National identity

My View of the West: The Colorful History of European Nationalisms

Marja Vuorinen

I started my study of European nationalisms by looking at the period when nations were busy creating themselves. The time was the second half of the 19th century, and the place the Finnish Grand-Duchy where a conflict between the aspiring commoner intelligentsia and the declining nobility had emerged.

During that time, nationalism as an ethno-linguistic-cultural project was particularly popular among the minority nations of the four multinational empires – the Russian (of which Finland was a part), Prussian, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman – making up the eastern half of Europe. By the end of the century, progressive nationalists promoted democratic politics, meritocratic principle in recruiting bureaucrats, educational reform, social and gender equality, and land reform.

To justify the takeover of governance by popular forces, the commoner stratum created a powerful enemy image. The nobility were presented as the enemy of the People, Equality, Peace, and Progress – a parasite class of supranational aristocracy, clinging to royal traditions, exploiting peasantry, leading men to war, growing fat on taxes and forbidding female emancipation, particularly the marriages of their daughters to commoner men. My dissertation, titled An imagined nobleman: Nobility as an enemy image and in-group identity in nineteenth-century Finland (transl. from Finnish) dealt with the story of this mainly print-media-borne battle, but considering the viewpoints of both sides.

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After WWI, the former separatist minorities emerged from under the collapsed empires as independent nation-states, most with republican constitutions. However, the great Western narrative of emancipatory small-state nationalism soon landed on its belly, swamped by the hard-core nationalistic, military ambitions that led to WWII. The ensuing division into two Blocs eventually came to an end, and, by the millennium, Francis Fukuyama had tentatively declared the End of History, while Samuel Huntington prophesied a Clash of Civilisations.

In the 2010s, nationalistic strivings are back with a vengeance. For a historian of political conflicts, enemy images and aggressive rhetoric, things seems to have returned rather to business as usual.

The author is a PhD (Social sciences), and acts as a researcher at the Department of Political and Economic studies, University of Helsinki. Her current project focuses on Finnish hate speech throughout the ages. Her other research interests range from the ideological trends within the 21st century neo-nationalist far right to the local cultural history of her native town of Lappeenranta.

My View of the West is a series of short posts by members of The West Network about their research or perspectives of ‘the West’.

My View of the West: Russia, Turkey and Western influence

Toni Alaranta

While I was reading Igor Zevelev’s report Russian National Identity and Foreign Policy (2016), I realized how similar is the close association of foreign policy and national identity in my own research topic, Turkey. Only recently, I have started to better understand how profoundly challenging task the combining of Western influences with own traditions has been in Turkey – and, as I can now see, in Russia as well. These observations lead to the question why all this anxiety? Why is the ability to define and then protect the national identity such a fundamental endeavour? Even though the central role and the need for ‘we’ structures is duly acknowledged in scholarly literature, it seems that the collectively upheld anxiety if these ‘we’ structures come under challenge is even stronger than previously thought.

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Thinking about the last 150 years, one can argue that the problem of how to combine one’s own and Western culture has not for a second ceased to occupy the intellectual class in Russia and Turkey. Further, the current national discourses in these countries are overheated due to this anxiety. All this creates profound turmoil in the current international system. At least partly similar processes of redefinition, or renegotiation, of national identity take place in several other countries, including the Western nations, and these have their repercussions in the international level. However, it feels fair to say that in the case of Russia and Turkey, the idea of own, allegedly authentic (civilizational) national identity under threat now results in a foreign policy transformation where stakes are much higher compared to various other state actors.

The author is a Senior Research Fellow at Finnish Institute of International Affairs. 

My View of the West is a series of short posts by members of The West Network about their research or perspectives of ‘the West’.