Briefly, the doctrine holds that humanity is naturally divided into nations, that nations are known by certain characteristics which can be ascertained, and that the only legitimate type of government is national self-government.
Not the least triumph of this doctrine is that such propositions have become accepted and are thought to be self-evident, that the very word nation has been endowed by nationalism with a meaning and a resonance which until the end of the eighteenth century it was far from having. […]
The fortunes of ideas, like those of men, depend as much on accident as on their own worth and character, and if the doctrine of nationalism came into prominence at the turn of the eighteenth century, this was the result not only of a debate in which the philosophers were engaged, but also of events which invested the philosophical issues with immediate and obvious relevance.
The philosophy of the Enlightenment prevalent in Europe in the eighteenth century held that the universe was governed by a uniform, unvarying law of Nature. With reason man could discover and comprehend this law, and if society were ordered according to its provisions, it would attain ease and happiness. […]
The state, on this philosophical view, is a collection of individuals who live together the better to secure their own welfare, and it is the duty of rulers so to rule as to bring about—by means which can be ascertained by reason—the greatest welfare for the inhabitants of their territory. This is the social pact which unites men together, and defines the rights and duties of rulers and subjects. Such is not only the view of the philosophes, for which they claimed universal validity, but also the official doctrine of Enlightened Absolutism.
According to this doctrine, the enlightened ruler regulates the economic activities of his subjects, provides them with education, looks after health and sanitation, supplies uniform and expeditious justice, and generally concerns himself—if need be even against their wishes—with his subjects' welfare, because the greatness of a state is the glory of its ruler, and a state can become great only in proportion to its population and to their prosperity. In this sense is to be understood the saying of Frederick the Great of Prussia, that a king is the first servant of the state….
On this view, then, the cohesion of the state, and loyalty to it, depend on its capacity to ensure the welfare of the individual, and in him, love of the fatherland is a function of benefits received. Side by side with the King's argument, we may set that of a private person Goethe, reviewing in 1772 a book entitled On the Love of the Fatherland, written to promote loyalty to the Habsburgs in the Holy Roman Empire, had this to say: “Have we a fatherland? If we can find a place where we can rest with our possessions, a field to sustain us, a home to cover us, have we not there a fatherland?”
Such was the current opinion in Europe at the outbreak of the French Revolution. It is essential to remember the significance of this event. It was not merely a civil disturbance, a coup d'état, which replaced one set of rulers by another. This was familiar to Europe, and the French Revolution was indeed widely taken at the outset to be one such commotion, or else an attempt to realize the programme of reforms which Enlightened Absolutism had officially made its own. But as became increasingly apparent the French Revolution introduced new possibilities in the use of political power, and transformed the ends for which rulers might legitimately work. The Revolution meant that if the citizens of a state no longer approved of the political arrangements of their society, they had the right and the power to replace them by others more satisfactory. As the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen had it: “The principle of sovereignty resides essentially in the Nation; no body of men, no individual, can exercise authority that does not emanate expressly from it.” […]
What, then, was meant by a nation? Natio in ordinary speech originally meant a group of men belonging together by similarity of birth, larger than a family, but smaller than a clan or a people. Thus, one spoke of the Populus Romanus and not of the natio romanorum. The term applied particularly to a community of foreigners….
By extension, the word came to be used as a collective noun, sometimes in a pejorative sense…. This use of the word as a collective noun persists into the eighteenth century, and we find Hume stating in his essay “Of National Characters” that “a nation is nothing but a collection of individuals” who, by constant intercourse, came to acquire some traits in common, and Diderot and D’Alambert in the Encyclopédie defining “nation” as “a collective word used to denote a considerable quantity of those people who inhabit a certain extent of country defined within certain limits, and obeying the same government.” …
Such a claim is both simple and comprehensive. A nation is a body of people to whom a government is responsible through their legislature…. Suppose a number of individuals, living under a certain government, decide that they no longer wish to continue under it; since the sovereignty is theirs, they may now form a new government and constitute a nation on their own. Such a principle introduced into eighteenth-century Europe was bound to create turmoil. Relations between its states were the outcome of accidents, wars, or dynastic arrangements, and were regulated by the play of conflicts and alliances, of friendships and antagonisms which somehow managed to produce a balance of power. It may be that such a balance had no intrinsic merits of its own, that it was neither a principle of order nor a guarantee of rights, but a mere empirical contrivance liable to frequent and serious breakdown. But the working of such a balance rested on an assumption which itself served to limit and control any breakdown.
