Romantic nationalism (also organic nationalism, identity nationalism) is the form of nationalism in which the state derives its political legitimacy as an organic consequence of a unity of those it governs. This includes, depending on the particular manner of practice, the language, race, culture, religion and customs of the "nation" in its primal sense of those who were "born" within its culture. This form of nationalism arose in reaction to dynastic or imperial hegemony, which assessed the legitimacy of the state from the "top down", emanating from a monarch or other authority, which justified its existence. Such downward-radiating power might ultimately derive from God: see Divine right of kings.
One of the key themes of Romanticism, and its most enduring legacy, the cultural assertions of romantic nationalism have also been central in post-Enlightenment art and political philosophy. From its earliest stirrings, with their focus on the development of national languages and folklore, and the importance of local customs and traditions, to the movements which would redraw the map of Europe and lead to calls for "self-determination" of nationalities, nationalism was one of the key issues in Romanticism, its role, expression and meaning.
Early Romantic nationalism was strongly inspired by Rousseau, and by the ideas of Johann Gottfried von Herder, who in 1784 argued that geography formed the natural economy of a people, and that their customs and society would develop along the lines that their basic environment favored.
From its beginnings in the late 18th century, romantic nationalism has relied upon the existence of a historical ethnic culture which meets the romantic ideal; folklore developed as a romantic nationalist concept. The Brothers Grimm were inspired by Johann Gottfried von Herder's writings to create an idealized collection of tales which they labeled as authentically German. The concept of an inherited cultural patrimony from a common origin rapidly became central to a divisive question within romantic nationalism: specifically, is a nation unified because it comes from the same genetic source, that is because of race, or is the participation in the organic nature of the "folk" culture self-fulfilling? This issue lies at the heart of disagreements which rage to this day.
Romantic nationalism formed a key strand in the philosophy of Hegel, who argued that there was a "spirit of the age" or zeitgeist that inhabited a particular people at a particular time, and that, when that people became the active determiner of history, it was simply because their cultural and political moment had come. Hegel, being German, argued that his historical moment had seen the Zeitgeist settle on the German-speaking peoples.
In continental Europe, Romantics had embraced the French revolution in its beginnings, then found themselves fighting the counter-Revolution in the trans-national Imperial system of Napoleon. The sense of self-determination and national consciousness" that had enabled Revolutionary forces to defeat aristocratic regimes in battle became rallying points for resistance. In Prussia, the development of spiritual renewal as a means to engage in the struggle against Napoleon was argued by, among others, Johann Gottlieb Fichte a disciple of Kant. The word Volkstum , or nationhood, was coined in German as part of this resistence to French hegemony.
Johann Gottlieb Fichte expressed the unity of language and nation in his address "To the German Nation" in 1806:
- The first, original, and truly natural boundaries of states are beyond doubt their internal boundaries. Those who speak the same language are joined to each other by a multitude of invisible bonds by nature herself, long before any human art begins; they understand each other and have the power of continuing to make themselves understood more and more clearly; they belong together and are by nature one and an inseparable whole.
- Only when each people, left to itself, develops and forms itself in accordance with its own peculiar quality, and only when in every people each individual develops himself in accordance with that common quality, as well as in accordance with his own peculiar quality-then, and then only, does the manifestation of divinity appear in its true mirror as it ought to be; and only a man who either entirely lacks the notion of the rule of law and divine order, or else is an obdurate enemy thereto, could take upon himself to want to interfere with that law, which is the highest law in the spiritual world!
Rossini's opera William Tell (1829) marked the onset of the Romantic Opera, using the central national myth unifying Switzerland. Verdi's choruses of an oppressed people inspired two generations of patriots in Italy, especially with "Va pensiero" (Nabucco, 1842). Under the influence of romantic nationalism, among economic and political forces, both Germany and Italy found political unity, and movements to create nations similarly based upon ethnic groups would flower in the Balkans (see for example, the Carinthian Plebiscite, 1920), along the Baltic Sea, and in the interior of Central Europe, where in the eventual outcome, the Habsburgs succumbed to the surge of Romantic nationalism. Earlier, there was a strong romantic nationalist element mixed with Enlightenment rationalism in the rhetoric used in British North America, in the colonists' Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of 1787, as well as the rhetoric in the wave of revolts, inspired by new senses of localized identities, which swept the American colonies of Spain, one after the other, from 1811.
Romantic nationalism inspired the processes whereby folk epics , retold legends and even fairy tales, published in existing dialects, were combined with a completely modern syntax to create a "revived" version of a language. Patriots would then learn that language and raise their children speaking that language, as part of a general program to establish a unique identity. "Landsmal", which is the foundation of modern Norwegian, is the first language to follow this entire program, and it was joined by modern Czech, Slovak, Finnish and later by Hebrew as nationalizing languages. The early 19th century creation of Katharevousa, a refined artificial Greek dialect under which to unify a new nation of Hellenes, consciously drew on archaising terms from Ancient Greek, the unifying cultural root, but just as consciously excluded "non-Greek" vocabulary drawn from Italian and Turkish. Romantic nationalism is inherently exclusionary. And that, in the 20th century, proved to be its tragic flaw.
