The Nation of the Past

Accompanying my project about the reawakening of memory and history in the context of the Euro crisis is an essay consisting of twelve chapters on subjects ranging from the origins of nationalism to the nature of chance. Individually dealing with disparate subjects, the idea is that together they combine to pose questions about the nature of memory, history, photography and time. They are designed to be printed as separate unbound chapters, which can be shuffled and read in any sequence, further underlining the idea of chance and synchronicity in our understanding of the past. Here is one of several I will be publishing on the blog.

The Nation of the Past

‘In individuals insanity is rare but in groups, parties, nations and epochs, it is the rule.’1
Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

Three German Luftwaffe pilots at the AcropolisAthens, September 1941

Three German Luftwaffe pilots at the Acropolis
Athens, September 1941

The first seats in history at European universities began to be established at the start of the nineteenth century2 at the same time that the idea of the nation state was beginning to emerge across the continent. The latter was in part a response to the turmoil of the Napoleonic wars but also reflected a trend amongst intellectual elites to investigate their native folk cultures which were disappearing under the pressure of modernity. Nationalists identified an ancient and primordial link between their nation, an ethno-cultural group, and the state, the geo-political entity they inhabited.3 Early academic historians played an important role in helping to establish and legitimise the narratives of nationhood, aiding nationalists in staking their claim to territory and autonomy, for example in the 1821 Greek war of independence against Turkey. Later Stalin went so far as to argue that ‘a nation is not racial or tribal, but a historically constituted community of people’.4

History and nationalism shared more than an approximate time of origin; they were also both borne of the enlightenment and its resultant revolutions in thinking. Nationalism was simply put, a logical extension of enlightenment concepts of the social contract and personal liberties, from individuals to entire ethnic groups.5  History, for its part, argues McQuire, could only have emerged from a major change in the concept of truth similar to that which occurred as a result of the work of thinkers such as Newton and Bacon. They instigated a change in thought which ‘came to center around the possibility of repeating experimental results under controlled conditions. This epistemological shift helped to create a new terrain for history and memory predicated on exact repetition’.6  This methodological revolution formalised processes of research and narration into what is now known as academic history, which combined with the teaching of history in emerging public school systems increasingly rendered traditional memory and folk history practices obsolete.

History and nationalism have been problematically linked ever since, with history polluted in Geary’s eyes with the ‘toxic waste’7  of nationalism. The Second World War discredited ethnic nationalism to some extent, and its remnants were subsumed under meta-national cold war ideologies. But the collapse of the Soviet Union disinterred these identities again, and they exploded violently in the Balkans. In other parts of Europe the economic promise of a continent united under capitalism was believed to have prevented this, an assumption Graham questioned in his book New Europe, in which he wondered what would happen to Europeans who didn’t fit into ‘all these promises of a new beginning facing the future hand in hand, free from the shackles of the past’.8

1 Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil (1886) chapter 4 line 156, available at http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/nietzsche/1886/beyond-good-evil/ch04.htm
2 E.H. Carr, What is History (Basingstoke, 1961) p. 56
3 Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities (London, New York, 1983) p. 6
4 Joseph Stalin, Marxism and the National Question (1913) available at http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/stalin/works/11913/03a.htm#s1
5 Athena S. Leoussi, Encyclopedia of Nationalism (London, New York 2001) p. 57
6 Scott McQuire, Visions of Modernity (London, Thousand Oaks, New Delhi, 1998)  p. 166
7 Patrick J. Geary, The Myth of Nations (Princeton, 2002), p. 15
8 Paul Graham, Paul Graham (London, 1996) p. 25

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