Jerzy Einhorn (1925–2000), later to become famous as a professor of medicine and politician, arrived in Sweden from Poland in 1946. Asked for his nationality during his interrogation by the immigration police, he answered, “Jewish.” “There is no such nationality,” said the immigration officer. Einhorn comments, “He does not understand that, during all my years, I have not been allowed to be Polish, and that he is the one who is right.”1

Einhorn’s bewilderment was understandable, arising naturally out of the semantic confusion about the idea of nationality and the related concepts of ethnic identity and group belonging, as expressed in the different political cultures of Europe. Einhorn’s belief that his nationality was Jewish would find support in the Swedish National Encyclopedia, which says, “Basically, the concept of ‘nation’ does not relate to states but to the concept of ‘people,’ i.e. individuals knit together by a common identity.”2 Yet today it is common, especially in Scandinavia, to speak of the nation-state. With Brexit and divisions along national lines looming in Europe and beyond, this is a concept to which we need return.

Until 1871 there was no German state but a number of smaller entities, “united” by a common feeling of German nationality. In what was later to become Italy, as well as in a Poland long divided and suppressed by three colonizing powers (Habsburg Austria, Tsarist Russia and Prussia), nationalism aimed at forming a territorial state built on the idea of a common nation: an expression of cultural homogeneity.

The clearest expression of state nationalism was in France. The 1789 revolution centralized an earlier conglomerate of languages and cultures (Provençal, Breton, Flemish, etc.) into a homogeneous entity through forced assimilation into a unitary French culture and language. Today, France still denies the existence of national minorities: “We are all French.” Bretons and Basques are treated as mere curiosities, their languages as “patois,” local dialects.

Groups with cross-border ethnic links – Corsicans, Catalans, Flemings and German speakers in Alsace and Lorraine – have been pressured to ignore beckonings from neighbouring “kin-nation” countries, related to them ethnically or historically. Such links can lead to claims on neighbouring territories as irredenta or “not yet redeemed.” Fascist Italy claimed Corsica, Swiss Ticino and other areas of alleged Italian ethnicity and culture. In contrast, state-nationalist France has refrained from making any claims on French-speaking Switzerland, Walloon Belgium or the Vallée d’Aoste in Italy.

To complicate the linguistic bewilderment regarding nationality, former British colonies in North America formed an independent federation, the units of which were called states, while the entire territory, the United States of America, was called the nation. The semantic hegemony of American English has unfortunately led to the increasing tendency in other languages, including Swedish and German, to apply the concept of nation-state even to multinational territorial states such as Belgium and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

As a consequence, the concept of national minority has been blurred. If the terms nation and state are understood to be distinct, a national minority consists of a population within a state whose members regard themselves as not belonging to the state-forming nation, In some cases, such as Hungarians in Romania, this population belongs to another state-forming nationality; in others, such as the Kurds, the Sámi or Canada’s First Nations, it forms a stateless nation. In states based on immigrant assimilation, such as France and the U.S., the protection of national minorities has often been misunderstood. In the first decades of the United Nations (sic!) the United States (sic!) sought to help national minorities assimilate into the majority population. Eleanor Roosevelt, who led the UN Commission for the protection of national minorities, never understood that most European minorities sought protection against forced cultural and linguistic assimilation by the nationalizing states.3

The United Nations is in fact a grouping of states. But its predecessor, the League of Nations, was built on Woodrow Wilson’s dream of every people’s right to form a state of its own: a nation-state. At Versailles in 1919, the conglomerate states of Russia, Austria-Hungary and Germany (with its Polish, Danish and French-minded minorities) were divided or truncated according to ethnic principles, often after plebiscites, even though the resulting borders led to large national minorities in the new states – often oppressed in turn by the new ruling majorities.

