Not so long ago there were predictions that the nation-state, that peculiar modern institution, was becoming obsolete. Soon its arbitrary frontiers would be irrelevant, with supra-national entities in charge of the business of running societies. It doesn’t look like it today. The European Union was cited as a successful example of this. It would replace earlier supra-national entities like the Habsburg Empire. After World War I, based on the Wilsonian ideal of “national self-determination, the League of Nations was supposed to do this, too. New states emerged, ruling over newly invented nations like Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia. Something similar occurred in the same period after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, this time inspired not by the grand ideology propagated by Woodrow Wilson from the campus of Princeton University, but by a grand conspiracy of British and French imperialists in the Sykes-Picot Agreement. Here there were only feeble supra-national inventions like the Arab League, and the alleged new nation-states like Iraq and Syria have been swept away by a curious combination of supra-national Islamism and the archaic sub-national formations of clan and tribe. The European Union, on the other hand, is being seriously challenged by new erupting nationalisms, triggered by its complete failure to cope with the mass migration from, of all places, the Middle East. If there is a hereafter for obsolete potentates, the last Habsburg Emperor and the last Ottoman Sultan must be gleefully chuckling. [How does one say schadenfreude in Turkish?)
I’m not a historian, and I’m not sure just when the idea arose that the political state should represent the “nation,” a conglomeration of people with a shared (if invented) history, which typically involved a common language. If such a language was not empirically available, it too was invented or deliberately constructed from available dialects (that is, forms of verbal communication actually used by people speaking to each other). I think that a significant turn came when Napoleon Bonaparte was crowned as Emperor, not of “France” (a dynastic term), but of “the French” (an assemblage of people speaking, more or less, a language called French). Whatever its etymology, what is a nation?
Benedict Anderson defined “a nation” as an example of the term used as the title of his highly influential book, Imagined Communities (1983)—a community of people not actually in face-to-face interaction with each other. Alfred Schutz (1900-1959) proposed a more complicated typology. The fundamental community is composed of human beings who continually meet and speak while looking at each other. These people Schutz called “consociates.” Then he distinguished three other groups with whom an individual interacts only in, precisely, an imaginary way—predecessors (the dead ancestors), successors (the generations that will come in the future), and contemporaries (“the French,” “the Americans”, all of whom I will never meet, but who figure in my imagination—as indeed do my great-grandparents and my children’s children). Max Weinreich, an American scholar who studied the Yiddish language, in 1945 published an article (in Yiddish no less), in which he defined a language as “a dialect with an army or navy.” This wonderful definition has since then been occasionally misquoted, but not misinterpreted, as the definition of a nation as “a language with an army.” Weinreich was of course concerned with Yiddish, still a spoken dialect with a rich literature, but not really a language because it had no army. Three years later the State of Israel was born. It certainly had an army, but it also had a laboriously constructed language—to the chagrin of Yiddishists, not their “mother tongue,” but modern Hebrew—a revitalization of what for two millennia had been a sacred language and not a “dialect” in everyday use.
If sociology had a sacred text (God forbid), it would be the famous proposition by W.I. Thomas, one of the leading members of the so-called Chicago School: “If people define a situation as real, it is real in its consequences.” (Curiously, this mantra was originally only a footnote in the work coauthored by Thomas and Florian Znaniecki, The Polish Peasant in Europe and America, a classical immigration study published in several volumes in the early 1920s.) Put differently, social reality is constructed by human beings, the more the better, and stronger the longer it lasts. This way of looking at any social institution is helpful in looking at a “nation”: It exists as something real only insofar and as long as people believe that it exists. Thus nations that have been around for a relatively long time are experienced as real more strongly than newer ones—France, say, more so than Yugoslavia. However, longevity is no longer a guarantee of survival. The threatened dissolution of the United Kingdom is proof of this. Old or new, nations are precarious artifacts. An important social function of religion is to give a sense of permanence to these artifacts: If people believe that God wills this nation, the definition of reality that brought it about will seem much more plausible. (Most of Marx’s view of religion is empirically untenable, but his concept of “reification” aptly describes the process just referred to. It is important to understand that religion can thus reinforce a status quo, but in much the same way any insurrection against it.) History is the arena in which the construction and deconstruction of institutions alternate—including the institution of the nation-state. I return to my favorite example of the Habsburg monarchy: In the beginning of the 20th century a man might say, “I speak Croatian at home, and I am a subject of the Austrian Emperor.” A couple of decades later the man’s son might look in the mirror one morning and say, “I am a Yugoslav.” More recently the grandson may say, “I am a citizen of Croatia.” The transition of identities can be comical: The Austrian writer Friedrich Torberg tells of visiting a port on the Dalmatian coast and having a conversation with an old sailor, who pointed at a rusty gunboat lying at anchor: “This gunboat used to belong to us. Then we took it over.”
Max Weinreich’s definition of a language applies most neatly to the political world. In ordinary usage language refers to the formal language taught in school or on official occasions (like “High German” or “the King’s English”). A dialect is either a modification of the official language (Viennese or Cockney) or an altogether different language (Spanish among Hispanics in the United States). It is spoken in unofficial situations, when people can relax and take off their shoes. The aforementioned Friedrich Torberg, in his novel about a Jewish troubadour, Suesskind von Trimberg (who really existed historically, though Torberg invented most of his biography), says that one feels at home where one was a child. This is probably incorrect as a generalization—some children have terrible childhoods. But for a child growing up in a safe and loving environment, that is very probably correct. This is why the first language one has heard as a child has a very positive emotional connotation—one’s “mother tongue”/Muttersprache. I think this is why disputes over language rights (particularly in schools) are fought with much passion. That was certainly the case in the final period of the Habsburg monarchy. But even in basically stable democracies today there are fierce disputes over language—such as in Spain, Belgium, and Canada.
