The National Question

It is common wisdom that Europe’s overly secretive and entangling web of alliances at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries were responsible for the horror of the First World War. When Gavrilo Princip assassinated Franz and Sophie Ferdinand on the streets of Sarajevo, the inevitable countdown to war began and there were no statesmen or officers on duty who could head off the disaster. The lights went out across Europe almost automatically, a matter of conscription lists and train schedules once the order to mobilize the reserves went out; and the mobilization orders were inevitable results of the inflexible politics of alliance[1] adhered to by the Central and Entente powers.

There are elements of truth to this narrative as a description of what actually occurred; but it is fundamentally wrong in principle. The history of Europe after 1815 is full of secretive and entangling alliances of a greater of lesser degree: Metternich’s Holy Alliance, aimed against the resurgence of France; the Crimean Alliance, forced on Britain to prevent Russian expansion; the Alvensleben Convention, aimed against Polish independence; the League of Three Emperors, designed by Bismarck to prevent a Russo-Austrian conflict in the Balkans by tying them to Germany; and a multitude of more or less fantastic combinations proposed and discarded as perceptions of the European equilibrium shifted amongst the Great Powers. The “systems” of Metternich and Bismarck[2] were based on alliance structures so entangling that no one could risk war. None of those led to a pan-European conflagration: there were conflicts, but the alliance system worked as designed to localize them. It worked so well that the British government was able to spend long periods of the 19th Century downsizing its military and ignoring the Continent — that is hardly indicative of a failed international system.

The First World War began in August 1793, which may seem a bit premature for an event that occurred 121 years in the future. But the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen at the start of the French Revolution made it inevitable[3]. This document definitively established the principle that sovereignty was not a grant from God, but a fundamental characteristic of the whole body of citizens who compose the nation. In the Europe of the 18th Century, where the fundamental organizing principle had for centuries been based on loyalty to a divinely appointed monarch and dynastic succession, the new French constitutionalism posed a fundamental and insurmountable challenge. For centuries, the crowned heads of Europe had ruled over heterogeneous amalgamations of peoples with nothing in common except the monarchy (and after 1648, their religion). The King of Spain in the 16th Century did not rule over “Spaniards” — they did not yet exist — he ruled over subjects who were Castilian, Catalan, Basque, Neapolitan, Sicilian, Flemish, Burgundian, Milanese, Galician and others who all owed loyalty to him personally. When a royal minister of that period wrote about protecting the interests of France or Spain or England, they meant the interests of their particular monarch, not those of anything resembling a modern nation-state. That is why Europeans of that time — neither rulers nor subjects - saw anything wrong or unusual with trading bits and pieces of “their” empires as the price of peace: Catalan Roussillon to France, Castilian Gibraltar to Great Britain, all of Poland-Lithuania to her neighbors, and thousands of other examples.

The French Revolution and its consequences made this dynastic system untenable. Through their rediscovery of classical citizenship and the levee en masse[4], the French Republic and later Empire proved the power of nationalism: it took the entire continent of Europe and 20 years of war to defeat the first true nation-state. To use Niall Ferguson’s terminology, nationalism became the “killer app” of the 19th century: henceforward, no dynastic state would be able to compete successfully. The victors of the Napoleonic Wars attempted to turn the clock back on the new national state by the Holy League, organized to quash any repetition of the French experience, but their efforts were proven to be in vain during the “springtime of peoples” in 1848. The revolutions that spread to every major European state except Great Britain and Russia were all unsuccessful; but they proved that the virus of nationalism had infected the growing middle and urban classes. From that point onwards, the paramount issue facing Europe was “the National Question”: how were the aspirations of Europe’s people to be met? Who would get a state and who would not? And how were all these borders to be redrawn without anarchy and war following in their wake?

