A Return to the National Question in Eastern Europe: Community in Precarity

*Note: If you’re interested in the origins of Yugoslav nationalism, which this article touches on, I wrote something on it a while back titled “The Croatian Origins of Yugoslav Nationalism and Pan-Slavism.”

Nationalism has made itself increasingly visible in the past decade. Right-wing nationalist parties are organizing themselves throughout Central and Eastern Europe, and with great success. A new bloc is forming, an alliance of right-wing nationalists made up of Poland’s Law and Justice Party, the Hungarian Civil Alliance, the Freedom Party of Austria, and many others. This has placed nationalism squarely at the center of Europe’s current predicament once again.   It seems history is repeating itself but with difference. Eastern Europe once again must come to grips with its national question(s), and must take the corpses out of the closet to ponder once more. A necessary moment of reflection, perhaps, but an all-too-familiar one in lieu of the past century. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the creation of new states, Eastern Europe has been scrambled up once again as it was a century prior. Population politics have returned with new force, and the classical arguments made against them have proved to be all but useless in preventing their rise. The new wave of nationalism is bold, and it makes little natural claims to legitimacy; instead, it is playful, arbitrary, and aware of it. In a post-modern hogwash of competing ideologies, sheer political will triumphs.

I.   The National Question 

The “national question” was one of the prevailing debates within socialist thought in the late 19th and early 20th century. It was also the concern of Western powers who needed to decide how to appease the nationalist aspirations of Eastern Europeans without tipping the scale in their own disfavor. Austria-Hungary and the British Empire grew increasingly concerned the so-called “sick man of Europe,” the Ottoman Empire, and the political fallout of them exiting the southeast European theater. Marxists, however, were one of the few to treat the national question as something other than a case-by-case problem. Liberal scholars treated it as a regional issue, and therefore each respective region had its own “national question,” separate from one another. Of these, there were many – having to do with Poles, Jews, Italian irredentism in Dalmatia, Slavs in Austria-Hungary, Bulgarians, Turks in the Balkans, and many others. Yet, at the time, few of these were understood as being of the same historical trajectory guided by the then-developments of capitalism. They were seen as natural movements which fulfilled a historic promise of community; they were characterized as being previously “repressed, and now they were finally materializing. These nationalist promises were underscored with myths, poetry, and literature. Many of these peoples went through a period of cultural “rediscovery” in the latter-19th century. Languages were codified, and lost cultural artifacts were “found” from which cultural tradition was invented. Remarkably, despite being separately orchestrated to a large extent, these nationalist revivals were occurring at around the same time and in similar patterns.

By the late 19th century, Balkan nationalism became the central question of geopolitics for Europe. For the first time, nationalism and nation-states was viewed as the normative standard for attaining legitimacy in Eastern Europe. The concept of a nation was seen as a natural progression of their respective peoples, and, for them, the prior empires that occupied the Balkans repressed their cultural progress and prevented their peoples from realizing their historical goals. Therefore for Serbian nationalists, to give one example, the creation of the nation-state was seen as the pinnacle of their millennia-long struggle to establish a sovereign space for their peoples. Naturally, this required they determine who was included in this new national identity, and how territory would be parceled between them and other states. The “national question” soon became a central political concern across the Balkans and in all of Eastern Europe.

The argument for the nation-state is that it creates balance and represents parties with distinct cultural interests. The state in this schema is not just an administrative body, but also a cultural guardian, and an assertion of a group’s right to sovereignty and existence. The question that immediately arises when discussing nationalism is: what is the point of divergence between different peoples? Generally speaking, these distinctions are said to be based on blood, religion, or language, and they oftentimes overlap to together form a basal identity.  Yet, the nation-state is a recent development in European history. To have a state, one does not need to necessarily create a nation. As historian Eric Hobsbawm points out, there was a French state before there was anything remotely reminiscent of a “French people” [1]. What developed, however, from these states were nations, and old multi-cultural empires like Austria-Hungary soon led way to smaller, more homogeneous nation-states. These were said to be better representative of their newly-created peoples’ interests. This was the case in Eastern Europe, and the history of empire still weighs heavily on the national question there. The initial wave of national awakening happened post-1848 when liberal nationalism gripped the educated classes who identified as Poles, Croats, Serbs, and others. The respective populations were counted, shuffled around to appease certain demographics, and territories between states became contestable based on its language or culture. I have read scholars treat the history of Eastern European in stages [2] – the first wave until 1914 was anti-imperialist nationalism which had emancipatory potential; what came after was a period of destructive nationalism with violence being committed in Ukraine, Croatia, Poland, Serbia, and elsewhere with the intent of purging perceived foreign elements; and what followed after World War Two was a positive rehabilitation of nationalism. For the Western powers, nationalism was seen as undermining the Soviet Union and was therefore treated in different light in Western and American historiography after World War Two.

