Nation and Empire – A False Dichotomy?

Professor Pieter M. Judson (HEC Professor)

 19 January 2017, 15:00-17:00, Seminar Room 4, Badia Fiesolana

Traditionally scholars have viewed continental empires and nationhood as two contrasting and fundamentally opposed forms of political organization. Nations trapped in empires wanted emancipation, so the story goes, and empires were destroyed by their inability to manage nationalist conflict. That this view remains influential today is largely a tribute to the ingenuity and persuasiveness of the men and women whose publishing efforts legitimated the new states that replaced the Habsburg, Ottoman, and Romanov Empires after the First World War. It is especially due to the ways in which the ideologists of the 1918 moment made nationalism (through Wilson’s and Trotsky’s term “national self-determination”) synonymous with democracy. The presumption remains with us today that by the end of the 19th century, to put it crudely, most Europeans preferred nation states to empires, since they preferred democracy to the traditional forms of authoritarianism that were associated with empire.

My work in the past decade on the History of the late Habsburg Monarchy disputes all of these presumptions. In my presentation I will argue three specific points about the relationship of nation to empire: 1) Nationalism developed thanks to specific institutional conditions within empire. Both nation and empire in the 19th century were intimately related concepts that depended on each other for coherence. Nationalist activists built political and administrative careers within imperial contexts and needed the empire to survive. They did not seek empire’s end, but instead built their own institutions inside imperial structures. 2) With regard to the relationship of nationalism to “the people,” much evidence from local sites suggests that the concept of nation actually meant little to most Europeans even by 1900. When it did mean something, it tended to be in moments of intensified political activism (elections) or in particular political crises. Most nationalist activists were in fact highly frustrated by the degree to which people did not make the nation the center of their daily-life existence. In multi-lingual regions they also worried obsessively that some people might “switch” nations. 3) The self-styled nation states that replaced the Habsburg Monarchy after 1918 represent continuity with the past and not a new form of state. Not only did they adopt institutions and administrative practices from the Habsburg Empire, but structurally and politically they behaved like little empires as well. Precisely because of the ways their careers had developed within empire, the creators of the nation states replicated what they knew, even while loudly proclaiming the birth of a new and post-imperial era that rejected everything of the imperial past.


Benoit Vaillot

Doctorant en histoire (EHESS, Paris) / PhD Researcher (European University Institute, Florence). Chercheur associé Arche EA 3400 (Université de Strasbourg). Coordinateur du séminaire doctoral "Nationalism Working Group" hébergé à l'Institut Universitaire Européen.

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