From the Letters to the Editor column in the May-June 1995 Perspectives

Nationalism and Identity

Frans Coetzee, May 1995

To the Editor:

Prompted by Liah Greenfield and Lloyd Kramer's opportune and stimulating exchange on pedagogical approaches to nationalism in the November 1994 issue of Perspectives, we would like to suggest some additional perspectives drawn from our own experience in teaching about this protean phenomenon. Our graduate seminar on European nationalism since the French Revolution is organized thematically, but within a general chronological framework. Its point of departure has been to approach nationalism as a question of identity, one in which adherence to the nation in principle, if not in practice, supersedes other forms of identification. Setting it within this context enables students to recognize that nationalism is neither universal nor eternal, and that the same purportedly objective criteria (such as language, religion, or shared historical traditions) need not always be influential in what is a subjective formulation.

We have also found it valuable to explore the popular resonance of nationalism by delving into conceptions of citizenship. Here the emphasis is not confined to a consideration of the rights and responsibilities of full membership in a national community, but also includes an evaluation of the conditions under and mechanisms by which immigrants gain naturalization. The sharp contrasts between France and Germany on this score provide an instructive example, one well analyzed by Rogers Brubaker in his Citizenship and Nationhood in France and Germany (Harvard Univ. Press, 1992).

Finally, in tracing the historical influence of nationalism it is crucial not to lose sight of the ways in which nationalism has influenced collective memory and historiography. The possible examples here are numerous, of course; after all, Ernest Renan already recognized more than a century ago the indispensability of a faulty historical memory to conceptions of national identity. In our seminar, the juxtaposition of Henry Rousso's The Vichy Syndrome (Harvard Univ. Press, 1991) with material on Germany's Historikerstreit (such as Forever in the Shadow of Hitler? [Humanities Press, 1993] or Peter Baldwin, ed., Reworking the Past [Beacon Press, 1990]) has spawned fruitful discussions.

Nationalism is a classic instance of a subject of tremendous contemporary importance that can be illustrated by historical perspectives. It is a welcome sign, then, to see the issue attracting the critical scrutiny and diversity of approaches it deserves.

Frans Coetzee
Marilyn Shevin-Coetzee
George Washington University