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Nationalism and Identity - Editorial Commentary Article by Zack Breslin

Recently, the people of Venice and its surrounding areas voted overwhelmingly in favour of separation from the rest of Italy. The referendum, although non-binding and not recognised by the Italian Government, saw 89 per cent of Venetian voters back the establishment of a new nation—the Republic of Veneto. Centuries ago, the city of Venice and its environs did indeed constitute an independent state and only ceased to do so when Napoleon conquered the Republic of Venice in 1797. Venetia is not the only region to seek a breakaway from its government in recent weeks. On the 16th of March the people of Crimea voted in favour of leaving Ukraine and re-joining Russia. That dubious referendum passed, and with Russian troops occupying the region, there wasn’t much the Ukrainian government could do to prevent the loss of Crimea. The coming year will also see a referendum on Scottish independence from the United Kingdom and a futile effort by the Catalan regional assembly to hold a referendum on independence from Spain. In short, 2014 looks set to be a year in which various peoples attempt to assert their identity as being distinct from those who govern them. Whether these attempts succeed or not (they likely will not), they serve to highlight the fact that nationalism and self-determination remain pressing issues in 21st Century European politics.

This is unsurprising. Nationalism is at its core about self-identifying with a group and identification with a wider group is one of the main ways we humans self-identify. Your religion, class, family, ethnicity—even the football team you support—all place you in a wider group and supposedly contribute to your identity. Perhaps this harks back to the social groups that our primate ancestors formed. My own personal opinion is that it is a reflection of an innate human inability to determine who, or what, the self is. By differentiating ourselves from others based on the group we belong to we can overcome that inability and attain a sense of who we are. Either way, group identification seems to be a central element of the human condition. Throughout history, humanity has group-identified in various ways and major historical events revolved around notions of tribe, clan, race, religion and class. But for the past 150 years or so, the dominant form of social grouping humankind has identified with has been that of the nation.

Nationalism emerged alongside the onset of capitalism and the advent of the printed word and since then it has been the source of tremendous upheaval all over the world. Over two world wars, tens of millions of men were led to the slaughter—fighting, killing and dying in the name of their nation. In the 1940s, one nation attempted to systematically destroy another—establishing factories of death; concentration camps—because they believed their nation was supreme and that the other was sub-human. On the other hand, identification with a nation has motivated people to overcome situations of terrible exploitation and domination. Nationalism was an important precondition for many positive developments; the liberation of oppressed peoples from imperial powers, the growth of democracy and mass politics, and the rise of the welfare state.

In contemporary times, the nation remains the primary group identifier we use when it comes to signifying who we are. A cursory glance at a map of the world reveals a patchwork of different territories which in theory roughly align to the location of different nationalities. There are of course disparities between the lines drawn on a map and the nationalities of the people that live within them. Only a half hour drive away from where I write this lies Derry (or Londonderry depending on which group you identify with), a city in which the majority of people identify as Irish, yet one which is located across the border in the United Kingdom. Take a stroll along the city walls and you will see communities flying the Irish tricolour situated right next to ones that proudly display Union Jacks on their walls and pavements. The people of Derry have experienced the harmful effects of such divisions. Yet for many the sense of identity that nationality provides is too strong to abandon. The flags that are flown throughout Northern Ireland can be seen as testaments to the powerful emotional bonds that people have to their nation.

Northern Ireland is not the only place to contain different nationalities uneasily co-existing. The current crisis in Crimea is just one more in a long list of situations where people find themselves on the wrong side of a border. The redrawing of the map of Eastern Europe after the collapse of the Soviet Union led to many instances where people who identified with one nation found themselves living in another. The result has been a number of wars. The War of Transnistria, the Nagorno-Karabakh War, and the war between Russia and Georgia in 2008 all occurred as a result of segments of populations identifying with one nation yet being governed by another. To take the example of the Nagorno-Karabakh War of the early nineties, tens of thousands of people died for the sole reason that the majority of those living in Nagarno-Karabakh (located within the borders of the new state of Azerbaijan) identified themselves as Armenians and not as Azerbaijanis.

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