The linguistic processes of romantic nationalism demanded linguistic culture models. The modern Italian of Risorgimento patriots like Alessandro Manzoni was based on the Tuscan dialects sanctified by Dante and Petrarch. In English, Shakespeare became an iconic figure, though not a modern model: an Englishman who formed a complete, artistically unassailable whole of surpassing excellence.
The concept of a "national epic," an extensively mythologized legendary work of poetry of defining importance to a certain nation, is another product of Romantic nationalism. The "discovery" of Beowulf in a single manuscript, first transcribed in 1818, came under the impetus of Romantic nationalism, after the manuscript had lain as an ignored curiosity in scholars' collections for two centuries. Beowulf provided the English people with their missing "national epic", just when the need for it was first being felt: the fact that Beowulf himself was a Geat was easily overlooked. The pseudo-Gaelic literary forgeries of "Ossian" had failed, finally, to fill the need for the first Romantic generation.
The unseen and unheard Song of Roland had become a dim memory, until the antiquary Francisque Michel transcribed a worn copy in the Bodleian Library and put it into print in 1837; it was timely: French interest in the national epic revived among the Romantic generation. In Greece, the Iliad and Odyssey took on new urgency during the Greek War of Independence. Other examples of epics that have been enlisted since as "national" include Popol Vuh (Mayans), Kalevala (Finland), Kalevipoeg (Estonia), Mahabharata (India), and the Journey to the West (China). Sometimes they have had a galvanizing effect on social politics: think of the Nibelung.
At the same time, linguistic and cultural nationality, colored with pre-genetic concepts of race, were employed for two rhetorical claims consistently associated with romantic nationalism to this day: claims of primacy and claims of superiority. Primacy is the urrecht of a culturally and racially defined people to a geographical terrain, a "heartland" (a vivid expression) or homeland. The polemics of racial superiority became inexorably intertwined with romantic nationalism. Richard Wagner notoriously argued that those who were ethnically different could not comprehend the artistic and cultural meaning inherent in national culture. Identifying "Jewishness" even in musical style, he specifically attacked the Jews as being unwilling to assimilate into German culture, and thus unable to truly comprehend the mysteries of its music and language.
After the 1870s "national romanticism", as it is more usually called, became a familiar movement in the arts. In music, the type is exemplified by the work of Bedřich Smetana. In Scandinavia and the Slavic parts of Europe especially, "national romanticism" provided a series of answers to the 19th-century search for styles that would be culturally meaningful and evocative, yet not merely historicist. When a church was built over the spot in St Petersburg where Tsar Alexander II of Russia had been assassinated, the "Church of the Savior on Blood," the natural style to use was one that best evoked traditional Russian features (illustration, left). In Finland, the reassembly of the national epic, the Kalevala, inspired paintings and murals in National Romantic style that substituted there for the international Art Nouveau styles. The foremost proponent in Finland was Akseli Gallen-Kallela (illustration, below right).
The defense of the Sampo,
By the turn of the century, ethnic self-determination had become an assumption held as being progressive and liberal. There were romantic nationalist movements for separation in Finland, the Kingdom of Bavaria held apart from a united Germany, and Czech and Serb nationalism continued to trouble Imperial politics. The flowering of arts which drew inspiration from national epics and song continued unabated. The Zionist movement revived Hebrew, and began searching for a homeland for the Jewish people, and Welsh and Irish tongues also experienced a poetic revival.
In the first two decades of the 20th century, romantic nationalism as an idea was to have crucial influence on political events. The belief among European powers was that nation-states forming around unities of language, culture and ethnicity were "natural" in some sense. For this reason President Woodrow Wilson would argue for the creation of self-determining states in the wake of the "Great War". However, the belief in romantic nationalism would be honored in the breach. In redrawing the map of Europe, Yugoslavia was created as an intentional coalition state among competing, and often mutually hostile, southern Slavic peoples, and the League of Nations' mandates were often drawn, not to unify ethnic groups, but to divide them. To take one example, the nation now known as "Iraq" intentionally joined together three Ottoman vilayets, uniting Kurds in the north, Sunni Arabs in the center, and Shia Arabs in the south, in an effort to present a strong national buffer state between Turkey and Persia: over these was placed a foreign king from the Hashemite dynasty native to the Hijaz.
Colossal sculpture on the Mamayev hill in Stalingrad
which celebrates the Russian halt of the German advance in World War II
. Visitors provide a sense of its scale.
After the First World War, a darker version of romantic nationalism was taking hold in Germany, to some extent modelling itself on British Imperialism and "the White Man's Burden". The idea was that Germans should "naturally" rule over the lesser peoples. Romantic nationalism, which had begun as a revolt against "foreign" kings and overlords, had come full circle, and was being used to make the case for a "Greater Germany" which would rule over Europe.
Because of the broad range of expressions of romantic nationalism, it is listed as a contributing factor from everything from the creation of independent states in Europe, to the rise of Nazi Germany. As an idea, if not a specific movement, it is present as an assumption in debates over nationality and nationhood even today, and many of the world's nations were created from priciples drawn from romantic nationalism as their source of legitimacy.
Yet the Nazi misuse of romantic nationalism had its own reaction, whose finest literary expression is embodied in J. R. R. Tolkien's Anglo-Celtic national epic The Lord of the Rings.
Last updated: 05-07-2005 09:30:52
Last updated: 05-13-2005 07:56:04