European leaders were pragmatists for the most part[5]. They recognized that “the national question” was a bundle of dynamite tied to a powder keg and that if they did not handle it properly, it would destroy them. It was clear to them that some “historic people” would eventually have to have their own states while other “non-historic people” would have to be denied[6]. The French, the Portuguese, the Dutch, the Swiss, the Danes, the Norwegians and the Swedes already conformed more or less closely[7] to the developing ideal of the ethno-linguistically homogeneous nation-state. It was also clear that Germany and Italy would eventually unify as well. There were also “non-historic” nation-states that were created through the accelerating decrepitude of the Ottoman Empire: Greece in 1830, Serbia in 1867, and Bulgaria in 1878. Romania and Belgium were “invented” out of necessity to prevent them from strengthening neighboring Great Powers: Romania managed to successfully invent a unifying identity from the Wallachians and Moldovans that constituted the united principalities, while the “Belgians” are still at loggerheads between their Flemish and Walloon constituencies.

There were many losers in the game of national musical chairs that was played, because there weren’t enough chairs to go around. The Irish, the Finns, the Bretons, the Corsicans, the Czechs, the Slovaks, the Croats, the Slovenes, the Bosnians, the Basques, the Catalans and many others were all part of existing states that were sufficiently strong to repress their nascent nationalism or absorb it. The Poles, whom everyone recognized to be a “historic people” were nevertheless out of luck because they belonged to not one, but three states who were also Great Powers. All tensions and every crisis in Europe arose from the unsatisfied aspirations of these people, not from the alliance structure of the Great Powers or competition between them. In fact, there was less to fight about in the Europe of 1914 than in any previous era of that continent’s history: except for the failure to accommodate all of the nationalities who wanted a “place in the sun.”

It was the failure of the dynastic state to adapt or dissolve itself peacefully that made the war inevitable. The Ottoman Empire was an anachronism: it had long since ceased to be a Great Power and after 1854, its decline was successfully “managed” by the European powers. The Ottomans-in-Europe was divided into new nation-states through some bloody little wars, but the alliance system worked to prevent their spread; meanwhile, France, Britain and Russia confidently expected the Ottomans-in-Asia to fall into their hands as protectorates sooner or later.

The real problem was Austria-Hungary. It was still (barely) a Great Power, and its place in the center of Europe made its existence vital for the Balance of Power. If the Dual Monarchy broke up into its constituent nationalities, the German-speaking Austrians throughout the Empire would demand to become part of the Second Reich. This “Empire of 80 million Germans” would completely dominate Europe and leave France, Italy and even Russia as second-rate powers. Germany feared the collapse of her southern neighbor because she feared the resulting diplomatic isolation, but also because the Hohenzollerns and the Prussian Junker aristocracy feared the internal competition that would result from absorbing the House of Habsburg and the Viennese aristocracy[8].

The ministers of the Habsburg monarchy learned the hard way that they would need to adapt to the new wave of nationalism sweeping Europe. After barely surviving the Hungarian Revolution of 1848 and suffering humiliating military defeats in Italy (1859) and in Germany (1866), the defeated Austrians finally admitted that some accommodation was necessary. The Hungarians — one of Europe’s “historic people” — were admitted to coequal status with the German rulers of the Empire, and the Habsburg kingdom became the Austro-Hungarian Dual Monarchy. But this was not enough; the collapse of Ottoman power led to the formation of various Slav nations in the Balkans, which stirred the embers of discontent of the Slavic minorities in Austrian territory: the Bosnian and Herzegovinian Slavs[9] in particular, but also the Czechs and Slovaks. There were also large, discontented minorities composed of Poles, Ukrainians and Romanians in ethnically compact enclaves — a secessionist disaster waiting to happen.

The concession to the Hungarians was the one serious attempt at reform made by the Austrian rulers and also the guarantee that there would be no others. The Hungarians, having finally after centuries acquired their share of power, had no intention of diluting it by bringing in the South Slavs and Czechs. Hungarian opposition made further constitutional reform impossible until certain defeat in war stared Austria in the face. When, in 1918, the newly crowned Emperor Charles offered coequal status to the representatives of the Czechs and Slavs in return for their continued loyalty to a post-war Austrian state, Tomas Masaryk[10] phlegmatically declared “Your Majesty, now it is too late.”