At the same time, the victorious Western powers could continue along the path of ethnic assimilation. The French model of national homogenization through a policy of assimilation was followed in Norway and Sweden. Denmark gained an “ethnic irredenta,” Northern Schleswig, in a plebiscite in 1920, while its territorially detached Atlantic areas of Iceland, the Faroe Islands and Greenland, with their respective linguistic and cultural distinctiveness, won autonomy – and, in the case of Iceland, independence. Finland, with relative success, created a nation consisting of two linguistic communities, accepting a League of Nations decision of limited autonomy for the Åland Islands, whose population in an unofficial referendum had opted for Sweden.

State and cultural nationalism

Other European nationalizing states have been harsher, particularly when it comes to eradicating local languages and cultures. Hungary today deplores the loss of ethnic irredenta after 1918, but its radical “Magyarization” of non–ethnic Hungarians before World War I is rarely mentioned. In Turkey the existence of a considerable Kurdish minority has until recently been denied, and it is still forbidden to call that minority a nation. Like Turkey, Greece only accepts the existence of minorities legally defined in treaties (the mainly Turkish Muslim minority in Western Thrace) but denies rights to its Albanian and Slavo-Macedonian groups, their numbers heavily reduced by assimilation and emigration. Spain officially denies the existence of a Catalan nation, though it recognizes the right to autonomy for its “nationalities and regions.”4

When associated with a state, nationalism is relatively easy to identify. But cultural nationalism is different – related as it is to feelings of identity that are changeable and multidimensional – and can be spurred by popular (or populist) movements. A useful discussion of the concept is found in the work of the conservative Swedish activist and political scientist Rudolf Kjellén (1864–1922) in Staten som lifsform (The State as a Form of Life), published in 1916. Lacking a state with its legal organization and defined territory, the nation is a community of will: undefined, volatile and changing with times and influences. He dismisses race5 and “blood” as determining factors, and even language and religion may not be decisive in the identification process. There is thus room for racial mixture in the great Western nations, allowing for the smooth assimilation of their Jewish populations.

Kjellén’s depreciation of the importance of religion in the nation-forming process was probably influenced by his appreciation, like many Scandinavians at the time, of Wilhelminian Germany, a state of two major Christian denominations and what in 1916 was a patriotic, successful and assimilated Jewish minority. In Germany and beyond, developments after World War I showed that a common language, either defining the territorial state or used by the state to assimilate linguistic minorities, is the most effective means of nationalizing a territory.

Nevertheless, the case of the central south Slavic language once called Serbo-Croatian splitting into four officially different languages emerging from divergent patterns of colonization by powers of different religions – Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian and Montenegrin – shows the importance of having strong support for a rigid definition of what is “correct” (and what is incorrect!) in speaking and writing a recognized language. And language is one of the most persistent shibboleths – actually the original one – in defining the boundary of an ethnic group on the way to forming a specific cultural nationality.6 A common language is still regarded the most effective way of communicating nation-ness. Or, as the statement popularized by the Yiddish scholar Max Weinreich would have it, “A language is a dialect with an army and a navy.”

The relationship of state nationalism to the cultural concept of nation is obviously complicated. A useful contribution was made in the 1950s by the multiethnic political scientist Karl Wolfgang Deutsch. In his Nationalism and Social Communication, he set out to explain how states act to make the population of their territory form a nation, to express solidarity towards “their” country. Parallel efforts can be found in Benedict Anderson’s characterization of the nation as an “imagined community,” and Rogers Brubaker’s characterization of states’ efforts to homogenize ethic communities as “nationalizing.”7 Unfortunately, however, in spite of these and other contributions to the understanding of the complex relationship of nation and state in the real world, the conceptual battle has apparently been won by the formulation of nation as a formal territorial organization.

Defining minorities

The recent debate in Sweden has been totally dominated by this view of the nation, especially in response to statements by members of the populist Sverigedemokraterna party (Swedish Democrats) that the Sámi (and by the same logic, conceivably Jews and Roma) are not Swedish. But in a cultural interpretation of nation, all national minorities, while citizens of their state of domicile, are by definition not members of the majority nationality. By choosing to identify as members of the minority, individuals are given exclusive rights such as protection of customs, language and religion. Sweden ratified the European conventions on language and minorities with some hesitation. Its choice of defined minorities and languages may be debatable, but in the case of the Sámi, the Roma and the Finnish-speaking population of the north, it marked the end of a century of forced assimilation that started around 1880.

