22 January 2006

How Secular Was European Nationalism?

[Religion and the Rise of Nationalism] examines the relationship between religion and nationalism in Poznan from 1793 to 1848. Currently located in western Poland, Poznan long has ranked as one of the largest cities along the linguistic and cultural borderland that separates the German-speaking regions of Central Europe from the Polish-speaking regions to the east. Relations among the city's ethnic populations were never exactly warm. They grew more strained over the first half of the nineteenth century, a period in which German and Polish Poznanians developed strong attachments to their respective national identities. I explore how religion influenced this process....

The modernist argument has dominated the study of nationalism for good reason: its adherents have marshaled an impressive body of evidence in its favor. In this study I have found many aspects of the modernist argument to be especially helpful in making sense of Poznan's changing social order. Where I part company with many modernists is over the supposedly secular quality of early European nationalism. It is indeed true that many high-proflle nationalist leaders from this period were avowedly secular, and the fiercest opposition to their agendas often came from religious sources. One can cite the struggles between the Jacobins and the Catholic Church in France, or between Giuseppe Mazzini and the Papal See on the Italian peninsula. But nationalism mattered in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries because it resonated with large numbers of people and manifested itself repeatedly in mass movements of no small revolutionary potential. Yet Europe's population of secular urban sophisticates remained rather limited; secularization was only beginning to take its toll on traditional religious practice. In other words, most of the Europeans who rallied behind early nationalist appeals still maintained their traditional religious affiliations.

This work develops a nuanced and variegated portrait of the relationship between early European nationalism and religion. While many early nationalists were in fact estranged from organized religion, it was not uncommon for adherents of this new ideology to remain faithful to their religious traditions and to draw from these traditions in articulating their nationalist visions. Religion and nationalism could peacefully coexist and fruitfully interact with one another on a number of levels, as I demonstrate through a detailed study of one fascinating case: the city of Poznan in the first half of the nineteenth century. During this time Poznan emerged as an important center of Polish and German nationalist ferment as residents explored their heritage and agitated for a new political order based upon their nationalist assumptions. These processes culminated in an uprising during the "Springtime of Nations" in 1848, a period of revolutionary enthusiasm across the continent that stands as a touchstone of early nationalism. In Poznan in the years leading up to and including 1848, calls for greater political enfranchisement and national self-determination routinely intersected with the symbols, offices, and concerns of organized religion....

In exploring the relationship between religion and early nationalism, this book also contributes to an understanding of the evolution of nationalism. To account for the developmental trajectory of nationalist movements, historians long have drawn binary distinctions between early nationalism and its later manifestations. In its early phase, commonly reckoned as extending well into the second half of the nineteenth century, nationalist movements typically were spearheaded by liberal bourgeois elites, whose political interests and values set the tone within such movements. Sometime around 1870, however, the tenor of nationalism started changing. Conservative political establishments across Europe, long opposed to the revolutionary principles associated with nationalism, adopted new strategies vis-a-vis the phenomenon. Rather than resisting nationalism, they co-opted it and made it serve their reactionary ends. In this later phase, the rhetoric of nationalism demonstrated a greater sympathy for premodern values and institutions. It tended toward chauvinism as well, highlighting the virtues of the nation by disparaging ethnic or religious outsiders such as Jews, minority groups, or foreign workers. Such tendencies tapped into the xenophobia of the masses, gready expanding the popular appeal of nationalism.

An influential example of this typology can be found in Eric J. Hobsbawm's Nations and Nationalism since 1780 (1992). Hobsbawm describes the years from 1830 to 1880 as the "classical period of liberal nationalism," when nationalism was viewed by both its supporters and detractors as a new and progressive force closely associated with the liberal ideology that had emerged during the era of the French Revolution. But in the decades following 1880, nationalism changed considerably. Most notably, it "mutated from a concept associated with liberalism and the left, into a chauvinist, imperialist and xenophobic movement of the right." In his recent study of Polish nationalism, Brian Porter reiterates this same progression. Early Polish nationalism, he argues, was an inclusive movement focused on the emancipation of Poland and the rest of humanity from oppression of various forms. In the 1870s and 1880s, though, a much narrower conception of the nation emerged that was defined by a conscious hatred of outsiders. This animus was employed to promote the disciplined adherence to national values in the face of outside threats and to buttress established hierarchies of power. [Some have suggested that liberal internationalism is now mutating along the same lines in the face of threats to its established hierarchies of national and international power.--J.]

I do not deny the utility of generalizing about the differences between early and later forms of nationalism, especially when theorizing on a grand scale as Hobsbawm does. It is important, though, to consider counterpoints that remind us of the gap between the ideal type and historical reality. The actual development of specific nationalist movements routinely violated the explanatory models later developed to describe them. As my study demonstrates, the attempt by conservative establishments to commandeer nationalist movements was not strictly a late-nineteenth-century phenomenon. The Prussian regime and conservative nobles sought the same goal before 1848. Likewise, early nationalist leaders employed a rhetorical range that extended well beyond calls for equality, self-determination, and international solidarity. Events in Poznan make clear that Polish and German nationalists understood how the demonization of ethnic and religious outsiders could motivate core supporters....

I agree with the majority view that nationalism is a distinctly modern phenomenon whose origin is tied to political, cultural, and socioeconomic development unique to the modern era. And yet I dissent from the current vogue, inspired in particular by the postmodern approach of Benedict Anderson, of seeing national identities as raw inventions. Nationalisms have been capable of invoking intense passion in part because they lay reasonable claim to preexisting ethnic identities and historical and cultural legacies that are of genuine, compelling substance.
SOURCE: Religion and the Rise of Nationalism: A Profile of an East-Central European City, by Robert E. Alvis (Syracuse U. Press, 2005), pp. xiii-xxi

See also Robert E. Alvis, "A Clash of Catholic Cultures on the German-Polish Border: The Tale of a Controversial Priest in Poznan, 1839-1842," The Catholic Historical Review 88 (2002), pp. 470-488 (Project Muse subscription required)

UPDATE: Nathanael of Rhine River, who knows a thing or two about mixed identities, middle grounds, minority cultures, and the uses of nationalism and religion, comments:
I've never found the dichotomy of nationalism and religion convincing except in a few cases. A better way of looking at the problem is how nationalists 'nationalize' religion or religious issues, such as with the Civil Constitution of the Clergy and the Kulturkampf, or how pro-Church movements came to defend democratic rights (like the Catholic Liberals or Zentrum.)
I forgot to add a couple questions about the role of religion in contemporary European nationalism: Was Polish Cardinal Karol Wojtyla more a religious or a national leader? To what extent did he remain a Polish nationalist even after he became Catholic Pope John Paul II?

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