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Traditionally, a nation-state is a specific form of state, which exists to provide a sovereign territory for a particular nation, and which derives its legitimacy from that function. The state is a political and geopolitical entity; the nation is a cultural and/or ethnic entity. The term "nation-state" implies that they geographically coincide, and this distinguishes the nation-state from the other types of state, which historically preceded it. If successfully implemented, this implies that the citizens share a common language, culture, and values — which was not the case in many historical states. A world of nation-states also implements the claim to self-determination and autonomy for every nation, a central theme of the ideology of nationalism. (For ambiguities in the usage of terms such as nation, international, state, and country, see Nation).

The nation-state model in practice[edit]

Political science uses the term "nation-state" for most existing sovereign states, even if their political boundaries do not coincide with ethnic boundaries.

In some cases, the geographic boundaries of an ethnic population and a political state largely coincide. In these cases, there is little immigration or emigration, few members of ethnic minorities, and few members of the "home" ethnicity living in other countries.

Iceland is often seen as strong example of a nation-state. Although the inhabitants are ethnically related to other Scandinavian groups, the national culture and language are found only in Iceland. There are no cross-border minorities — the nearest land is too far away.

Japan is also traditionally seen as a good example of a nation-state, although it includes minorities of the ethnically distinct Ryūkyū peoples in the south, Koreans, Chinese, Filipinos and Brazilians, and on the northern island of Hokkaidō, the indigenous Ainu minority; see also Japanese Demographics and Ethnic issues in Japan. Both Iceland and Japan are island nations.

The notion of a "national identity" also extends to countries which host multiple ethnic or language groups. For example, Switzerland is constitutionally a confederation of cantons, and has four official languages, but it has also a 'Swiss' national identity, a national history, and a classic national hero, Wilhelm Tell. [1]

Many historical conflicts have arisen where political boundaries do not correspond with ethnic or cultural boundaries. For example, the Hatay Province was transferred to Turkey from Syria after the majority-Turk population complained of mistreatment. The traditional homeland of the Kurdish people extends between northern Iraq and eastern Turkey, and western Iran. Some of its inhabitants call for the creation of an independent Kurdistan, citing mistreatment by the Turkish and Iraqi governments. An armed conflict between the Kurdistan Workers Party and the Turkish government over this issue has been ongoing since 1984.

Belgium is a classic example of a disputed nation-state. The state was formed by secession from the United Kingdom of the Netherlands in 1830, and the Flemish population in the north speaks Dutch. The Flemish identity is also ethnic and cultural, and there is a strong separatist movement. The Walloon identity is linguistic (Francophone) and regionalist. There is also a unitary Belgian nationalism, several versions of a Greater Netherlands ideal, and a German-speaking region annexed from Prussia in 1920, and re-annexed by Germany in 1940–1944.

China covers a large geographic area, and uses the concept of "Zhonghua minzu" — "a Chinese people" — although it also officially recognises the majority Han ethnic group, and no fewer than 55 national minorities.

Where part of the national group lives in a neighbouring nation-state, it is usually called a national minority. In some cases states have reciprocal national minorities, for instance the Slovaks in Hungary and the Magyars (ethnic Hungarians) in Slovakia.

National minorities should not be confused with a national diaspora, which is typically located far from the national border. Most modern diasporas result from economic migration, for example the Irish diaspora.

The possession of dependent territories does influence the status of a nation-state. A state with large colonial possessions is obviously inhabited by many ethnic groups, and is not a mono-ethnic state. However, in most cases, the colonies were not considered an integral part of the motherland, and were separately administered. Some European nation-states have dependent territories in Europe. Denmark contains virtually all ethnic Danes and has relatively few foreign nationals within it. However, it exercises sovereignty over the Faroe Islands and Greenland.

History and origins[edit]

Main article: Nationalism

The origins and early history of nation-states are disputed. A major theoretical issue is: "which came first — the nation or the nation-state?" For nationalists themselves, the answer is that the nation existed first, nationalist movements arose to present its legitimate demand for sovereignty, and the nation-state met that demand. Some "modernisation theories" of nationalism see the national identity largely as a product of government policy, to unify and modernise an already existing state. Most theories see the nation-state as a 19th-century European phenomenon, facilitated by developments such as mass literacy and the early mass media. However, historians also note the early emergence of a relatively unified state, and a sense of common identity, in England, Portugal and the Dutch Republic.

