Qu'est-ce qu'une nation?: Scholarly Debate and the Realities of Eastern Europe

Qu'est-ce qu'une nation?: Scholarly Debate and the Realities of Eastern Europe

Mini Teaser: The problem set the West by the Yugoslav wars between 1991 and 1995 was at bottom a simple one: whether to intervene on the ground to defeat the Serb forces in Croatia and Bosnia, and then stay.

by Author(s): Anatol Lieven

The problem set the West by the Yugoslav wars between 1991 and 1995
was at bottom a simple one: whether to intervene on the ground to
defeat the Serb forces in Croatia and Bosnia, and then keep
substantial forces there for a long period to hold down the Serbs and
maintain a united Bosnia. The answer was an equally simple one:
refusal, because it was assumed--probably correctly--that Western
electorates would support neither the loss of life among their own
troops nor the permanent commitment of men and money required. In the
end, the war was terminated (or suspended, we don't know yet) by the
victory of one of the warring nations, the Croats, armed by the
United States and supported to a limited degree by NATO airpower. In
consequence, naturally enough, the Croats have dictated the contours
of the peace settlement on the ground. An accident of geography, and
the imperatives of political ambition, led to this Croat victory
entering the history books under the curious name of the "Dayton
Peace Accord"--the culminative example of the misuse of language that
has characterized so much of the debate on Bosnia in the West.

It is not my purpose in this essay to rehearse this melancholy
history and turn over yet again the bones of Bosnia's dead. Instead,
I want to focus on one key aspect of the intervention controversy in
the West, and on a scholarly debate that provided the intellectual
underpinning for some of the positions adopted: the question of the
origins and nature of nationalism and national conflicts. The
connection between the scholarly debate and contemporary developments
is made explicit in the introduction to a recent collection of essays
on nationalism, edited by Geoff Eley and Ronald Suny:

As the claims to nationhood metastasize into the evils of ethnic
cleansing and genocide, the task of intellectuals to remind us all of
the imaginary quality of much of the ideology and history that has
gone into the making of nations becomes all the more acute.

When applied to developments in the former Yugoslavia, the lines of
dispute were, or seemed to be, relatively clear. On the one hand
there were those, like the British columnist Simon Jenkins in the
London Times, who argued against intervention on the grounds that the
wars raging there had been caused by "ancient national hatreds",
which the West could not hope to overcome. As a result, they said,
intervention would only lead to Western armies becoming trapped in a
permanent quagmire without hope of extrication.

In this way, the policy debate became enmeshed with the academic one.
For in answer to this view some advocates of intervention, including
Noel Malcolm and Norman Stone, argued that, far from being the result
of long-established national hatreds and fears, the Yugoslav wars
were essentially the result of artificial and opportunistic
manipulation by the Serbian communists or former communists, led by
Slobodan Milosevic'spart of a campaign to hold on to power in
the face of the collapse of communism as an ideology. These
ex-communists were portrayed as a kind of Iago, whispering evil lies
into the deluded ears of the people until they rush out madly and
start strangling their neighbors.

Since then, some of those who have taken this second position--for
example, Johnathan Sunley in these pages--have extended their
argument to take in other parts of the former communist world,
arguing that the danger of nationalism across the region has been
grossly exaggerated in the West (by, among others, the influential
George Soros), and that the national conflicts in the former Soviet
Union and elsewhere in the region have also been the work of the
former communists and of Moscow. In this essay I shall take issue
with this attempted downgrading of the importance of nationalism in
Central and Eastern Europe, though I shall do so while fully
acknowledging the evil role played by Milosevic and his followers
in starting the war in Yugoslavia.

As far as the public debate on Yugoslavia is concerned, some of it
might as well have been conducted by clowns with cream pies, for all
the intellectual light it generated. In the background to this
grimly-lit harlequinade, however, was an intellectual debate that has
generated some of the leading works of history, social science, and
cultural theory of recent decades: the question of the origins of
modern nationalisms, and of how far these were "constructed", and how
far generated by pre-existing and conscious ethnic, cultural, or
religious affiliations.

Activated by the war, this debate on nationalism has spread far and
fast beyond academic circles to become a central theme of the wider
debate on the nature of our age and its future. Thus, for example,
one of the most oft-repeated arguments against Francis Fukuyama's
"end of history" thesis has been that, far from the world moving
inevitably toward a consummation of history in a liberal capitalist
bed of roses, chauvinist and violent nationalism remains a force of
immense power, even in Europe.

