Magazine, Vol. 2: Nationalism

The history of nationalism

“Although not all nations are old, nationhood is.”

Interview with Prof. Dr. Azar Gat, Tel Aviv University


Maj. Prof. Dr. Azar Gat, chair of the Department of Political Science at Tel Aviv University, takes us on a journey to discover the history of nations all around the world. He argues that the roots of nations and nationalism go way beyond modernism as they developed from ancient origins, from ethnicities and a sense of belonging, in the very beginning of history.


Prof. Dr. Gat – The social anthropologist Ernest Gellner defines nationalism as “the notion that the national and the political unit should be congruent”. Gellner sees the nation as a society of individuals, all sharing in a common culture that is instilled in them institutionally. Nationalism is then the notion that all individuals sharing the common national culture should live in the same state. Another common definition of a nation is Benedict Anderson’s “imagined community”, a community of individuals who perceive themselves to be part of it.  How would you define nationalism?

In my book, I accept Gellner’s definition: a rough congruence between culture or ethnicity and state. But unlike Gellner, I argue that long before modernity – for Gellner it means the Industrial Revolution, for Anderson print communities – the connection between statehood and ethnic community goes back all the way to the beginning of history. It goes back to the beginning of states and the beginning of literacy, to 3000 BC; the two earliest writing systems developed in the two earliest states: ancient Egypt and Sumer. My argument is that there has always been a strong connection between ethnicity and statehood. Not all ancient states were nation-states, some of them were city-states, where a particular ethnos was divided among several polities, which nevertheless had a strong sense of belonging to the same ethnos. Take the Greeks or the Sumerians, for example: Every Greek whom you asked in Antiquity would immediately tell you that he belonged to that common identity. So you have city-states where a particular ethnos is divided among several city-states. At the same time, you had multi-ethnic empires, which nevertheless were dominated by a particular ethnos and drew their strength from that particular ethnos. The Greeks created empires under Alexander and his successors and these multi-ethnic Hellenistic empires were dominated militarily and politically by the Greeks. Practically all other empires obeyed the same idea: the British Empire, the French Empire, the Roman Empire, the Russian Empire and so forth. Now, between city-states and empires, you had what historical sociologists call territorial states. This is a bad designation because every state has a territory. This type of polity is also known as dynastic kingdom. But indeed, most territorial states were actually national monarchies. They were based on a clear core of an ethnic majority, or Staatsvolk. For example, the first large state ever, the kingdom of Egypt, centered on a people, the Egyptian people. All those who lived outside its boundaries were barbarians. So the first territorial state ever, Egypt, already obeys Gellner’s definition of a national state.

In contrast to the scientific consensus you argue that the concept of ‘nation’ predates modernity. For modernists, literacy and print are necessary conditions for nation-building, because they unite small, isolated communities, and tie them together into nations. How can this happen before, in the absence of literacy and print?

What I am arguing is that practically all the modernists are theorists only. They do no work on pre-modern societies, so what they propose is a schema of what a pre-modern society was which does not reflect historical realities. The test is to go back to pre-print societies and see if we can find evidence of what these peoples’ sense of community was. That’s the test that can decide the argument, but it is highly problematic because the masses in pre-modern societies could not write. The only evidence we have is from the literate elite. So it’s very difficult to discover the genuine voice of the masses. We have to devise ways to overcome this obstacle and establish what the people themselves thought. The test is to see if there are some clear indications that will tell us whether or not the people had a consciousness of being one people. One of the main means to decipher this enigma is to watch what happened when foreigners invaded the country. If the masses, under desperate circumstances, rose in arms against the invader, responded to the call of blood, as it where, showed patriotic devotion, indeed patriotic sacrifice, sacrifice of everything that was dear in life and property – that would be a clear sign that apparently they felt that the invader was a ‘bloody foreigner’ and ‘we don’t want him to rule us’. If the masses fought for liberty from foreign rule, evidently they considered themselves to be a national community. There are numerous historical examples of this. Let me just cite two: One is the remarkable case of a maiden called Joan of Arc. We are fortunate to have written records here because the inquisition interrogated her. She was a country girl, the daughter of a peasant in Lorraine, a province of France. Her upbringing, her background, was not exceptional. How did she know, or from where did she hear that the English were foreigners and that they had to leave France?

