Reviewed by Matthew McCullock (Department of Politics, International Relations and European Studies, Loughborough University)
Published on H-War (October, 2007)
Nationalism: As Old as Time Itself?
Aviel Roshwald continues the challenge recently begun as to the origins of nationalism. For decades, orthodox discussions on nationalism accepted that nationalism was a relatively recent invention largely brought about by the French Revolution and subsequent drive to make the nation and their state congruent. Roshwald's book, which in many ways uses the work of authors like Anthony Smith as a point of departure, argues that while nationalism did reach its zenith in recent history, there are examples of pre-modern "nations" that displayed nationalistic tendencies.
At least, this is the argument of the first two chapters. In the first chapter, "Nationalism in Antiquity," Roshwald's hypothesis is that "the phenomenon of national consciousness and its expression in nationalism are not exclusively modern, but have appeared in various forms...; throughout much of the history of literate civilization" (p. 10). The rest of the chapter consists of a detailed historical exploration of both the ancient Jews and ancient Greeks to identify features such as self-determination, suffering and redemption, and formalization of the language that would not be unfamiliar to contemporary nationalism. Roshwald's conclusion is to demonstrate that "how readily the conceptual and terminological apparatus of contemporary nationalism studies could be applied to ancient societies" (p. 30).
In the second chapter, "The Nation in History and the Curved Arrow of Time," Roshwald explores the relationship between linear and nonlinear views of history. The linear approach adopts a defining event (Roshwald uses 9/11 as an example) as a point in the linear development by associating the event with progress, while the latter adopts a more cyclical approach and takes a given example of history as a starting point (Roshwald notes the way in which Pearl Harbor was used extensively in post- 9/11 America). By relating any new event to a prior hardship the nation endured, a great degree of comfort can be found. Roshwald then continues with an interesting discussion on how both relationships are prone to reinventing the past. He cites as example how some U.S. education syllabi claimed "ignorance" of slavery during the Civil War. Furthermore, different versions of the same nationalism "compete" for legitimacy by claiming national icons as their own. The example here is how both Free and Vichy French rhetoric "claimed" Joan of Arc as being "theirs" to gain legitimacy with the French people (pp. 52-55).
The third chapter, "Violation and Volition," appears to take the argument away from the central hypothesis discussed in the introduction with little explicit reference to the ideas already discussed. The central argument of the chapter discusses the notion of self-determination, and how it is often a national defeat or catastrophe that is utilized in national discourse: "The memory of what others have done to the nation helps define the meaning and value of liberty and to highlight the necessity of shaking off foreign yokes or of fighting to maintain independence and security" (p. 88). The fourth chapter introduces the relationship between being a chosen people and nationalism. Exploring the two initial forays into constitutional covenant-making (the United States and France), Roshwald's argument focuses on how the Western idea of the social contract formed the basis of constitutional government, but the idea of the contract was merely adapted from the biblical idea of the covenant (p. 173). This notion of agreement-making forms the basis of the whole chapter, and so mysteriously dismisses other countries that have argued that they were a chosen people from serious discussion, such as the Puritans in seventeenth-century England under Oliver Cromwell (Roshwald does mention the Puritans twice, but merely in passing). The fifth chapter approaches the oft-cited distinction in the literature between "civic" and "ethnic" nationalism.
In addition to the apparent failure to link the different parts of the arguments, the book has two, more damning, weaknesses. Firstly, it is obvious the author has a strong Jewish background: a large number of the works cited are by Jewish authors, and the example of Israel is referred to at every given opportunity. While this pro-Jewish stance is not problematic per se, it does make it hard to accept that this book is about the endurance of nationalism in general. It reads more like a review of Jewish nationalism with other, mainly American, and occasionally French, nationalisms as a subplot.
An example of this stance is in Roshwald's discussion of the First World War monuments in nationalist discourse (p. 64). Roshwald fails to recognize the role that the First World War played in the national character of those nations that went to war in 1914. I agree that the principle of the American Vietnam War Memorial is similar to every town in Britain and France possessing a memorial to commemorate their war dead; but in another sense, the examples could not be more different. The First World War has fostered a degree of innocence and romanticism in British national identity especially (probably as a result of the sheer horrors suffered), which is arguably unique in character.
Roshwald could have looked more often outside the predominantly Jewish literature to find examples to support his argument. A key example here is his discussion of the link between nationalism and the land, and the fact that where the nation's war dead are buried "constitutes a direct, concrete link to the nation's past--an immutable past that serves forever as a source of inspiration and reassurance to the nation's living" (p. 67). There is no better example of the link between war dead and soil than Rupert Brooke's poem The Soldier (1914). Admittedly this poem was written by one of the many English war poets, and refers to England's "body," "air," and an "English Heaven", but, I would argue, the sentiment expressed by the opening line of this single poem better highlights the link between war dead and nation than any other example.
The second major weakness is that certain chapters are simply too long. Due to the length of the chapters the structure appears to break down, and having reached the end of a chapter, the reader is so full of examples and different arguments that it is very easy to forget how the chapter began. In chapter 3, there is an eight-page discussion of the Orange Order marches and a nine-page discussion of the collapse of Yugoslavia, which while interesting in themselves, are too much, and overpower the overall thrust of the chapter. Likewise, chapter 4 addresses the notion of an "elect" nation and features twenty-six pages on "America's sense of global mission," and yet, strangely, despite the wealth of discussion on notions of the elect and "chosen people" in Afrikaner nationalism, devotes only a few cursory lines to South Africa in a subsection on "Chosen People's Burdens: Natural Missions" (p. 182).
Despite a promising premise, this work largely fails to advance Anthony Smith's basic work. Rather, while the first two chapters appear to have some relevance to the central hypothesis of the book, the latter stages discuss general nationalist points in a long-winded and somewhat biased manner. Undoubtedly, there is an academic niche for such literature, but I would only reluctantly recommend this book to any of my students.
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Matthew McCullock. Review of Roshwald, Aviel, The Endurance of Nationalism.
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