Nationalism and Democracy: Another View (Part Two)

[Read the introduction before reading. See also Part One]

Perhaps they will say that my critique of the authors misses the point and that I am merely latching onto unsuccessful definitions. This is because the distinction between romantic politics which sanctifies ‘land’ and enlightenment politics which defines nation in legal terms need not be interpreted literally. They will perhaps argue that in truth the authors meant the tried-and-true distinction the two types of nationalism – ‘ethnic’ nationalism (which is not necessarily connected to land but which stresses various cultural ethnic elements in defining the nation) and ‘civilian’ nationalism which includes in the nation all residents of the sovereign area of the state. However, if this is the author’s intention, then I have two objections.

First, from an historical point of view the dichotomous distinction between ethnic nationalism and civilian nationalism is, in my opinion, a problematic one. In most cases European national movements combined civilian and ethnic elements, and what swept Europe in the 19th century was not the ‘romantic’ politics of nationalism but rather various types of civilian ethnic nationalism (with varying degrees of both the ethnic element and the civilian element). The region in which nationalism became a most urgent matter was Eastern Europe, this due to the complex ethnic mosaic which was created there. The nationalist aspirations in Eastern Europe were not the product of the wild imagination of the romanticists who were searching for an identity and roots (or at least not just that). The outlook that one must try and draw the political borders more or less along ethnic lines stemmed from the recognition that the ethnic complexity in the Eastern European region is a recipe for perpetual instability and the central obstacle in the process of modernization. It also stemmed from the hope that by dividing the region into nation states with a solid ethnic majority is the only way to organize this mosaic.

It was not, therefore, only the romantic cultural aspirations which stood at the foundation of nationalist politics in Eastern Europe, but also aspirations for a freer, more civilized and equal life. Nationalism was the realistic strategy to bring these two aspirations to fruition. Therefore, just as there was no national movement in Europe that did not make use of cultural myths (often out of a conscious attempt to pour common cultural content into the national identity, and not out of a search for a mythic past), so it is difficult to locate any national movement which completely lacked elements of an ‘enlightenment’ outlook with regard to civilian equality and freedom. Did not Masaryk, the founder of liberal-democratic Czechoslovakia, not make use of ‘romantic’ elements of the nation? And was it not in less liberal Poland where the national movement led to a more worthy and freer life than that which existed beforehand, when that country was ruled by the Russian empire?

The distinction between ethnic-cultural nationalism and civilian nationalism looks convincing at first glance only if one examines the extreme cases, for instance – the USA and Germany although even here the distinction is not perfect (as one can identify cultural elements in American nationalism as well, even more so in English or French nationalism). The early study of nationalism did indeed focus mainly on those large states. However, these were not particularly suitable cases for deriving conclusions for nationalism as a whole (or at least were not so relevant for dozens of other cases, including the Jewish one). Both France and Germany had to deal from time to time with the question of the relationships between national ethnic groups, but these questions were relatively minor for them, at least compared to the role nationalism played in other areas in Europe. It was not nationalism but the power struggle between empires which characterized the politics of those states, and without any real national problems, nationalist rhetoric served mainly as an aid for rallying the patriotic feeling of the population.

At this point it might be worthwhile to mention a few other matters regarding German nationalism, especially due to the common tendency to bring it as a (negative) example for ethnic nationalism and to forget the dozens of other cases where nationalism had a less clear-cut history. When one discusses German nationalism, an important fact is often skipped: The ethnic-linguistic (although not religious) homogeneity which characterized German life in the Geographic and cultural core of what was to become the German empire. German nationalism dealt primarily with the problem of the fragmentation of German-speaking states and not the question of how to accommodate the demands of different ethnic groups. Such questions did indeed arise (mainly on the periphery), but because of its demographic, political and economic strength, Germany preferred to ignore these questions and at most saw them as a nuisance not worthy of serious attention (Even if that nuisance feeling led at times to hysterical outbursts such as, for instance, Heinrich Treitschke’s article ‘The Jews are Our Misfortune’). This was one of the reasons that the national discourse among German intellectuals became disconnected from reality and absorbed the self-same ‘romantic’ and ‘mystical’ characteristics which today are mentioned so often. The same is true of Zionist thought in Germany. While Zionist thought in Eastern Europe was characterized by political realism and a desire to bring about the modernization of the Jewish people, Zionism in Germany was often the refuge of Jewish intellectuals who wished to flee modern civilization and found refuge in what they interpreted as mystical elements of ancient Judaism. Anyone interested in knowing what ‘romantic’ nationalism which sanctifies ‘the land’ really looks like is invited to read some of Martin Buber’s writings and wonder how such a mystical romantic approach led him not to the right but rather to ‘Brit Shalom’ which espoused bi-nationalism. Another interesting example for romantic nationalism in Zionism as a flight from modernity is the ‘Shomer Hatzair’ group which was founded at the inspiration of the German youth movement. This group too moved leftward and eventually adopted Marxist ideology.

In general, therefore, it can be said that the national discourse in Germany was unique in many respects, since it evolved in the specific intellectual context of German history, and the attempt to see it as the archetype of European nationalism distorts the complex historical reality. European nationalism had many faces – sometimes nicer and sometimes less so. But it is not nationalism in general that is not responsible for the horrors of the 20th century, but rather the unique racist mutation thereof (German national-socialism).

In that context, it can be said that the authors’ argument that ‘the Jews were counted among the most prominent victims’ of ‘the romantic movement in politics’ is not accurate. The Jews were the victims of imperialist totalitarianism, even if it is clear that German totalitarianism, which tried to physically destroy them, was a super-national racist mutation of extreme nationalism. In addition, Jews were also victims of Soviet totalitarianism, which did not drive to destroy them physically, but nevertheless suppressed Jewish culture and murdered many Jews. In the other cases, romantic nationalism (i.e. ethnic nationalism) may not have always been comfortable for the Jews, just as it wasn’t comfortable for other ethnic minorities (although the situation of the Jews was perhaps more problematic as they were a minority everywhere). Their relationship with the majority changed from region to region. Thus, for instance, a strong bond was forged between the Czech national movement and the Jewish national movement. On the other hand, the national movements in Poland and Slovakia were characterized by a large degree of anti-Semitism, as opposed to the attitude of the Bulgarians and the Hungarians which was relatively neutral. But in general, Jewish life in the independent countries in Eastern Europe was not that of victims, and the brief period between the World Wars was characterized by a Jewish cultural renaissance. It can be speculated that without World War Two, this renaissance would have continued, even if many Jews later immigrated to Israel or the US.

Next: Is nationalism really an anachronism?



Hi, my name is Avi Woolf. I'm an American-Israeli MO Jew living in Israel. I have a background in Israeli (as in Land of Israel) and Jewish History and an insatiable need for knowledge. I also have professional experience as an editor, translator and indexer. Enjoy the ride! If you are interested in using my services or just want to drop me a line, contact me at:
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2 Responses to Nationalism and Democracy: Another View (Part Two)

  1. Pingback: Nationalism and Democracy: Another View (Part Three) | QED

  2. Pingback: Nationalism and Democracy: Another View (Epilogue) | QED

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