Now another case is the Napoleonic invasion of Russia. We have two peoples here. One, according to many, the first modern nation: Revolutionary France. The other, entirely backward – pre-modern by all accounts, and still desperately rising in arms against the invading forces.

Now to the second question. How did they know? How did they know that they belonged to Russia?  The answer is that the modernist theorists vastly underestimated the communication means of pre-modern societies. That is, the myths, the cults, the legends, the oral traditions. We all know, in principle, how powerful these were. For example, just one point that has been entirely overlooked: there were temples everywhere. There were local churches and temples with priests in every village. There were rites, and these were largely of national character, even in Christianity, which has a universal message. The local church was patriotic. So in Serbia, for example, under Ottoman rule, they carried the national banner against the invaders, against the imperial rulers.

The higher clergy sometimes had all kinds of political calculations. They were conducting high politics and sometimes they would choose their side very carefully. But the lower clergy, very close to their people, poor, living within their communities, were invariably patriotic.

So if the main argument for the coherence of nations, how does that work with voluntarily formed nations, such as the USA, Singapore or Ukraine, that are multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multi-cultural?

You have three very different cases here. Immigrant nations like the USA, Canada, New Zealand and Australia are all predicated on the concept of the melting pot. People who came to America all changed their language. The United States started as an Anglo-Saxon country. Yet they had German immigration in the 18th century, so much so, that Benjamin Franklin felt it was a danger to the integrity of the American people. He feared that they would not assimilate. But this did not happen, and the USA demonstrated its ability to assimilate all newcomers. Of course, parts of the old traditions remain and they also enrich and change American identity. But the point is that the main identity of all these newcomers – if not during the first generation then from the second, the third generation onwards – merged into a common American identity despite the symbolic significance that remains in some communities. Jews for example, they too are now assimilating in larger numbers.

And this assimilation into a merged identity also applies to Australia, New Zealand and partly to Canada. Canada is an interesting test-case, because in Canada, unlike the other cases, you have two ethnic identities. You have the so-called Canadian identity, which assimilates immigrants from all over the world, and you have the Quebecois identity. They speak a different language, they have a strong sense of being a separate community, and they indeed threaten the integrity of the country. It may split. So the identities of immigrant countries depend on the integration of the newcomers into a common culture and identity. Obviously, this may still involve connection to the old country, especially during the first and second generation, but overall you see the remarkable success story of the melting pot. Now to the other examples.

Yes, Singapore is a unique case, considering it is also a city-state. But what about Ukraine?

First of all, there is a Ukrainian identity. The Ukraine, except for a very short period, never had independence. It was first ruled by Poland and then revolted against Poland. Those who present this as a social revolt – as the Ukrainian peasants were suppressed by the Polish nobility – forget that the peasantry in Poland did not rebel. So the revolt was social and economic, but it also overlapped with national considerations. A decade after the revolt, the Swedes invaded Poland in the “Deluge”, and the Polish peasantry, one of the most oppressed in Europe, rebelled against the invaders.

So, there is a Ukrainian identity, but it is not a black and white affair. They had this long connection with Russia, they needed support against Poland, so they had no choice but to subjugate themselves to the Tsar. They tried to guarantee their rights and their identity, but after a time the Tsars trampled on the agreements and did what they wanted in the Ukraine. Many people in the Ukraine started speaking Russian, the city-dwellers spoke Russian, if they didn’t speak Yiddish, that is, if they were Jews. All of eastern Ukraine is very ambiguous in terms of ethnicity, it’s not clear if they’re Russians, if they’re Ukrainians. But otherwise, there was a difference, an ethnic difference, a difference of identity and with the right political circumstances, there was a split. Which does not preclude the possibility of tensions between parts of the Ukraine, which can lead to other splits, especially with foreign involvement.

So, all those examples of multi-ethnic states still work with the pre-modern definition of statehood?

The Ukraine is not multi-ethnic. Parts of the Ukraine are vague in terms of their ethnicity, but the Ukraine is predominantly Ukrainian.

