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Δευτέρα, 6 Δεκεμβρίου, 2021
ΑρχικήEnglish EditionIn commemoration of the birth of a nation

In commemoration of the birth of a nation

By Mado Gianni,

Today, Greece celebrates 200 years since the Greek Revolution against the rule of the Ottoman Empire was initiated. Greece was declared a nation state in 1830. All across Europe, a similar upheaval of revolutions was gradually taking over. In France, the continuous revolutions (since 1789) against the monarchy led to the creation of the French Third Republic in 1870. In Germany, the revolutions of 1848-49 motivated by political as well as “nationalist” sentiments led to the unification of Germany in 1871. The Italian unification reached completion in 1871 and so on and so forth.

Yet, it can be argued that the word “nation” as we know it today has little to no relevance to the idea of the 19th century “nation” in favour of which revolutions arose and kingdoms were dissolved. The historian Eric Hobsbawm in his book “Nations and Nationalism” is adamant about this: “We shouldn’t interpret the past based on the perceptions of the 20th century”. But how can we understand this taking into account the widespread belief that the sentiment of a “nation” goes hand in hand with its political embodiment in an independent state?

Hobsbawm draws our attention to three major differences between the “nation” of the liberal era of the 19th century and what followed after that:

First of all, neither the existence of physical borders nor the length to which those borders extended to were determining factors in the declaration of a “nation”. If we take the example of Greece, the independent state that was formed in 1830 comprised only 50% of the country as we know it today. The last remaining parts of the country were incorporated into the Greek nation-state as late as 1947 with the annexation of the Dodecanese islands. The commonality of the “birth right” which today instils in every newborn baby a national identity and which, bureaucratically speaking, links people to specific national territories, came even later. Hence whilst today we build walls to defend our borders over the defective belief that we are protecting our nation, I bet a lot of people would like to argue that having a specific nationality does not tie them to a specific territory.

Eisler, Georg; Eric John Ernest Hobsbawm; National Portrait Gallery, London; Image Source: artuk.org

Secondly, the most important of all is the issue of language, which nowadays seems to be a decisive reason for belonging in a specific nation. However, Hobsbawm repeatedly argues in his book, language was never a determining factor for the creation of a “nation”. The need of a popular language came along with political unity and the democratisation of the masses. When the state intervened in public affairs through administrative procedures to ensure the benefits of health, education, legal order etc., there was an increasing need for a common language. When primary education became obligatory for everyone -independent of class or wealth- language’s importance was established. If we want to make a comparison with today, almost everyone has accepted the reality of multilingualism and the usage of a global “lingua franca” as the natural progression of language. Even within a country, there are many different idioms, dialects or common parlance. Yet, all nations insist on their linguistic supremacy to the extent that if you try getting around in a French railway station, your English will not help you much and if you try speaking French in Flandres, they will reply in English.

Lastly, nationality is the thing which makes people believe that they are one. The common “us against them” rhetoric, that has had catastrophic consequences, had not yet developed in the 19th century. According to Hobsbawm, the first nations were in their entirety heterogeneous mirroring the structure of an empire. Here, an association with Yuval Noah Harrari is important, as in his book “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind” he includes a chapter on empires in which he points out that the world started to become a global village as far back as the 15th century. It is therefore safe to assume that global perception preceded national perception and not the other way around. If that is so, the idea of nationality as we know it today i.e. the definitive identity which divides “us” from “them”, cannot in any way be proven to be the uniting force behind the revolutions of the 19th century, says Hobsbawm.

All of the above sounds logical, right? It could even be argued that the idea of the “nation” with its liberal connotations was not such a bad one and if it had remained so, 21st century nationalism would not have developed into a dangerous ideology. But here are another three reasons as to how the “nation” has become an indisputable individual force increasingly towards the 21st century.

My favourite one would be the abolition of the threshold principle as defined by Hobsbawm. In political philosophy, this term refers to the extent of the establishment of self-determination and self-rule. He seems certain that the moment this threshold was surpassed, it was the moment that the very idea of a “nation” was undermined. Much like as it happens when inflation occurs, having too many different nations declaring themselves as individual countries is not only sometimes deceptive but also destructing the world balance. (Note: not to say that some nation states are more legitimate than others but just to enhance the viewpoint that the very idea of a nation should not at all be taken so literally).

But the threshold principle was surpassed because language and ethnicity became determining factors for all people within a nation state. In some cases, languages were invented to serve the purpose of the nation state. In most cases, language was enforced upon its populations to ensure its relevance. Fun fact: only 2% of the Italian population spoke Italian at the time of the Italian unification and only 5% of French spoke the French language in the mid-19th century. As for ethnicity, state patriotism -which is a term that refers to the democratisation of the masses- had nothing to do with ethnic nationalism. Today, these two terms seem to be inseparable.

Consequently, nationalism, as an ideology that fights for some whilst it excludes others and is indivisible from the existence of a political state, arose in the form of what we today call “ethnic nationalism”.

Image source: medium.com

At the time it was initially formed, “nationalism” helped against the abolition of oppression. It helped Greece unify towards a common goal which was the liberation of its people from the oppressive Ottoman rule. It helped in the preservation of different cultures and languages which has only proved that there can be grounds for mutual understanding in such a highly diversified human world. It helped in the progress of civilization under the unification of peoples into administrative entities which in turn led to economic development. It could have helped in the establishment of religious tolerance, in the maintenance of peace and in the preservation of equality. Despite all the good potential that exists within this ideology, “ethnic nationalism” which relies on the perseverance of one ethnic identity, on the supremacy of one national language and on the existence of national borders has unfortunately come to contradict everything that the very early notion of a “nation” stood for.

The current state of European integration and the unique political experiment of the European Union call for us to see through the inventions of post 1870 “ethnic nationalism” and revisit with renewed vision the early concept of a “nation” of the liberal era. Harrari argues “…for better or for worse, there is no way back”. Yet there are many ways to emancipate our “nationalistic” feelings and instead of looking for reasons to challenge each other, actually honour the memory of all the revolutionaries who fought for what we today take for granted; our freedom.

  • Nations and Nationalism, Eric Hobsbawm (1990).
  • Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harrari (2011).



Mado Gianni
She was born in 1997 in Athens. She grew up in Belgium. She has studied Film Studies in the University of St Andrews in Scotland. She was Festival Director for St Andrews Film Festival for two consecutive years. She really likes writing and reading. She has written for both her school and university newspapers before she got involved with OffLine Post. She has also been part of many short film productions mainly as an editor. She speaks English and French.