However, these are not separate “eras” of nationalism that should be valued irrespective of one another. In his essay Underground, or Ethnic Cleansing as a Continuation of Poetry by Other Means, philosopher Slavoj Zizek pushes back against this notion that “healthy” nationalism can be separated from fanaticism and he cites the Yugoslav wars of secession during the 1990s as a reference point. The so-called “good” nationalism of the late 19th century provided the phantasmic structure that allowed for nationalist fantasies to be played out as violently as they did later on. It is the “healthy” nationalism that structures the nationalist fantasy (what Zizek calls the “dirty water”) and maintains its spiritual purity [3]. To decouple these is to effectively de-historicize it, and leaves the national question unresolved. The West distanced itself from Balkan nationalism to escape the “ethnic bug” of sectarian fanaticism, but their soft nationalism is in fact the opposing side of the same, nationalist violence they were viewing during the wars of Yugoslav secession. This is partly why a Western state cannot properly account for the national question, or even resolve it politically: it affirms its presumptions, and tries to decouple the bad nationalism from the good which leaves the phantasmic structure of nationalism still intact. The nation-state deals with the national question through particulars while it is a question of grander, material history which both “soft” and fanatical, ultra-nationalism are implicated in.

Although modern Western politics has painted liberal democracy and nationalism as oppositional forces, their histories are interwoven with one another. They answer fundamentally different questions: while “democracy is the institutional expression of the tenet of self-rule of the people, nationalism addresses the problem of who are ‘the people’” [4].  Therefore, when liberal historians critique the national question they are in effect also critiquing of a fundamental tenet of their own  ideology. By looking into the Balkans, the Westerner finds solace in their own neutral “soft” nationalism, but they are looking at their own reflection; they are us, and vice-versa. The brazen nationalist politics and violence in the Balkans is merely a replay of the original, national question that Westerners needed to resolve centuries prior. And it was them, too, that created their own homogeneous space, and excluded others, all in the context of liberalism. French philosopher Étienne Balibar, in a 1999 lecture in Thessaloniki, Greece remarked that:

The fate of European identity as a whole is being played out in Yugoslavia and more generally in the Balkans. Europe has two options… either [it] will recognize in the Balkan situation not a monstrosity grafted to its breast, a pathological ‘after-effect’ of underdevelopment or of communism, but rather an image… of its own history, and will undertake to confront it and resolve it and thus to put itself into question and transform itself [5].

Nationalism plays out again and again, repeating with difference, but continues to  reproduce itself because the problems underlying it remain unresolved. We are currently witnessing the new wave of right-wing nationalist politics in Eastern Europe and elsewhere. It repeats because the question of nationalism has yet to be properly answered. Instead, distance has been created between its particular symptoms. When nationalism is treated solely by its particulars, with individual national histories, the assumed distance that is said to exist between each nationalist narrative ends up reproducing the same ambiguity and contradictions continuously – the “dirty water” of nationalism, the perceived good in it, and all the rest.

