Freedom and East European Nationalism

How relevant might nationalism be as a category for understanding Europe and its history? My intuition has always been that the uncontroversial thing to do now is to try to avert one’s gaze from nationalisms, to avoid considering them all that much. After all, as John Connelly notes towards the beginning of his important new book From Peoples into Nations: A History of Eastern Europe (2020), ‘we know that national identity is learned and not natural and that borders are lines drawn on soil by human beings and not by God’.[i] In the East Central European territories specifically addressed by Connelly’s study, the centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire ‘bequeathed legacies of linguistic and ethnic interweaving that made states of single peoples – nation-states – confoundingly difficult to create at a later date’ (42), Connelly observes. Recent historical work has therefore emphasized how it was really only nationalist agitation that prevented modern East Central Europe from remaining in multinational states lacking borders between peoples – populations who otherwise would have stayed indifferent to nationalism (20). Historians such as Pieter Judson thus recommend readers to free themselves from the ‘unnecessary discursive prison that nationalists around us continue to re-create’.[ii] It is almost as if the very existence of nationalisms can now simply be wished away, if we engage in the proper discursive labour.              

Connelly, however, bids us pay attention to what he calls ‘the crucial but also unpredictable valence of nationalism’ (459). Nationalist agitation itself represents an example of the way in which nationalisms have played out in Europe: unpredictably. Connelly emphasizes ‘truly contingent moments’, identifying ‘perhaps a half-dozen moments when the history of nationalization might have proceeded according to a radically different scheme’ (here he mentions Joseph II’s attempt to replace Latin with German as the administrative language of his empire in 1784, for example). The only real quality of predictability that Connelly’s account finds, which makes Eastern European nationalism ‘opportunistic within fixed referent points’ (789) and thus ‘not contingent, but rather situational’, is that of ‘its strength depending above all on the level of perceived threat to a particular ethnicity’ (790). Connelly stresses how ‘at every political “turning point,” […] those wanting to make politics in East Central Europe portrayed themselves as somehow freeing “their” nations from foreign tyranny’. He writes of the persistence of such work of manufactured, false liberation, which enlisted the agitation of popular nationalist feeling. ‘This task of spreading national consciousness among often-indifferent populations absorbed the energies of generations and was completed only after World War II through bloody state-driven policies, such as population exchanges.’ (788) Yet precisely the effects of such agitation were themselves contingent, for instance on the use of technologies, as Connelly remarks in relation to the Sudeten Germans’ electoral support for ‘unification’ with (i.e. takeover by) Germany in 1938. ‘Without the active interference of the propaganda apparatus of the powerful Nazi state, […] the marginal concerns of Czechoslovak Germans over language use would not have driven them to such outright rejection of Czechoslovakia’ (437).

Connelly’s study outlines the trajectory of historical experiences of nationalism in East Central Europe from the late eighteenth-century onwards, within which trajectory two of the most significant contrasting forms of nationalism were those attached to nineteenth-century liberalism and nineteenth-century conservatism. The nationalisms of nineteenth-century conservatives shared the concern with local specificities which was displayed by slightly earlier Eastern European intellectuals such as the Czech linguists Josef Dobrovský and Josef Jungmann – the sort of patriot scholars who were, as Connelly memorably puts it, ‘obsessed with ensuring that what was different and strange in Bohemia or Hungary did not disappear’ (797).[iii] Hence the Polish conservative politician Agenor Gołuchowski, who was the first prime minister of Austria from 1860, sought to nurture historical particularity: as Connelly notes, he ‘believed in devolving power from the centre and permitting each kingdom or province to develop its own personality within historic boundaries’ (190). This contrasted with a liberal tendency to seek to disavow diversity, whilst differences were left to fester.   