The Habsburgs failed to solve the national question because it was irreconcilable with the structures of their dynastic state. The common thread of the monarchy was not enough to hold the disparate peoples of the empire together, despite the fact that they were unquestionably better off within the common legal, political and economic framework of the Empire than they subsequently were after independence. Defeat in war was only the final recognition of Austrian disunion; in fact, Austria-Hungary went to war precisely because it didn’t know what else to do to solve the problem of its national minorities[11]. Germany went to war because they didn’t know what else to do to prop up Austria; and both France and Russia went to war because they had no answer to “the German question” and their own decline as Great Powers.

Understanding how the universal solvent of nationalism led directly to the two greatest wars in human history seems particularly relevant, because it is still as potent and active today as ever. The unrealized aspirations of the “non-historic peoples” of Europe continue to manifest themselves: in the collapse of Yugoslavia, in the collapse of the Soviet Union, in the voluntary dissolution of Czechoslovakia, in the Catalan and Scottish independence movements, in the Italian Liga Nord. The Scots, Welsh and Catalans are living proof of just how powerful and persistent the national question is: both Spain and the United Kingdom were thought to have successfully forged national identities that absorbed the regional differences of their constituent peoples. It may seem shocking to us that the United Kingdom or Spain might split apart in the near future, but it wouldn’t be strange at all to an Eastern European, a Russian or to our great grandfathers in the Dual Monarchy. They walked the edge of that cliff for almost 70 years before finally falling off.

The “national question” is not just creating headaches to individual states; it poses a direct and perhaps insurmountable obstacle to the supra-national European Union. The EU hopes to become the first “post-national” entity, one that transcends the ethno-linguistic boundaries of the traditional nation-state. So far, however, it does not seem to be much more successful than the Austro-Hungarians were. There are undoubtedly many people who feel “European”, but it is a small minority who consider themselves European first and even fewer who consider themselves only European, rather than German or French or Italian. The benefits of a common market and common legal framework are not in dispute, but those inducements proved to be insufficient glue to hold together previous heterogeneous empires and the EU has already suffered its first defection. When hard times come — and they always come — the rivalries and distinctions of identity that lie underneath the surface during the boom years suddenly reappear. That is where the European Union has a weakness — it is difficult to ask people to sacrifice their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor for the Single European Payments Area.

The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen will prove to be as much of a challenge to the European Union as to the dynastic states. There are no European citizens — there are citizens of Germany, France and the other members. And the duty and loyalty of citizens accrue to the states of which they are the sovereigns. The more powers that Brussels absorbs from its members, the greater the dislocation between popular will and the exercise of power. The European Union will suffer a continuing and increasing crisis of legitimacy as “ever closer union” is pursued during and after Brexit. The only way to address this flaw is to create real European citizens: but the initial attempts at a European Constitution failed in the very heart of the most pro-union members[12]. There has been no hint of intention or desire to repeat the effort, but without a fundamental charter of European-wide popular sovereignty, the EU will continue to lurch from expedient to expedient. This could go on for a very long time; both Austria-Hungary and the Soviet Union lasted 70 years before succumbing[13].

The “national question” remains the most relevant one of our times. In the United States, the election of Donald Trump is a response to the conflict between the winners and losers of globalization, a process that strongly undermines the traditional power of the nation-state. Russia is experiencing a particularly virulent resurgence of nationalism, driving it into conflict with its neighbors and the West. The rise of Al Qaeda and the Islamic State is a revolutionary and bloody attempt in the Muslim world to respond to the challenges of globalization and international competition through a “post-national” entity based on a common theology rather than a common market. There are examples of this dynamic in every region of the globe and in many countries, because the European “killer app” of the homogeneous nation-state was exported around the world in the Age of Imperialism and was the model adopted by successor states during the subsequent wars of decolonization. But the neat, unnaturally straight lines drawn by Europeans to delineate their colonial borders seldom followed ethno-linguistic, cultural, historical and religious boundaries: so the unresolved conflicts of the “non-historic” people continue to plague the non-Western world.