II.   Ambiguous Spaces

Nation and the VillageLiberal historiographers have naturalized the process of nationalism into a linear, homogeneous trajectory. On the ground, it was a different story and one of sectarianism, negotiation, and forced assimilation. The tension comes from the nature of the nation-state itself, and how it determines who are its “people.” Given that the majority in Eastern Europe and the Balkans were peasants, this oftentimes involved a communication between the upper-classes of their respective societies and the peasant base. Keely Stauter-Halsted in The Nation in the Village: The Genesis of Peasent National Identity in Austrian Poland, 1848 – 1914 uses the region of Galicia as an allegory for other nationalist projects of the time. The creation of nationalism generally took a similar form among all peasant Slavs and others living in Eastern Europe. There needed to be a unified, nationalist front among all classes of the people in question, but this involved correcting the grey areas, regions where nationalist identity was not so clear. These regions were plentiful because the conquered peoples of Eastern Europe oftentimes had a multiplicity of allegiances. Keely Stauter-Halsted calls these “nested identities,” and they oftentimes overlapped. How these people identify, she writes, was based on many different allegiances, and their most immediate one was their local community and dialect. For Austrian Poles, their allegiances were multifold: many had their own nested identities that they clung to including the Austrian state and the Catholic Church [6]. For the peasant living under the rule of an empire in Eastern Europe, the nationalist project involved evoking all of these interwoven identities that rested on “regional, extra-regional, and social attachments” [7]. The goal was to channel them into one cohesive vision that could be adopted as an organizing principle for the new nation-state. Previously, these old, pre-modern identities were not channeled into a particular politics; they only denoted specific kinds of allegiances, and provided social organization on some basic, intelligible level whether it be Catholicism or allegiance to the emperor. And because these identities overlapped, there was intelligibility between them and this made them ripe for appropriation by nationalist politics.

In Galicia, the peasant elite increasingly began articulating the public agenda as the “welfare of the nation” by the late-19th century [8]. However, for the elites and their upper-class allies, the “nation” denoted a much different concept than how it was understood by the majority of the population, the peasantry. Galicia is just a microcosm of a greater process that occurred in Eastern Europe in the latter-half of the 19th century where elites began a long and sustained entry into peasant cultural life, and were constantly negotiating their “patriotic message” with their respective peasant audiences [9]. For many of these peasants, these interactions gave them a glimpse of what would be characterized as modern, civic life, but yet they “still remained rooted in the rituals, customs, and beliefs of ‘premodern’ agricultural communities” [10]. The goal of the educated nationalists was therefore to appropriate many of these images into vague references, and use it to “camouflage the heterogeneous nature of national identity” [11]. Therefore, the most significant rift in early-developing nationalist consciousness was on class lines between the elites and the peasant class. Soon, the discourse they used merged despite being interpreted differently by each class. One such example, Keely Stauter-Halsted writes, was the annual celebration of the 1791 Polish Constitution: for the upper-class, the day signified an “opposition to foreign rule,” but for the peasants it was a time for “staging agrarian rituals around maypoles in the countryside” [12]. The peasants negotiated the meaning of the national vision with their elite counterparts. They rooted them in village traditions and this provided them a basis why they could now associate with the new national character. It became familiar to them. Peasant nationalism spread from village to village, discussed in pubs and local events, and constantly vied for legitimacy among other competing subcultures. And in a “discursive sleight of hand,” elites in Austrian Poland performed peasant folk culture and in their writings spoke of a natural, nationalist consciousness forming; their historiography was one of triumph of a homogeneous group of Poles reaching their true identity [13]. They spoke little of the struggle present on the local level, and the discussions had, and the “nested identities” constantly conflicting with each other. Instead, nationalist historiography was about homogeneous movement forward, and the educated class narrativized peasant nationalism into a justification for sovereignty and a new state of affairs. As the peasants were determining the “nation” on a local level, the elite class was codifying these developments into a clear, historical trajectory.

Many ambiguous spaces existed in Eastern Europe during the late 19th century which became battlegrounds for nationalist politics. Galicia is just one of many. In Jeremy King’s text Budweisers into Czechs and Germans, he writes of the contested space in Southern Bohemia where “for at least seven centuries, [there were] at least three ethnic groups: the Czech majority, a strong German minority, and… a less numerous but nonetheless influential Jewish minority” [14]. It was only “the ninetieth and twentieth century that elevated these relations… to a relationship among modern nations” [15]. King quotes Jörg Hoensch in History of Bohemia in pointing out that German-ness was based not only in culture or religion, but also in perceived common history. The wars of liberation against Napoleon captured the German historical experience, but “it gripped few Germans in Bohemia” [16]. Historiographies of Austria-Hungary, and specifically even Bohemia, have been mostly national histories instead of histories of nationalism. Ethnicity, here, then becomes a predecessor to nations, and nationalism is the outgrowth of natural, ethnic divisions. However, ethnic groups are not “historical antecedents but national products” – and some, like historian Gary Cohen, have gone as far as to argue that, in the case of Czechs and Germans, “socioeconomic standing accounted better than did ethnicity for how residents became national” [17]. Oftentimes, nationalism was adopted by Austria-Hungarian minorities to aspire to political primacy, and it was through political will that Croats, Czechs, and others were able to naturalize their respective nationalisms. They needed to be interpolated as a separate group by an authority, and Austria-Hungary adopted ethnic splits as mode of politics which ultimately undermined its legitimacy.

