Policy Papers

History and national identity: why they should remain divorced

Stefan Berger |

  • RSS Feed Icon

Executive Summary

  • National history has long played a prominent role in the forging of national identities.
  • This historiographic nationalism has contributed to xenophobia, exclusion, discrimination, violence, war and genocide.
  • There is no neat distinction between a benign, civic, liberal nationalism and a malign, ethnic, authoritarian nationalism as far as the potential for exclusion and violence is concerned.
  • Powerful challenges to traditional historiographic nationalism have come from a number of sources since the 1980s: comparative and transnational history, the 'constructivist turn' in nationalism studies, historical anthropology, women's and gender history, and global history.
  • However just as scholarly historians have been moving away from their traditional role as nation-builders, more popular historians have been stepping into their shoes, particularly visible in recent developments in TV history.
  • This indicates that the nationalist historical paradigm, with all its attendant dangers, is far from exhausted in contemporary Europe.
  • Politicians should be very wary of encouraging this: in particular Gordon Brown's concern with Britishness is therefore a misguided policy initiative.
  • The real task facing politicians and historians today is to build alternative participatory solidarities to those of national identities and national histories.


Gordon Brown has regularly spoken about the importance of Britishness. In this the former-Chancellor and now Prime Minister has reflected a general concern of the government, which last year ordered a review on how British history could be inserted into the citizenship curriculum in schools so as to strengthen notions of national identity and national unity. The central place of history in strengthening national identity is neither peculiarly British nor is it an invention of New Labour.

Arguably, for long periods of their history, the British took their nationality for granted far more than many of their neighbours on the continent. Indeed, during the nineteenth century, and much of the twentieth, the English seemed regularly to confuse Englishness and Britishness, and the Scots and Welsh did not seem to mind too much. Had it not been for the Irish, national identity would have posed no serious problem - at least this is how it looks if we compare Britain with East Central Europe, where debates surrounding national histories and national identities were far more intense and happened far earlier than in Britain. It was only with the rise of Scottish and Welsh nationalisms from the 1960s onwards that a sense of Britishness and British national history became problematic.

Elsewhere attempts to hang national identity on notions of national history are as old as the modern discourse on nations itself, and some early modernists and medievalists would argue that they are even older. The idea that a nation has to have a preferably proud and heroic history and that this history becomes the foundation of national identity has been key to a variety of constructions of that form of identity across Europe and the wider world.

Historians and nationalist politics

When nationalism was firmly tied to various shades of liberalism and democratic ideas in early-nineteenth-century Europe, historiographic nationalism was a weapon to fight feudalism and absolutism and to uphold notions of citizenship and freedom. By the late-nineteenth century, nationalism had become much more the preserve of the political right and in the twentieth century it supported a range of authoritarian and fascist regimes across Europe. And yet it seems extremely difficult to make a firm distinction between a 'good' early-nineteenth-century nationalism and a 'bad' early-twentieth-century nationalism, as both shared a high potential for xenophobia and violence. We all know that hyper-nationalism fed into war and genocide in Europe's 'Dark Century' (Mark Mazower). The killing fields of the First and the Second World War, the civil war in Spain, the Holocaust, ethnic cleansing in East Central Europe in the context of the Second World War and its aftermath, were all supported by diverse forms of historiographical nationalism. By the 1990s, many in Europe believed that Europeans had been successful in building a more peaceful political order in the second half of the twentieth century. But the revival of historiographical nationalism in the context of the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe served as a timely reminder that the power of such nationalism was not a thing of the past. Above all, the Yugoslav civil war and its mass killings and ethnic cleansing sent shock waves through Europe.

It is a chilling thought that in all of these darkest moments of twentieth-century European history, historians have been to the fore to legitimate and, in some cases, initiate acts of unspeakable violence. Historians participated in the 'Generalplan Ost' of National Socialist Germany which planned the systematic ethnic cleansing and murder of Slav people in Central and Eastern Europe. Historians were among those in Hungary who planned for the revision of the Trianon Treaty after 1919 and sought to recreate a greater Hungary in the inter-war period. Historians justified the brutal expansionist and imperialist wars of fascist Italy in Africa and the Balkans. Historians legitimated the expansionist Megali idea in Greece, and historians were among the most fanatical champions of ethnic cleansing and genocide in Serbia and other successor states of the former Yugoslavia. In particular where borderlands were contested between nation states, historians often played a crucial role in legitimating expansionism and violence in order to nationalise these borderlands more effectively. In fact, we can establish a map of narrative scar tissue across Europe, where national histories and national identities clashed with often deadly consequences.