Francis Fukuyama wrote in the 1990’s that we had reached the end of history. Democracy and increasing globalization were supposed to be the end state of human development. Mr. Fukuyama was clearly wrong. Democracy remains elusive for most of the world and globalization has suffered a very sharp set-back; the only common currency around the world appears to be nationalism in its various forms. Far from ushering in the era of “post-history”, the 21st Century will need to find a way to settle “the national question” once and for all. If it fails to do so, history makes the probable consequences unpleasantly clear.

Sources and Notes

[1] Many very intelligent and informed people both at the time of the war and subsequent to the events believe this to be the case. It was basis of one of Woodrow Wilson’s famous Fourteen Points “open covenants, openly arrived at” and it profoundly affected European and American politicians after the war. But it is still wrong.

[2] Bismark was the most pacifist statesman Prussia or Imperial Germany produced. He used war three times to achieve his goals of German unification under the Hohenzollerns, because that was the only way it could be achieved, but thereafter he viewed war as wholly pernicious — not because of any moral qualms about war itself, but because he viewed it as unnecessary and even dangerous to Germany’s inevitable domination of Europe.

[3] As inevitable as any single event can be said to be the cause of any other event in a system as complex as the international system.

[4] The French revolutionaries, as well as their American predecessors, were greatly inspired by the Greco-Roman examples of citizenship and its military obligations, an incredibly powerful concept that allowed the tiny Greek states to defeat much larger opponents, and which carried Rome to the pinnacle of power in the Mediterranean. Even the Roman division between patres and plebs was replicated in the short-lived concept of active and passive citizens proposed by the National Assembly.

[5] There were some idealists, most notoriously the French Emperor Napoleon III.

[6] The terminology of “historic” and “non-historic” people is certainly insulting, as well as being completely arbitrary, but it was the common usage during the period and it completely encapsulates the attitude of the statesmen who formed the policies that led Europe to the Great War, so I use it as well without the condescending connotations. It was originally used by Hegel and popularized by Friedrich Engels. The difference between “historic” and “non-historic” is that the latter had been “mercilessly crushed” by history, i.e. their “historic” neighbors (Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of History).

[7] The Netherlands and Belgium had already separated in 1830 on the basis of differences in language and religion between the Low Countries and Flanders-Wallonia; Norway fought a war against Sweden in 1814 when the Allies forced French ally Denmark to cede Norway to Sweden as the price of peace, and kept its own government within a personal monarchical union with Sweden (Convention of Moss) until 1905 when the union was finally dissolved.

[8] Bismarck deliberately frustrated German nationalists in 1871 to ensure the supremacy of his master, the King of Prussia, within the new German Reich.

[9] These were considered “Southern Slavs” sharing linguistic, religious and historic ties to neighboring Serbia. The creation of Yugoslavia at the end of the First World War was, in a way, the realization of the dream of Greater Serbia, though the inclusion of the Catholic Croats and Slovenes made little sense.

[10] First President of the independent Czechoslovakia

[11] Successive Austrian ministers, confronted by the intractable problem of too many Slavs in the Empire, took to blaming Serbia agitation — which certainly existed, but was a response to Slavic desires for independence, not the cause of it. From there, it was an easy step to believe that crushing Serbia would solve the problem once and for all. In fact, it would have made it worse, even without a Great War: absorbing more disenfranchised Slavs was the last thing Austria-Hungary needed.

[12] The people of both France and the Netherlands, original founding members, rejected the 2004 proposal.

[13] The Habsburg monarchy obviously lasted centuries, but from the “springtime of the people” (1848) to the collapse of Austria-Hungary (1918) was exactly 70 years.