This assumption was that the title of any government to rule did not depend on the origin of its power. Thus the society of European states admitted all varieties of republics, of hereditary and elective monarchies, of constitutional and despotic regimes. But on the principle advocated by the revolutionaries, the title of all governments then existing was put in question; since they did not derive their sovereignty from the nation, they were usurpers with whom no agreement need be binding, and to whom subjects owed no allegiance. It is clear that such a doctrine would envenom international quarrels, and render them quite recalcitrant to the methods of traditional statecraft; it would indeed subvert all international relations as hitherto known.
Soon enough an issue arose which exhibited to the world the consequences of this new doctrine…. Shortly after the outbreak of the Revolution all feudal privileges were abolished in France, and the rights of the Alsace nobility came into question. They owed, it is true, allegiance to the King and were therefore, to this extent, bound by French laws, but this allegiance, on the other hand, had been created by an international treaty and their privileges, it was argued, were guaranteed by the same treaty. These privileges, it was represented, could not be touched unless the revolutionary government was prepared to commit a breach of the treaty.
The revolutionaries recognized that special considerations applied and offered, as an act of grace, to compensate the Alsace nobility for the privileges they had abolished. But this unilateral action did not satisfy the Alsatian nobles: if their privileges were to be tampered with, let the French government negotiate, in the proper way, a new settlement, instead of handing down arbitrary decrees. The debate went on; and what was said on the French side is worthy of notice. The Constituent Assembly had referred the question to a special committee, and its rapporteur began his report by defining the new principle on which France would henceforth conduct her foreign policy. The incorruptible representatives of the French people, he said, having proclaimed the sacred and inalienable rights of the nations, recognize no other rule but that of Justice. Therefore all previous treaties and conventions which are the fruit of the error in which kings and their ministers were lost will no longer have force. The old international law was one thing, and the new one quite another. According to the old principles, the nobles of Alsace could rightly claim compensation under the treaty, but in the new era all is changed. The French nation had declared itself sovereign, and the people of Alsace, by an act of their will, united themselves to the French people and shared in their sovereignty. The union of France and Alsace is now legitimate not by virtue of any treaty, but by virtue of the manifest will of the people. The nobles have no right to compensation, since the will of the people has not stipulated that they should be offered any. “Has the free union of one people with another,” asked Robespierre in a debate, “anything in common with conquest?” Similarly, what would have been confiscation before 1789 was, afterwards, a mere entering into lawful possession. Such were the miracles possible under the new dispensation….
What the new principles did was to introduce a new style of politics in which the expression of will overrode treaties and compacts, dissolved allegiance, and, by mere declaration, made lawful any act whatever. By its very nature, this new style ran to extremes. It represented politics as a fight for principles, not the endless composition of claims in conflict. But since principles do not abolish interests, a pernicious confusion resulted. The ambitions of a state or the designs of a faction took on the purity of principle, compromise was treason, and a tone of exasperated intransigence became common between rivals and opponents. Consciousness of right bred a righteousness which excesses could never destroy, but only confirm. Terrorism became the hallmark of purity: “There, is nothing,” exclaimed St. Just, “which so much resembles virtue as a great crime.”
It seemed, indeed, as though great crimes were the only way to ensure justice: “There is something terrible,” St. Just also said, “in the sacred love of the fatherland; it is so exclusive as to sacrifice everything to the public interest, without pity, without fear, without respect for humanity … What produces the general good is always terrible.”
This style, spread and established by a successful revolution, found increasing favour in Europe after 1789. Under its influence doctrines like nationalism were developed and perfected. But it was not the French Revolution only which tended to such a result. Another revolution, in the realm of ideas, worked powerfully to second its action.