The Road to Europe

A Review of Joep Leerssen’s National Thought in Europe: a Cultural History

, by John Parry

The Road to Europe

Sixty years have now passed since the 1948Congress of Europe began the process which eventually led to the birth of the quasi-federalist European Union, yet despite having its own governmental institutions, including a directly-elected parliament, and despite the introduction of a common EU citizenship for all nationals of member states, public opinion surveys continually show that very few of those citizens think of themselves as having an EU identity. Most feel more attached to the country of which they are nationals and some, particularly in Britain, even regard the EU as a threat to their national identity.

Worries about political or ethnic identity constantly crop up in the press and broadcast media, in politicians’ speeches, and among nationalist pressure groups. To some extent these worries are caused by the high levels of immigration from other continents, bringing in people of other religions, customs and dress codes. But the EU itself is also distrusted. Its institutions and legislation are often accused of meddling in areas which should be strictly national.

Yet what is meant by “national” in a federal state? In some federations the meaning is clear; in others – mainly those made up of previously separate states – the definition is open to question. The break-up of Yugoslavia offers one extreme example, and the present communal difficulties in Belgium also raise the issue of whether people of differing cultural identities can live contentedly within a single state.

Over the years these uncertainties have given rise to several academic studies examining the roots and nature of national identity. Some, in the context of political studies, have concentrated on analysing the roots and nature of cultural and geographical identity; but perhaps the most significant of such publications is Professor Joep Leerssen’s National Thought in Europe[Joep Leerssen, National Thought in Europe: A Cultural History Amsterdam, Amsterdam University Press, 2006 ], previously published in Dutch and now available in English. Describing the work as a cultural history of the growth of nationalism in Europe, the author concentrates particularly on the period from the 18th century to the present day, though tracing its intellectual roots as far back as the invention of printing and the consequently wide circulation of such key classical texts as Caesar’s De bello gallico with its descriptions of the national characteristics of the Gauls, Belgae and Goths.

These descriptions, together with the accounts of the “rustic German tribes” praised by Tacitus in Germania for their moral superiority compared to the decadence of the Romans, led in time, Leerssen claims, «to a new form of tribal nomenclature and self-identification in the emerging states of the period» though he emphasizes that the concept of nation is itself «slippery and elusive». It might refer to a society of people living together under the same socio-economic and political conditions; or else to a culture in which people share a common language, historical memory, and social customs; or be limited to people of the same race and with distinctive historical roots.

Leerssen himself proposes a more subtle approach, namely to see a nation’s or community’s self-image as being founded on an awareness of difference: «commonplaces and stereotypes of how we identify, view and characterise others as opposed to ourselves». His main purpose is to study the journey from awareness-of-difference to the eventual establishment of nation states in Europe, not by following the usual lines of political history but rather by examining the cultural aspects.

In the Middle Ages, for example, Christendom was as much a political as a religious ideal. Latin was the normal language of the law, diplomacy and the church across much of Europe until, in the 15th century, the availability in print of translations of the New Testament into the vernacular languages, such as Luther’s into German, not only made the Bible comprehensible to everyone who could read but it also raised the status of the vernacular languages themselves, and thus strengthened the self-identity of those who spoke those tongues. This development, made possible by the invention of printing with moveable type, is one example of how technological change contributed to a shift in cultural attitudes.

At the same time, Leerssen notes, monarchs were beginning to see themselves as having «total imperial sovereignty within their own realms» supported by tribal ancestry myths which served to justify their and their subjects’ historical claim to the territory they occupied and their right to protect it against invasion. These same myths helped foster a sense of collective belonging «organically linked by traditions, institutions, virtues and values».

«Thus,» he concludes, «the democratic primitivism of Tacitus was to inform the eighteenth century tradition of classical republicanism. Its tribal nomenclature, grafted on to current ethnotypes helped to schematise Europe’s populations into a template of ethnic traditions».

This rather sweeping statement seems at first sight to under-estimate the universalism of many Enlightenment thinkers and their instinctive de-mystification of authority; yet it is certainly true that their emphasis on observation and classification in the study of human nature also led to an acknowledgement of the influence exerted by cultural roots and environment.

Goethe’s friend and mentor Johann Gottfried Herder may be best known today for his study and transcriptions of German folk poetry and his promotion of German as a literary language but – as the author himself points out – he clearly recognised the value of cultural diversity and rejected the idea – still held today in some quarters – that certain human types are superior to others. Nor was Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s proposed “bottom-up” democracy ethnicity-based, though his stress on the right of citizens to have a voice has often been interpreted that way with the concept of ethno-citizenship even taking on a transcendental, almost mystical aspect.

National Thought in Europe is the impressive outcome of wide reading and what must have been many years of study of sources in several languages. Its treatment of the Napoleonic period is of particular interest though the true value of the work lies in the broad picture of how the concept of nation has evolved from the Middle Ages to the present day. Quoting the 19th century rationalist Ernest Renan’s essay Qu’est-ce qu’une nation? he offers the notion that «nationality is a state of mind» – a view far removed from the mystical nationalism which was the root cause of two world wars in the 20th century.

Arriving, in his final chapters, at the establishment of the European Union Leerssen notes that «what binds citizens and fellow-nationals nowadays must be a communality of political responsibilities, a shared membership and participation in the same public sphere» which was the basis on which the European Union was established. Its lack of a national identity despite its successful creation of shared infrastructures raises the question: towards what should its citizens’ loyalty be directed? Clearly not a monarch, nor a shared religion or ethnicity.

What we have in common in the EU, he suggests, is an agreed constitution whose details are embedded in a set of treaties which enable the signatory states to decide jointly on their common response to the challenges, responsibilities and opportunities with which they are confronted. For this he borrows Jürgen Habermas’s portmanteau word Verfassungspatriotismus (Constitutional patriotism) – that is loyalty and pride in the way Europeans organise their joint semigovernmental structure.

However, writing this review in the week when the Irish have just voted by referendum against ratifying the most recent EU reform treaty intended to improve its democratic accountability and raise its foreign policy profile, the obstacles on the road to a genuine Verfassungspatriotismus remain insurmountable.

Image: A road in Paris; source:

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