Book Review: A Contested Nation and Nationalism in Europe


Oliver Zimmer. A Contested Nation: History, Memory and Nationalism in Switzerland, 1761-1891. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Oliver Zimmer. Nationalism in Europe, 1890-1940, Studies in European History. New York: Palgrave, 2003.

A Contested Nation: History, Memory and Nationalism in Switzerland, 1761-1891 carefully demonstrates how nations were constructed through extensive debate and contestation, not widespread consensus. Nations were not created overnight by a handful of nationalist elites but rather developed over time through an ongoing process. By making these points clear, Oliver Zimmer has provided a welcome edition to the literature on national identity and it deserves to be read by any scholar interested in the development of nationalism.

Zimmer is concerned with the development of national identity in Switzerland between the mid-eighteenth and late-nineteenth centuries. During this period, various members of Swiss society sought to develop a foundation myth for the state and to celebrate the diverse linguistic, cultural, and religious composition of the country. Unlike national communities such as England that enjoyed relative linguistic and cultural homogeneity, Switzerland had vocal Catholic and Protestant populations, as well as Italian, German, and French speakers--diversity that created numerous regional identities. To attain their dream of a unified and inclusive fatherland, nationalist minded elites were faced with the daunting task of somehow bringing these disparate groups together.

From the first efforts to turn Switzerland into a united fatherland there were differences of opinion about how to proceed. On one hand, radical reformers based in Zurich focused their efforts on producing historical works that drew attention to the myth of Wilhelm Tell and the Swiss Confederation of 1307. On the other hand, a second group of patriots focused their attention on social improvement and the creation of patriotic organizations. Despite their different approaches, Zimmer convincingly shows that both sides, as well as all future patriotic groups, were constrained by memory of past events. Zimmer's argument undermines the view that nations are defined more by invention than history, but at the same time, he shows that the perennialist argument is equally bereft of historical evidence. Early nationalists found history to be an essential component of their nation-building arsenal and whole-scale invention was not the norm. At the same time, nations did not emerge until the modern period.

While early patriots were notable for their inclusiveness, from the 1770s there was a backlash against cosmopolitanism. Foreigners and travel abroad for education became threatening to nationalists who feared that external influences would undermine Swiss distinctiveness. Patriots believed that cosmopolitanism, especially French cosmopolitanism, would weaken their effort to align politics and culture. The widespread currency of this fear both confirms that nationalism evolved as a reaction to cosmopolitanism and it demonstrates the growing importance of national identity during the late-eighteenth century.

Following the French Revolution, the new Republican leadership in Switzerland expressed itself in national terms-often adopting rhetoric and symbols that were used by earlier patriotic organizations. Although the Republican regime was short-lived, their “national” language prompted widespread awareness of Swiss nation-ness and local groups were forced to adopt similar language when pursuing their own political ends. At the same time, locally rooted patterns of social organization were projected onto a national screen. According to Zimmer, the national became increasingly localized, the local nationalized. Despite this advance the nationalization process was far from complete. In particular, Catholic cantons objected to efforts to stamp out localism and rejected the loss of local control.

In 1847, fueled by constitutional and sectarian conflict, civil war broke out. The conflict lasted just 25 days and there were only 98 deaths in total, but the bloodshed was traumatic enough to spark a short-lived unity and the further development of popular nationalism. This temporary closing of the ranks did not eradicate divisions, of course. Catholics continued to be unimpressed by the concept of the “nation” and feared that a national government might ultimately undermine the power of the Catholic cantons. The final chapters of Zimmer's narrative, therefore, center on debates, often between Catholic and Protestant cantons, about national festivals, the development of cultural institutions, and ultimately about the precise historical date to use when celebrating the foundation of the Swiss nation.

At no stage in Zimmer's narrative is there total consensus about the meaning and boundaries of the Swiss nation. Ideas developed in the eighteenth century, namely the foundation myth centered on the Confederation of 1307, were always present in the discourse, but these ideas were themselves reevaluated over time and re-written as political realities shifted. Although Zimmer is careful to stress the importance of nationalist elites, there was a constant process of give and take both across physical space and social class--a process that is at the very heart of the nationalization process in Switzerland.

