Review: Nationalism Reframed by Rogers Brubaker

In Nationalism Reframed: Nationhood and the National Question in the New Europe, Rogers Brubaker studies the causes, characteristics, and effects of twentieth century nationalism in Europe and Central Asia. Drawing on geographies with frequently remodeled boundaries, the author examines aspects of the national question in states previously subsumed by multinational empires and influenced by the major political reconfigurations of the last century. Through careful discussion of complex ethnolinguistic and political boundaries, Brubaker describes the factors sustaining conflicting national stances. The collection of essays which compose the book together support an argument against the concept of nation as an immutable or ever-present embodiment of a given constituency.

Brubaker’s overarching conclusion is one regarding the framework and vocabulary for analyzing nationalism. Instead of reverting to the persistent paradigm of “nation,” he asserts that analysts should adopt the concept of nation as a “category of practice,”[1] and nationhood as the product of cultural and political institutionalization.[2] From these assertions, Brubaker urges that scholars “refrain from using the analytically dubious notion of ‘nations’ as substantial, enduring collectivities.”[3]  The result is an analytical framework fashioned for precise theoretical and comparative purposes. This system is primarily developed in Part I of the text. Part II brings the framework to life with rich historical detail that accentuates important aspects of the national question in the “New Europe.”

Summary of the Text

Brubaker’s central assertion is that repeated revising of state boundaries has created a “triadic nexus” of interdependent and rival varieties of nationalism in the regions he examines. This core of relational factors provides three categories or perspectives from which to approach nationalism. These are “nationalizing nationalism;” “homeland-” or “transborder nationalism;” and “minority nationalism.” Brubaker extends this framework further in his introduction, asserting that these elements of his theory are more than fixed entities. He ultimately describes them as “fields of differentiated and competing positions, arenas of struggle among competing stances.”[4]

The author describes “nationalizing nationalism” as motivated by the claims of formerly marginalized ethnic groups which have since established states. Such groups often define themselves in ethnocultural terms, claiming that they together compose a “core nation” or nationality. These groups likewise claim that this professed status entitles them to control over the state. In addition to these central claims, those promulgating nationalizing nationalism often couple their demand for legitimate “ownership” of the state with assertions about a region’s legacies of discrimination directed against them.[5] Estonian disenfranchisement of Russia, Ukrainian, and Belarusian citizens of Estonia serves as Brubaker’s chief introductory examples of nationalizing nationalism.[6] However, he does draw on significant additional examples throughout the text to illuminate this variety of nationalism in his “triadic nexus.”

Brubaker argues that “homeland” or “transborder nationalism” counteracts nationalizing nationalism. He asserts that transborder nationalisms rise from the will to defend the place of “ethnonational kin” outside the borders of their supposed “external national homelands.” According to Brubaker, this variety of nationalism obliges states “to monitor the condition, promote the welfare, support the activities and institutions, assert the rights, and protect the interests of ‘their’ ethnonational kin in other states.”[7] This variety of nationalism often arises as a reaction to the perceived threat posed by a nationalizing state to populations living within its borders which are viewed as ethnonational kin. In addition to fomenting a dynamic, if not competing, interaction with nationalizing nationalism, homeland nationalism brings about popular conceptions of nations which transcend boundaries, territories, and citizenships. Such is the power of cultural and political elites when they construe foreign residents as co-nationals, worthy of protection by the same government which recognizes their common nationhood.[8]

The author also describes “minority nationalism” as tending to oppose nationalizing nationalism. Brubaker argues that his variety of nationalism may also compete with homeland nationalism as applied to the same group. Those directly and adversely affected by the policies of nationalizing nationalism may invoke minority nationalism to advance their cause. Brubaker analogizes self-identification as a “national minority” with claims to “external national homelands” and “nationalizing statehood”: despite the views of their proponents, all three represent political stances rather than ethnographic facts.[9] Yet Brubaker describes minority nationalism as characterized by a population’s demands that their state recognize more than that population’s unique “ethnic” status. A group invoking minority nationalism will often insist that their distinctive “ethnocultural nationality,” and the supposedly implicit nationality-based cultural and political rights be recognized by the state as well.[10] Though minority nationalism may work in the same way that homeland nationalism does, tending to undermine nationalizing states and their varieties of nationalism, Brubaker is careful to point out that minority and homeland nationalisms do not always coincide in complementary or harmonious relationships. Indeed, these nationalisms often clash when homeland nationalism is trumpeted for geopolitical, rather than genuinely nationalistic reasons.[11]

Critiques

Despite Brubaker’s clearly stated delineation of an analytically compelling framework and vocabulary for describing nationalism, there remain significant weaknesses in several of his arguments. The author’s de-emphasis of “class” and contemporaneous factors related to the rise of the Nazi regime and the dissolution of the USSR represent significant weaknesses in his theory and the examples he uses to support it.

Brubaker’s brief and insufficient discussion of socioeconomic class undermines his sweeping assertions regarding the national question in Europe and Central Asia. Though the author avoids the problematical question of a unifying definition for nationalism (itself a disappointing gap in the text), the more fundamental issue with his analysis comes early on, when he describes the idea of “class”:

the working class—understood as a real entity of substantial  community—has largely dissolved as an object of analysis…The study of class as a cultural and political idiom, as a mode of conflict, and as an underlying abstract dimension of economic structure remains vital; but it is no longer encumbered by an understanding of classes as real, enduring entities.[12]

Other than this brief dismissal of class—apparently it is only relevant as a “cultural and political idiom,” “mode of conflict,” and “underlying abstract dimension of economic structure”—represents the author’s only significant explanation of its role in the text. Class is mentioned elsewhere only three times, and these instances are only tangential references to the concept. Despite Brubaker’s frequent reliance on national “elites”—be they of the “political,” “cultural,” or even more vague “social” varieties—as engineers and initiators of nationalism, the reader is left without an explanation of the role of their socio-economic status in shaping the national question in the states Brubaker provides as examples.

