"Where does the German begin? Where does it end? May a German smoke? The majority says no. May a German wear gloves? Yes, but only of buffalo hide... but a German may drink beer, indeed as a true son of Germania he should drink beer..." wrote in 1840 Heinrich Heine, who was quite critical of German nationalists' motivation to find specific characteristics in order to affirm Germans' singularity. The affirmation of the nation, regarded as a people who share ethnic, linguistic, historical and cultural features, was however a particularly strong phenomenon then in Europe. Ernest Gellner, in Nations and Nationalism , argues that "it is nationalism which engenders nations, and not the other way round". Such a statement can seem contradictory at a time when the word 'nationalism' is more generally seen as a feeling of pride in one's country and as a belief that the latter is superior to other countries. However, it is relevant to wonder to what extent it can be argued that, in nineteenth-century Europe, it was nationalisms that produced nations (as a feeling and a political reality). We will mainly focus on the nineteenth century because it marked the emergence of the modern concept of nation, namely the convergence of will and culture with a political entity .
[...] It stands out quite clear that it is unificatory nationalism which engendered the creation of the significant Italian and German nation-states in the nineteenth century. However, if nationalist intellectuals and elites played a primordial role in the unification of Italy and Germany, had the nation really emerged? Did people become conscious of their similarities and willing to live together? The nation was maybe politically and administratively unified in 1861 in Italy and in 1870 in Germany but did the majority of citizens feel national? [...]
[...] It is difficult to know whether nationalism created the revolutionary nation –which will become a model for Europe-, even though nationalism seems to have appeared to protect and reinforce the nation, a posteriori. Was Ancien Régime France a nation-state? Did the ‘édit' of Villers Cotteret in 1539, establishing the administrative use of the French language, and the exclamation “Vive Roi. Vive France” in Marseilles in 1585 proves the existence of a French nation? As David Bell enhances it, the word ‘nation' was commonly used from the sixteenth century to the Revolution, especially by thinkers (Montesquieu, Rousseau, etc.). [...]
[...] In reality, nationalists do not awaken a natural and dormant nation, the latter's existence is a myth. They use, select and invent historical, cultural and ethnic common features in order to create the nation ; a nation is the result of an intellectual construction. ‘Regeneration' of the nation is demanded but actually it is its birth that occurs. David Bell expressed this paradox of nationalism: nationalists act on behalf of a natural nation, yet they concede that the people are to be taught that they belong to one nation because they do not have this feeling instinctively. [...]
[...] In actual fact, some do not help to the construction of the nation, that is why, in order to discover how nationalism proceeds, it is necessary to bring out some of the major elements of German and Italian history that had been used. Humiliated by Napoleon's invasion, some German intellectuals and politicians started to call for a definition and delimitation of the ‘German fatherland'. A process of conceptualisation was necessary since its limits were, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, far from being obvious: variety of landscapes, natural barriers between regions and little linguistic uniformity. [...]
[...] Nevertheless, it remains ambiguous that it is the nation that created nationalism when it was threaten from outside because, after the critical period 1792-1794, the masses did not really have the deep feeling to belong to a French nation and many still could not speak French properly. Moreover, the Revolution -and thus the modern nation- was challenged from inside by counter-revolutionaries. Centralised institutions existed but not so much the desire to live together. Even though it is quite difficult to assess whether Gellner's statement applies to France, the French Revolution created the modern concept of nation and its values provided other Europeans with frames of action. [...]
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