Spring 2022

No, Liberal Historians Can’t Tame Nationalism

Historians should reject nationalism and help readers to avoid its dangers.

by Eran Zelnik

Two especially enduring myths seem to have organized liberal thought about socialism and nationalism. Of socialism, liberals concede that it is certainly ethical and—theoretically—commendable, but that it is not suited for humans. On nationalism, on the other hand, though liberals generally admit that it is dangerous, many still insist that it is all too well suited for humans, and therefore they must have it—but a tame version of it, one which liberal cultural brokers would mete out and control. Though many liberals during the 1990s seemed to hail the end of nationalism (and ideology more generally), in recent decades such sentiments—since 9/11 and the success of a wave of virulent strands of nationalism worldwide—somehow seem to have ever more appeal. Perhaps most distressing, many such commentators are historians who should know better.

Meanwhile, as public discussions over the founding of the country in the wake of the New York Times1619 Project and the fallout from that—including the Trumpian 1776 commission—have percolated more broadly, the stakes for contesting or reaffirming American nationalism seem higher than ever, both within and outside of the academic discipline of history. Just a few days ago, an article in The Atlantic doubling down on some unfortunate remarks made by the president of the American Historical Association, James Sweet, reinforce the sense that history is always political and will always be politicized. Far from harnessing nationalism, perhaps the most dangerous ideology of the modern period, (or attempting to insulate history from contemporary political culture, as Sweet insinuated) historians should be at the forefront of struggles to challenge and deconstruct it.

Nationalist images are intertwined with symbols and structures of state power in the U.S. This famed celebration of Manifest Destiny by Emanuel Leutze adorns the U.S. Capitol, illustrating the glories of an expansionism built upon theft and genocide. Emanuel Leutze, “Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way,” 1862, U.S. Capitol Building. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

History, as a modern discipline of study, emerged in the late eighteenth century, largely as an extension of the nationalist project. At the time, prominent nationalist thinkers like Johann Gottfried Herder in Germany or, several decades later, Giuseppe Mazzini in Italy, imagined a world in which liberalism and nationalism would abide together in harmony. In the United States too, ideologues such as Thomas Jefferson imagined an “empire of liberty,” a new kind of nation that would weave commitments to liberty with a capacious idea of “the people” and will usher in a new type of harmonious political order. With time, in the United States such commitments culminated during the mid-nineteenth century in the ideology of Manifest Destiny that underscored a violent expansion across the continent. The United States, according to thinking that endures to this day, was providentially ordained to expand its “liberty” in this way across a savage continent and inspire the world. As some recent scholarship has shown, they in fact did inspire Germany’s eastern expansion during the Third Reich—maybe not quite an empire of liberty after all.[1]

The earliest modern historians, like George Bancroft in the United States or Thomas Macaulay in England, were some of the most vocal supporters of such nationalist rhetoric. In this vein, most early historians told their nations self-affirming stories that were often more interested in myth than truth. It was only later, towards the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, that historians started—even if still quite tentatively—to poke holes in such national mythologies. In fact the emergence of history as a reliable academic discipline—one that champions commitment to a careful examination of primary sources and to contextualizing events after immersing oneself in the discourse and codes of the period under investigation—is a story of turning away, with varying degrees of success, from complicity in nationalist indoctrination. 

Therefore, it has been particularly dispiriting to read more and more historical scholarship and thought pieces that seem to want to turn back to that old frame of mind. Moreover, some recent pieces come from surprising sources. Reading reactionary essays that repudiate much needed critical histories of the United States from the likes of Sean Wilentz and Gordon Wood is one thing. Both Wilentz and Wood have by now long established themselves as the chief apologists within the historical discipline of American nationalism. Thus, reading their violent reactions to pieces like The New York Times’ 1619 Project, that were then picked up eagerly by conservatives, is to be expected. More disappointing, are pro-nationalist pieces by historians, who have long sympathized with leftist challenges to national mythologies, such as Jill Lepore and Michael Kazin (to be fair, for Kazin, this is hardly a new theme).

Such calls to revive historians’ contribution to U.S. nationalism, cast academically trained scholars as protectors of liberal democracy—the few who truly understand the stakes. They urge fellow historians to take up the cause of liberal nationalism—a liberal spin on origin myths—to recover what they perceive as much needed civility, even if it means skirting around some of the more troubling findings by recent historians. At times, it appears as if they are telling leftist historians: “you want to tell the truth, but the public can’t handle the truth.” To be sure, more responsible advocates of nationalism, such as Lepore and Kazin, often discuss the difficulty of such a project, and how one needs to thread a fine needle that tethers nationalism to progressive forces, and thereby undermine more virulent forms of nationalism, but their commitment to nationalism remains steady.