III.   The National Question after World War One

In the years following World War One, two concepts were pushed in tandem: minority rights and forced deportations. Eric D. Weitz in From the Vienna to the Paris System: International Politics and the Entangled Histories of Human Rights, Forced Deportations, and Civilizing Missions speaks of this development as a transition between the old model of Vienna to the new Paris system. Whereas the Vienna system of states was based on dynastic legacy and sovereignty, the new post-WW1 system had a new geopolitical configuration where each state was a representative of its own homogeneous ethnic space. This distinction was made on two major points: (1) the confounding of ethnicity, nationalism, and sovereignty and (2) “the development of the civilizing mission into a comprehensive program” to boost the numbers of the nation so that it can bee seen as a legitimate state [18]. In the summer of 1919, the Allies needed to deal with a different national question emerging in Eastern Europe with the dissolution of the Habsburg, Ottoman, and Russian empires. The logic of self-determination forced a response, and two solutions emerged: “populations could either be protected or removed” [19]. A population could derive rights from its numbers alone, and the relationship between nationalist violence and the protection of minorities in Europe parallel each other in 20th century history. Weitz specifically writes of the Greek-Bulgarian exchange promulgated by the then Greek prime minister, Eleutherios Venizelos. In 1913, he proposed “the notion of moving around hundreds of thousands of people to create homogenous states” so that the political lines were drawn in the “exact accordance… or approximate accordance… [of the] limits of their ethnical domain.” From this, the “Society of Nations [would] be created” [20].


Nationalist politics in Eastern Europe soon turned against its neighbors as they struggled to define who their “people” were and came to a head on the eve of World War One. This is a propagandized postcard of that time illustrated by Alexander Bozhinov (Александър Божинов). The postcard depicts a satirical caricature of Bulgarian soldier hanging Greek, Serbian, Romanian, and French enemy soldiers like laundry.

The Western response to the national question after World War One was to naturalize these relationships between nation-states through legal means. It created international, rights-based protections for minorities, while also allowing for states to determine their own homogeneous spaces. This proved politically unstable as many of the newly-created Eastern European nations had heterogeneous populations and the influx of refugees from Russia, Turkey, and elsewhere created an international policy of minority protection by the League of Nations which soon became unenforceable by the 1930s because of sheer numbers.  There was a large influx of stateless people who, without belonging to a nation-state, effectively had no rights. Through peace treaties, Western powers attempted to regulate peoples in Eastern Europe by offering a model of minority rights. The old nation-states of the West were themselves, though, unable to grapple with the problem of minority status in their own liberal states, and it remained “even more doubtful whether it could be imported in an area which lacked the very conditions for the rise of nation-states” [21].

From the Baltic to the Adriatic Sea, there was a belt of mixed populations [22]. In Latvia, a quarter of the population was a minority ethnic group; twenty percent were minorities in Lithuania; in Czechoslovakia, a quarter was German; and within the borders of Poland, only 70% were ethnically considered Polish [23]. Some regions became ethnically ambiguous, such as Czech Silesia, Transylvania, and Macedonia which was a contested space between Serbs, Bulgarians, and Greeks [24]. In the West, identification transitioned from religious identity to cultural affiliation and citizenship after the bourgeois revolutions of the 18th and 19th century; however, Eastern Europe maintained a religious-national consciousness, where Catholic Poles could differentiate themselves from Protestant Germans or Orthodox Russians. These relationships were intensified after World War One, but the conflict between these groups had been present in peasant life in the region for at least a century. Economic stratification soon took on the form of these identities where Estonian and Latvian peasants worked for German barons, or Ukrainian minorities worked for Polish lords [25]. The slippage between class and nationality became the instigator of pogroms where these two concepts confounded to spark violence. The 1907 peasant revolts in Moldavia began as an anti-Semitic riot in the northern part of the region before expanding into protests against the land-owning class more broadly. Other identities were recuperated into class antagonisms as ethnic conflicts took on a class dimension but played themselves out as nationalist violence.

