglo-Saxon conquerors undoubtedly had women with them and the British people fled. Incidentally, Latin was no longer dominant in Britain, or had never been at all. If Gallic had been spoken in general in Gaul in the 5th century, Clovis and his people would not have given up Germanic for Gallic. So it came to the capital result that the Germanic conquerors, in spite of the extreme brutality of their customs, shaped the form which over the centuries became the actual form of the nation. "France" legitimately became the name of a country into which only a barely perceptible minority of Franks had invaded. In the 10th century, in the first "Chansons de gestes", so perfectly reflecting the spirit of their time, all the inhabitants of France are French. The idea of ​​a racial difference in the population of France, which is so conspicuous in Gregory of Tours, is not in the least noticeable in the French writers and poets after the "Chansons de gestes". The difference between the noble and the non-noble is emphasized as much as possible, but the difference is in no way ethnic. Rather, it is a difference in courage and inherited upbringing. Nobody comes up with the idea that there is a conquest at the origin of all this. The misconception that the aristocracy owes its existence to a privilege granted by the king to the nation and that every nobleman is also an ennobled person has only been introduced as a dogma since the 13th century. It was the same after almost all Norman conquests. A generation or two later, the Norman invaders were no longer any different from the rest of the population. Nonetheless, their influence was great: they had given the conquered land a nobility, military habits, and patriotism that were previously absent. Forgetting - I would almost like to say: historical error - plays an essential role in the creation of a nation, and therefore the progress of historical studies is often a danger to the nation. Indeed, historical research brings to light the violent events that have taken place at the origin of all political structures, even those with the most benevolent consequences. The union is always brutal. The unification of the north and south of France was the result of nearly a century of extermination and terror. The King of France, who, if I may say so, is the model image of a secular crystallizer, the King of France who achieved the most perfect national unity there is - loses his nimbus on closer inspection. The nation he formed has cursed him, and now only a few educated people know what he was made of and what he did.

The great laws of Western history become evident through the contrast. Many countries have failed in the project which the King of France accomplished so admirably, partly through his tyranny and partly through his justice. Under St. Stephen's Crown, Hungarians and Slavs have remained as different as they were eight hundred years ago. Instead of merging various elements of its rule, the House of Habsburg kept them separate and often enough brought them into opposition to one another. In Bohemia, the Czech and German elements lie on top of each other like oil and water in a glass. The Turkish policy of separating nationalities according to religion has had even more serious consequences: it has led to the decline of the Orient. In a city like Saloniki or Smyrna you can find five or six parishes, each with their own memories and which have next to nothing in common. However, it is the essence of a nation that all individuals have something in common with one another, including that they have forgotten many things. No French knows whether they are Burgundians, Alane, Wisigote, and every Frenchman must have forgotten St. Bartholomew's Night and the massacres of the 13th century in the south. There are not ten families in France who can prove their Frankish ancestry, and even if they can, such evidence is incomplete because of the many unknown crosses that confuse any genological system. The modern nation, then, is the historical result of a series of facts heading in the same direction. Soon unity was achieved through a dynasty, as in the case of France; now by the immediate will of the provinces, as in the case of Holland, Switzerland, and Belgium; now by a general spirit that later triumphs over the vagaries of feudalism, as in the case of Italy and Germany. Each time these formations have a deep-seated reason. The principles break through the most unexpected surprises. In our time we have seen Italy united by its defeats and Turkey destroyed by its victories. Every defeat benefited the Italian cause. Every victory ruined Turkey. Because Italy is a nation and Turkey, apart from Asia Minor, is not. It is the fame of France to have proclaimed through the French Revolution that a nation exists of itself. So we must not disapprove of being imitated. The principle of nations is ours. But what is a nation? Why is Holland a nation while Hanover or the Grand Duchy of Parma are not? How is it that France remains a nation even after the principle by which it was created has disappeared? How is it that Switzerland is one nation with three languages, two religions, three or four races, while, for example, the homogeneous Tuscany is not one? Why is Austria a state but not a nation? How does the principle of nationality differ from that of race? All of these questions drive a thoughtful person to align with himself. World events are hardly guided by such considerations, but the zealous want to bring some order into these things, in which the superficial lose themselves, and unravel them.


If one follows certain political theorists, the nation is above all else a dynasty that represents an ancient conquest with which the bulk of the population initially came to terms and which they then forgot. According to the politicians I am talking about, the merging of provinces with the dynasty that formed it, brought about by a dynasty, through its wars, its marriages, its treaties, has also come to an end. It is true that most modern nations were created by a family of feudal origin who married the land and was, in a sense, a core of centralization. In 1789, there was nothing natural or necessary about the borders of France. The large piece that the Kapentinger house had added to the narrow border of the Verdun Treaty was definitely a personal acquisition of this house. When these annexations were made, no thought was given to natural borders, nor to international law, nor to the wishes of the provinces. Likewise, the unification of England, Ireland, and Scotland was a dynastic process. And Italy only took so long to become a nation because none of its many ruling houses made itself the center of unity before our century. Strangely enough, Italy owes its royal title to the insignificant island of Sardinia, which can hardly be called Italian. Holland, which created itself in an act of heroic determination, nevertheless entered into an intimate marital alliance with the House of Orange and was in great danger the moment that alliance was in danger.