Writing of the House of Habsburg’s support of Jews in the 1848 pogroms, against mobs who ‘claimed that Jews stood with their ethnic enemies’, Connelly sees the Habsburgs to represent at that moment ‘a defence of life and liberty against an emerging new order, of liberalism and national self-determination, but also of seemingly intractable interethnic feuding’ (157). In Hungary, for example, the idea of liberals such as Lajos Kossuth was to mask divisions amongst minorities with a national centralization project. He ‘feared that recognizing any of them would generate a subdivision by cantons’ (163). By the time of the election in 1905 of more determined Hungarian nationalists – the ‘1848 party’ – the twin liberal goals of social modernization and national unification had generated what Connelly calls ‘deep tensions’ in Hungarian politics. The elite ‘still subscribed to principles of modernization and rule of law’, yet it ‘fully recognized that only illiberal practices could help promote that “liberal” agenda in an ostensible nation-state that they sought to make uniformly Magyar’ (266). Moreover, though Balkan liberalism was of a different nature, its nationalist articulation became just as illiberal as nationalist liberal politics in the Habsburg lands. In late nineteenth-century Southeastern Europe, Connelly finds ‘a mix of parties professing liberal principles while fixing elections to maintain power’. Liberalism’s aim in Romania, Serbia and Bulgaria then was not modernization (‘laissez-faire economics or an assault on old social and political privileges’). Instead, Balkan liberalism becoming nationalist meant that ‘Balkan liberals translated liberal ideals of personal freedom and civic rights into the right of the nation to unimpeded development in its own state’. A climate of territorial expansionism was legitimized (267).     

Connelly summarizes regarding East Central Europe in general that ‘if the discourse of nationhood seemed to move forward across the region with an implacable momentum, it also experienced a radicalization in the late nineteenth century’ (790-91). In that period ethnic ideas about nationhood became ‘racialized in line with the scientific trends of the time’ (791), and the importance of ethnicity was bolstered also by the evolution of the principle of national self-determination. Connelly describes how the 1878 Congress of Berlin ‘took a principle implicit in the 1830 London Protocol founding modern Greece – that an ethnicity could be a source of sovereignty – and multiplied it by four’. The Berlin Congress set in play ‘a principle later called national self-determination’, by creating ‘the idea that ethnicity was the basis of the right to rule’ (238). Then ‘in Paris in 1919’ – with the postwar treaties – national self-determination became ‘an explicit and valid – indeed, universal – method of organizing statehood’ (239).

Connelly suggests that we rethink the currently prevailing model of historical periodization which identifies a ‘long’ nineteenth-century (stretching from the French Revolution to World War I), succeeded by a ‘short’ twentieth-century from 1918 to 1989. He argues that the idea of a ‘short’ twentieth-century has ‘little coherence other than two convulsions of violence and the rise and fall of two totalitarian empires’, and implies that the historical phenomena (such as nationalisms) which determined that violence and those empires somehow terminated in 1989. ‘But we still do not know the ultimate destination of the twentieth century.’ (210) The fact that our post-1989 ‘politics for which a name has yet to be found’ (800) seems ‘to involve a reassertion of the national state, driven by politicians willing to exploit populist nationalism’ (210), suggests that twenty-first century Europe remains influenced by the same determinants that shaped its previous two centuries with their ‘temporary victories of liberal nationalism; national socialism; socialist nationalism’ (800). Connelly stresses that all three of these forms of nineteenth- and twentieth-century nationalism were informed by the principle of national self-determination, proposing that we narrate ‘the story of Europe’s twentieth century in terms of struggles over national self-determination, recalling that not only liberals like Giuseppe Mazzini and Woodrow Wilson, but also fascists (Adolf Hitler, Corneliu Codreanu) and Communists (V. I. Lenin) invoked this term’. Connelly hence advances the idea of a ‘long’ twentieth-century: ‘If the twentieth century is (was) about national self-determination, then a good argument can be made for it really getting started in 1878 and lasting well into our own time.’ (210)        

If Connelly’s reading of modern European history in From Peoples into Nations questions the concept of a ‘long’ nineteenth-century, it does nonetheless show forms of nineteenth-century nationalism to have had afterlives in the twentieth-century – in addition to the persisting concern with the principle of national self-determination. The Communist Partisans led by Josip Tito during World War II, whose first government in 1943 was titled the ‘Antifascist Council for the National Liberation of Yugoslavia’ – Connelly notes – were ‘not antinational’, but instead ‘played on the ambiguities of the word “nation”’ (457). It can in fact be argued that in effect their nation-building aims combined the nationalist goals of nineteenth-century conservatism and nineteenth-century liberalism, in that (as the Partisan thinker Milovan Djilas wrote in his memoir) the Partisans’ ‘concern for all did not yet reveal a desire to control everyone’.[iv] The concern of the nationalism of nineteenth-century conservatism with nurturing particularity reappeared in their aim of ‘protecting Serbs or Muslims from complete destruction’, which, for Connelly, was ‘precisely the Partisan cause’. But World War II ‘seemed to show’ that ‘none’ of Yugoslavia’s ethnicities ‘could survive without the unity of all’, Connelly observes, and indeed the Partisans also pursued a path of national unification which can be seen to follow on from the unifying nationalism of nineteenth-century liberalism. Hence, ‘rather than suppress the ethnic identities of Serbs, Croats, or Slovenes, they worked to foster a broader unity that would make them secondary to Yugoslav identity’. These Communists further followed the progressive liberal tradition in that for them, ‘nation-building meant bettering the Yugoslav people’s education, health, and social welfare’ (457). Ultimately, Connelly notes, the Partisans were ‘Marxists, for whom ethnicity or nationhood were relevant if they advanced the revolution’. Connelly further qualifies his favourable insights into how the Partisans showed nineteenth-century nationalisms to have had twentieth-century afterlives, when he adds that the Partisans were ‘smart enough not to speak of the revolution’s ultimate goals and how exactly they had been realized in the Soviet Union’ (458-59). 

