by Alexandru Nica
Psychologically speaking, the stability of one’s life is arguably conferred by the coherence of the Self, to use a Jungian term. In turn, it are values that generate the core of our identity, thereby bringing about psychological stability. This article investigates the importance of national identity from a psycho-social perspective. Its purpose is to show that while nationalism may be a new concept in the timeline of our existence, national identity is an expression of our historical and psychological needs to belong. As a link in the chain that forms our psyche, national identity is an important factor of psycho-social existence and stability for each and every one of us.
Large-group affiliation continues to be a defining element in determining one’s identity. Indeed, religion, ethnicity, national identity, and culture are at the core of the individual’s psyche. Very often, these pieces are interdependent, with national identity involves a certain culture or religion. As such, the pursuit of national identity and the birth of nationalism did not necessarily originate in the West and are consequences of deeper historical roots. Hence, while nationalism might have been coined in the modern era, national identity preceded that modernity. Moreover, even if contemporary literature may define it as an ideology, nationalism is not an ideology for a simple reason. Nationalism correlates to a wide range of ideologies, both Left-wing and Right-wing: from communism (communist nationalism) to Nazism (national socialism), from unionism to separatism, from secularism to ecclesiasticism (or religious nationalism). Indeed, while nationalism is an element most closely related to right-wing politics, along with conservatism, capitalism, individualism, and religious belief, it is not an ideology in and by itself.
In the West, it is widely acknowledged that nationalism was born within romanticism, as a reaction to the French Revolution and to the rationalism of the Enlightenment that was perceived as threat to the purported continuity of historical evolution, as they catalysed in Napoleon’s Empire. More precisely, German intellectuals were refuting both French territorial and intellectual domination. The German intellectual ‘counterattack’ was called Romanticism. In the ‘nation’, Edmund Burke and, later, Joseph de Maistre perceived an expression of a superior order, an organic community, as opposed to a simple group of citizens equal in rights. In German Romanticism, influenced by the ideas of Herder or Fichte, put forward in the latter’s Addresses to the German Nation, the nation became an expression of linguistic purity and popular or cultural mythology. The purpose was to return to, and embrace, the old traditions, as a form of protest against the French cultural hegemony and military occupation over the German states. The common culture and unique spirit, will, or soul, expressed by language, myths, traditions, and laws were the fundamental elements in the construction of nations.
This traditional current of thought, again, rooted in Romanticism, was considered to be the essence of nationalism itself. The 19th century was the time of a powerful return of popular, folk culture and of a certain interest for old traditions and practices (besides France and Germany, other national states were forming as well: Italy, Greece, Romania, Serbia, Bulgaria, and so on). It was an attempt to affirm the authentic culture, personified in the people, who began to call for national self-determination. The force of this type of cultural speech was impressive, both because it conferred legitimacy to the ideal of national self-determination ideal and because responded to the need of developing a psychological identity.
A number of authors and historians reject this hypothesis. However, their theories are not anchored in historical, cultural and societal realities, but mainly come as a post-war pejorative reinterpretation of nations and nationalism which served as a theoretical base for new social movements. They argue, basically, that the ordinary people were unable to become aware of the fact that they belong to a Nation, hence intellectuals and elites were needed to tell them about it and guide them in discovering their origins and national conscience. Following this logic, Ernest Gellner uses the example of Central and Eastern Europe to support his theory about different ages of the continent. He splits Europe into four different zones and disagrees with the fact that the East had the necessary preconditions for creating national states. The result, Gellner says, are a group of states which became national only because of the Wilsonian political project of self-determination; and so, they lacked the historical age that would legitimise them as organic, national states. Gellner believed that it was nationalism that produced the nation, and not vice-versa. This reading means that the national states of Central and Eastern Europe are not a natural product of history, but of political conjuncture.
Considering this idea of political conjuncture, albeit for a different period and context, Liah Greenfeld tries to assemble a theory based on the political and social context in which England found itself immediately after the War of Roses (1455-1485). Greenfeld argues that nationalism and the need for national identity appeared artificially and accidentally, only as a sort of legitimacy for the newly-emerging aristocracy. In this context, national identity came as a need to explain these new social mutations which were previously unimaginable in a feudal society, defined by strict differences between classes. Thus, for Greenfeld, national identity came to surpass the previous social identity, as a need for acquiring legitimacy and dignity.
However, when judging from the arguments and logical aspects presented above, one can consider Greenfeld’s theory to be false for two main reasons. First, nationalism did not appear in the English space, but in the German space, as a reaction to the French diffusion of culture and values, which were dominant in the romanticist period. Second, nationalism and national identity are not the same things. Nationalism is just a conceptualisation of an element of psychological identity which defines humans and their communities, all over the world. Indeed, the process of developing the idea of nation and national identity was somewhat different in the East, due to a specific political and historical context. However, both Gellner and Greenfeld ignore crucial aspects regarding psychological identity, as materialised into cultural specificity and social evolution.
