‘Nations or states: Which came first?’ historian asks

One has to look from a distance to discern a pattern. That would explain why historians and social scientists have trouble unraveling the evolution of nations. We are all born into nations and we all speak the same language, as it were, about our national past. Our Weltanschauung, our view of the world, has been largely shaped by, yes, nations. However, contrary to the standard national narrative which tends to treat historical past as an unbroken continuity and states as the natural outgrowth of nations, some historians insist that nations are distinctively modern constructions. The making of nations, Antonis Liakos says in his latest book «How did those who wanted to change the world envisage the nation?» (Polis, 2005), is a response to a changing world – a response to modernity. As other forms of allegiance, like class or religion, fail to bond people during the awkward passage into modernity, communities seek to survive the transition by organizing themselves into nations. Liakos, a professor of history at the University of Athens, explains how the nation gets privileged among a wide range of contesting identifications as the overarching identity that legitimates difference from «the other.» Imitating Foucault, the author hammers at modern history telling which rereads, reformulates and eclectically recalls the past to produce a linear conception of history. Nationalism fits together disparate elements to assemble a national mythology using the all-too-familiar ingredients: military victories, national heroes, flags, parades, songs, hymns, a national currency. The fact that nations invent or imagine their past, Liakos argues, does not mean they aren’t real. «Two centuries of nationalization have eventually succeeded in fomenting a national conscience,» he claims. They are also necessary. The nation as a source of collective certainty is an essential aspect of the human condition – allowing man to feel at home with the world. If the old gods are dead, people need a new god. The present uses the past – but the influence is mutual. «By picking their ancestors,» Liakos notes, «modern Greeks were not left unaffected by them.» The same goes with Orthodox Christianity. Orthodox religion was nationalized to serve as a tool for a homogenizing, national ideology. At the same time, however, religion hijacked nationalism: Orthodox Christianity has come to be seen as a fundamental element of Greek identity and the Church as a partner of the State. That explains why, in the eyes of many Greeks, imposing a division between Church and State in Greece would be to go back on centuries of Greek self-understanding. Nation formation, Liakos says, is a dual process – largely because of the contrast between current troubles and an ideal, or idealized, past. The embattled nation must modernize to survive, but modernization is cloaked in traditional guise so that it can best resonate with the public. Nation-states rework their past with one eye fixed on the future. As a result the old ethnos is reborn to catch up with the modern condition – Greece’s «Paliggenesia,» or national regeneration, after the 1821 independence struggle against Ottoman rule, or the «Risorgimento,» or resurgence, the 19th century movement for Italian unification. Liakos argues that the nation’s campaign to project its past into the future is threatened by the universal, culturally insensitive process of modernization. Warnings against one-size-fits-all globalization and even European integration reinforce his argument. The writer throws out many stimulating ideas and notions but fails short of drawing them into a single, coherent argument – but it’s hard to see how it could be otherwise as Liakos whizzes through some two dozen theorists in 160-odd pages. His dense book does not eschew ponderous scholarly jargon and ideas are often laid out without evidence or examples to back them up, which may trouble the lay reader. Liakos compares different paradigms of nationalism put forward after 1848, but does not keep his preferences secret. Critics have slammed his postmodernist leanings – as if the epithet has some inherently insulting quality. Maybe they are just speaking a different language.