The Rise of Nationalism Amongst Linguistic Minorities

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How did the new celebration of cultural identities and linguistic minorities affect the growth of nationalism? How did linguistic-based nationalism change the way many countries were run?

According to Benedict Anderson, the author of Imagined Communities, the rise in linguistic nationalism has led to changes in how countries are run—primarily, many nations declared an official national language. Thanks to this change, many old dynasties lost their power.

Here is how the rise of nationalism among linguistic minorities shaped how nations are run.

The Challenge to the Old Dynasties

This new celebration of unique cultural identities helped to instill more nationalist and separatist political identities. This process was particularly acute among ethnic and linguistic minorities within multilingual and multiethnic empires, like the Ukrainians within the Russian Empire or the Czechs and Romanians within the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  

Anderson argues that this created new political challenges for the dynasties—like the Romanovs, Habsburgs, and Hohenzollerns of the Russian, Austro-Hungarian, and German empires, respectively—that ruled these empires.

These sovereigns were from royal families whose lineages stretched far back into the Middle Ages—they had no real “national” identity of their own. Often, they didn’t even speak the language of the dominant linguistic group over which they ruled as their primary language. For example, the Romanov dynasty of the Russian Empire primarily spoke in French and German in private. 

This rise of linguistic nationalism not only created tensions within empires, but between them as well. The 19th- and early 20th-century phenomenon of Pan-Germanism—the idea that all of Europe’s German-speaking peoples should be united in one nation-state ruled by the German kaiser—significantly called into question the existing relationship between the German and Austro-Hungarian empires. 

Organizations like the Pan-German League argued that the 12 million-plus German speakers living in the Austro-Hungarian Empire (mainly in what is now Austria, but also in parts of what is now Poland) should be annexed into the German Empire. Some members of the Reichsrat—the Austro-Hungarian parliament—even publicly proclaimed their loyalty to the German Hohenzollerns over their own Habsburg sovereign. Pan-Germanism was a major ideological influence upon Nazism in both Germany and Austria, which culminated in the 1938 Anschluss, or annexation of Austria into Nazi Germany.

The Fathers of the Nation

With the emergence of linguistic-based nationalism, Anderson argues that the rulers of multilingual, multiethnic empires made the decision to choose one language (usually the one spoken as a primary language by the largest number of people within the empire) to make the official language of state for administrative purposes. Thus, the Hohenzollerns became “officially” German, and the Romanovs became “officially” Russian.

These moves transformed the political arrangements in these empires and represented attempts by the old dynasties to make new claims to political legitimacy. The princes no longer justified their right to rule by virtue of their noble bloodline or their personal territorial sovereignty through conquest, inheritance, or marriage alliance.

Instead, they now positioned themselves as the fathers of the nation—the exemplars and defenders of the new, imagined community that shared a language, a history, and a ruler.

Ethnic vs. Civic Nationalism

This adoption of nationalist themes by formerly cosmopolitan nobles is closely related to the 19th century concept of ethnic nationalism—in which full membership in the national community is accorded to members based on a shared ancestral, linguistic, religious, or racial identity. Under this framework, which the hereditary princes sought to co-opt for their own political benefit, those who did not meet these criteria could never be truly considered members of the nation—regardless of their behavior, beliefs, or professed loyalties to it. Thus, Germany was the nation for ethnic Germans, Poland was the nation for ethnic Poles, Russia was the nation for ethnic Russians. 

Political scientists often contrast ethnic nationalism with civic nationalism. Civic nationalism posits that membership in the national community is premised on a shared set of ideals such as democracy, civil liberties, and individual freedoms. Progressive American political figures like Barack Obama argue that, as a nation of immigrants, the United States has no core ethnic “American” identity, and that therefore, being an American is less about a person’s ethnicity or religion than about their belief in the nation’s historic civic values. Some have argued, however, that Donald Trump’s successful 2016 candidacy signaled a new rise in support for ethnic nationalist ideals, particularly among white Americans.

Suppression of Linguistic Minorities

Anderson writes that the European empires began to forcefully consolidate a coherent national identity by using the power of the state to suppress cultural, ethnic, and linguistic minorities and enforce and impose the dominant culture and language—often through the use of the educational system and the civil service. 

This was an era of forced cultural assimilation. In the Russian Empire, for example, Anderson writes that the Russification policy made Russian the official language of state—all official languages had to be written in Russian; the civil service could only conduct official business only in Russian; and the official language of instruction in schools in territories such as modern-day Finland, Ukraine, and Latvia became Russian instead of the local language.

Some observers have noted that the spirit of the old Russification policy is alive and well under current Russian President Vladimir Putin. Although the Russian Empire and its successor state the Soviet Union no longer exist, modern-day Russia still contains within its borders a number of sovereign “ethnic republics”—territories with significant populations of non-ethnic Russians that, while not sovereign, are granted a greater degree of autonomy than other political divisions within the country. 

In 2018, however, the State Duma passed a law making instruction in minority languages at schools within the ethnic republics a purely voluntary program, offered only at the request of parents. However, the law makes the study of Russian language and culture a mandatory part of the curriculum. Critics have argued that this policy is little more than neo-Russification, designed to suppress, subordinate, and weaken non-Russian ethnic identity.
The Rise of Nationalism Amongst Linguistic Minorities

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  • An exploration of the phenomenon of nationalism throughout history
  • Why the idea of "the nation" is purely a political innovation
  • How the rise in literacy and the printing of books fueled nationalism

Hannah Aster

Hannah graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and double minors in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She grew up reading books like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and has always carried a passion for fiction. However, Hannah transitioned to non-fiction writing when she started her travel website in 2018 and now enjoys sharing travel guides and trying to inspire others to see the world.

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