IV.   The Current Wave of Population Politics

With the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the national question has once again reappeared in Eastern Europe after the lid was kept on it for decades. It was not as if during Soviet occupation such questions were not asked, but nationalist politics were effectively frozen for decades. Much had changed during this time, however. After World War Two, the border between Western and Eastern Europe effectively “shifted several hundred kilometers to the west, and several nations that had always considered themselves to be Western woke up to discover that they were now in the East” [26]. Now, they are independent states, and these perceived wrongs could be corrected.  Since the 90s, questions of nationalism have thawed in Eastern Europe and have once again entered popular discourse. The old, nationalist population politics of the late 19th and early 20th century have reappeared, yet now they come as alarmist and dire because of perceived cultural loss. The national question was left unresolved, and has now reappeared with ressentiment. The current wave has been instigated by reasons other than ones that pushed it during the turn of the 20th century. Russian diaspora politics has been revitalized by Russian nationalism and its reach is felt in Ukraine, Latvia, Moldova, Georgia, and other ex-Soviet states that still have sizable Russian minorities. Diaspora politics more generally have become a crucial political tool for ruling powers in Eastern Europe especially in light of falling birthrates post-1989. Croatia, for example, used diaspora politics in the 1990s to grant ethnic Croats living abroad in Bosnia and elsewhere proper citizenship and voting right – ultimately, pushing the Croatian nationalist party HDZ over the edge and to victory [27]. In 1999, the right-wing coalition in Poland reached out to ethnic Poles in Ukraine and Lithuania through citizenship and immigration policy to spur tourism, investment, and economic growth [28]. This new wave of Eastern European nationalism based on diasporic kin has created a “cross-border [network] of interdependent and patronage between homeland states and diaspora elites” while also increasing the potential of “inter-ethnic tensions” [29]. Kinship on ethnic ground forges ties within communities and minorities of other nation-states which ultimately empowers secessionist politics. The political ramifications of diaspora politics are strongly felt in Macedonia and Kosovo where the national question has led to cultural disputes over historical narratives and whether a region that is significantly Albanian is justified in being allowed to join Albania [30].

In the early 20th century, nationalism was justified by empiricism and perceived natural difference. It was made into a science, and it could be scrutinized as such. Now, however, we have reached a different form of nationalism – one which, increasingly, cannot be discredited by the mere fact that it is arbitrary. The mono-ideology of Sovietism has collapsed, and many individual nationalist ideologies have come to reclaim their place of power. We live today in a world of relativistic difference, of many competing narratives, none of which are deemed “correct.” Post-modernism provides coverage for all of these previously bastardized ideologies — nationalists, ethnic purists, traditionalists, etc., because it raises the floor for all of them. They are all fighting on the same turf, because post-modernism privileges none of them. The only aspect that makes nationalism “real” is its political will. This is even demonstrated in an old Slavic myth about Vladimir the Great. It is said that in the year 987, Vladimir sent envoys to study the religions of the world to pick one for his people. Islam was undesirable because of its taboos on alcohol and pork; Jews had lost Jerusalem, and therefore they were God’s abandoned children; and Catholicism was too dull (surprisingly). He settled on Eastern Orthodox Christianity because its festivals had a phantasmic quality… “We no longer knew whether we were in heaven or on earth” [31]. The choice was arbitrary, but it was the historical precedent thereafter that linked Orthodoxy with the Russian ethnicity. How could one argue against an identity when its adherents recognize its arbitrariness? Within this nationalist fantasy lies something deeper that cannot be accounted for with reason alone.