Where there is no language readily available to go with the army or navy, one has to be invented. It is interesting to compare successful with unsuccessful cases of linguistic invention. A remarkably successful case, of course is Modern Hebrew in Israel. Theodor Herzl, who invented Zionism, thought that German would be the language of the modern Jewish state—not a viable possibility after Nazism. Yiddish wouldn’t do either—it was associated with Eastern Europe, deemed backward by Herzl’s generation. Hebrew was associated with centuries of Jewish nostalgia for the promised land—“next year in Jerusalem.” A notably unsuccessful project was the Irish language in the independent Republic of Ireland. Very few people still spoke it, and English, the de facto common language, opened the door to a much wider world of opportunity. A particularly interesting contrast is between Bahasa Indonesia in that country and Tagalong in the Philippines. Both are Malay languages, conveniently available in two countries struggling to have a national identity after independence from, respectively, Dutch and British colonialism. But Bahasa was the dialect spoken in just one region in Sumatra, not the political and cultural center of Java. Making Javanese the official language would have greatly outraged people in the other islands of the sprawling archipelago. Bahasa didn’t outrage anybody, and was not only accepted as the national language, but became a vernacular “dialect,” especially in households whose members came from diverse ethnic backgrounds. On the other hand, Tagalog is the dialect of Luzon, the center of political and cultural power in the Philippines. Outrage would follow elsewhere in the country, if Tagalog were imposed.
The immigration crisis in Europe has again revived attention to the issue of nation and language, and now that the majority of recent immigrants are Muslims, religion has become an important aspect of the issue. Germany is in the vortex of the issue, ever since Chancellor Merkel, at least for a while, made the borders wide-open. Anti-immigration and anti-Muslim attitudes tended to merge. Political movements and parties have expressed these attitudes while waving nationalist banners. Despite serious problems persisting with regard to the task of quickly integrating well over one-and-a-half million new immigrants, much of the vaunted “welcome culture” has survived. Often it has been through local volunteers—helping with German classes, helping schools and kindergartens coping with immigrant children, and every other kind of direct assistance. The two major churches, Protestant Catholic, have had a big part in this. On the Left side of the political spectrum there continues to be an almost instinctive aversion against any form of German nationalism—that is a positive consequence of the collective memory of Nazism. The philosopher Jurgen Habermas, who is still a guru of the Left, has long insisted that Germany should beware of even the milder forms of nationalism. Rather than be proud of Germany, the citizens of the Federal Republic should be proud of their democratic constitution. He called this “constitution patriotism.” One can sympathize with these sentiments, but they too readily obscure the much less abstract values expressed by patriots—not least the love of the German language (both “high” and vernacular). These values cannot just be dismissed as “fascist,” “racist,” or “Islamophobic.”
In 2010 Thilo Sarrazin, an economist and politician of the Social Democratic Party (hardly a man of the Right), published a book that rapidly became a bestseller—Deutschland schafft sich ab/ “Germany does away with itself.” It was a rather silly book—grossly exaggerating the negative effects of mass immigration and the degree of Islamization. There were massive protests and calls for Sarrazin to be expelled from the SPD. Yet in an interview (not in the book) Sarrazin said something that I found quite moving. He was asked “What do you really want?” He replied: “That my grandchildren will be able to go for a walk anywhere in Germany and feel at home—zuhause/”in one’s house.” A positively evocative German term for one’s country is Heimat—related to Heim/”home.” I don’t think that is a “fascist” sentiment. An old friend of mine in Vienna, an inveterate anti-Nazi, is a pediatrician. A few years ago, she did a health inspection in an elementary school and was shocked to find out that most of the children could not understand or speak German. Most Muslims in Austria are of Turkish descent, and the salaries of Turkish teachers and imams have been paid by the Turkish government. Recently a law was passed which made Islam legally equal to both Christianity and Judaism, but also insisted that imams must be trained in Austria and be able to preach in German. Whatever one may think about the details, this law can hardly be called “fascist.”
Every human institution necessarily excludes and includes at the same time. If I define who is a German or any other national, I’m implicitly defining who is not a German. This need not imply a negative prejudice. Always there are “we” and there are “they.” I think that for both political and moral reasons it is better if the “we” is defined broadly rather than narrowly. One of the few cheering episodes from the period of the Holocaust is the fate of the Danish Jews under German occupation. For a while the Germans ruled Denmark with a relatively light touch. After all, the Danes were authentically Nordic and fellow “Aryans.” But then the order came from Berlin to round up the entire Jewish community (consisting of a few thousand individuals) and to deport them to the death camps. The Danish authorities had to be informed. Immediately the entire state, from the king to the last policeman, organized the resistance to the decree. In a single night the entire Jewish community was evacuated to safety in Sweden under the noses of the Gestapo. After the war an American Jewish delegation visited Denmark and had a meeting with the Prime Minister. The spokesman of the delegation said: “We came to thank you what you did for our people.” The prime minister replied: “We did nothing for your people. We did this for our people.”