Historians in service of nationalism — I

Unlike their counterparts in philosophy and literature, Germany’s historians were not focused on introspection

Historians in service of  nationalism — I


istorians have played a pivotal role in shaping the narratives that underpin the rise of nationalism. Nationalism, the ideology that emphasises the interests and identity of a specific nation, has often been fostered and propagated by historians who seek to establish a cohesive national identity; build a sense of unity among a people; and legitimise political and social agendas. While historians’ contributions to the development of nationalism can be seen as both constructive and contentious, it is essential to acknowledge their significant impact.

Historians are storytellers of the past. The narratives they craft have the power to shape collective memory and identity. By selecting and interpreting historical events and figures that resonate with the desired national identity, historians can construct a compelling narrative that reinforces a sense of belonging and shared heritage among a people.

This selective storytelling can serve as a powerful tool in mobilising individuals towards a common nationalist cause. Historians often play a role in identifying and celebrating national heroes and figures. By emphasising the achievements and contributions of individuals who embody the values and ideals of the nation, historians can create role models and symbols that inspire nationalist sentiment. These heroes can serve as rallying points for national pride and unity.

The cultivation of historical memory is central to the rise of nationalism. Historians contribute to the preservation and promotion of historical events and symbols that reinforce national identity. They often work to ensure that significant historical milestones are remembered and commemorated, thereby reinforcing a sense of continuity and shared history among citizens.

Historians may also engage in challenging external narratives or historical accounts that undermine a nation’s identity or sovereignty. By reinterpreting historical events or offering counter-narratives, historians can help safeguard a nation’s image and defend its interests on the global stage.

Historians have a substantial influence on the curriculum and educational materials used to teach history to the younger generation. The way history is taught in schools can significantly impact the development of nationalist sentiments among students. Historians who align their work with nationalist ideals can shape the way history is presented in educational settings.

Historians have, at times, been enlisted to legitimise political agendas that further nationalist goals. They may provide historical justifications for territorial expansion, cultural preservation or the pursuit of national self-determination. This lends a veneer of historical authenticity to political actions driven by nationalism.

However, it is crucial to recognise that historians’ influence on nationalism is not without its drawbacks and controversies. The selective interpretation of history, the glorification of certain historical figures and the suppression of alternative narratives can lead to a distorted view of the past. This, in turn, may breed exclusionary forms of nationalism that fuel conflicts and divisions among various groups. German historians of the 19th Century for example gave fillip to nationalism of extreme intensity that eventually gave rise to national socialism.

Mommsen’s political stance is puzzling today. He was a liberal who supported monarchy and a rigorous scholar whose nationalism had hints of racism. He held strong anti-French sentiments and welcomed the war of 1870 as a means to free Germany.

These historians, unlike their counterparts in philosophy and literature, were not focused on introspection. Instead, they were influenced by the rising nationalism in Germany during the late 19th Century. Prominent historian among them was Theodor Mommsen (1817-1903).

Despite modest beginnings in Garding, Schleswig, (he was the son of a pastor) he studied at the University of Kiel in Holstein. His academic journey led him to France and Italy, where he extensively studied classical Roman inscriptions. In 1857, he became a research professor at the Berlin Academy of Sciences and played a pivotal role in establishing the German Archaeological Institute. Additionally, in 1861, he became a professor of Roman history at the University of Berlin.

Mommsen’s scholarly contributions were immense, with over 1,500 published works to his name. Notably, he pioneered the study of epigraphy and played a significant role in the creation of the sixteen-volume Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum, for which he authored five volumes himself.

Known for his dedication, he started his days at 5:00am, often seen reading while walking. Remarkably, he had sixteen children. Two of his great-grandsons, Hans and Wolfgang, became prominent German historians. In 1902, at the age of eighty-five, Mommsen was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, a rare honour for a non-fiction writer. He is the only historian to get it.

Beyond his scholarly pursuits, Mommsen also ventured into politics. He served as a delegate to the Prussian Landtag from 1863 to 1866 and from 1873 to 1879. Subsequently, he became a delegate to the Reichstag from 1881 to 1884, initially representing the German Progress Party and later, the National Liberal Party.

Despite his fervent nationalism, he engaged in heated disagreements with figures like Bismarck and fellow historian, Heinrich von Treitschke. His stance on nationalism was intriguing, as it differed from the right-wing perspective it eventually became.

Mommsen’s most renowned work, History of Rome, published in three volumes between 1854 and 1856, solidified his reputation as one of the greatest classicists of the century. Although the work remained unfinished, it held significant influence in its time, often compared to masterpieces like Goethe’s Faust and Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Idea.

Notably, Mommsen’s analysis of Julius Caesar portrayed him as a genius whose rule was fair and more democratic than the corrupt and self-serving Roman Senate. As a fervent nationalist, Mommsen advocated for Caesarism, a system where a strong and fair-minded leader guaranteed a just and less corrupt form of democracy, differing from other political ideologies of his era.

The book also introduces an early concept, which would later be known as the “psychology of races,” used to glorify one’s country. In this case, Theodor Mommsen boldly argued in his book that Germans were more talented than the Greeks or Romans in terms of creativity. He expressed this by saying, “Only the Greeks and the Germans possess a natural wellspring of artistic inspiration: while Greece contributed only a few drops from the Muse’s golden vase to Italy’s fertile soil.”

Mommsen’s political stance is puzzling for us today. He was a liberal who supported monarchy and a rigorous scholar whose nationalism had hints of racism. He held strong anti-French sentiments and welcomed the war of 1870 as a means to free Germany from what he saw as a misguided imitation of the French.

(To be continued)

The writer is Professor in the faculty of Liberal Arts at the Beaconhouse National University, Lahore

Historians in service of nationalism — I