The Eastern European attachment to nationalism has many origins, but in the current era, it is characterized by cultural anxiety over declining status and the precarity of workers in Eastern Europe. This instability necessitates a need for community, one which is satisfied by nationalism. If nationalism cannot be accounted for by reason alone, then we must diagnose the forces that push individuals into these categories. In their precarity, nationalism provides community. Although arbitrary, there are clear historical trajectories that underscore nationalism as an ideology and grant it an actually-existing justification. And even when Vladimir the Great was choosing a religion for his people, a political calculation was made amidst it all. It was not only that Orthodoxy was aesthetically beautiful for him, but Byzantine impressed him as a political system and as a power. It was geopolitically beneficial for Orthodoxy to be pinned to Russian identity, and the historical forces placed its peoples into this constructed category. Although nationalism now requires no “objective” narrative to derive legitimacy, the material conditions ultimately provide that narrative. History thus pushes us and provides the actually-existing justification for narratives that would have previously been unfounded. The social forces are too great to be undermined by their arbitrariness, for what makes Russian nationalism any less arbitrary than Western liberalism? Any criticism of Eastern European nationalism on these grounds ultimately ends up reflecting back the arbitrary construction of Western nation-states. The national question, thus, cannot be resolved by appealing to its Western reflection; the creation of rights-based politics and protections during the 20th century merely naturalized nationalism’s historical trend, and tried to decouple “soft” nationalism from its true, fanatical base. Instead, ethnic and national categories must be decoupled from their socioeconomic origins; it is only by addressing the precarity of modern labor, and the anxiety it brings, can the community be rehabilitated beyond just nationalism.


[1]  Eric Hobsbawm, Nations and Nationalism since 1780: Programme, Myth, Reality (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1990), Chapter II, 80–81.
[2] Yugoslav scholars oftentimes rehabilitated nationalist anti-imperialist struggle against the Austria-Hungarians by describing it as “good nationalism.” For a more concrete example, I cite Thomas T. Hammond’s article Nationalism and National Minorities in Eastern Europe in the Journal of International Affairs, Vol. 20, No. 1 (1966), on pages 9-31 who makes this exact argument.
[3] Slavoj Zizek. Underground, or Ethnic Cleansing as a Continuation of Poetry by Other Means (InterCommunications, 18: 1997).
[4]  Pavel Barša, “Ethnocultural Justice in East European States and the Case of the Czech Roma” in Can Liberal Pluralism Be Exported?: Western Political Theory and Ethnic Relations in Eastern Europe (Oxford University Press: 2002), 243.
[5] Tanja Petrovic. Thinking Europe without Thinking: Neo-colonial Discourse on and in the Western Balkans. (Eurozine: 2007). Web: http://www.eurozine.com/articles/2011-09-22-petrovic-en.html
[6] Keely Stauter-Halsted writes that even well into the beginning of the 20th century, there were still Poles who resisted the nation-state and still referred to themselves as the “emperor’s people.”
[7] Keely Stauter-Halsted. The Nation in the Village: The Genesis of Peasent National Identity in Austrian Poland, 1848 – 1914 (Cornell University Press: 2004), 8.
[8] Ibid., 3.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Ibid., 4.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Ibid., 5.
[14] Jeremy King. Budweisers into Czechs and Germans (Princeton University Press: 2002), 6.
[15] Ibid.
[16] Ibid.
[17] Ibid., 9.
[18] Eric D. Weitz. From the Vienna to the Paris System: International Politics and the Entangled Histories of Human Rights, Forced Deportations, and Civilizing Missions. (American Historical Review: December, 2008), 1315.
[19] Ibid., 1329.
[20] Ibid., 1335.
[21] Hannah Ardent. The Origins of Totalitarianism. (Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1st edition: 1973), 268.
[22] Hannah Ardent. The Origins of Totalitarianism, 270.
[23] Ivan T. Berend. Decades of Crisis: Central and Eastern Europe before World War II (University of California Press: 2001), 43.
[24] Ibid.
[25] Ibid., 45.
[26] Milan Kundera. The Tragedy of Central Europe. (New York Review of Books Volume 31, Number 7: 1984), 1.
[27] Myra A. Waterbury. From Irredentism to Diaspora Politics: States and Transborder Ethnic Groups in Eastern
Europe (Center for Global Studies: July, 2009), 4.
[28] Ibid.
[29] Ibid., 7.
[30] Ibid.
[31] Marvin Kalb. Imperial Gamble: Putin, Ukraine, and the New Cold War (Brookings Institution Press: 2015), ch. 4.


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