In France, Eric Hobsbawm argues, the French state preceded the formation of the French people. Hobsbawm considers that the state made the French nation, and not French nationalism, which emerged at the end of the 19th century, the time of the Dreyfus Affair. At the time of the 1789 French Revolution, only half of the French people spoke some French, and between 12% to 13% spoke it "fairly", according to Hobsbawm. During Italian unification, the number of people speaking the Italian language was even lower. The French state promoted the unification of various dialects and languages into the French language. The introduction of conscription, and the Third Republic's 1880s laws on public instruction, facilitated the creation of a national identity, under this theory.

The theorist Benedict Anderson argues that nations are "imagined communities" (the members cannot possibly know each other), and that the main causes of nationalism and the creation of an imagined community are the reduction of privileged access to particular script languages (e.g. Latin), the movement to abolish the ideas of divine rule and monarchy, as well as the emergence of the printing press under a system of capitalism (or, as Anderson calls it, "print-capitalism"). The "state-driven" theories of the origin of nation-states tend to emphasise a few specific states, such as France and its rival England. These states expanded from core regions, and developed a national consciousness and sense of national identity ("Frenchness" and "Englishness"). Both assimilated peripheral regions (Wales, Brittany, Aquitaine and Occitania); these areas experienced a revival of interest in the regional culture in the 19th century, leading to the creation of autonomist movements in the 20th century.

Some nation-states, such as Germany or Italy, came into existence at least partly as a result of political campaigns by nationalists, during the nineteenth century. In both cases, the territory was previously divided among other states, some of them very small. The sense of common identity was at first a cultural movement, such as in the Völkisch movement in German-speaking states, which rapidly acquired a political significance. In these cases, the nationalist sentiment and the nationalist movement clearly precede the unification of the German and Italian nation-states.

The idea of a nation-state is associated with the rise of the modern system of states — often called the "Westphalian system" in reference to the Treaty of Westphalia (1648). The balance of power, which characterises that system, depends for its effectiveness upon clearly defined, centrally controlled, independent entities, whether empires or nation-states, which recognise each other's sovereignty and territory. The Westphalian system did not create the nation-state, but the nation-state meets the criteria for its component states (assuming that there is no disputed territory).

The nation-state received a philosophical underpinning in the era of Romanticism, at first as the 'natural' expression of the individual peoples (romantic nationalism — see Fichte's conception of the Volk, which would be later opposed by Ernest Renan). The increasing emphasis during the 19th century, on the ethnic and racial origins of the nation, led to a redefinition of the nation-state in these terms. Racism, which in Boulainvilliers's theories was inherently antipatriotic and antinationalist, joined itself with colonialist imperialism and "continental imperialism", most notably in pan-Germanic and pan-Slavic movements [2]. This relation between racism and nationalism reached its height in the fascist and Nazi movements of the 20th century. The specific combination of 'nation' ('people') and 'state' expressed in such terms as the Völkische Staat and implemented in laws such as the 1935 Nuremberg laws made fascist states such as early Nazi Germany qualitatively different from non-fascist nation-states. Obviously, minorities, who are not part of the Volk, have no authentic or legitimate role in such a state. In Germany, neither Jews nor the Roma were considered part of the Volk, and specifically targeted for persecution. However German nationality law defined 'German' on the basis of German ancestry (as it still largely does), excluding all non-Germans from the 'Volk'.

In recent years, the nation-state's claim to absolute sovereignty within its borders has been much criticised. A global political system based on international agreements, and supra-national blocs characterized the post-war era. Non-state actors, such as international corporations and non-governmental organizations, are widely seen as eroding the economic and political power of nation-states, leading to their eventual disappearance. [3]

What states existed before nation-states?[edit]

File:Österreich-Ungarns Ende.png
Division of the Austro-Hungarian Empire into nation states in 1918 Template:legend-line Template:legend-line Template:legend-line      Empire of Austria in 1914      Kingdom of Hungary in 1914      Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1914

In Europe, in the eighteenth century, the classic non-national states were the multi-ethnic empires, (the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Russian Empire, the Ottoman Empire), and smaller states at what would now be called sub-national level. The multi-ethnic empire was a monarchy ruled by a king, emperor, or Sultan. The population belonged to many ethnic groups, and they spoke many languages. The empire was dominated by one ethnic group, and their language was usually the language of public administration. The ruling dynasty was usually, but not always, from that group. This type of state is not specifically European: such empires existed on all continents. Some of the smaller European states were not so ethnically diverse, but were also dynastic states, ruled by a royal house. Their territory could expand by royal marriage, or merge with another state when the dynasty merged. In some parts of Europe, notably Germany, very small territorial units existed. They were recognised by their neighbours as independent, and had their own government and laws. Some were ruled by princes or other hereditary rulers, some were governed by bishops or abbots. Because they were so small, however, they had no separate language or culture: the inhabitants shared the language of the surrounding region.