Perhaps the most troubling example of this deemphasis comes in the author’s reliance on the heavy-handed role of elites in interwar Poland. By discussing Poland in detail in Chapter 4, he fashions the newly established country into an example of nationalizing nationalism within an existing state.  He carefully explains the role of “dominant elites” in promoting the language, culture, demographic preponderance, and economic flourishing of interwar Poland. Yet he pays little to no attention to whether the economic strata of the referenced elites put them in a particularly advantageous position. Were their interests not served by advancing the conceptualization of Polish “national” interests, and the broad economic advancement of the Polish people? It is hard to imagine that the displacement of Germans from “key positions in the economy,”[13] and the Polish government’s broad agenda to “nationalize the urban economy” (an initiative which economically disempowered minorities, particularly Jews),[14] served solely the political interests of the elites who engineered these policies. Even if the obvious economic interests involved in these actions were judged insignificant in the grand scheme of Brubaker’s analysis, class serves as a key example of Brubaker’s tendency to push aside potentially influential interests in his reduction of 20th century nationalisms into struggles between nation-states and ethnic groups. This reader found Brubaker’s focus on the “characteristic structure and style of nationalist politics in post-Communist Europe and Eurasia”[15] obscured by his willingness to avoid those mundane factors, like class, which often shape and determine domestic politics.

In addition to his discounting of class, Brubaker’s discussion of Nazism and the dissolution of the USSR deemphasize major distinguishing factors in both cases. In his focus on Weimar Germany, the author carefully catalogues the sustained rise of homeland nationalism. He points to the many factors which led to the ideology’s “crystallization” and ultimate transformation into an aggressive foreign policy platform.[16] Despite this historically rich explanation of the origins and development of homeland nationalism in the Weimar Republic, his section on the ideology’s “legacy” unconvincingly seeks to explain the Nazi regime and its policies as the logical and theoretically consistent results of the homeland nationalism which developed in Weimar Germany.

Given the limited scope of homeland nationalism—it entails action which defends ethnonational kin outside the borders of their external national homelands—it is hard to imagine that such an ideology motivated the complex and highly aggressive foreign policy of Nazi Germany, not to mention the state’s persecutory and ultimately genocidal domestic policies. Do these infamous state actions truly amount to an attempt to protect ethnic Germans outside their homeland?

Even a cursory glance at Hitler’s declared objectives and their outcomes indicates that the leader intended to establish a multiethnic empire. He pursued this ultimate objective through much more than simply homeland nationalism. Even Hitler’s intermediate policy of Nazi commitment to establishing a “grossdeutsches Reich”—the consolidation of the entire area of German settlement—rests uneasily under the heading of homeland nationalism as described elsewhere in the text. For example, there is considerable evidence that Sudeten Germans were inspired, if not heavily encouraged by the Nazi regime to call for the region’s annexation to Germany.[17] Nurturing sentiments aimed at annexation fall at the extreme boundary of the scope of homeland nationalism, yet they were the beginning of Hitler’s expansionist scheming. This is just one example of many that conveys historical factors in the development of Nazi Germany which remain unaccounted for by the “complex web of political stances” making up homeland nationalism in the Weimar Republic.

The same troubling deemphasis of contemporaneous factors is also present in Brubaker’s discussion of post-communist Europe. The role of western anti-Soviet policies in the dissolution of the USSR is rarely discussed in the chapters describing former Soviet Republics. The protracted efforts of western powers to cultivate nationalist anti-Soviet movements in Soviet states are not addressed in the text as substantial motivating factors. Political historical events like the official visit of Pope John Paul II to Poland, in June 1979, where he inspired the “solidarity” movement of the early 1980s, and the persistent rhetoric of leaders in prominent western countries like the United States and the United Kingdom, which together helped to incite nationalism in Eastern bloc states, are not mentioned as additional motivating factors for the rise of nationalism. These western-oriented political events may not have decided the national questions of the Eastern bloc states in question, but including them could have added context to the decline and dissolution of the USSR, a period in which Brubaker focuses almost exclusively on relations between Moscow and the nominally national governments under the Warsaw Pact.

Taken together, Brubaker’s discussion of the rise of Nazism and the dissolution of the USSR convey a larger flaw in the text. It is often the case that the author becomes preoccupied with his prescribed theoretical principles, leading to his simultaneous deemphasis of contemporaneous factors which shaped the same historical developments he aims to systematically explain through his heuristic framework of the “triadic nexus.” These cases create the unfortunate outcome of the “triadic nexus” occasionally obscuring more than illuminating the development of nationalism in the nation-states Brubaker examines.


[1] Rogers Brubacker, Nationalism Reframed: Nationhood and the National Question in the New Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 7.

[2] Ibid., 37.

[3] Ibid., 21.

[4] Ibid., 8.

[5] Ibid., 5.

[6] Ibid., 31-33.

[7] Ibid., 5.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 5.

[10] Ibid., 6.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., 14-15.

[13] Ibid., 91.

[14] Ibid., 93-97.

[15] Ibid., 10.

[16] Ibid., 128-130.

[17] “Hitler’s Anschluss: a historical timeline,” History Online, UC San Diego, available at history.sandiego.edu/GEN/WW2tIMELINE/Prelude10.html (accessed October 16, 2009).

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