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Nationalism, Forced Migrations
and Ethnic Cleansings


Nationalism is the ideology based on the premise that the nation must be the basis of political order. In this respect, the term "nation" can be defined in different ways, depending on the historic, political, and social interests and attendant circumstances. States must be nation-states, and a sovereign state is the symbol for the freedom of the nation. Nationalism is probably the most powerful and effective cultural system existing in the present and in recent history. It acts as an integrator and promotes cohesion in the modern, anonymous faceless society, but it also bears within itself the potential for separation, aggression, and violence.

The Nationalist World View

Unlike other political world views, nationalism is not marked by a comprehensive theoretical rationale. On the contrary, it is downright based on the concept of presenting its fundamental postulates in such a way as if they are a matter of course and do not require any detailed explanation: that every person belongs to a nation and that his or her nationality thus is an intrinsic part of his or her individual identity. Benedict Anderson (1988, p. 15) suggests not to classify nationalism as a political ideology, but rather to treat it like concepts such as "religion" or "kinship" - as a cultural system and a societal phenomenon.

Nations are often linked to criteria such as a common language, culture, descent, religion, or history, but all of these criteria are neither unambiguous nor objective. Rather, nations are imagined communities (Anderson 1988) which first and foremost exist in the mind of their members, who imagine themselves to be part of a national community together with other people, most of whom they do not know at all.

It is particularly due to the fact that nationalism is so vague and mutable that many groups have been and still are able to use it to enforce their interests - in anti-colonial liberation struggles, in order to create new states by uniting smaller or dissolving larger ones, to attack dynastic rule or to safeguard it. Nationalist ideas can be linked with all major political ideologies such as liberalism, conservatism or socialism/communism.

The concept of "nation" is related to a promise of community, of the equality of its members, of comradeliness and fraternity. The nation is to be placed above individual interests. Conversely, what is expected are loyalty, selflessness, and the willingness to make sacrifices.

Nations never are universalist in nature, but are always and by necessity defined by the differentiation from others. By defining the "them", the "us" is defined. Therefore, nationalism regularly is accompanied by national stereotypes, by animosity towards those who do not belong to one's own nation, and often by war. It is this potential for violence inherent in nationalism that is summed up in Franz Grillparzer's bitter epigram dating back to 1849:

    The new education moves, you see,
    from humanity
    via nationality
    to brutality.

A nationalistically oriented history policy plays an important role when it comes to the creation of nation-states. Nationalists often construe a nation's history by interpreting historical events in a manner that suits their political goals, but is often ahistorical. The memory of national heroes or common wars, victories, defeats, and sacrifices provides the link between a nation's living members and the dead ones. There is a large repertoire of nationalist symbols such as anthems, flags, or monuments. A nation's beginnings are often shrouded in myth. Depending on a country's actual history, the nation's beginnings are, for instance, ascribed to bold and visionary founding fathers or are assumed to lie in the far distant past. On the inside, nationalism postulates the principle of cultural homogenization, which is regarded as a task to be taken on by state policy. This homogenization may take place by disseminating the majority culture via the education and media systems or via a language and cultural policy aimed at assimilating ethnic minorities. In extreme cases, however, especially in times of war or crisis, this policy can go as far as to resort to the expulsion or even mass murder of minorities, who, due to their nationality, are described as not being able to be integrated, a "threat to the nation" or an "enemy within". Conversely, the actual or perceived discrimination against minorities, for instance because their language constitutes a barrier to a better career, lead to demands for shifts in the border lines or increased autonomy; demands which are not easily reconciled with the idea of national unity. If neighboring states exist who feel ethnically close to the minorities and who act as the minorities' protectors, this constellation gives rise to international conflicts, for instance if changes in border lines are demanded.

The historic development of nationalist thought

The terms "nationalism" and "nation", as they are defined today, were coined in the modern era. In the Middle Ages, it was not the nation but the hierarchical relationship between people and dynastic rule which constituted the basis for political order. Territories' geographical boundaries regularly changed due to inheritance, marriage or war between the rulers; political borders usually were not congruent with language boundaries. According to most people's level of experience, most communities were locally restricted and were usually based on personal acquaintance. Apart from that, there were the large religious communities which go beyond political borders, such as Christianity, Islam, or Confucianism, which had a universalist claim and their own languages not used in daily life.

Major factors for the dissolution of this system were the relativization of the religious world view, the voyages of discovery, and the invention of letterpress printing. Its markets had boundaries mostly defined by language and created anonymous communication societies which were not based on personal contact any longer, but were not universalist, either. Herein lie the cultural and economic roots of the territorialized world view extant in modern times.

