What is the concept of the nation

Discussion about the concept of the nation stateNew pleadings for a liberal national consciousness

John Lennon sang "Imagine" in 1971. Imagine there are no countries, no religions, but the world would become one. Lennon creates the vision of a peaceful world based on solidarity. The counter model to a world full of limits, full of envy, aggression and competition. A world where there is nothing to kill or die for.

"If you are trying to build a democratic Europe now, national identity is certainly the least important thing," claims the Austrian writer Robert Menasse. And: "According to all that we know from history of the great crimes in the name of the nation, the concept of the nation has actually been done away with."

The Austrian writer Robert Menasse is a vehement critic of the nation state idea (dpa / Andreas Arnold)

If you follow the discourses of left-liberal intellectuals in particular, then nation-states are outdated. Since their formation, especially in the 19th century, they mainly sowed strife. The unity within corresponded to an often aggressive, even warlike demarcation to the outside - against those who do not belong, the adversaries, the enemies. De-nationalization seems to be the answer to such historical experiences.

That is why, for example, in 2018 Robert Menasse and political scientist Ulrike Guerot proclaimed the "European Republic". Only when the borders between the nations fell, according to Ulrike Guerot, the "masculine - nation-state, war, power, military" no longer dominated. Rather, Europe - and ultimately the whole world - could become a "post-national (n) matriarchy". In a commercial for this idea, Ulrike Guerot said:

"The nation state must be abolished in Europe, because we want a European democracy. That is why we have to understand that the nation is not the bearer of identity at all."

The nation as a discontinued model

"As part of a modernization theory, it was assumed that the nations would sooner or later dissolve on their own on the way to a cosmopolitan world society," summarized Aleida Assmann, professor emeritus for English and general literature in a lecture at the ORF Radiokulturhaus in Vienna . "Modernization theorists, technocrats, managers, but also left-wing intellectuals shared an image of history in which the nation says goodbye to history."

(dpa / picture alliance / Horst Galuschka) Aleida Assmann on cultural memory
The Germans started to remember late. But you have to find a common history of the past in order to be able to live together in a society, said the Peace Prize winner of the German Book Trade 2018 in the Dlf.

"The idea of ​​the nation had a historical beginning and like everything that has a beginning in history it will have an end," writes Robert Menasse. Nation states are not based on a natural order, but are artificial constructs. And that means: You are not without alternatives.

New pleadings for the nation state

"Sure, you have to understand, nations are not just there, nations are made. And that is why it is of course possible to deconstruct nations as a social construction. But should we deconstruct them? That depends. When it comes to racist ones It is absolutely necessary to expose fantasies of superiority. But historically nations are not only responsible for crimes. They also stand for community cohesion. "

Michael Bröning wrote the book "Praise the Nation" in 2018. With his praise, the head of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation in New York and member of the SPD Fundamental Values ​​Commission turned against both the widespread paradigm of the "post-national" and against the reinvention of Europe as a "continent without nations". His plea for the nation state caught on. Last year Aleida Assmann published her book "The Re-Invention of the Nation". And in the United States, Harvard historian Jill Lepore's manifesto "This America. Manifesto for a Better Nation" was published last summer.

The concept of nation was left to the right

What the books have in common is the recognition that the left's lack of interest in the nation primarily strengthened the political right, which was able to claim the concept of a nation for itself.

"In our liberal thinking we forgot the nation, but illiberal thinkers and their movements did exactly the opposite. Right-wing nationalisms have loudly returned to the public and are now spreading across the EU."

(imago images / photothek) Controversy between Ulrike Guérot and Michael Bröning: Does the nation state have a future?
Migration, data protection, climate change, social division: sometimes global problems seem almost insoluble. Has the nation state become an obstacle to answering transnational questions - or the only reasonable model?

Right-wing populist politicians and parties are calling for tough national interest politics against the cosmopolitan visions of the left. In addition, however, as Michael Bröning points out, these cosmopolitan visions are not supported by the majority of the population. The vast majority of Europeans define themselves through their national identity.

German discomfort with the nation not representative

Only among Germans is this national awareness - somewhat - less widespread. This suggests that, of all things, the post-national perspective of cosmopolitan Germans contains a surprisingly national component. Because of their fatal history, the Germans are particularly anti-national. And this is linked to the question:

"To what extent is it permissible to transfer the noticeable discomfort of Germans with the nation to Europe and, in view of German history, to stigmatize a concept that in other contexts was not a weapon of murder but a protective shield? If you look at Poland, there it is Historically speaking, the nation-state has not appeared as an aggressor, but as a protective shield.