Stanley Forman’s “”Soiling of Old Glory,” in which an anti-integration protestor attacks Black civil rights lawyer Ted Landsmark with an American flag, is a classic illustration of the shortcomings of nationalism. Stanley Forman, “The Soiling of Old Glory,” Herald American, April 6, 1976. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

In a recent piece in this vein, Johann Neem, related how he personally found such nationalism appealing as a young immigrant to the United States. Losing such nationalist pathos, he argued, would endanger that powerful yearning he and millions of Americans over the years have felt to belong to a grand “experiment that had begun over two centuries ago.” According to Neem, most Americans do not want any part of a project designed to dismantle the house that the Founders built.

Neem is certainly correct about the broad contours of American convictions about their nation, but he and others have forgotten the role of historians, and academic scholarship in the humanities and social sciences, more broadly. As historians our tallest task is to push our understanding of the past closer to the truth. It is an important task, even if is not quite as lofty as trying to mold public opinion at the highest levels. Moreover, it is presumptive to think that historians and scholars can pull off what only very few—the likes of F.D.R. and Lincoln in the U.S.—have ever been successful at, namely, coopting nationalism for positive purposes. And even in those cases, the fruits of the poisoned tree of nationalism (or liberty) would help in time unleash white reconciliation and reaction (in Lincoln’s case) and a tense and in fact quite hot Cold War—just ask the Vietnamese (in the case of Roosevelt).

The story of nationalism in the modern era is an ongoing failure of liberals to control it. Even if at times, for a fleeing moment, it appears that liberal principles and nationalism might combine forces for the better, those very energies often rest on latent compromised convictions that later spell trouble. For instance, the United States proclaimed lofty liberal commitments in the Declaration of Independence, only to undermine them by race-baiting language later in that very document. The Founders then went on to erect a nation in which what was most self-evident was that “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” would be restricted to white men.[2] In Europe too, the lofty ideas of Herder and Mazzini faltered in 1848, when it became clear that liberalism and nationalism cannot abide peacefully together. Therefore, Historian Jacob Talmon called 1848 “the year of the trial,” and declared the trial a failure.[3] There were simply too many potential nations intertwined in an overlapping patchwork that would never allow them to coexist peacefully together. And by World War I and II, it was clear that not only was nationalism disruptive to world peace, it might be the most dangerous and insidious idea in human history. 

While historians cannot achieve something that has been tried many times over and almost always failed quite monumentally—as so many wars of the modern period clearly show—they can still contribute to the ongoing leftist project to disrupt, where possible, the hold of nationalism over modern peoples. This is a worthwhile task that has helped foster in most nation-states a healthy and much needed alternative to the cult of the nation. In this way, they may contribute to a radical counterculture that has done much to limit the damage of the nation-state and at times, when the winds were right, even to participate and invigorate significant change in the life of the nation for the better. Think for example of the numerous communist activists who helped make the New Deal more radical than it would have been otherwise. Or recall how antislavery activists in the wake of the Mexican American War (1846-1848) were able to turn abolitionism into a powerful force in American political history, even though until then it had been relatively marginal to American political culture.

A picture of my paternal grandparents from their, Zvi and Rachel Zelnik, wedding in 1949. Zvi immigrated from Poland to Palestine as a young Zionist in 1938, while his younger brother Jacob perished in the Holocaust. 
Rachel survived several ghettoes and concentration camps, including Auschwitz, and immigrated from a refugee camp to Palestine in 1946.

In my experience, history in this vein can help young nationalists see through the thick ideological fog that usually hovers over most of us who grow up in modern nation states. I am a citizen of what Patrick Wolfe regarded as two of the classic cases of settler-colonialism, the U.S. and Israel. And one of the defining features of settler-colonial nations, according to Wolfe, is that they best hide their true chauvinistic nature from their very own citizens.[4] I can personally testify that while growing up, though I knew well the dangers of nationalism—especially its virulent German form, given that my maternal grandfather and paternal grandmother were Holocaust survivors —I never imagined that Israel or the United States shared any resemblance to virulent types of nationalism. I grew up idolizing Zionism and the United States as the lands of the brave and the homes of the free.

When I went to college to study history, I increasingly realized to my horror how the story of Zionism is not a heroic one, but rather a tragic one: a story of how a people who survived the worst kind of nationalism, in time, came to exert an exclusionary form of nationalism in their own nation-state, once they took it by force from an indigenous population. I then decided to take a reprieve from my revelation regarding Israeli history to study U.S. history, the only other country I was familiar with and whose language I knew well (I spent part of my childhood in the U.S., had an extensive family there, and was a citizen). While at it, I increasingly realized to my dismay that U.S. nationalism and Israeli nationalism are close settler-colonial cousins. Both view themselves through a skewed prism of nationalist mythology that imagines their history as an ongoing struggle against overwhelming odds to achieve lasting peace and justice—even if the historical reality all too often contradicted these false myths. They both were conceived as providentially ordained utopian projects, in which “a people without a land” supposedly found “a land without a people.” The discipline of history helped me see all that. The calling of history, as I have come to view it, is to interrupt troubling mainstream myths—perhaps first and foremost, nationalism.