In some cases these states were simply overthrown by nationalist uprisings in the 19th century. Some older nation-states, such as England and France seem to have grown by accretion of smaller entities, before the 19th century. Liberal ideas of free trade played a role in German unification, which was preceded by a customs union, the Zollverein. However, the Austro-Prussian War, and the German alliances in the Franco-Prussian War, were decisive in the unification. The Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Ottoman Empire broke up after the First World War, the Russian Empire became the Soviet Union, after the long Russian Civil War.

Some of the smaller states survived: the independent principalities of Liechtenstein, Andorra, and Monaco, and the republic of San Marino. The Vatican City is not a survival, although there was a larger Papal State. In its present form, it was created by the 1929 Lateran treaties between Italy and the Roman Catholic Church.

Characteristics of the nation-state[edit]

Nation-states have their own characteristics, differing from those of the pre-national states. For a start, they have a different attitude to their territory, compared to the dynastic monarchies: it is semi-sacred, and non-transferable. No nation would swap territory with other states simply, for example, because the king's daughter got married. They have a different type of border, in principle defined only by the area of settlement of the national group, although many nation-states also sought natural borders (rivers, mountain ranges).

The most noticeable characteristic is the degree to which nation-states use the state as an instrument of national unity, in economic, social and cultural life.

The nation-state promoted economic unity, first by abolishing internal customs and tolls. In Germany this process - the creation of the Zollverein - preceded formal national unity. Nation-states typically have a policy to create and maintain a national transportation infrastructure, facilitating trade and travel. In 19th-century Europe, the expansion of the rail transport networks was at first largely a matter for private railway companies, but gradually came under control of the national governments. The French rail network, with its main lines radiating from Paris to all corners of France, is often seen as a reflection of the centralised French nation-state, which directed its construction. Nation-states continue to build, for instance, specifically national motorway networks. Specifically trans-national infrastructure programmes, such as the Trans-European Networks , are a recent innovation.

The nation-states typically had a more centralised and uniform public administration than its imperial predecessors: they were smaller, and the population less diverse. (The internal diversity of, for instance, the Ottoman Empire was very great). After the triumph of the nation-state in Europe, regional identity was subordinate to national identity, in regions such as Alsace-Lorraine, Catalonia, Brittany, Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica. In many cases, the regional administration was also subordinated to central (national) government. This process was partially reversed from the 1970s onward, with the introduction of various forms of regional autonomy, in formerly centralised states such as France.

However, the most obvious impact of the nation-state, as compared to its non-national predecessors, is the creation of a uniform national culture, through state policy. The model of the nation-state implies that its population constitute a nation, united by a common descent, a common language, and many forms of shared culture. When the implied unity was absent, the nation-state often tried to create it. It promoted a uniform national language, through language policy. (When Italy was united as a political entity, the majority of the population could not speak Italian.) The creation of national systems of compulsory primary education and a relatively uniform curriculum in secondary schools, was the most effective instrument in the spread of the national languages. The schools also taught the national history, often in a propagandistic and mythologised version, and (especially during conflicts) some nation-states still teach this kind of history. [3]

Language and cultural policy was sometimes negative, aimed at the suppression of non-national elements. Language prohibitions were sometimes used to accelerate the adoption of national languages, and the decline of minority languages, see Germanisation.

In some cases these policies triggered bitter conflicts and separatism. Where it worked, the cultural uniformity and homogeneity of the population increased. Conversely, the cultural divergence at the border became sharper: in theory, a uniform French identity extends from the Atlantic coast to the Rhine, and on the other bank of the Rhine, a uniform German identity begins. To enforce that model, both sides have divergent language policy and educational systems, although the linguistic boundary is in fact well inside France, and the Alsace region changed hands four times between 1870 and 1945.


