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New Books in History


Most of us live in a world of nations. If you were born and live in the Republic of X, then you probably speak X-ian, are a citizen of X, and would gladly fight and die for your X-ian brothers and sisters. If, however, you were born and live in the Republic of X and you are not--by self-proclaimed identity--X-ian, then you are, well, a problem.

But it wasn't always so. Prior to the nineteenth century, people generally did not live in a world of nations. They lived in a world of empires. Now in hindsight, we say that these empires were "multinational," that is, they were made up of nations. But the elites who ran the empires didn't think so. They saw them as made up of territories where the sovereign's writ ran, not "nations" that the sovereign ruled (though there was some of that as well).

As Michael A. Reynolds points out in his fine book Shattering Empires: The Clash and Collapse of the Ottoman and Russian Empires, 1908-1918 (Cambridge UP, 2011), European imperial elites of the nineteenth century faced a crisis when nations--and the political doctrine that said they should be self-governing, "nationalism"--began to grow in strength. The idea of nations and the program of nationalism were born in Western and Central Europe, where they caused some but not too much difficulty, at least at first (a story we will have to leave aside). When, however, the nation-states of Western and Central Europe began to threaten, territorially speaking, the empires of Eastern Europe, and to export the doctrine of nationalism to those regions, the real trouble began. For Austro-Hungarian, Russian, and Ottoman elites understood that war and nationalism in the imperial context would likely mean the end of empire. One could not fight external and internal enemies at the same time. They were not wrong in this. As Reynolds shows, they did the best they could, creating alliances with Western and Central European powers to buy time, fostering subversive nationalisms within the borders of their opponents, and, eventually, embracing nationalism and embarking on massive campaigns of ethnic cleansing and killing (most infamously in the case of the Armenians). In one case, they succeeded after a fashion in holding the empire together, at least for a time (Russia); in two others they failed (Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire). But they were all victims of war and nationalism, forces they helped create and could not control.


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