In the states attacked by Germany in World War II, the term nation has a positive connotation (dpa / Leszek Szymanski / PAP)

Nation as a "solidarity generator"

In addition, democratic decisions are still tied to national parliaments. And supranational organizations - not least the EU - often suffer from a "democratic deficit". All of this raises the question of whether the nation-state is perhaps better than its reputation. "Why we fear the nation", also the subtitle of Aleida Assmann's book, is clear to many. But the answer to the question "Why do we need them" is missing. Michael Bröning gives an answer:

"If there is nothing that unites us as citizens, that unites us as a cosmopolitan nation, if we feel as free-floating individuals, why should we pay for the state financial equalization, why should we be interested in the flood disaster on the Oder? People are less willing to do that when it crosses the national border. "

The nation even acts as a "solidarity generator", describes the political scientist Herfried Münkler. And whoever wants to dissolve national identities therefore ultimately promotes de-solidarization. The same also applies, says Michael Bröning, when open borders are called for in the migration debate. Because he fears that this could intensify competition for education, work and living space, especially for the less well-off in society.

More threats come from failed states

And global problems such as climate change cannot be solved at national level alone, but even less only at the level of supranational organizations. According to Bröning's conclusion, the world today is not suffering from too much statehood, but from too little. The current threats today come primarily from so-called "failed states" - failed states - which are no longer able to fulfill their basic tasks. And that means:

"If you look at the map of the world, then, with the best will in the world, it cannot be about overcoming national statehood. Instead, we have to be about establishing effective statehood around the world."

The idea of ​​a liberal nation

Instead of leaving the defense of the nation-state to the right, it is time for the liberal left to develop an idea of ​​the nation. One, however, that is not characterized by striving for supremacy, chauvinism and exclusion, as demonstrated by ex-President Trump with his "America first" policy.

"The United States is really an idea that we have in common. It contains a number of obligations - to equality and justice and freedom. And if we do not uphold these ideas, we are very little bound to one another."

(C. H. Beck Verlag / Deutschlandradio) Jill Lepore: "These truths"
In a brilliant study, the historian Jill Lepore writes the history of the USA from Christopher Columbus to Donald Trump. It shows that the current political polarization is not new, but has accompanied the nation from the beginning.

In her "Manifesto for a Better Nation", the American historian Jill Lepore recalls the darker sides of American history - slavery, the oppression of the Indians and racial segregation. And yet American nationalism and liberalism are formed from "the same raw material". Because the USA was, as one of its founding fathers, Thomas Paine called it, founded as "an asylum for humanity". As a "liberal nation to which everyone who shares their civic ideals belongs". This liberal nationalism is today captured by illiberals and racists. And that is what must be combated, but not nationalism itself.

Human national thought instead of a male-warlike ideology

"Nations in themselves are never brutal or civil, only in terms of their cultural programs." For Aleida Assmann, the nation per se does not exist. Instead, nations are shaped by narratives that give them a concrete shape. In the 19th and early 20th centuries Europe sacralized the nation, rose into a "national religion" with the hope of renewing the continent through violence. Such "thymotic" - that is, carried by a masculine warlike spirit - energy must be tamed so that a humane national idea can develop its strength.

"Do you choose thymotic pride or antithymotic human dignity? What do you declare to be sacred, the nation, the collective, the state or the individual? It is time for us to associate positive values ​​and ideas with the nation and ourselves in the Actively use times of political danger for this. "

Aleida Assmann 2019 at the memorial service for the victims of flight and displacement (dpa)

Cultural identity as the basis for integration

Aleida Assmann paints a picture of a nation that is not based on ethnic homogeneity. But it also warns against the coexistence of self-contained minorities. The nation definitely needs a cultural identity that serves as the basis for a mutual approach and which makes integration possible in the first place.

"The nation is also something like a bracket for integration offers. So the moment you come in from outside people, they want to know in which country they live. Not that they are presented with a dominant culture, but that they are in this country orientate and absorb something in order to participate. If they don't get what a nation is, then they would remain a slave to their country of origin, then we would have created a kind of parallel society again. "

Corona brings a surprising rebirth of the nation state

With the corona pandemic, however, the dream of one world found itself on the hard ground of reality. The nation-state celebrated an unexpected rebirth. States closed their borders, imposed export bans on medical equipment, and it was again: the own population first! And even now that the EU states are assuring each other of their mutual solidarity, this is, according to Jens Spahn last week, "in Germany's national interest". Michael Bröning himself asks whether the nation states will give up their regained strength so quickly in the future? In any case, the narrative of the nation state will be rewritten again.

"It was the states that reacted to the crisis, but it was also the states that, in isolated cases, massively overreacted. In contrast, the supranational institutions were caught off guard by the crisis. And as we know, the European Union, too When it comes to vaccine procurement, world records have not been broken in terms of efficiency. Yes, Corona is also the hour of the state, but - and I say this as a fundamental friend of democratic statehood - we have to be careful that this hour of the state is not turned into an eternity . And the debate in the coming weeks and months will again be about the degree of democratically controlled statehood we need. "

(imago / Rob Engelaar / Hollandse Hoogte)