While Zimmer's A Contested Nation brilliantly illustrates the often-messy process of nationalization, his contribution to Palgrave's Studies in European History series fails to present the same level of complexity or originality. Although he briefly hints at his own argument, Nationalism in Europe, 1890-1940 largely survey's the work of others--an important task given the death of satisfactory textbooks on nationalism, but one that is much less satisfying than Zimmer's fine monograph.

Where A Contested Nation is convincing because it carefully balances the role of culture and politics, debate and consensus, Nationalism in Europe focuses disproportionately on politics. Given the importance assigned festivals and museums in his monograph, it is disappointing that Zimmer has opted to confine culture to the second chapter of his textbook, especially considering that much of the most interesting work currently being done on nationalism addresses the role of culture either historically or spatially.

As it stands, Zimmer has chosen to divide his book into five sections addressing: 1) the debate surrounding the origin of modern nations; 2) the development of nationalism as a mass phenomenon; 3) the minorities question in Eastern Europe; 4) nationalism and fascism; and, 5) conservative, liberal, and socialist critiques of nationalism. Zimmer's discussion of the ancient/modern debate in Chapter 1 offers one of the best concise syntheses of this heated scholarly argument. Zimmer covers the work of Elie Kedorie, John Breuilly, Isaiah Berlin, Ernest Gellner, Eric Hobsbawm, and Benedict Anderson, while he also explores the contributions of Adrien Hastings, Philip S. Gorski and Anthony D. Smith. Zimmer's inclusion of four paragraphs about Gorksi's article (“The Mosaic Moment: An Early Modernist Critique of Modernist Theories of Nationalism,” American Journal of Sociology 105, no. 5 (2000): 1428-1468) is especially inspired as Gorksi provides perhaps the most convincing evidence of pre-modern nationalism yet published.

Zimmer's second chapter covers important work by George Mosse (though Zimmer's treatment of Mosse does not do justice to the late historian's contribution), Alon Confino, Eugen Weber and Rogers Brubaker, yet the centrality of culture to nationalist movements during the period covered here is not addressed. There is no mention of the role played by hiking clubs and clean living groups in both Britain and Germany, groups that tried not only to create better citizens through better living, but also attempted to educate fellow nationals by creating a direct connection to the land. Zimmer never fully explores the growing study of national memory and so fails to explore important discussions such as Rudy Koshar's recent Germany's Transient Pasts. While there is a very helpful discussion about the impact of the “myth of the war experience” on national culture, the book would have greatly benefited from a larger exploration of commemorative activities. Finally, Zimmer ignores the effort by nationalist movements, such as Ireland's Gaelic League and Gaelic Athletic Association, to make culture a focal point of their struggle for freedom. Clearly, Zimmer could not possibly cover everything in less than 150 pages, but his narrative would have been greatly strengthened by intertwining culture and politics throughout his book--just as he does in A Contested Nation.

Chapters 3 and 4 differ slightly from the other three chapters by delving into specific case studies--primarily drawn from Eastern Europe. Unfortunately, Zimmer's summaries assume a level of historical knowledge that may be unfair given the likely audience for this book. For example, the author's discussion of the minorities question is informative and useful, though it may prove difficult going for those without a background in German and Eastern European history. Chapter 4 addresses the relationship between fascism and nationalism and is quite strong when covering theoretical debates--graduate students preparing for preliminary exams on fascism will find this section valuable--but as with Chapter 3, the case studies are less satisfying. In particular, Zimmer's discussion of Germany is problematic. Zimmer focuses on a narrow debate about German citizenship, giving the impression that this issue was central to the success of National Socialism in Germany. It would have been far better to explore the Nazi's use of cultural symbolism, the movement's bipolar relationship with modernity, or even the extensive literature that attempts to explain the Nazi party's broad popular appeal--all of which directly relate to the major themes in Zimmer's survey.

Despite the above reservations, undergraduates will likely find the first, second, and fifth chapters of Nationalism in Europe helpful in gaining a foothold in this literature, while graduate students will find these same chapters a useful as addition to their preliminary examination review efforts. Meanwhile, A Contested Nation is both accessible to advanced undergraduates and vital reading for established scholars. It is a detailed, readable, and balanced addition to the nationalism literature.