Is Nationalism still Europe’s Dominant Political Ideology?

Four historians consider whether the continent that gave the world the nation state still remains in its thrall.

A propaganda poster for the Vichy Regime, c.1940-1942. Wiki Commons.

‘The nationalist dream – of a world composed of self-contained nation states – remains powerful’

Edin Hajdarpašić, Assistant Professor of History at Loyola University, Chicago

What’s distinctive about nationalism is not so much its alleged dominance as its proven adaptability and persistence. Even in the heyday of ‘nation fever’ during the ‘long 19th century’, from 1789-1914, nationalists rarely held exclusive sway in European politics as they competed with and borrowed from advocates of imperialism, capitalism, communism and other ‘isms’ of modernity. Amid this ideological tumult, nationalists of all stripes appealed to a shared notion summarised by the Italian patriot Giuseppe Mazzini: ‘Every nation a state, only one state for the entire nation.’ 

In Mazzini’s own century, it became obvious that politicians could weaponise this vague promise of self-determination for an enormous array of often contradictory claims over peoples, institutions and lands from Ireland to Germany to Bosnia-Herzegovina. At stake were not merely territorial disputes, but rather more enduring questions of classifying or reclassifying who belongs – and who does not – to a given national community in possession of its own state.

It’s tempting to believe that such issues have been ‘solved’ or rendered outdated by globalisation, but the nationalist dream – of a world composed of self-contained nation states – remains powerful. The appeal to protect one’s nation from threatening forces, external or internal, remains a potent ideological call that cuts across contemporary European politics. 

Even proposals for territorial partitions are still with us. Most recently, the Slovene prime minister Janez Janša, who is slated to hold the presidency of the Council of the EU in 2021, has made proposals to change the boundaries of the former Yugoslav states to bring them more in line with their ethnic composition. The underlying belief here is that these nationalist projects remain unfinished, so some changes are needed to round out the jigsaw pieces and complete the European puzzle-map of nation states. But nationalism is not a project that can be finished like a jigsaw puzzle; it is unfinishable. If there is a related metaphor, it is that of Tetris, a game with no solution. It is impossible to complete a game of Tetris, but people continue to try.

‘There remains one form of nationalism which has been encouraged: supranationalism’

Francesca Morphakis, Researching a PhD at Leeds University on the Whitehall Elite, c.1919-1956

Measuring the prevalence of ideologies is no easy task. There are polls and elections that guide us in charting the popularity of leaders or parties that are seen to represent nationalist ideologies. Yet so many factors influence voting intentions and responses to polls that they are ultimately weak indicators. Such parties have won moderate victories across Europe in recent years, but this is hardly a ‘dominant’ display.

Nationalism, simply, is identifying most closely with the nation and prioritising its own interests above those of other communities. It’s worth recalling this because the media paints a very different picture. References to nationalism are often cocooned by an aura of dread; patriotism, nationalism and extremism are virtually inseparable in some media commentary. This makes it difficult to gauge the prevalence of nationalism. Is this a European phenomenon, where haunting memories of Vichy France, Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and many other destructive, extremist nationalist regimes cause barometers to malfunction?

There remains one form of nationalism which has been encouraged: supranationalism. Loyalty and pride in a nation is to be replaced by loyalty and pride in the European Union. While nationalists are criticised for tearing the EU apart, supranationalists are congratulated for their virtue. We are told that those who put the pan-European project ahead of their own countries – and they alone – are good citizens. 

The pandemic has stalled some of these trends. The disillusioned agitate for change, sclerotic bureaucracy is unpopular and vaccine politics signal that national self interest is not as peripheral as a cosy narrative of unity would lead us to believe. When taken to incorporate its various guises – patriotism, extremism and supranationalism – nationalism remains the dominant force. Yet it is multidirectional, not linear, and therein lies Europe’s dilemma: which will triumph in the fight between nationalism and supranationalism?

‘The current “spike” of nationalist movements is not comparable to those in the past’

Stella Ghervas, Professor of Russian History at Newcastle University and author of Conquering Peace: From the Enlightenment to the European Union (Harvard University Press, 2021)

Nationalism was born in Europe, because that is where the nation state was invented. By the end of the 19th century, the long process of state formation in Europe evolved into fiercely sovereign states that claimed to represent pure and timeless nations that had existed since the Middle Ages. This was often problematic since different ethnic communities frequently shared the same territories and cities. Many Europeans had long been subjected to diverse, mixed and ever-changing cultural influences.

This dubious ‘axiom’ was taught, however, to generations of children. Old European states and new ones, such as Germany and Italy, rewrote schoolbooks with the aim of homogenising language, culture and politics. Large-scale deportations of ‘ethnic minorities’ became common and accepted practice. In the aftermath of the First World War, the principle of ‘national self-determination’ became a model exported globally.

Yet the trend toward political fragmentation in Europe has been a transient phenomenon. This becomes clearer when compared with the 1,000-year trend – since Charlemagne – toward unification. The first peace plans for European unification were written in the 17th century, long before nation states. Giuseppe Mazzini argued in 1849 for a Holy Alliance of the Peoples and Victor Hugo for a United States of Europe. The process that started in the 1950s, and later developed into the European Union, is a direct descendant of those early peace plans for Europe. 

The current ‘spike’ of nationalist movements is not comparable to those of the past. Count Coudenhove-Kalergi had already asserted in 1923 (in his book Pan-Europa) that European nation states were too small to be viable in a world dominated by powers such as the US and Russia. This is truer than ever in today’s multipolar world. Nationalism has lost its raison d’être because European nation states are unable to remain sovereign on their own. The surviving ideology in Europe is, by sheer necessity, trans-national. The outlook for ‘nationalist’ movements, which capitalise on fears for the future and delusions of past grandeur, is grim. 

‘Nationalism persisted because even its detractors recognised the appeal of its tropes’

Geraint Thomas, Fellow and Director of Studies in History at Peterhouse, University of Cambridge

In 2021 the UK’s experience of nationalism continues to be defined by the relationship between the political priorities of Westminster on the one hand and those of Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales on the other. The language of centre and periphery that describes the interrelationship between British unionism and Celtic nationalisms has not disappeared but has remained in flux for centuries.

A feature of British claims to exceptionalism in Europe is the UK’s supposed immunity from the forces of separatist nationalism. Politicians in the 19th century attributed this to the practice of liberal constitutionalism in which Westminster, before the introduction of adult suffrage in 1918, recognised distinct ‘interests’, including those deemed pressing to the Celtic nations: the Sunday Closing Act (Wales) 1881 was passed in response to the temperance movement in Wales, while four years later, the founding of the Scottish Office signalled the arrival of administrative devolution in Scotland.

It is tempting to view Irish partition in 1921 as the exception that proved the wider triumph of unionism. For, by the mid-20th century, the Union appeared reinforced, with Scotland and Wales emerging as net beneficiaries of the redistributionist welfare system and public sector investment. Fifty years later, in its reaction to the culture of protest that attached to Scottish and Welsh nationalism, the arrival of the SNP and Plaid Cymru as electoral contenders, and the doubts expressed by both right and left about the fitness of the British state in the 1970s, an embattled Union stabilised itself by devolution. Yet these unionist interventions were often championed by figures who were Scots or Welsh themselves: Arthur Balfour and Donald Dewar in Scotland; David Lloyd George and Rhodri Morgan in Wales. They cultivated a public profile based on their national heritage and articulated a vision of unionism that claimed to legitimise the political expression of Scotland and of Wales. Nationalism persisted because even its detractors recognised the appeal of its tropes. Nationalism was more than an internal challenge to the Union, therefore; it contributed to its renewal. It may do so again.