It may well seem immodest, not to say imprudent, for the likes of me
to venture into a field trodden by intellects of the stature of the
late Sir Ernest Gellner. However, as a trained historian who has
spent much of the past seven years as a journalist covering national
and ethnic movements, disputes, and sometimes wars, I would like to
enter my pennyworth of personal experience and, I hope, common sense.

The former Soviet Union, where I have spent those years, is perhaps
the most fascinating field of study in the world today when it comes
to nationalism, for within it can be found an extraordinarily wide
range of national, ethnic, and state communities. There you will find
a fully formed European nation like the Lithuanians next door to the
Belorusians, a people who seem entirely lacking in a separate
national consciousness. Again, when it comes to the development of
nationalism, the Azeris seem to follow many of the standard patterns
for the "construction" of a nation in modern times--while their
neighbors the Chechens have some of the characteristics of a
"primordial ethnic nation." As to national conflicts, there have been
those in which outside manipulation has played an important part,
like Abkhazia--and others, like Karabakh, which have indeed been
mainly the result of conflicting and deeply felt national claims. If
there is one single lesson I have taken away from these past seven
years, it is a deep distrust of dogma, of generalizations and
universal explanations, whether of the historical origins of
nationalism or of contemporary national disputes.

Primordialists versus Constructionists

Crudely stated, one side of the scholarly debate on the origins of
nationalism stems ultimately from the belief that the roots of modern
nationalisms are primordial. That is to say, humanity is naturally
divided into different groups that will tend to exclude and show
hostility toward others; and the roots of modern national allegiances
lie in old and deeply felt ethnic, linguistic, religious, and
cultural differences, albeit transmuted into modern forms. This is
the belief of nationalists themselves, and from the early nineteenth
century on it was of course the official line of numerous national
school systems and schoolteachers, all working with passionate
intensity to convince their charges of the primordial existence and
identity on the same territory of their particular nation--an
approach notoriously summed up in the first words of the old French
history primer: "Nos ancêtres les Gaulois" (Our ancestors the Gauls).
This is very much the version now once again being taught in many
parts of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.

In Western academia in recent decades, however, this approach has
been not so much dissected as slashed to pieces by a whole range of
scholars who have pointed to the ways in which modern nationalisms
were in fact generated by new historical circumstances, ideas, social
classes, and socio-economic conditions over the past two centuries.
These scholars have also sought to expose the numerous ways in which
nationalisms and indeed national "traditions" were artificially
"created" in modern times, most obviously by states through the
aforementioned school systems, but also by less deliberate processes
consequent on the great social, economic, and technological
transformations of the past 250 years.

A key underlying reason for the rise of the new approach was that
nationalism had been deeply discredited by its role in Europe's
twentieth-century catastrophes. In the previous century nationalism
had been seen by most liberal intellectuals as a force for liberation
and human progress--an attitude that reached its most developed and
influential form with Woodrow Wilson's championing of national
self-determination at Versailles in 1919, a policy widely seen as
perverse after 1945.

Paradoxically, however, the post-1945 discrediting of nationalism
among Western intellectual elites came just as the collapse of the
European empires made the nation-state for the first time the
dominant theoretical model across the globe. This has become even
more the case in recent years with the collapse of supra-national
Marxism and the Soviet empire.

Ideologically, the range of scholars somewhere on the
"constructivist" side of the spectrum has on the surface at least
been extraordinarily broad, and their approaches extremely varied.
They extend from Marxists like Eric Hobsbawm through liberals like
Gellner to conservatives like Elie Kedourie and Kenneth Minogue. The
range of their specific explanations of the rise of nationalism is
equally great, but all in the end see nationalism as in one way or
another a function of modernization and a specific product of modern
change: in the case of the Marxists, the development of capitalism
tout court, or--as Gellner and Tom Nairn would argue--its uneven
spread. All would also, and usually rightly, emphasize the role of
the educated classes (for the Marxists, the new middle classes) in
the construction and spread of the new nationalist ideology, which,
originating in Western Europe in the later eighteenth century, spread
in ripples across the world.

Essay Types: Essay