As I wrote last time, nationalism essentially arose in the 19C as a way-station on the road to globalization. As human societies became more interconnected, secular, and democratic, traditional local identities were being squeezed and regional elites leveraged this angst to regroup power structures on a larger scale. Nationalism was seen as a forward-thinking ideology.
And as is common in human societies, innovation becomes conventional and then reactionary (yeah, I know, a good historian shouldn’t spout such gross generalizations, but…) By the late 20C, those local elites—whether in the West or post-colonial contexts—were well entrenched in their larger zones of influence, but the onward push of technology and globalization increasingly shifted the scale and scope of economics and culture to a larger plane. Good burghers—members of the local textile guild—hated it when Bismarck consolidated Germany in the late 19C, as did, mutatis mutandis, zamindars (tax collectors) in pre-Raj India. Their descendants are now adherents of the Alternative fur Deutschland or the increasingly-intolerant Hindu-driven BJP in India; not too concerned about preserving local culture, but much more focused on preventing globalizing integration and assimilation and the dissolution of national culture.
All this nationalist clamoring is anthropological/historical nonsense. Ultimately, we all trace our lineage back to Africa (actually, east Africa, actually probably Kenya or Tanzania). At the same time that Trumpians are concerned about a few years of Salvadoreans migrating to the US, we should remember that it took humans several hundred thousand years to spread around the globe. (So much for human terroir!) A combination of contingency and environment created different cultures and languages. And the movement of peoples didn’t stop there. Waves of migration—voluntary or forced—have recurred ever since. These changes were sufficiently long ago and slow enough that we have to look closely to trace their components. Ethno-linguistics and anthropological DNA mapping can tell us a lot about what kinds of mongrels we all are.
The only difference in claims to “nationality” is timing. After all, according to the “birthers” (from the controversy 13 years ago), Obama was born in Kenya and came here in the ‘60s. Whereas, all us other “good, patriotic ‘Muricans’” actually came from Kenya in various stages over the past 150,000 years. Indeed, we are all African-Americans.
The thing about nationalists is that they have taken a snapshot of a group of people from a certain period and declared “WE are the [fill-in-the-blank] people!” Wherever you were when the photo was taken is what counts. It wouldn’t matter if “your people” lived on the banks of the Vistula or the Rhone for hundreds of years, if you moved to Bavaria before the 19C, you could count yourself as German from then on (Roma and Jews excepted).
Roman citizens from 2100 years ago fought against their brethren—for example, as French against the English--from 1000 years ago until 120 years ago. Scandinavian nobility shuffled kingdoms between Denmark, Norway, and Sweden for hundreds of years. The British have been ruled by Germans (The Houses of Hanover, Saxe-Coburg (until they took a friendlier, English name during WWI)). The hodge-podge of Hispano-indigenous blends in South America didn’t claim/discover/ invent nationality until they were throwing the Spanish out in the 19C. Most African chiefdoms didn’t understand or care about this European-imported ideology until they were forced into colonial administrative structures (of split in two by a line drawn by the British/French/German/Portuguese) in the late 19C. Most current African political crises are functions of disputes between such traditional groups being fought out within the forced framework of Eurocartography. The fact that few African polities fit the “nation” model is more an indictment of the model than of the peoples on whom it was imposed.
This “freeze-frame” mentality to nationality was reinforced in most cases by the construction of culture around the identity. Languages in the largest city in a “nation” leveraged the rise of the mass press to become standardized national tongues and local dialects, Breton, Gaelic, Bavarian, Cantonese, Tamil, etc. were pushed to the sidelines. New traditions were invented: national holidays and parades, symbols and ideas such as Scottish tartans (early 19C) and Bastille Day in France (invented in 1880 to solidify support for the 3d Republic in the aftermath of being beaten a few years earlier by the Germans). We can see the latest manifestation of all this in the differing Russian and Ukrainian perspectives on nationality and nationalism
[You can read about this process in these excellent history books: Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities; Eric Hobsbawm, The Invention of Tradition; and Eugen Weber, Peasants into Frenchmen, among others.]
So, here in the 21C, nationalism morphs into a reactionary ideology in the face of a tide of globalization. We have shifted our identities broadly from the local to the regional/national and we cling to them as migration, trade, and instantly-communicated culture makes geography less relevant. Just as national elites emerged in the 19C to create or co-opt sensibilities, so do 21C cosmopolitan elites act, move, and think on a global plane (yes, the “jet set”). Despite the media chatter about the revival of nationalism, it seems difficult to imagine a relapse into autarky (but so, too, they thought just before WWI).
Still, nationalism retains a powerful sense of comfort of tribe and identity in the face of the cold, ineluctable momentum of modern capitalism. As with other stories, sometimes the facts get pushed to the side and mythology holds sway until, eventually, it is punctured and collapses.