The nation-state is a certain form of state that derives its political legitimacy from serving as a sovereign entity for a nation as a sovereign territorial unit. The state is a political and geopolitical entity; the nation is a cultural and/or ethnic entity. The term "nation-state" implies that the two geographically coincide, and this distinguishes the nation state from the other types of state, which historically preceded it.
Due to ambiguities in the word state, for instance in the United States, the term nation-state is also used to mean any sovereign state, whether or not its political boundaries coincide with ethnic and cultural ones. The usage appears to arise from an attempt to distinguish an independent sovereign state from a federal state — that is a subordinate member of a federal system — such as a U.S. State. Ambiguities in the usage of terms such as nation, international, state, and country, are discussed at Nation.
History and origins
The origins and early history of nation-states are disputed. A major theoretical issue is: "which came first— the nation or the nation state?" For nationalists themselves, the answer is that the nation existed first, nationalist movements arose to present its legitimate demand for sovereignty, and the nation-state met that demand. Some "modernisation theories" of nationalism see the national identity largely as a product of government policy, to unify and modernise an already existing state. Most theories see the nation state as a 19th-century European phenomenon, facilitated by developments such as mass literacy and the early mass media. However, historians also note the early emergence of a relatively unified state, and a sense of common identity, in Portugal and the Dutch Republic.
In France, Eric Hobsbawm argues, the French state preceded the formation of the French people. Hobsbawm considers that the state made the French nation, and not French nationalism, which emerged at the end of the 19th century, the time of the Dreyfus Affair. At the time of the 1789 French Revolution, only half of the French people spoke some French, and between 12% to 13% spoke it "fairly", according to Hobsbawm. During Italian unification, the number of people speaking the Italian language was even lower. The French state promoted the unification of various dialects and languages into the French language. The introduction of conscription, and the Third Republic's 1880s laws on public instruction, facilitated the creation of a national identity, under this theory.
The theorist Benedict Anderson argues that nations are "imagined communities" (the members cannot possibly know each other), and that the main causes of nationalism and the creation of an imagined community are the reduction of privileged access to particular script languages (e.g. Latin), the movement to abolish the ideas of divine rule and monarchy, as well as the emergence of the printing press under a system of capitalism (or, as Anderson calls it, "print-capitalism"). The "state-driven" theories of the origin of nation-states tend to emphasise a few specific states, such as France and its rival England. These states expanded from core regions, and developed a national consciousness and sense of national identity ("Frenchness" and "Englishness"). Both assimilated peripheral regions (Wales, Brittany, Aquitaine and Occitania); these areas experienced a revival of interest in the regional culture in the 19th century, leading to the creation of autonomist movements in the 20th century.
Some nation-states, such as Germany or Italy, came into existence at least partly as a result of political campaigns by nationalists, during the nineteenth century. In both cases, the territory was previously divided among other states, some of them very small. The sense of common identity was at first a cultural movement, such as in the Völkisch movement in German-speaking states, which rapidly acquired a political significance. In these cases, the nationalist sentiment and the nationalist movement clearly precede the unification of the German and Italian nation-states.
Historians Hans Kohn, Liah Greenfeld, Philip White, and others have classified nations such as Germany or Italy- where cultural unification preceded state unification- as ethnic nations, or ethnic nationalities. Whereas 'state-driven' national unifications, such as in France, England, or China, are more likely to flourish in multiethnic societies, producing a traditional national heritage of civic nations, or territory-based nationalities.
The idea of a nation-state is associated with the rise of the modern system of states— often called the "Westphalian system" in reference to the Treaty of Westphalia (1648). The balance of power, which characterises that system, depends for its effectiveness upon clearly defined, centrally controlled, independent entities, whether empires or nation states, which recognise each other's sovereignty and territory. The Westphalian system did not create the nation state, but the nation state meets the criteria for its component states (assuming that there is no disputed territory).
The nation-state received a philosophical underpinning in the era of Romanticism, at first as the 'natural' expression of the individual peoples (romantic nationalism — see Fichte's conception of the Volk, which would be later opposed by Ernest Renan). The increasing emphasis during the 19th century, on the ethnic and racial origins of the nation, led to a redefinition of the nation-state in these terms. Racism, which in Boulainvilliers's theories was inherently antipatriotic and antinationalist, joined itself with colonialist imperialism and "continental imperialism", most notably in pan-Germanic and pan-Slavic movements. This relation between racism and ethnic nationalism reached its height in the fascist and Nazi movements of the 20th century. The specific combination of 'nation' ('people') and 'state' expressed in such terms as the Völkische Staat and implemented in laws such as the 1935 Nuremberg laws made fascist states such as early Nazi Germany qualitatively different from non-fascist nation-states. Obviously, minorities, who are not part of the Volk, have no authentic or legitimate role in such a state. In Germany, neither Jews nor the Roma were considered part of the Volk, and specifically targeted for persecution. However German nationality law defined 'German' on the basis of German ancestry, excluding all non-Germans from the 'Volk'.