In Western Europe we should not be too smug about the fact that many of the most horrific examples of historiographic nationalism flared up in Eastern Europe after the collapse of Communism. As nationalism cannot be divided chronologically into an early-nineteenth-century progressive and an early-twentieth-century reactionary variant, so it is also impossible to distinguish spatially between a benign civic West European and a malign ethnic East European variant. It is true that some parts of Europe have a much more acute sense of the importance of national history in underpinning a sense of national identity than others. Post-Cold War, this sense has been particularly noticeable in the Baltic states, in the Balkans, in some of the post-Soviet states, and in Slovakia, but also in Germany, Belgium, Spain and Britain. It is not so much a case of a 'backward' Eastern Europe having to 'catch up' with a post-national Western Europe, as an issue of the recurring relevance of national frameworks of thought in different contexts across Western and Eastern Europe.

In the Baltic and some of the post-Soviet states, as well as in Slovakia, it is the emergence or re-emergence of independent statehood which has put the nation and national past back on the agenda. Today's Slovakia discusses its relation to the independent state established by the Nazis in the Second World War. The Baltic states deal with their Soviet pasts and their histories under German occupation in the early 1940s. In the former Yugoslavia and the former Czechoslovakia as well as in the current Belgium, challenges to the existing state from groups seeking to establish their own national state have given the search for national narratives new urgency. Serb remembrances of the battle of Kosovo in 1389 justified ethnic cleansing in the Balkans in the 1990s. Flemish nationalists use the freedom of Flemish cities in the Middle Ages to argue for an independent Flanders and the break-up of Belgium. An unexpected reunification of Germany and the pressing questions of multinational statehood in Spain and Britain have equally led to sometimes frantic searches for stable national pasts. The Germans have been trying hard to develop 'normal' Western patriotism since 1990. And political commentators in both Spain and Britain have been wondering whether devolution will be able to accommodate national ambitions voiced in Scotland, Wales, Catalonia and the Basque country.

As we can see from these examples, there is today no shortage of national conflicts, and the question of national history plays a prominent part in all of them. Some historians are still willing to lend their pens to the promotion of nationalism. As the Greek national historian Spyridon Lambros said in the late-nineteenth century: next to military power, the pen of the historian is the most powerful weapon of national ambitions. And yet, historiographic nationalism is neither as prevalent nor as powerful at the beginning of the twenty-first century as it was in nineteenth-century Europe.

Breaking away from historiographic nationalism

In fact, it is vital to differentiate different phases of historiographic nationalism in Europe. Thus the emergence of a new 'scientificity' (Heiko Feldner) in historical writing around 1750 and the parallel emergence of the modern idea of nationalism in the American and French revolutions of the late-eighteenth century formed a major break for historiographic nationalism. In the second half of the eighteenth century, Enlightenment historians wrote national history with the aim of establishing general trends and developments of human progress in national histories, whereas the Romantic national historians of the early-nineteenth century were most concerned with highlighting what was specific and unique about each country's development and how an authentic national character had been formed through the ages. In Europe, the century between 1850 and the 1950s was the highpoint of historiographic nationalism, when national history was the predominant mode of history writing in Europe. It was even then not the only show in town, but it dominated the agenda as never before or since. From the 1950s onwards, other forms of history writing grew stronger and a growing number of historians began to shy away from fulfilling their traditional role as pedagogues of the nation.

The more self-reflexive historians became about their role in encouraging nationalism, the more they attempted to resolve the tension between their status as 'scholarly' historians, adhering to the same standards of 'objective science' everywhere, and their self-assumed role as propagators of nationalism in particular countries. Ironically, it was often precisely their cultural capital as scholars which gave historians the authority to speak on behalf of the nation. But in the second half of the twentieth century, historians in Western Europe frequently decided to resolve the paradox of scholarly objectivity and historiographic nationalism by withdrawing from the latter, even if they continued to be overwhelmingly historians of specific countries.

