Long-Term Social and Political Missions

A fourth way that warfare is significant for nation formation is through outcomes that shaped the long-term social and political goals of national populations. Victory and defeat had very different effects. Joep Leerssen (2001: 214-15), citing Nietzsche, distinguishes between ‘monumental’ and ‘traumatic’ memory. The first is the attribute of successful great powers and imperial nations which eternalize their civilizational achievements in impressive urban structures, official historiographies, monuments, and formal high cultures. The second is the trait of the subjugated, who lack a high public culture of their own and continuously return to the memories of their humiliation, perpetuated through oral and informal kinship structures. The notion of ‘trauma’ when applied to collectivities is problematic (as I shall discuss later), and Leerssen is very aware that this distinction is ideal-typical. He has in mind as exemplars of ‘traumatic memory’ colonized and stateless peoples (such as the pre-independence Irish) rather than nation states. In the latter case, the effect of defeat is generally not a disabling preoccupation with past injustice, for even small nation states tend to have experiences of victory as well as of defeat.

Victory has tended to vindicate war leaders, often securing in power for generations a specific cohort and their particular vision of the nation. This is particularly the case of new nation states established by liberation or unification wars, where the leaders of an independent nation often become the charismatic fathers of their country, Washington and Jefferson for the USA, Mustafa Kemal Atatfirk for Turkey, and Castro for Cuba. State-approved historiographies have created teleologies of collective progress that are inculcated in public educational systems. For the first forty years of postindependence Ireland the leadership of the country was drawn from the cohort who participated in the Easter Rising (1916) and the subsequent war of independence, who advanced a Gaelic Catholic rural social model of the nation (Hutchinson 1987: Ch. 8). They were able to draw on memories of struggle to mobilize support for their policies and also to immunize themselves from criticism, in spite of economic failures and a continuously declining population (Lee 1989: Ch. 8).

Arguably the experience of defeat generates more radical popular energies, often directed against established elites. In the words of Nietzsche (cited in Perica 2005:134), ‘If something is to be held in the memory it must be branded there: only that which never stops hurting stays in the memory.’ There are different experiences of defeat—temporary (losing battles before eventual success), partial, definitive, and total (where the victors impose their norms on the defeated states)—which shape future memorialization (see Horne 2008). We shall explore some of these distinctions later. As Horne observes (2008: 16-17), the consequences of defeat in national wars were more intense, not just because of the greater scale of war but because it could be seen as moral failure of the people itself. Defeat can entail a sense of rupture with the past and the necessity for a thorough purification of those elements of the nation that were responsible. As we noted in Chapter 1, the shattering defeat of Germany and Hungary after the First World War in which they lost territory and population to neighbouring states inspired radical nationalist programmes of regeneration and irredentism. These campaigns were spearheaded by social groups, by ex-soldiers’ organizations embittered at the loss of military prestige, and by populations displaced from their former homelands, such as Finnish Karelians, driven out as a result of war with the USSR.

Of course, both defeat and victory are part of the experience of many nations and states (Mock 2012). Nationalists often play upon a contrast between imperial (or great-power) greatness and current humiliation to activate populations in programmes to regain their country’s place in the sun. This was the case not just of post-Versailles Germany but of modern China. Chinese nationalists from the early twentieth century employed the concept of ‘a century of humiliation’ inflicted on the ‘Middle Kingdom’ to heighten a sense of bitterness at the loss of territories and the unjust treaties imposed by European imperial powers and Japan, dating from the Opium Wars (1839-42, 1856-60). This was directed initially against an impotent imperial regime, but could be canalized by later governments. Thus, although official commemorations of ‘humiliation’ were played down after the victory of the Chinese Communists and expulsion of the Japanese in 1945, they were revived after the Tiananmen Square massacres to unite the population around the Communist regime’s ambitions to recover first Hong Kong and then Taiwan (Callahan 2004).

It is the perception as much as the reality of victory or defeat that is crucial. Although Irish and Greeks took pride in winning their freedom from the British and Ottoman Empires, these victories were also perceived as unfinished or as partial defeats by some nationalists, since part of the homeland was still under occupation. After independence, successive Greek regimes galvanized their societies in a long and disastrous irredentist quest to reconquer the lands of the Byzantine Empire and unify Greeks, through repeated wars with the Ottomans. Although in the process much of the population was nationalized, this was at the expense of Greece’s socio-economic development (Pepelassis 1958). In such ways state actors, by identifying a common enemy who can be internal as well as external, can nationalize large sections of populations through educational indoctrination and military conscription.

This suggests the quasi-religious character of nationalism and its referent the nation in the modern world. But how far it is plausible to view the nation as a community of sacrifice constructed around memory? We shall first consider objections to this analysis. The first questions the neo-Durkheimian models underpinning this analysis and the empirical evidence of sacrificial actions. A second argues for more of a political and instrumental interpretation of myths as essentially malleable rather than as sources of meaning in their own right. A third possible criticism points to cases where wars appear to undermine nations. Finally, we have to account for instances of ‘pacific’ nations.

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