In recent years, the nation-state's claim to absolute sovereignty within its borders has been much criticised. A global political system based on international agreements, and supra-national blocs characterized the post-war era. Non-state actors, such as international corporations and non-governmental organizations, are widely seen as eroding the economic and political power of nation-states, leading to their eventual disappearance.
In Europe, in the eighteenth century, the classic non-national states were the multi-ethnic empires, (the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Russian Empire, the Ottoman Empire, the French Empire, the British Empire), and smaller states at what would now be called sub-national level. The multi-ethnic empire was a monarchy ruled by a king, emperor, or Sultan. The population belonged to many ethnic groups, and they spoke many languages. The empire was dominated by one ethnic group, and their language was usually the language of public administration. The ruling dynasty was usually, but not always, from that group. This type of state is not specifically European: such empires existed on all continents. Some of the smaller European states were not so ethnically diverse, but were also dynastic states, ruled by a royal house. Their territory could expand by royal intermarriage, or merge with another state when the dynasty merged. In some parts of Europe, notably Germany, very small territorial units existed. They were recognised by their neighbours as independent, and had their own government and laws. Some were ruled by princes or other hereditary rulers, some were governed by bishops or abbots. Because they were so small, however, they had no separate language or culture: the inhabitants shared the language of the surrounding region.
In some cases these states were simply overthrown by nationalist uprisings in the 19th century. Some older nation-states, such as England and France seem to have grown by accretion of smaller entities, such as city states, before the 19th century, or chiefdoms earlier in history. Liberal ideas of free trade played a role in German unification, which was preceded by a customs union, the Zollverein. However, the Austro-Prussian War, and the German alliances in the Franco-Prussian War, were decisive in the unification. The Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Ottoman Empire broke up after the First World War, the Russian Empire became the Soviet Union, after the long Russian Civil War.
Some of the smaller states survived: the independent principalities of Liechtenstein, Andorra, and Monaco, and the republic of San Marino. The Vatican City is not a survival, although there was a larger Papal State. In its present form, it was created by the 1929 Lateran treaties between Italy and the Roman Catholic Church.
Characteristics of the nation-state
Nation states have their own characteristics, differing from those of the pre-national states. For a start, they have a different attitude to their territory, compared to the dynastic monarchies: it is semi-sacred, and non-transferable. No nation would swap territory with other states simply, for example, because the king's daughter got married. They have a different type of border, in principle defined only by the area of settlement of the national group, although many nation states also sought natural borders (rivers, mountain ranges).
The most noticeable characteristic is the degree to which nation-states use the state as an instrument of national unity, in economic, social and cultural life.
The nation-state promoted economic unity, first by abolishing internal customs and tolls. In Germany this process- the creation of the Zollverein- preceded formal national unity. Nation states typically have a policy to create and maintain a national transportation infrastructure, facilitating trade and travel. In 19th century Europe, the expansion of the rail transport networks was at first largely a matter for private railway companies, but gradually came under control of the national governments. The French rail network, with its main lines radiating from Paris to all corners of France, is often seen as a reflection of the centralised French nation-state, which directed its construction. Nation states continue to build, for instance, specifically national motorway networks. Specifically trans-national infrastructure programmes, such as the Trans-European Networks, are a recent innovation.
The nation-states typically had a more centralised and uniform public administration than its imperial predecessors: they were smaller, and the population less diverse. (The internal diversity of, for instance, the Ottoman Empire was very great). After the 19th century triumph of the nation-state in Europe, regional identity was subordinate to national identity, in regions such as Alsace-Lorraine, Catalonia, Brittany, Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica. In many cases, the regional administration was also subordinated to central (national) government. This process was partially reversed from the 1970s onward, with the introduction of various forms of regional autonomy, in formerly centralised states such as France.
However, the most obvious impact of the nation-state, as compared to its non-national predecessors, is the creation of a uniform national culture, through state policy. The model of the nation-state implies that its population constitutes a nation, united by a common descent, a common language, and many forms of shared culture. When the implied unity was absent, the nation-state often tried to create it. It promoted a uniform national language, through language policy. The creation of national systems of compulsory primary education and a relatively uniform curriculum in secondary schools, was the most effective instrument in the spread of the national languages. The schools also taught the national history, often in a propagandistic and mythologised version, and (especially during conflicts) some nation-states still teach this kind of history.
Language and cultural policy was sometimes negative, aimed at the suppression of non-national elements. Language prohibitions were sometimes used to accelerate the adoption of national languages, and the decline of minority languages, see Germanisation.
In some cases these policies triggered bitter conflicts and further ethnic separatism. But where it worked, the cultural uniformity and homogeneity of the population increased. Conversely, the cultural divergence at the border became sharper: in theory, a uniform French identity extends from the Atlantic coast to the Rhine, and on the other bank of the Rhine, a uniform German identity begins. To enforce that model, both sides have divergent language policy and educational systems, although the linguistic boundary is in fact well inside France, and the Alsace region changed hands four times between 1870 and 1945.