At the same time, in the non-European world, historiographic nationalism legitimated a whole host of movements of national liberation from colonialist and imperialist bondage. Indeed, as the highpoint of historiographic nationalism came to its end in Europe, it celebrated new beginnings and new heights in other parts of the world: in this way, scholarly Western national history was one of the most successful export articles of Western imperialism.

And yet, of course, even well before the 1950s there were historians who did not see themselves as national, let alone nationalist historians. Some even attempted to abandon national history and write transnational histories of class, religion or race. Some sought to write the history of localities and regions, and a few tried their hand at European or even global history. However, rarely have these different forms of history writing been true alternatives to the national paradigm. Class, religious and race histories have frequently been subsumed under and incorporated into national histories. Religion became a key ingredient of the national narratives in many European countries - one thinks of Catholicism and Poland, Lutheranism and Sweden or Orthodoxy and Rumania. The history of class was often written in an attempt to write the history of the working classes into the national history from a sense of exclusion. Racial categories have been put forward in history writing to underpin the alleged biological superiority of one nation over others. Local and regional histories were infused with a sense of belonging to a greater national entity. European histories have often been little more than potted national histories put together in one book - with greater emphasis on the big nation states of Europe and precious little information on the smaller ones.

Since the 1980s more powerful challenges to the stranglehold of the national paradigm have appeared in the form of comparative and transnational approaches to the writing of history, the 'constructivist turn' in nationalism studies, and the emergence of new fields such as world history, historical anthropology and women's/gender history.

Comparative history is, of course, not new. Ever since Marc Bloch published his famous 1928 article urging historians to use the comparative method to overcome historiographic nationalism, historians attempted to follow where the founder of the Annales school led. As Hartmut Kaelble has shown, it was, however, only since the 1980s that Western European historiography made significant progress on the road to more comparative approaches in historical writing. It is the generation of historians born in the late 1950s and 1960s which has taken up the challenge of comparative history most comprehensively and inspired many younger historians to follow in their footsteps. During the 1990s the comparative method was enriched by cultural-transfer studies and transnational studies, which sought to come to terms with the challenges of an accelerating globalisation by providing historical perspectives on past processes of globalisation.

Apart from the increasing transnationalisation of historical writing, the constructivist turn in nationalism studies was vital for weakening historiographic nationalism in the scholarly community. Terence Ranger, Eric Hobsbawm and Benedict Anderson published path-breaking studies on 'the invention of tradition' and 'imagined communities' in the 1980s which transformed the study of nationalism in a major way. It was now all about how the national imagination had been shaped and who had invented national traditions for which purpose. Constructivist studies revealed the many myths of the nationalist imagination and argued powerfully for an understanding of nations not as eternal bearers of some national essence but as constructed entities which fulfilled a particular function.

But it was not only new methods and approaches which helped historians to escape the narrow confines of national history. New fields of history also decentred the national and urged historians to look elsewhere. World history has gained in popularity and institutions promoting the study of world history are proliferating at North American and European universities. Historical anthropology and its variants, such as history from below and everyday-life history, are investigating the actual lifeworlds of human beings in the past. It is revealing that many of these studies are not centrally engaged with questions of national identity - indicating that the discursive construction of national identities had often little hands-on reality for ordinary people as they lived their lives.

When women's history emerged out of second-wave feminism in the 1970s, it was all about writing women into history. As much of that history was national history, women historians wrote women into national history first and foremost. With the cultural turn of the 1980s came the rise of gender history and attention to the ways in which social orders had been structured by particular gender orders. In the field of historiography, some pioneers such as Bonnie Smith, Mary O'Dowd and Ilaria Porciani began investigating how historiographies had been gendered affairs. National histories usually portrayed the nation in terms of a family with distinct roles for women and men. Whereas alleged female values, such as homeliness, caring for others and motherliness were represented by great national women, such as Queen Luise in German narratives, alleged male values, such as virility, originality, vision and the search for truth were represented by great national men, such as Bismarck. A similar division of labour can be found across many national histories. However, women also often appeared as heroes in roles more fitting for men as, for example, in the case of Joan of Arc. Forms of gender inversion were not as rare in national narratives as one might think. On the other hand women were also frequently described as a nemesis for the nation. In Joachim Lelewel's national master narratives for Poland, for example, it fell to the foreign-born wives of Polish kings to explain many of the disasters befalling the nation. Generally speaking, most national narratives feminised both external and internal national enemies. Investigations into the gendering of national histories contributed overall to the constructivist turn in the study of nationalism, as they drew attention to the way in which national histories were part and parcel of the ordering of the social.