In his piece, by contrast, Neem called critical takes on America’s origin story, a “post-American” position. As Neem himself admits, this construction parallels conservative indictments of recent progressive trends in American history. In fact, as David Waldstreicher reminded us in a recent essay (a review of Gordon Wood’s latest tribute the Founders), Warren Harding—before he became president—used to describe Charles Beard, a pioneer in poking holes in mythical American origin stories, in rather similar terms. I for one don’t mind the moniker, as I have long considered myself a post-Zionist, and feel quite comfortable applying the same logic to American nationalism, as well. But “post-American” seems far too sweeping for the many Americans who maintain a healthy uneasiness toward U.S. nationalism. There are many good reasons to craft complicated and not easily reducible relationships with the nation. For example, I do not consider myself an anti-Zionist, since I might very well not be alive had it not been for Zionism, which led my grandfather to leave what was then Poland (now Belarus) in 1938 and make his way to the “promised land,” while his younger brother perished in the Holocaust. Fredrick Douglas sought to tap what he saw as the promise of the founding principles of the United States, even as he contested the legacy of the Revolution, and could hardly be considered a nationalist figure. Moreover, movements such as Black Power or the American Indian Movement have been at times described as nationalist.

Residents of the Gaza Strip sort through the rubble and carnage caused by Israeli attacks in the Spring of 2021. Image via The Guardian.

Nevertheless, we are in a struggle against nationalism. While we might not win, and though many of us still subscribe to various forms of nationalism, the best an historian can do, as I see it, is to help unsettle fictional and dangerous origins stories. Instead of hanging on to Thomas Jefferson and to traditional founding narratives, as Neem implied, we should urge students to find new heroes and narratives to celebrate, ones that are truly worthy of it. Where I do agree with Neem, is when in an earlier essay on nationalism he insisted that we should not let recent global trends in the historiography overwhelm historical inquiries into the United States as a nation.[5] The best way to counter nationalism, is to study it, not attempt to control it, nor shy away from it.

Such a perspective, I think, also helps us understand what it means to tell the truth as historians. While, as Neem wrote in his essay, “we are arguing about the narrative that houses the facts,” more than the facts themselves, we must also consider what we do as an intervention in the broader political culture of our own times. Much as historians need to be steeped in the periods they investigate to properly contextualize facts, they must also be students of the present, so as to decipher how to best set their narratives as interventions in nationalism, or other forms of fictional narratives that have been complicit in shoring up power in the hands of some to the exclusion of others (yes I am a presentist, but so is Gordon Wood). In so doing, we would be helping our students better get at the truth and contribute our bit, both as educators and scholars.

In sum, historians would do well to remember that while the question is still out if we can get rid of nationalism (I suspect not in our lifetimes), we most certainly can’t control it and must continue to unsettle it. As for radical critiques of the status quo—like socialism—these are not naïve and utopian ideas, but agendas that have been largely behind most positive developments in human history in the last 250 years, from the eradication of racial slavery to the creation of the welfare state; from the civil rights movement in the U.S. and around the world to the toppling of colonialism and Apartheid. In Israel/Palestine, as what we can only call, all too tragically, Jewish fascism takes increasing control of the country, it is up to radical movements such as BDS, or inside Israel, leftist organizations, like B’tselem, to help hold the Israeli regime accountable before the world. If there is one group of people, on the outside, who might at this point help reverse an untenable and heinous situation in the Gaza Strip—a product of a century of settler colonialism backed by the two largest empires of the modern era (Britain and the U.S.)—and prevent it from unraveling into genocide, it is such radicals, socialists, and leftists. Historians, which side are you on?

Eran Zelnik is an exploited laborer at Chico State, an underfunded and mismanaged public university in California.

Further Reading

[1] See also Carroll P. Kakel, III, The American West and the Nazi East: A Comparative and Interpretive Perspective (New York, 2011).

[2] I expand on this in Eran Zelnik, “Self-Evident Walls: Reckoning with Recent Histories of Race and Nation,” Journal of the Early Republic, 41:1 (Spring 2021), 1-38.

[3] Jacob L. Talmon, Romanticism and Revolt, Europe 1815-1848 (London, 1967).

[4] Patrick Wolfe, “Settler Colonialism and the Elimation of the Native,” Journal of Genocide Research, 8:4 (Dec. 2006), 387-409.

[5] Johann Neem, “American History in a Global Age,” History and Theory,” 50:1 (Feb. 2011), 41-70.

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