Jaideep A Prabhu
Zwischen Humanität und Nationalität: Herder’s “Volk” and Ethnic Nationalism
This article originally appeared in centreright.in. CRI content has now been subsumed in swarajyamag.com. The views expressed here are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of the editors of swarajyamag.com

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I believe in roots, in associations, in backgrounds, in personal relationships…my music now has its roots in where I live and where I work – Benjamin Britten

Die Denkart macht die Menschen, nicht die Gesellschaft; wo jene da ist, formt und stimmt sich diese von selbst – Johann Gottfried von Herder


“Imagined communities” is the favoured description of nations among historians today. Imagined, because it is impossible to know personally every member of the community one believes oneself to be a part of, and community, because there is an implied bond between oneself and others in this imagination. Ernest Gellner defines a nation as a body of individuals that have been initiated into a common high culture by the processes of industrialization and the institutions of modernity.[1] This primarily cultural definition emphasizes the crucial role “of the transition from agrarian to industrial society” as the key constitutive event in the life of the nation since it is only then “that culture ceases to be the device that defines specific social positions…and becomes, instead, the boundary demarcation of large and internally mobile social unity, within which individuals have no fixed position and are rotated in the light of the requirements of production.”[2] Benedict Anderson echoes Gellner’s description of the nation, characterizing it, famously, as a limited, sovereign “imagined community” that came into being with the advent of print capitalism, the death of traditional religions and their idioms, and the shared colonial experience that provided a cement of sorts for new national groups as well as the colonizer nations themselves.[3]

Another group of scholars, by far the minority, believe that the nation seems to represent continuity rather than rupture with the past as Anderson and Gellner imply. Miroslav Hroch, a well-known scholar of European nationalism, defines nation as “a large social group integrated…by a combination of several kinds of objective relationships…and their subjective reflection in collective consciousness”. These relationships include:

(1) a memory of some common past, treated as a ‘destiny’ of the group…(2) a density of linguistic or cultural ties enabling a higher degree of social communication within the group than beyond it; [and] (3) a conception of the equality of all members of the group organized as a civil society.[4]

Although the national unit is here characterized by social and political relationships, it is still a subject that exists a priori and must be endowed with the characteristics of nationhood. In fact, Hroch’s dynamic account of nation-development presupposes the nation as the subject of a “linear, teleological model of Enlightenment History” and implies the inevitability of its development in the modern era.[5] In a similar way, Anthony Smith also affirms the existence of the nation as a subject, situating its origins in the existence of ethnic communities (ethnies) that share the following attributes:

  1. a collective proper name
  2. a myth of common ancestry
  3. shared historical memories
  4. one or more differentiating elements of common culture
  5. an association with a specific homeland
  6. a sense of solidarity for significant portions of the population[6]

Clearly both Hroch and Smith locate the materials for the building of a nation in its mythic past and, while not denying the created-ness of the nation, they affirm the nation’s continuity and its material existence.

This line of thought has been traditionally considered to have emanated fro Johann Gottfried von Herder’s notions of Volk, Geist des Volkes, Seele des Volkes, or more empirically, Nationalcharakter. However, in the last decade or so, scholars have read Herder’s works more closely and are beginning to argue that Herder did not attempt to define an ethnic, fixed, nation that followed racial characters closely. This argument has been forwarded by F.M. Barnard, Isaiah Berlin, and John Zammito among others. I propose in this post, in opposition to recent scholarship, that Herder did indeed try to crystallise a “national form” that was constantly evolving. However, I concur with the latest research on Herder that there is no inclination of the desire to set up a political institution like the modern state in Herder’s thoughts. Therefore, to read Herder as a nationalist is perhaps accurate but to define that term (nationalist) in the manner many modern historians of nationalism have is blatantly wrong. Herder probably did not believe that nationalism as is understood by the majority of academics today was modern. Hence it is unlikely that Herder could be of his own volition the father of modern ethnic nationalism. It is Herder’s search for the eternal Geist that makes him a Romantic figure, delving into amorphous ideas and gefühl. This was perfect fodder for the monstrous distortions of Herder’s ideas by latter day nationalists.

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