The History Of Nationalism

The last few centuries can be considered as the zenith of the nationalism, which often subsumed all other identities, including those that conflicted with it, under the ideology that placed nation as the supreme goal of our collective existence. Having led to two great wars in the first half of last century and a prolonged cold war that threatened no less in the second, will nationalism retain its hold... or will we see a change in the history of nationalism...
The History of Nationalism
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Is Nationalism Just Another Form of Group Identity?

Nationalism is actually just another glorified form of group identity. Humans have a tendency to form groups and identify themselves with them. It is a pre-civilization instinct that has evolved from tribal identity to many modern forms like religious communalism, linguistic communalism and ideological communalism including both right and left wings.

Historians may try to connect nationalism with the emergence of the nation state, and the history of nationalism can thus be associated to have begun only with the development of the modern nation state that emerged in the second half of the last

millennium. However, such definitions will always be faulty for they ignore the whole process of evolution of common group identity of human masses, of which nation state is only one of the manifestations.

Roots of Nationalism

Humans, by their inherent nature, tend to form groups. These groups provide them with an identity that is much larger, grandiose and glamorous compared to their individual existence and significance. Therein itself lie the roots of beginning of the nation. In pre-historical times, these groups consisted of tribes, consisting primarily of a larger family, which moved and hunted together, and fought with other tribes, to assert their superiority. Such superiority ensured a larger territory to hunt, and security from other predators, including other human tribes.

As the human masses began to settle down and indulge in agriculture, territory became very important, and the mightiest of them started exerting control, gradually giving rise to taxes and monarchy. That can be considered the first form of the nation state. As the king or the emperor gained power and fought to fend off its enemies, it needed the cooperation of its subjects. Thus started the era of glorification of the territorial identity and the concept of loyalty to the monarch. Often, it was nurtured by projecting the king as a form of God, or his representative, or someone with supernatural powers who was supposed to be the protector.

Nation vs. Civilization

Here, it is important to appreciate the difference between a nation and a civilization. The nation is defined primarily by its territory, while the civilization is defined by its culture and tradition. Defeat by another nation leading to annexation can destroy a nation but not its civilization. In history, many civilizations like Rome and Greece got destroyed by their emphasis on territory. China on the other hand was devastated but never destroyed. Most interesting, perhaps, is the case of India, which always remained a great civilization without

ever becoming a world conquering nation state. The territory of India was annexed often by invaders, who then actually got assimilated in the civilization itself, gradually becoming a part of it, adding to its cultural diversity.

The Modern Nation State: A Recent Emergence

The nation in its current form finally emerged in the sixteenth to eighteenth century, when the nation concept went beyond monarchy and begun to exist even in the form of democratic states. That can perhaps be treated as the zenith of the nation state, wherein national identity became the single most important group identity. One of the reasons it was strongest in Europe was because of the frequent wars between various nation states of Europe, many of whom were vying for superiority over each other, because the struggles between them decided their rights to hold colonies in Asia, Africa and Americas. Meanwhile, for the first time, production was automated and there was a search for markets. Colonies were one of the answers, and so the stakes of winning wars suddenly became very high for the citizens, most of whom were participating in their export economy in one way or another. This further strengthened the nation state.

The Onslaught of Globalization

19th and 20th century were the age of vigorous nationalism that resulted in two world wars and a long drawn cold war, but with a networked world and rapidly spreading globalization, the political boundaries have once again begun to dilute. The human values have gradually begun to gain ascendancy over political one-up-man-ship, and ever since the end of cold war, the borders are gradually becoming less relevant. It does not mean that nationalism has faded away. It is only that people are realizing that their fate is connected more with the good health of global economy rather than the political and military superiority of their nation.

Higher stakes in a healthy global economy mean lesser emphasis by the citizens on the national identity. Unification of Europe is just another step in this direction. Regional identification may not have replaced the national identity as yet, but it is showing that nation state is just one more of those group identities which have evolved during the course of human civilization.

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