Who belongs to the nation ?

It is a question which perhaps seems, if not easy, then straightforward. You can start by delineating a proposition as to what a Nation is, and subsequently attempt to problematise this statement either through argument or examples from history. Accounting for the fact that the term nation can be understood in different ways, there nonetheless must be a common core notion as to what it means, otherwise the term makes no sense and discussing it is futile. In what follows, I wish to attempt a short look at what qualifies someone as a member of a nation, and explore the impact such a delineation can have.


Let’s assume then, that the term ‘nation’ designates a community of apparent strangers who nonetheless are united by a common historical trajectory, which has led its members to develop a large set of distinctive characteristics: language, literature, laws, customs, style, character, institutions, memory, religious beliefs. To identify the national affiliation of a person, you would be compelled look for traits that fall under these categories. If a person speaks Lithuanian you might plausibly assume that he belongs to that nation etc. So far, so good.


Problems occur if you can show that each of these characteristics fails in practice, when you seek to apply them to ‘real people’. Take language for instance, an obvious starting point. Many languages are shared by different countries: not distinctive to any one of them therefore. Similarly a country can have a great variation within its professed tongue. Indeed, writing about the German nation in 1813, Wilhelm von Humboldt recognised that ‘the feeling that Germany constitutes a whole [...] rests not merely on customs, language and a literature held in common (given that we do not share them to the same extent with Switzerland and Prussia proper) […].’1 Similarly, the memorial site of Walhalla near Regensburg, erected in the early 19th century to host the busts of distinguished people ‘of the German tongue’, comprise a number a Dutchmen and even a Swede! King Ludwig I of Bavaria evidently had his own ideas about what it meant to speak German.


The more helpful Wilhelm von Humboldt saw language as a necessary condition for the existence of a nation, though not a sufficient one. He further stresses the importance of  ‘[…] the memory of laws and liberties enjoyed in common, of glory won and dangers overcome in common, on the remembrance of a closer alliance, which bound our fathers, and which lives on in their grandson’s yearning.’ I’m uncertain what history books their grandsons read, but if we look away from the internecine and divided past of the germanophone sphere for a moment, I believe a good point is made here. The idea of a common memory, insofar as the proximate past is concerned, makes sense in the context of family stories permeating through the generations and creating in the individual a sense of rootedness. To make the matter more tangible, you could say that because the generations that lived in a given place – roughly  – in the 1970s has told us about their experience of that time, we have a shared memory relating to those stories, naively put. The point here is that this sense of rootedness fuels our sense of belonging, by giving a common set of references with which we can make sense of our similarities and interpret our present age.


It seems to me at first glace that the combination of language and common memory forms a pretty solid bedrock of national identity. And yet we have many cases from history where such a combination goes unrecognised. A poignant example is the poet Heinrich Heine (1797-1856), admired since his own lifetime for his masterly weaving of the German language to describe and poeticise the landscapes of the Harz and Rhine regions. He was born in Düsseldorf and was a self-professed nationalist, but was attacked by others for his Jewish origin and the self-imposed exile to Paris he underwent in order to avoid censorship. The introduction to his epic poem Deutschland. ein Wintermärchen reads not only as a full-on declaration of love to the fatherland, but also a rebuttal to those who ‘sought to vilify [his] good reputation, wearing the mask of patriotism […]’ and called him a ‘despiser’ of said fatherland. Indeed, a curious paradox around the memory of Heine is that the Nazis publicly burned his works, while reprinting them under anonymous authorship. So while the combination of language and common memory was enough for Heine to consider himself part and promoter of the nation, it certainly failed to satisfy other nationalists (even though Heine had converted to Protestantism in 1825). It seems that for them, his ethnic origin or choice of residence disqualified him from taking part in the nation.


That brings us back to the title, because the question of who belongs to the nations begs the question: who lays out the criteria? What I have briefly tried to show here is that there is an initial ground for defining the nation, on which pretty much everyone agrees (language and rootedness being only two cornerstones). Beyond that though, matters can get complicated. A goal for me is to invite readers to think about how they themselves would define the nation, and think critically about the criteria they choose. This is worthwhile especially in view of the powerful re-emergence that nationalist sentiment currently enjoys in politics. Wherever vague or arbitrary delineations of the nation apply, the notion can get hijacked, and just like in the case of Heinrich Heine, this is usually made to exclude.



1Wilhelm Von Humboldt, Werke in fünf Bänden, ed. by Andreas Flitner and Klaus Giel, (Stuttgart, 1964), pp. 302-322.