The impact of all of these developments in historiography meant that the profession has become more self-reflexive and less prone to promote variants of nationalism. However, as scholars continue to abandon their traditional roles as pedagogues of the nation (in some parts of the world more than in others!) there have been others willing to step into their shoes. The prominence of national history on prime-time television, of national anniversaries in the newspapers and of popular national history in the bookshops testify to the strong appeal of the subject among the wider populace. Andrew Marr, for example, concluded his recent five-part history of Britain on BBC television with a resounding declaration of pride in his own Britishness. Niall Ferguson celebrated the achievements of British empire. David Starkey has produced endless narratives of British monarchy, and Simon Schama produced a very traditional account of British national history. In Germany the stream of television products from television historian Guido Knopp also have exclusively national themes, and similar stories reproduce themselves across Europe. The idea that a nation needs to have a long and preferably proud national history is clearly far from dead.

In the light of the continued strength of national history, it appears all the more important that politicians do not jump onto this bandwagon of popular history, but retain a healthy scepticism. Given the extremely negative past record of historiographical nationalism, the advice from history to politicians surely must be to shy away from building national identity on a sense of a shared past. It is striking to see how constructions of common national histories have time and again led to exclusion of those who did not belong, for territorial, social, religious or ethnic reasons. Such exclusion at times took the form of discrimination, wars, civil wars, ethnic cleansing and genocide. Hence, if our research can teach any lessons to the policy makers of Europe today, it is not to fall back on the trappings of identity politics, which belittles the political and seeks refuge in allegedly cosy feelings of belonging and togetherness.

Instead, politicians, of all people, should strive to build solidarities on alternative grounds to that of national identity. They are, after all, in the position to develop political projects for which people are willing to come together and in which they are prepared to participate. Arguably the most important political projects today, such as development in much of the so-called 'Third World' and protection of the global environment, are projects that left the framework of the exclusive interests of the nation state behind a long time ago.

For obvious reasons of self-protection historians are always keen to emphasise the importance of their profession for society at large. And history is indeed an important means of criticising traditions and questioning established wisdoms. But there are many good reasons to avoid history becoming the basis of national identity formation and legitimation. It seems wiser to assume that society would be better off with weak and playful identities rather than those underpinned by a strong sense of a common national past.

Further Reading

Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities. Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism, rev. edn (London: Verso, 1991).

Stefan Berger and Andrew Mycock (eds.), 'Europe and its National Histories', special issue of Storia della Storiografia 50 (2006), pp. 3-131.

Stefan Berger (ed.), Writing the Nation. A Global Perspective (Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, 2007).

Marc Bloch, 'Toward a Comparative History of European Societies' [1928], in: Jelle C. Riemersma and Frederic C. Lane (eds.), Enterprise and Secular Change: Readings in Economic History (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1953).

Heiko Feldner, 'The New Scientificity in Historical Writing around 1800', in: Stefan Berger, Heiko Feldner and Kevin Passmore (eds.), Writing History: Theory and Practice (London: Arnold, 2003), pp. 3-22.

Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger (eds), The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge: CUP, 1983).

Hartmut Kaelble, 'Vergleichende Sozialgeschichte im 19. und 20. Jahrhundert. Forschungen europäischer Historiker', in: Jahrbuch fr Wirtschaftsgeschichte 1 (1993), pp. 173-200.

Mark Mazower, Dark Continent. Europe's Twentieth Century (London: Penguin, 1998).

Mary O'Dowd and Ilaria Porciani (eds.), 'History Women', special issue of Storia della Storiografia 46 (2004), pp. 3 - 202.

Bonnie Smith, The Gender of History: Men, Women and Historical Practice (Cambridge/Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998).

Related Policy Papers


Papers By Author

Papers by Theme


Sign up to receive announcements on events, the latest research and more!

To complete the subscription process, please click the link in the email we just sent you.

We will never send spam and you can unsubscribe any time.

About Us

H&P is based at the Institute of Historical Research, Senate House, University of London.

We are the only project in the UK providing access to an international network of more than 500 historians with a broad range of expertise. H&P offers a range of resources for historians, policy makers and journalists.

Read More