The most obvious deviation from the ideal of 'one nation, one state', is the presence of minorities, especially ethnic minorities, which are clearly not members of the majority nation. The nationalist definition of a nation is always exclusive: no nation has open membership. In most cases, there is a clear idea that surrounding nations are different, and that includes members of those nations who live on the 'wrong side' of the border. Historical examples of groups, who are specifically singled out as outsiders, are the Roma and Jews in Europe.

Negative responses to minorities within the nation-state have ranged from state-enforced cultural assimilation, to expulsion, persecution, violence, and extermination. The assimilation policies are usually state-enforced, but violence against minorities is not always state-initiated: it can occur in the form of mob violence such as lynching or pogroms. Nation-states are responsible for some of the worst historical examples of violence against minorities—that is, minorities which were not considered part of the nation.

However, many nation-states do accept specific minorities as being in some way part of the nation, and the term national minority is often used in this sense. The Sorbs in Germany are an example: for centuries they have lived in German-speaking states, surrounded by a much larger ethnic German population, and they have no other historical territory. They are now generally considered to be part of the German nation, and are accepted as such by the Federal Republic of Germany, which constitutionally guarantees their cultural rights. Of the thousands of ethnic and cultural minorities in nation-states across the world, only a few have this level of acceptance and protection.

Multiculturalism is an official policy in many states, establishing the ideal of peaceful existence among multiple ethnic, cultural, and linguistic groups. Many nations have laws protecting minority rights.


Main article: Irredentism.

Ideally, the border of a nation-state extends far enough to include all the members of the nation, and all of the national homeland. Again, in practice some of them always live on the 'wrong side' of the border. Part of the national homeland may be there too, and it may be inhabited by the 'wrong' nation. The response to the non-inclusion of territory and population may take the form of irredentism - demands to annex unredeemed territory and incorporate it into the nation-state. Irredentist claims are usually based on the fact that an identifiable part of the national group lives across the border. However, they can include claims to territory where no members of that nation live at present, either because they lived there in the past, or because the national language is spoken in that region, or because the national culture has influenced it, or because of geographical unity with the existing territory, or for a wide variety of other reasons. Past grievances are usually involved (see Revanchism). It is sometimes difficult to distinguish irredentism from pan-nationalism, since both claim that all members of an ethnic and cultural nation belong in one specific state. Pan-nationalism is less likely to ethnically specify the nation. For instance, variants of Pan-Germanism have different ideas about what constituted Greater Germany, including the confusing term Grossdeutschland - which in fact implied the inclusion of huge Slavic minorities from the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Typically, irredentist demands are at first made by members of non-state nationalist movements. When they are adopted by a state, they result in tensions, and actual attempts at annexation are always considered a casus belli, a cause for war. In many cases, such claims result in long-term hostile relations between neighbouring states. Irredentist movements typically circulate maps of the claimed national territory, the greater nation-state. That territory, which is often much larger than the existing state, plays a central role in their propaganda. For examples, see below (See Also).

Irredentism should not be confused with claims to overseas colonies, which are not generally considered part of the national homeland. Some French overseas colonies would be an exception: French rule in Algeria did indeed treat the colony legally as a département of France, unsuccessfully.


  1. Thomas Riklin, 2005. Worin unterscheidet sich die schweizerische "Nation" von der Französischen bzw. Deutschen "Nation"? [1]
  2. See Hannah Arendt's The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951)
  3. Council of Europe, Committee of Ministers Recommendation Rec(2001)15 on history teaching in twenty-first-century Europe (Adopted by the Committee of Ministers on 31October 2001 at the 771st meeting of the Ministers’ Deputies) UNITED for Intercultural Action History Interpretation as a Cause of Conflicts in Europe. [2] Eric Hobsbawm, Terence Ranger (1992). The Invention of Tradition. Cambridge University Press, 1992. Billie Melman Claiming the Nation's Past: The Invention of an Anglo-Saxon Tradition. Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 26, No. 3/4, The Impact of Western Nationalisms: Essays Dedicated to Walter Z. Laqueur on the Occasion of His 70th Birthday (Sep., 1991), pp. 575-595. Christopher Hughes, Robert Stone Nation-Building and Curriculum Reform in Hong Kong and Taiwan. China Quarterly, No. 160 (Dec., 1999), pp. 977-991.

Further reading[edit]

See also[edit]

Irredentist movements[edit]

External links[edit]

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