As Marxists, the Partisans pursued the socialist tendency to instrumentalize nationalism or ethnicity for materialist, in this case revolutionary, ends. Back in 1869 Wilhelm Liebknecht, the co-founder of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), had in fact held the workers’ movement to be an ‘infallible tool to eliminate the nationalities question’, thus showing what Connelly describes as a ‘disdain for small peoples’ that ‘extended beyond Marx and Engels to the German socialist elite’.[v] The cultural or linguistic nationalism which underpinned nineteenth-century conservatives’ concern with local specificities, as Connelly sees, was irrelevant to the project of socialist progress: ‘If humans saw their interests in material terms, in their ability to produce wealth and be properly rewarded, who cared what language they spoke?’. Continuing with this point, Connelly proposes the preoccupation with linguistic particularity as the defining essence of East European nationalism: ‘Socialists found no justification in history for the heart of the East European nationalist project: rescuing local vernaculars from the edge of extinction’ (271). The case of the Habsburgs ‘using German as part of their effort to control Hungary more effectively’, which ‘caused Hungarians to rally behind their own decayed vernacular as a means of self-defence’, illustrates how in the nineteenth-century language became ‘an issue that was about more than language’, as Connelly puts it. For however poorly the Hungarian gentry may have spoken Hungarian at the time, ‘the prospect that they would become German made them fear losing their identity’, and it was this anxiety that triggered the shift – ‘as consequential as any in the previous half millennium’, Connelly maintains – ‘from a latent and vague sense of nationality to an active and soon very aggressive one’ (78).

Connelly’s sympathy for the goal of rescuing local vernaculars manifests in his regard for the aims of three distinctive early twentieth-century politicians – T. G. Masaryk, Aleksandar Stamboliiski and Stjepan Radić – who all ‘worked on the political left but avoided the blind spots that hampered Marxian Social Democrats in East Central Europe: the national and peasant questions’.

‘Rather than preach that progress demanded the disappearance of small nations and the fading of the peasantry into urban industries, they imagined a future with room for both: the prosperous medium-sized landholder peasant would be educated in his or her native culture, but would become part of a prosperous, peaceful, and cooperative Europe of nations.’ (297) 

Here the peasant/vernacular and national, small state-building questions are juxtaposed – yet of course for the original theorist of linguistic nationalism, German philosopher J. G. Herder, ‘nations truly lived through languages and not states’ (86), as Connelly writes. States, in other words, Herder thought, existed for the diversity of their constituent peoples and those peoples’ vernaculars. ‘“Just as God tolerates all the languages of the world,” Herder wrote, “so should a ruler not only tolerate, but also honour the different languages of his people.”’ (84) As Connelly notes, even in the second half of the nineteenth-century the ethnic nationalism supported by such an honouring of vernaculars had not yet reached ‘the intolerance and exclusivness [sic] that we know from more proximate times’. This was because ‘the Herderian tradition had sought to protect a people’s spirit, the Volksseele, but it did not question practices of assimilation dating back centuries’ (285). The particularism of Herderian nationalism was matched with a universalism. ‘The genius of Herder was to project such obsessions with local and native prerogatives as universal, timeless, and in the interests of humanity.’ (103)

Of course, Herder’s transcendentalizing universalism was not the same thing as Enlightenment universalism. Whilst Enlightenment universalism stands behind the unifying impulse characterizing the nationalism of nineteenth-century liberals, Herder’s particularism underwrote the concern with local specificities that shaped the nationalism of nineteenth-century conservatives.[vi] More importantly, when Connelly pinpoints ‘the conflict of Enlightenment universalism with nationalism’ (100), Herderian nationalism with its transcendentalizing universalism is seen to contrast with the sort of urge to imperial unity possessed by eighteenth-century Habsburg rulers, with their modernizing desire for a strong state and central control. As we have seen, Connelly emphasizes how in 1784, Joseph II’s decree that German would now be the official administrative language of Hungary, along with his reform abolishing the traditional counties, ‘unwittingly spawned a vigorous national movement’ by stirring up those who feared Hungary would become ‘just one more German-speaking province in Central Europe’ (76). Connelly finally argues that this emergence of language-orientated nationalism marked a disruptive moment within the nascent Enlightenment project of modernization: 