In the case of the Finnish speakers, it is worth remembering that when some Social Democratic government ministers tried to reintroduce language rights in the 1930s, they were met by heavy resistance from local leaders. The fear of being regarded as Finnish (and even becoming victims of Finnish irredentism) led to a denial of the value of the language and its culture and eventually to the creation of a “new language,” Meänkieli, based on the local dialects of Finnish not supported by the teaching of standard Finnish. In my research, I found that the subsequent decline of Finnish led to a decline in northern multiculturalism and the slowdown of cross-border contacts.8

In this period, policy toward the Sámi was somewhat different. Sámi reindeer nomads were encouraged to keep their identity but were patronized and linguistically Swedified. Other Sámi were until recently expected to assimilate, resulting in internal conflicts within the Sámi community, and in the considerable decline of a language already weakened by strong local differences as well as the split of the Sámi nation into three or even four territorial states at the northern tip of Europe.

The potential choices as to their identity facing individuals in relation to the national state are “otherness,” total assimilation into the majority, or a dual identification. State policies of assimilation have led to changes of identity, to refusal in the form of enhanced minority identification, and to the emergence of a “middle way” – the creation of a new identity separate from the majority and the “kin-state” identity. This has often been based on the nonstandardized version of the related neighbouring majority language, like that of Meänkieli in Sweden, the rise of a Silesian identity, Windisch in Austria, and Corsican and Alsatian in France. These middle-way phenomena are often short-lived, effectively disappearing within a generation or two.

For immigrants the choice is between being isolated within the diaspora group and intentional assimilation – or sometimes both, related to specialization into different walks of life. Sometimes specific factors have allowed for different choices. The East European Jews arriving in Western Europe could fairly easily drop their colloquial Yiddish in favour of the majority language because they could keep their liturgy in Hebrew. Estonian refugees in Sweden in the 1940s successfully chose societal assimilation while cultivating their native language, preparing for a possible return.

Against the unequivocal claim of the national state, the claim of the cultural nation is problematic. Who has the right to claim to be Swedish, Sámi, Kurdish? In the aftermath of the plebiscites organized to territorially define the new or restored “nation-states” after the Versailles Peace Treaty of 1919, it was found that a substantial number of Polish-speaking Protestants, the Masurians, had opted for Germany – since for them being Polish meant being Catholic. As Einhorn’s story demonstrates, this also affected the Polish Jews, who had no territorial option (except for the then utopian option of Zionism). In Silesia, with an ethnically divided population, some districts voted for the restored Polish republic. They were wrong, a German geography professor wrote: German culture was superior!

They were welcome to participate in a superior culture. As we know. It was only a decade later that German nationalism became exclusive: Poles allegedly belonged to a lower race, not to be mixed with the German one.9 And Jews and Roma had to be eradicated to allow the culture to flourish.

History partly repeated itself after Nazi Germany’s defeat in 1945. Many inhabitants of Germany’s South Schleswig chose, or returned to, Danish-mindedness, not only in response to the unspoiled infrastructure and relatively unharmed democracy in Denmark, but also in protest against the influx of German refugees, pushed out from territories claimed and ethnically cleansed by the Soviet Union and Poland. Among the reborn Danes there were even signs of racism against the eastern Germans, who were allegedly of “Slavic blood.”10 This reference to a racial difference soon waned, but even before the Nazi appropriation of the concept of race and to the end of World War II, the interpretation of race as a quality differentiating different peoples was commonplace.

In Swedish scientific journals, domestic Jews were usually seen as an integrated part of the Swedish population, while German and Eastern European Jews who came to Sweden to escape Nazism were met with resistance from the legal system and, with some remarkable exceptions, in the press, usually on allegations of taking jobs from the local population. Except for the minuscule pro-Nazi press, direct anti-Semitism was obsolete or hidden behind references to Swedish neutrality.

