Teaching Innovations

Commentary on Liah Greenfeld's “After the Wall”

Lloyd Kramer, November 1994

I welcome Liah Greenfeld's call for more courses on nationalism because students need to develop historical perspectives on nationalism's emergence and enduring influence in modern history. The legacy and persistence of nationalist conflicts provide a compelling rationale for discussing the history of nationalism in courses at all academic levels, though, as Greenfeld notes, an introductory survey will inevitably deal with the subject in ways that differ from the approach in upper-level courses.

In every case, however, teachers would be well advised to consider the guidelines Greenfeld suggests: the historical variety of nationalisms should be emphasized, comparative and interdisciplinary perspectives should be included, and some discussion of theories about the appeal of nationalism should be introduced. The history of nationalism offers an opportunity to help students recognize the multiple causes of historical events and to encourage analytical thinking about the interplay of ideas, social structures, political power, economics, religion, and warfare in the evolving processes of historical change.

Much of Greenfeld's essay is persuasive and useful, but there are problems that may undermine the explicit themes of her argument. My response seeks to affirm some of her principal themes by critically analyzing and extending the argument on several key points.

(1) Despite her warnings about the dangers of ahistorical theorizing, her discussion of nationalism tends to replicate the problem she describes. Her questions and the proposed course outline point to a "functional" view of historical processes that seems surprisingly static and ahistorical. She wants students to begin with questions about the "function" of nationalism today, but such questions may not be the best strategy for teaching students how to think historically about contemporary issues. Her questions assume continuities rather than changes in nationalism, as she notes in the curiously ahistorical claim that nationalism "arouses today the very same passions it aroused a hundred years ago."

This statement assumes a remarkable stability in the nature of nationalism, which may exist in the realm of theory but which rarely exists in a historical world that has changed enormously over the last century. Thus, although she criticizes Marxists for assuming (theoretically) that nationalism has served as a "functional prerequisite of capitalism," she goes on to define her own (theoretical) functional view of nationalism as "essentially" serving the need for "dignity" in modern societies. Nationalism may serve such an "essential" need, but the historical question would ask more specifically why nationalism has come to serve this "essential" function in the modern world. Other ideologies and institutions can presumably meet this need (e.g., religion, families, and feudal social hierarchies), so students who approached nationalism essentially as a quest for dignity could easily lapse into the ahistorical, functionalist, theoretical trap Greenfeld wants them to avoid.

(2) A similar problem emerges in Greenfeld's account of nationalism's role in the transition to modernity. She rightly suggests that the history of nationalism should not be interpreted as the consequence of a single, dominant cause (e.g., the emergence of capitalism), yet she seems to develop her own monocausal argument by describing nationalism as a "precondition," or essential, shaping cause of modernity. Where others see modernity as the source of nationalism, she sees nationalism as the source of modernity, but neither argument helps students understand the multicausal processes through which nationalism and modernity have evolved in a complex, reciprocal interaction. Greenfeld's argument here, as in the argument about dignity, tends more toward ahistorical theorizing than nontheoretical history.

(3) The same tendency appears in her (theoretical) dichotomy between individualistic and authoritarian nationalisms and in her distinction between "civic" and "ethnic" nationalisms. This division offers a conceptual framework for analysis, but it could also be challenged by much empirical history. Greenfeld's book on nationalism, for example, uses this dichotomy to place American nationalism in the "individualistic-civic" category, yet students who studied the history of Native Americans or African Americans might easily find historical evidence to illustrate America's authoritarian, ethnic nationalism, and the theoretical distinctions would begin to break down.

A different problem could emerge if teachers insisted on the historical validity of such theoretical dichotomies, because they could quickly transform the study of nationalism into another confirmation of students' own nationalist ideology: "our" nationalism is good and "theirs" is bad. Teachers who followed Greenfeld's categories would have to think carefully about the ideological message they conveyed, especially if such categories suggested that bad nationalisms were always associated with "other" places in eastern Europe or Asia or Africa.

(4) Finally, if teachers want to refer to theories (and they are useful, particularly when compared to and challenged by historical evidence), they might include some theoretical perspectives Greenfeld does not discuss. In addition to her emphasis on social and political structures, for example, the discussion of nationalism could extend to the relation between gender identities and nationalist identities or to more emphasis on the literary, cultural construction of nations. Recent books, such as George Mosse's Nationalism and Sexuality: Respectability and Abnormal Sexuality in Modern Europe (H. Fertig, 1985) and the collection of essays edited by Andrew Parker, et al., Nationalisms and Sexualities (Routledge, 1992), have emphasized the importance of modern ideas about masculinity, femininity, and homosexuality in nationalist ideologies. Attention to this theme would help students see the connection between the history of gender and the history of nations. Similarly, contemporary literary critics have been describing the nation as an imaginative construction of language (e.g., Homi Bhabha, ed., Nation and Narration [Routledge, 1990]), which suggests that the history of nationalism is also a history of contending narratives about the nature of reality.

It may well be useful, in short, to push the interdisciplinary approach to nationalism beyond the social sciences into feminist theory, literary theory, and theories about the meaning of religion. No matter which disciplinary perspectives a teacher stresses, however, students will gain a fuller understanding of modern nationalisms if they examine nationalist movements in the non-Western world as well as in the West.

Given the theoretical direction of Greenfeld's argument, the pedagogical strategy for moving beyond static, theoretical models of nationalism may lead to courses whose organizing historical categories differ from the themes she proposes in her outline for a syllabus. Her themes refer mostly to relations among theories, abstractions, and social categories rather than to specific historical eras or events: the "function" of nationalism, "nationalism and communism," "nationalism and revolution," and so forth. Such themes point to theoretical connections and oppositions, but they could make it difficult for students to see the historical evolution of nationalism across time or across different institutions and societies at the same time.

I would propose an outline with a much stronger chronological emphasis: 1) early modern Western conceptions of individuals and governments (e.g., religious views of human beings and political ideas about sovereignty); 2) nationalisms in the era of the French Revolution and Napoleon (1770–1848); 3) nationalisms, European states, and the new imperialism (1850–1900); 4) nationalisms in the era of World War I (1900–20); 5) nationalisms and anticolonialism (1914–80); 6) nationalisms in the era of World War II (1920–45); 7) nationalisms during the Cold War (1945–89); and 8) nationalisms after the Cold War (1989– ).

While periodization can be debated, it may offer a better structure for analyzing historical changes and for examining thematic or theoretical issues with reference to specific events, conflicts, and national histories: nationalisms and changes in political institutions, religion, public education, views of gender and race, communications and language, and the economy.

I am highly sympathetic to Greenfeld's interest in new, historically informed discussions of nationalism, but I think teachers could use other approaches to implement her proposals for bringing new accounts of nationalism into history courses and new historical information into courses on nationalism. Historians should respond to her ideas with their own critical, interdisciplinary perspectives (including more attention to the discontinuities in the history of nationalisms). This discussion would be relevant for every level of historical education because, as Greenfeld reminds us, the political and historical issues of nationalism affect students and teachers at every school in America. And we can safely assume that nationalism will remain an important subject for the dialogues between past and present cultures that historians like to promote with carefully considered combinations of theory and evidence.

—Lloyd Kramer teaches European history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is coeditor, with Donald Reid and William L. Barney, of Learning History in America: Schools, Cultures, and Politics (University of Minnesota Press, 1994).