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Thoughts On Nationalism

by Ainur Elmgren - last revised 30 June 2003

"Nationalism" is a field where creating and discussing of identities takes place. When people speak in terms of nations, national characteristics, patriotism, or even referring to a certain nation's "spirit", they are reproducing certain images of identity.

My theory is, that when a collective identity is weak or under re-valuation, the visible traits of nationalism become more blatant and even aggressive. Strong in-your-face nationalism is thus an indication of a deeply insecure identity. The insecurity can be the result of feelings of external threat, for example a militarist neighbouring nation. However, insecurity can have numerous internal reasons within a nation. Poverty, social injustice, unemployment, these are all very tangible triggers of fear, apathy or rage. The source of fundamental security is a strong identity, no matter what one may identify oneself with. Thus nationalism easily becomes a way to safety for the insecure elements in a society (privileged or poor).

Nationalism has a long history of being a tool for mass manipulation. After the French Revolution, loyalty to a ruler appointed by divine right became more and more difficult to motivate. Love of a country, a people, a nation, was a bond that any new ruler could evoke. But to create nationalism, nation states were needed, and also forcefully created out of the many-faceted local identities in Europe.

Sweden found an easy way. The defeat to Russia in 1809 had surgically removed a large linguistic minority that would have posed a problem to the ideal nationalist self-image "one language, one people, one homeland". The Swedish nationalists of every colour and creed could found the Swedish national identity on the strong traditions of the state, the government, and the ruler. The new borders were declared to be "natural" and the personal union with Norway never reached the same level of intimacy as the Fenno-Swedish realm had maintained (the Norvegians were already busy creating their own separate national identity). Thus, the image of a stable nation was created, and Sweden's borders remained the same for almost 200 years (and counting!).

The Finns, however, had to create their nation and their identity from what they could separate from the traditions of the kingdom. There were, of course, an ample assortment of Finnish traditions and collective memories. The problem remained how to separate these from the Swedish national identity. Russia was in this respect no problem. They had been "the Other", the enemy, the different ones, since the wars between the Svea kings and Novgorod in the Middle Ages. The eastern border was there, in the collective memory, but also in reality, because Finland received a generous amount of autonomy in 1809, which kept the Russian influences at a minimum. The challenge was, how to create a border towards the west - how to severe the umbilical cord to the Swedish state and to separate the siamese twins of the cultures.

In the present, this has led to an odd situation. Creating borders has become an integral part of Finnish national identity. There is a multitude of "Others" in whom the Finns continuously mirror themselves. On one hand, there is the proverbial "Neighbour" - Russia. On the other, there are plenty of ethnic minorities, such as the Saami (Lapp), the Roma, the Jews and the Tatars, and the linguistic minority, the Finland-Swedes. Especially in the latter case the "othering" process becomes visible. There were no "Finland-Swedes" before the growth of the nationalist movements during the late 19th century, there were simply Finns who spoke Finnish and/or Swedish. Nowadays, awareness of the ethnic minorities, and the relatively fresh arrival of refugees from Somalia and Bosnia, among others, has led to the coining of yet another new term, "Finlander" (finländare - suomenmaalainen), which is supposed to embrace all Finnish citizens. However, this word has in Finnish acquired the derisive by-meaning of "immigrant", non-ethnic Finn.

The less aggressive aspects of nationalism have become accepted into mainstream discourse about nation and identity in Finland. This leads to a clash between the ideal of a homogeneous nation that exists in people's minds, and the reality of a multicultural society that people have to deal with in everyday life. Finland has always been a melting-pot for different cultures. It has also been a place for peaceful coexistence without intermingling. Before "Finnishness" was invented by J. V. Snellman and other 19th century intellectuals, the Finnish people consisted of various local tribes and local identities, and the nationstate had to be forged together through the careful selection of elements from different local identities. The best example is the Kalevala, an attempt by the 19th century scholar Elias Lönnroth to create a single Finnish national epic from a multitude of scattered and contradictory folk poems from the eastern parts of Finland (the western folk-poems were considered to have been "diluted" by Swedish influence).

However, the idea of a homogeneous nationstate as somehow "natural" and desirable persists among academics and laymen alike. The identity-creating power of this image is great. It has not been without its advantages. When political ideologies clash and religion loses its power to convince, the nation remains a uniting idea. The birth of nationalism coincides with the birth of modern democracy. Without faith in gods or kings, the uniting factor becomes the lowest common denominator for the majority - fear of the Other. Nationalism establishes and preserves borders - not merely physical, but most importantly mental borders.

Anderson, Benedict: Imagined Communities. London, Verso 1991
Billig, Michael: Banal Nationalism. London, SAGE Publications 1995
Collective Identities in an Era of Transformations. Ed. Klas-Göran Karlsson et al., Lund University Press 1998
Eriksen, Thomas Hylland: Ethnicity and Nationalism: Anthropological Perspectives. London, Pluto Press 1993
Tägil, Sven: Europe. The Return of History. Lund, Nordic Academic Press 2001



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