Nationalism has always been around, but also other forces. There were the forces of European integration, which led to many blessings, but also created a backlash when people felt that it was being taken too far.“  


Multi-lingual or multi-religious, maybe. We have spoken quite a bit about the nation, now to nationalism. If the nation is pre-modern, nationalism is too. With Brexit, Trump and the rise of right-wing parties in Europe, is there, or isn’t there a resurgence of nationalism in Europe?

There is. Nationalism has always been around, but also other forces. There were the forces of European integration, which led to many blessings, but also created a backlash when people felt that it was being taken too far. The people expressed their wishes in the referenda that took place a decade ago, and in some places voted against the continuing integration. And the Union said: “There was a referendum, but we disregard it.” Over time, especially when the problem with immigration became acute, people reacted to it, because they felt their national identity was under threat.

If you are poor, you are prepared to suffer economic inequality much more if you feel that you belong to the same people. […] If you are wealthy within a nation-state, then you are more willing to share with people whom you feel are your own people.” 


You already mentioned the refugee crisis in Europe. The refugee crisis coincided very much with this sharp increase in nationalist tendencies. So is the nationalism we see just a chiffre for people wanting to keep their economic status and cultural position?

It’s not. On the one hand, economic considerations are always involved, but there are other, national factors too. Take Scotland: there is a strong constituency in Scotland that wants to secede from the UK. Economic considerations are part of the picture. But in the North of England, the economic conditions are worse than Scotland, and compared to the affluent Southeast of England. Yet nobody wants to secede from Britain. If you are poor, you are prepared to suffer economic inequality much more if you feel that you belong to the same people. Such people often try to change the system from inside – by becoming a socialist, for example. But this does not mean they wish to secede. Same from the other direction. If you are wealthy within a nation-state, then you are more willing to share with people whom you feel are your own people. When the wealthy feel that they have to distribute to foreigners, their willingness decreases sharply. So economic considerations are obviously important, but they are closely connected with national identities and therefore with the welfare state. In a way, the nation is perceived as a large family, so we are willing to share more with people who we feel belong to our national community. Ethnically it matters even if this is not explicitly defined.

In your book one of the most recently formed nations is absent. How does Israel’s establishment as a state following 2000 years of diaspora support or challenge the notion of the pre-modern origin of the nation?

The Jews was a pre-modern nation in antiquity: Jews were a quintessential pre-modern people. Why? Literacy was a strong engine of nation-building, because it built a sense of common identity – Anderson is not entirely mistaken, of course – and Jews became literate in order to read the Torah. But after the destruction of the temple in 70 AD they were scattered around the world and there was ostensibly nothing to unite them, because they did not share a territory, and there was no way in which they could coordinate politically. But there was antisemitism, which was the main motive for modern Zionism: Jews found that even if they wanted to assimilate – of course many did assimilate could not. They would always carry a mark on them. Society around them would always regard them as “not of us”. The second element that kept Jewish identity as a nation alive and made Zionism possible is the Jewish religion. It is a major element of this religion, as reflected in the Bible, that the Jews are a people, indeed, a “chosen people.” It’s a national religion and it imprints on you, wherever you are, that you are part of the people of Israel. If you go around for centuries, carrying this basic cultural tenet, it’s easy – or not easy, but understandable – that under modern conditions, diverse communities from all over the world, sharing in very different cultures were brought together under the umbrella, the idea, of reviving our old nation in our old country. Had the United States not closed its borders to immigrants in 1924, the majority of the Jews – as they’d done before – would have immigrated to America. Zionism began in 1882, officially. By 1924, there had been perhaps 100,000 Jews that had chosen Palestine. At the same time, from the 1880s on – that was the time of the Pogroms in Russia – 3.5 Million Jews from Eastern Europe, the home of 80% of world Jewry at the time, went to America. And they are still there. In 1924, America closed its gates and so the two next waves of immigration came to the then Palestine. The first was Jewish immigration from Poland in the late 1920s, because of anti-Semitic legislation in Poland, and the second in the 1930s from Germany, because of Hitler. The German Jews would not have gone to Palestine if not for Hitler, and they would have gone to the United States or Britain if they could. They went to Palestine because it was the only option open to them.

So the creation of Israel owed much to chance?