One dilemma in cultural nationalism is the relation between autochthonous (indigenous) minorities and immigrant groups. If a territorial state recognizes an obligation toward its domestic minorities to protect their difference from the majority, what is its obligation toward people coming from abroad – to help them assimilate or to help them keep their distinctiveness?11 Russian authorities have been ardent in their criticism of Estonia and Latvia for their “refusal to grant minority rights” to domestic Russians. But with the exception of a small number of descendants of Russians who have been in these countries since Tsarist times, who were granted minority rights in the 1920s,12 the Russians and Russian speakers are descendants of immigrants who came during a time of forced annexation to the Soviet Union. Most members of this group thus cannot refer to a status of national minority, only to their individual human rights.13

The situation of the Roma in Sweden and other West European countries is somewhat similar. While Sweden (and Finland under Swedish rule) has long had an autochthonous Roma population, this has since the 1970s been augmented by immigrants from the Balkans, strengthening the position of the group but also adding to the internal differences within it.14

Europe: Multiethnicity moves west

In a very general sense, each Western European state, using both carrots and sticks, successfully integrated its residents into a rather homogeneous population, forming a nation. The main exception is Belgium, and Spain is perhaps another. In Eastern Europe, independent states are only a century old and were originally multiethnic, despite Wilson’s concept of nation-building. Nazi Germany managed to exterminate the large Jewish and Roma communities in Eastern Europe, and the aftermath of World War II resulted in the ethnic cleansing of German minorities in the area. Under the Communist regimes, national minorities were officially recognized, but put under strong pressure and sometimes allowed to escape if paid by their Western kin-states. In the Soviet Union, the smaller republics were infused with ethnic Russians.

With the exception of the Baltic states, the countries of Eastern Europe have thus attained substantial ethnic homogenization – in the Polish case reaching almost 100 per cent. In Western Europe the situation is in many ways totally different, with an increasing influx of refugees, workers and other migrants. These migrants came first from Eastern Europe and, in the colonizing countries, from their earlier dependencies, and later from areas of civil war and other difficulties. Other links are linguistic (Romanians to Spain and Italy) and religious (Lithuanians to Ireland).

What is peculiar is that coincidence as well as earlier ties has helped create the ethnic mix of specific countries. Denmark has a conspicuous Tamil population and Norway an Urdu-speaking group, while Sweden, after receiving around 200 Suryoyo (Syriac Christians from Turkey) in 1966, now has a population of more than 100,000 of this group, centred southwest of Stockholm. The great influx of refugees and migrants from Syria and the Middle East in 2015, mainly to Germany and Sweden, brought a large number of Afghan Shiite Hazara boys and young men, evidently sent by their families who had taken refuge in Iran.

Difficulties in handling the great influx fuel the rise of right-wing extremist parties. In Sweden, all political parties other than the Swedish Democrats have, until recently, been unwilling to restrict immigration, for fear of being associated with the populist anti-immigration party. Recently, however, the larger parties have taken a firm stand against opening the borders of Europe to a new wave of migrants, and only leftist and environmental parties with a feminist agenda seem to endorse further entry of refugees.

Is there a feeling of “Festung Europa” – Fortress Europe? In a way, it seems as if Brexit, pressures from Russia and fear for migrants has consolidated an acceptance of the European Union in most of its member states, but it is a feeling of practicality rather than sympathy.

Back to Jerzy Einhorn

After some years, Jerzy Einhorn spoke Swedish, received citizenship and was fully integrated into Swedish society. He became a Swede but, to the extent he himself wished, retained his Jewish identity and Polish experience.

Citizenship is a legal document but also a certificate of access to the rights and obligations of the territorial state. This usually requires an acceptable command of the state language – although, alone among the EU countries, Sweden so far has not made it a condition for citizenship. Nationality is something else. Majorities and minorities have a right to choose national identity according to their origin and experience. Nationality is not a digital characteristic – identities can be split and shared in many ways.

Continue reading “What is a Nation?”