The changes taking place in the economy, communication, and transportation laid the foundation for a political program which aimed at the abolishment of the old hierarchical and static systems of government and the creation of a new type of state, which was intended to become the political casing for the new communities - nationalism. At first, it became effective as an emancipatory, revolutionary ideology in the North and South American colonies and during the French Revolution. The "interests of the nation" were positioned against the traditional dynastic systems of rule. Thus, "the nation" is a bourgeois state model at its roots. The populist promise of equality for all citizens and the prospect of political participation managed to mobilize the masses.

The nation model prevailing in America and Western Europe sees its point of reference first and foremost in the demos, i.e. in the people as a political unit which is based on a joint political order to which its members subscribe. Postulated credos are political participation and solidarity for all citizens - the catchwords are liberty, equality, and fraternity. Generally speaking, whoever professes its political and social principles may belong to a nation.

The alternative model took up elements of Romanticism and first had an influence on German (especially Prussian) soil. Later, that influence also expanded to Italy and Eastern Europe. It was a reaction to French nationalism, which it rejected, while at the same time adapting and re-interpreting that movement. In this model, the nation is not defined politically but ethnically and is based on a common descent, culture, tradition, and language. Nationality and citizenship must not necessarily mean the same thing. State borders should be marked according to the historic or current territories settled by ethnic groups. Demands that became pronounced before and during the revolutions of 1848 were first and foremost the creation of a nation-state (by the unification of smaller states or by disengaging new states out of "multinational states"), but also, once more, the demand for liberty and political participation. It should be pointed out, however, that both models are idealized - it is quite possible that they can occur in combined form in various situations and with different groups.

From the second half of the 19th century onwards, many traditionally dynastic rulers reacted to the nationalist challenge by embracing and reinterpreting its symbolism and rhetoric, building themselves into the leader and the embodiment of the nation and thus tapping into nationalism's mobilization potential in order to consolidate their own reign. Thus, William II called himself "first among Germans", for example. Particularly in the old "multinational states", however, this strategy did not meet with success. In Austria-Hungary, for instance, having German replace Latin as the country's administrative language - a measure not motivated out of nationalist but pragmatic motives, meant to modernize the country - caused discrimination against the non-German-speaking citizens and a strengthening of the national movements. In the aftermath of World War I, the large multinational states crumbled - with the exception of the Soviet Union, where this process was postponed until 1991 due to the country's communist rule.

The nation-state principle, European state order, and national minorities

In a large number of internal and international conflicts during the past two centuries, nationalism played a major role and served to justify violence and duress. Towards the outside, conflicting territorial claims and the demand for border changes aiming at the creation of nation-states became fuel for conflict in the international state system.

In the 19th and the early 20th century, the creation of nation-states led to profound changes on the political map, especially in the east and southeast of Europe. The revolutions of 1848/49 proved that many nationalist, democratic movements had emerged which voiced claims for "national self-determination". The foundation of sovereign nation-states in the Balkans began with Greek independence (1830) and continued in the 1870s with independence or autonomy for Bulgaria, Rumania, and Serbia. After World War I, a number of new states also emerged. U.S. President Woodrow Wilson championed "the nations' right of self-determination" as the basis for post-war order. In Europe, however, these plans were not understood in the sense of democratic, but of ethnic-national self-determination. In the post-war Treaties of Paris, the Habsburg and Ottoman empires were divided according to national principles. Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, and the Baltic states were among the new countries formed. Austria and Turkey also became nation-states, and a large number of border shifts was effected.

However, the increasing application of the nation-state principle as a basis for European order was not a solution to existing problems but rather a source for new conflict. Almost all new nation-states formed in the 19th and early 20th century had considerable populations of ethnic minorities ("nationalities"). Even though the Treaties of Paris stipulated that in the new states, minorities' interests were to be protected by constitutional law, the "nationality issue" held a considerable potential for conflict. Members of the minorities felt discriminated against and subjected to assimilative pressure. For members of the majority nationality which was declared the state nationality, extra rights for the minorities were contradictory to their own just recently acquired national sovereignty. Language, education, and cultural policy as well as access to careers in the civil service and agricultural reforms were controversial issues in many countries. Social, re-distributory, and modernizing measures were often implemented in the name of the nation but to the detriment of minorities, first and foremost of the Jews. It was not least during these conflicts that terms such as "the German East" or "the Sudetenland" were coined. These terms concealed the multi-ethnic and multi-cultural character of these territories and were used as a rationale behind polititcal demands.