Chance, but not only chance. Because that was precisely the problem of the Jews. The problem of the Jews was that they were not accepted. The Jewish problem created Zionism, and the Jewish problem was not a matter of chance. It had many manifestations. Things changed, circumstances changed: Russia opened and closed, the Soviet Union came, Hitler came to power in Germany, the USA changed its immigration policy, but the basic condition was that there was a huge Jewish problem in Eastern Europe. Millions and millions of Jews.

Herzl, the founder of Zionism was an assimilated Jew. He was entirely immersed in Viennese, in German culture, he knew nothing of Jewishness, he was not observant in any way, and did not know the language of the Jews, Yiddish. He was entirely immersed in the cultural life of Vienna, one of the great European cultural centers. And yet, from a certain moment he felt that Jews would never be accepted into European society.

One of the things I always found striking is that there is Zionism and Anti-Zionism all over the world. Why is that?

First, there is still a problem of antisemitism. Let’s begin with that, and I’m not arguing that everything is antisemitism, but there is still overt and covert antisemitism. That’s one thing. Second, there is anti-colonialism in the West, a strong sense of guilt regarding the so-called “Third World”, the former colonial empires. According to this view, the native population of all these places were subject to serious injustices and cruelty. The Jews who came to Palestine are seen as part of this phenomenon. Because of this sentiment, Israel increasingly found itself on the wrong side. Even more so since 1967, with the occupation of the territories. There is also anti-Americanism, with Israel being considered a strong ally of the United States. And you have a large group of Arab states, and behind them a large group of Muslim states, which are more or less united. That keeps the conflict very high on the world agenda.

At the same time when Israel was founded, another nation came into existence and they are linked together by the same fate. Would you say that Palestine as a nation also fits into your pre-modern definition?

Palestine is a new nation with a new national identity. Nationhood is old, but not all nations are old. For example, Holland is not one of the oldest nations of Europe. The old nations of Europe include the English, the Scots, the Swedes, the Danes, the Germans, the Serbs, the Polish, the Russians – there are many, but Holland is not one of them. Holland was part of the German sphere but because of a split in the Habsburg domain, it found itself out of the Empire and then in conflict with Spain. It forged a new separatist identity only from the 16th century on. There were local identities in Holland, as there were within the German realm. They also adopted a separate literary language, in contrast to the German Swiss. The Swiss spoken language is unintelligible to a German speaker in the same way that the Dutch language is, but the Swiss use Hochdeutsch for writing, whereas the Dutch adopted their own literary language. So it’s a relatively new nation, same way that the Ukraine is.

There is an Egyptian joke that apart from Egypt, all the other Arab states are but “tribes with a flag”. Egypt had and still has a strong national identity, but in other Arab countries it is all very brittle, as we see now in the wake of the “Arab Spring”.“  


The Palestinians and the Arab world as a whole are again somewhat different. Before the 20th century, the national state was not the common form of organization throughout Southwest Asia because of the continuing conquest by empires, from the Assyrians to the Ottomans. Essentially, these territories fell under the control of a series of empires, one replacing the other, which was not the case in Western Europe. So, what you had here was an imperial structure. And under it, identities were indeed mainly local, religious and tribal. There is an Egyptian joke that apart from Egypt, all the other Arab states are but “tribes with a flag”. Egypt had and still has a strong national identity, but in other Arab countries it is all very brittle, as we see now in the wake of the “Arab Spring”. Because of this, the Palestinians did not have a separate identity until the Zionist arrival. They saw themselves as part of the Arab sphere, or as Muslims and Christians. But over time, because of the conflict with the Zionists and Israel, they have developed a separate sense of identity. The Palestinian definition of their national identity is: The Palestinian Šaʿb, meaning people, within the Arab Ummah, the Arab nation. But all this is relatively recent. It’s still under heavy pressure from local forces and from tribal and semi-tribal identities; the Hamula, the extended family. The clan structure is still powerful in many places in the Middle East, as are the calls for Islamic universalisms. So yes, there is a Palestinian national identity, but under the above mentioned qualifications, pressures and conflicting forces.

Interview: Marian Blok

Prof. Dr Azar Gat
Tel Aviv University