‘Modernization (though not necessarily “capitalism”) was crucial, not as a nation-producing force, but as a force against which the nation emerged by reacting to it. The birth moment of 1784 was a rebellion against centralization and rationalization. Later, modernization aided the national communities, but modern nations also grew under largely premodern conditions, for example, in Serbia.’ (798)

Just as nationalism has shown its unpredictable valence within social and economic narratives (growing within modern and premodern societies alike), Connelly summarizes, it has ‘insinuated itself into […] and changed shape’ within imperial narratives too, ‘at times’ adopting an ‘anti-imperial and nation-statist’ (794) appearance and at other times being ‘collaborationist with one or another imperial power’. He explains this ubiquitous appearance of nationalisms by the fact that ‘for nationalists, national rights were not one species of rights – for example, of human rights – they were the right from which all others flowed’; and in this sense national rights represented ‘the precondition for human freedom’ (795). In 1845, for instance, the Hungarian patriot István Széchenyi asked, ‘if you want to achieve liberty, on the basis of what nationality do you hope to accomplish it? Slav or German?’.[vii] Connelly also quotes the Czech journalist Karel Havlíček Borovský writing three years later, ‘If we want to be free as a people, we must first have nationality.’ (22) As Connelly records – before citing their various statements in a footnote (814 n. 24) – at this time of democratic revolutions ‘writers from Austria, Poland, Croatia, and Romania repeated precisely these words’ (22).

What therefore seems to be evident is a progressive historical abstraction of the freedom associated with the assertion of national rights: whereas in 1784 the conservative rescuing of local vernaculars enacted a moment of freedom in rebellion against an imperial project of modernization, in the late 1840s national rights were asserted as representing a precondition of desired yet currently abstract democratic liberty. In the same way, Eastern European constitutions written after World War I, though ‘not simple impositions by the West’ – Connelly maintains – only ‘reflected’ local traditions of self-rule: freedom remained abstract when national rights were asserted in liberal constitutional form. ‘Even after the coups in Poland in 1926 and Yugoslavia in 1929, hundreds of thousands of Polish and Yugoslav citizens understood their countries’ constitutions to represent valid national aspirations to freedom and rule of law.’ (410; emphases mine) Nonetheless, we should be wary of remaining locked within an opposition of the concrete freedom achieved by a conservative assertion of national rights, to the abstract freedom aspired to by democratic and liberal assertions of national rights. Aspiration is itself a mode of struggle, after all; and struggles for national rights – Connelly sees – can be indivisible from struggles for liberal and democratic rights. Even the ‘scholar-patriots’, the linguistic nationalists of the late eighteenth-century, ‘together with the Czech students of 1968 and 1989, Polish workers of 1956 and 1988, and Yugoslav intellectuals of the 1960s or 1980s,’ Connelly observes, ‘intertwined three strands of struggle for liberal, social, and national rights: for responsible political representation, lives in dignity without want, protection of their national cultures’ (799).     




[i] From Peoples into Nations: A History of Eastern Europe (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2020), p. 20 (further references to From Peoples into Nations are given after quotations in the text).

[ii] Pieter Judson, Guardians of the Nation: Activists on the Language Frontiers of Imperial Austria (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006), p. 257 (quoted in Connelly, p. 20).

[iii] On Dobrovský’s and Jungmann’s resurrection of Czech, see Connelly, pp. 74, 108-09.

[iv] Milovan Djilas, Wartime: With Tito and the Partisans, trans. by Michael B. Petrovich (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980; first publ. 1977), page uncertain (quoted in Connelly, p. 458).

[v] Liebknecht quoted from Connelly, p. 271.

[vi] See the third chapter in Connelly’s book on how ‘young speakers of Slovak and Czech proved receptive to Herder’s ideas in a way that English or French intellectuals of that [post-Napoleonic] time were not’ (p. 85).

[vii] Connelly, p. 795 quotes Széchenyi from George Barany, Stephen Széchenyi and the Awakening of Hungarian Nationalism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1968), p. 225.  


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