European Affairs

How Popular Nationalism Waxed and Waned     Print Email
Bailey Morris-Eck

Reviewed by Bailey Morris-Eck
Who We Are: A History of Popular Nationalism
By Robert H. Wiebe With foreword by Sam Bass Warner, Jr. and James Sheehan
Princeton University Press, 2001
288 pages

This is a fascinating study of the rise and fall of nationalism as a popular movement from its origin only about 150 years ago, not as far back as most of us think, according to the late Robert Wiebe, the prominent social and political historian, who was Professor Emeritus of History at Northwestern University.

This type of nationalism, according to the author, can be traced to the long 19th century, from the French Revolution to the First World War, when it flourished exclusively in Europe.


Wiebe makes it very clear that he is not attempting to chronicle a comprehensive history of nationalism but instead focuses on movements with widespread appeal among diverse people in many walks of life. He is not interested in elites communicating among themselves. His interest is in the type of nationalism that mobilizes general populations.

The movement grew out of a vast demographic revolution that doubled Europe's population between the mid-18th and late-19th centuries, driving tens of millions of people from the land into cities, and across oceans and countries, in the great migrations beginning in 1800.

Uprooted people, disconnected from villages, tradition, family and extended kin sought identities and links to ethnic groups. Unlike contemporary critics of the evils of nationalism, Wiebe's definition is surprisingly humanistic and non-judgmental.

"Nationalism is the desire among people who believe they share a common ancestry and a common destiny to live under their own government on land sacred to their history." Note the emphasis on the word "believe," because Wiebe makes clear that these aspirations can be imagined, invented and most certainly manipulated and perverted.

It is the all-powerful state that becomes the snake in Wiebe's garden, according to his colleague and fellow scholar James J. Sheehan who wrote a foreword to the book. The state entices nationalists into Faustian bargains in which it offers power in exchange for their democratic souls.

The state, in the form of a Hitler, a Milosevic or a white racist regime in South Africa can manipulate what are essentially populist and potentially democratic aims into tragic ends. But Wiebe insists that there is nothing inherently violent in a movement based largely on a desire for kinship.

In tracing the major nationalist movements, he exposes both the basic humanity and the tragedies and perversities that have marked their passage: Irish nationalism, spawned by overpopulation and famine and centered on hatred of the British; German nationalism, rooted in Prussia's humiliation of its old enemy France in 1870; Mormonism, Zionism and more.

Different nationalist movements stemmed from different religious, racial and linguistic origins. There are also different species of nationalism, as Wiebe makes clear in describing the "Authoritarian Nationalism" that characterized the Third Reich in Germany. The Nazis combined every major theme in 50 years of European nationalism into one potent and integrated package.

At the end of the day, however, nationalism as a movement almost always falls down. In establishing its relationship to democracy and socialism, the other "emancipatory movements rooted in the mobilization of European society," Wiebe outlines its peaks and valleys.

From a European base, popular nationalism migrated to many parts of the world, dying out almost completely after World War II, before flowering again as a global phenomenon in nationalist outbreaks in the 1960s and 1970s, fed partly by modern media and globalized challenges to authority.

Starting in North America and ending in Asia, movements erupted in French-speaking Canada, the black ghettoes of the United States, Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland, the Spanish Basque territory, Belgium, Rwanda, Burundi, Malaysia, Vietnam and more.

Unlike other varieties, the kind of nationalism Wiebe describes can only exist when it addresses basic human needs in societies where traditional ways no longer work. Today, it is steadily losing ground to "clerics and warlords," Wiebe says.

However, Wiebe believes that democracy and socialism have also lost ground in addressing the needs of a global population. It is in the chapters outlining his thinking about the future that his book is less compelling.

Turning to the new century's discontents, he draws no real lessons or conclusions from the past, offering instead a murky appeal to accept society's deep and indelible diversities. Small-scale diversity is his answer for the future, but we are left with no real idea of what that means.