In other words, the nation is a pre-modern entity, a group with a specific societal identity. Even Kohn himself omits this aspect when he differentiates between Western and Eastern nationalism, because he creates an unnecessary dichotomy between an alleged ‘bad’ (ethnic) nationalism, an alleged characteristic of Eastern societies, and a ‘good’ (civic, secular) nationalism in the West. In the context of an international society that was recently shattered by exacerbated nationalism, Kohn’s approach was somewhat understandable. However, he neglects the deeper and psychological character of national identity, which is a universal and fundamental one. A few decades later, Brockmann analysed national identity as a psychological notion, as a component of a wider psychological identity. By paraphrasing Verdery, it can be summarised that the term ‘nation’ is a name for the relationship that connects a socio-political entity – a large group characterised by various specific features – to the individuals that form it, like links of a chain.
Therefore, even if national identity and nationalism were maybe reflected differently in the East, the idea of a ‘nation’ was born under the same principles. Nations like Romania or Serbia were formed out of a need for psychological identity among the people in those areas. In the East, nationalism was a reaction to the continuously expanding policies of some surrounding states which did not correspond to any ethnic, historical, cultural, or demographical borders. It was a reaction to the policy of enforcing the right of conquest led by surrounding multinational empires: the Habsburg – later Austro-Hungarian – Empire, the Ottoman Empire, and the Russian Empire. Thus, at first, Romanians, Serbians, but also Bulgarians and Greeks started to vocally acknowledge their national identity for the purpose of emancipation from the empires which were controlling them politically, militarily, economically, socially, and even culturally. These peoples had, at first, the purpose to survive the attempts of assimilation organised by the empires. Then, after the First World War, the Wilsonian project allowed these nations to emerge more powerful than before (Romania, for instance, has doubled its population and territorial size in 1918, after the unification with all Romanian-inhabited territories that were previously under foreign rule).
Like Volkan later would come to theorise, these nations became aware of the link between national identity and core, psychological identity when they were confronted with gradual assimilation. In order to achieve unity and independence, these nations used their unique features as arguments. For Romanians, Serbians, Bulgarians, or Greeks, this awareness included strong ties with their Orthodox Churches, as a factor of difference between them and the surrounding empires. For this reason, nationalism and even Enlightenment were not anti-clerical in the East, which explains the different character of nationalism in this geographical space.
Coming back to our times, one can see an apparent revival of national sentiments, at least in Europe. Despite an era of globalisation, nations demonstrate a tendency towards closing the ranks. Nationalist movements have recently arisen in the East (i.e. Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia, Hungary, Slovakia, Czech Republic), as well as the West (i.e. Italy, Spain, France, Germany, coming to a climax with Brexit). A possible explanation can relate to the need for a psychological identity, with national identity as a part of it. In the West, the immigration issue starts to be perceived as a threat to the national specifics. In the East, it is more about the perception that people are beginning to face a two-speed European Union, where these newer members are being left behind.
To conclude, national identity is not synonymous with nationalism, because it is not just a constructed doctrine or a current of thought. Instead, it is an important factor of psycho-social identity and stability of any individual, regardless of where he or she lives. Although nationalism, as a concept, is modern, the need for identification with a large group, with a nation, precedes modernity and still prevails today. Yet it is important to note that neither nationalism nor national identity appeared by accident. National identity is an expression of the need to belong, which in itself is an organic feature of the human psyche, or at least that of a healthy, functional human psyche.
Using the metaphor of a canvas tent, Vamik Volkan emphasises the idea that a nation protects its members by offering them an identity, like a mother who protects her children. Indeed, there is a nuance here: some nations emphasise the mother figure as a fundamental symbol (i.e. Russian Motherland), whereas other nations highlight the father figure (i.e. German Fatherland). However, this nuance is psychologically irrelevant. The point is that the nation can play the role of a caregiver – which is a crucial role for one to become a ‘healthy, functional adult’, using Donald Winnicott’s words. Judging by this analogy, it makes it very difficult to replace or reshape this reality through constructed speech, if at all. There is only a slight variance, an empirical nuance – this need for national identity was acknowledged under different circumstances, in different contexts, throughout history. However, it remains so that national identity preceded modernity.
Alexandru Nica is currently pursuing an MA in Political Psychology at Bournemouth University. He holds a BA in History and is interested in how politics, media, psychology, and technology are interconnected and shape our fast-paced contemporary society.