National Identity Ruthless Criticism

National Identity

National identity constitutes a peculiar explanation of commitment to a fatherland. It is the assertion that the people do not exist (merely) as a result of external coercion and want to live (merely) with their political calculations about their theoretical and practical advantages under a certain national supervision ñ but because they belong to an always special breed of human with whom they share certain characteristics. Independent from the particular and changeable political will of a citizen there should be a natural national character, which not only stresses the connection with oneís own kind, but equally the subordination under the same ñ precisely oneís own national political authority.

ìNational identityî is a modern racist formula for the irrecusability of nationalism; a dogma which indeed has no proof, but some exhibits. They are supposed to illustrate original, ìpre-state,î common characteristics, which make a number of persons into a people, even when they are not the people of one (and the same) state.

Exhibit A: Common language

immediately shows, however, the same simple procedure of reinterpretation, according to which these indications are chosen: commonalities, which developed due to an enforced state interest, are presented as pre-political peculiarities which the state would have to take into account. A national language is, in the end, not a product of the natural-primitive development of the originally spoken dialects, but an artifact of political domination; sometimes a ìstandard language,î as a common language enforced within a dominion; sometimes an ìofficialeseî established as an official and business means of communication without regard for the random locally adopted idioms.

The question is, furthermore, which ìidentityî is supposed to be formed therewith. There is no common interest that would appear due to a common language among those who speak it. Whether they have the same or different views and objectives has nothing to do with their language ñ it is indiscriminately available for expressing thoughts to anybody in command of it. That conversely all conflicts and differences become irrelevant by the commonality of the same language is a gross deception and plausible only to those who demand that next to ìnational identityî all other interests have to keep quiet.

Exhibit B: Common culture

has a similar snag. If works of art are regarded as national cultural properties, this can lie neither in the works of art themselves ñ musical notes and rhymes carry, in the end, no national color; and not because they generally please ñ judgments of taste are, as is well known, subjective, and do not depend on the origin of a work of art. The fact that art, which should otherwise always be an expression of the most individual of individuals, is nevertheless regarded as national property, owes itself again only to a state interest. With the appropriation of intellectual products, state power itself wants to participate in the intellectual world, and celebrate itself therein. Therefore it also ensures that the people know ìitsî poets and thinkers, at least by name. They are taught art history through national eyeglasses and memorize ìgreat worksî as a matter of national pride ñ also and especially if they do not have artistic inclinations themselves, or have their entertainment needs otherwise covered.

Exhibit C: Common history

is even less a reason for patriotism. Whoever summons it as a unifying bond does not mean anyhow the past maneuvers of pre-state hunters and gatherers, but what can demonstrate the political achievements of the current state and its legal predecessors ñ and their imposition was, as a rule, a history of smaller and larger massacres, which have their serene life and health in the political procedures of todayís subjects. The present population should look back on this history not as a harmful blunder for them, but as the foundation of a common destiny. For this one can feel pride or shame ñ however, in either case it is to be thought of as an unconditionally common thing that encompasses national rights and duties, completely independent of every individual interest.

What is meant by it in each case is politically decided. Whether it is regulations and conditions relating to domestic affairs, or foreign policy claims on the resources of other nation-states: it is the concern of the people to understand the political ventures of its rule as national concerns, and to identify with them. Therefore it is always necessary to forget the small disparity between those on top and those below, ruler and subject, state and citizen. If that succeeds with the people, then the state can appoint itself as their higher authority. The required obedience then no longer appears as submission under its power, but as an expression of the will of the people. And the larger the national tasks, the more useful is the image of a popular will, which lives as second nature in the citizen, whether he particularly wants it or not ñ exactly that "national identity" which puts his state in the right. Some commonalities that function as supporting evidence for this ideology are, in the end, always found.


The properties usually pointed to as properties that make a group of people a “people” in the political sense, a nation, are of course ridiculous and easy to refute: language, culture, history, cultural history. The mistake here is easy to name: Cause and effect are reversed. The result of the fact that people spend their lives within one and the same political order is declared the reason for why they belong together under one political order. The effect of their common subordination to one political power is declared the cause of their cohesion, their togetherness, as a people.


At the same time, this ideology, which is intended to justify national belonging and patriotic feelings, illustrates what a peculiar collective a “people” or “nation” is, and what a demanding claim a state thereby makes on its subjects:

The commonalities that people share as a nation, according to this ideology, apparently have nothing to do with their interests. Instead, these are commonalities that precede their interests and their convictions, and are beyond the control of their will: I am an American, a German, etc. And yet, precisely those characteristics that I cannot control with my will are supposed to be the defining characteristic of my will, the basis of the preferences and convictions I develop. People are not supposed to merely have a passport and get sorted into a certain nation, but they are claimed to have a national identity. And this identity is said to determine how they view the world: I am for America because I am American.


And there is a certain amount of truth to the ideology: The cohesion of people as “a people” or “nation” really isn't the product of free decision, and it really is beyond their interests and preferences. When it comes to the latter, people are different and in many cases they have antagonistic interests. One really does have to abstract from these interests in order to grasp the commonality of people as a nation. The fact that such an abstraction is necessary in order to grasp what makes a people a people is also the proof that this commonality does not originate with the people themselves, but is imposed upon them.

That this imposed identity is supposed to be the decisive element of their own will characterizes the demanding claim made of these people. This claim becomes apparent, at the very latest, if one doesn't show any interest for the cause of the nation – even in the most insignificant affairs (like the Olympics, etc.) – or even rejects it. If you dare to do such a thing, then people don't usually try to argue for the nation and its greatness, rather people call upon you not only to take the side of the nation, but to be biased for the nation: “But you are an American!”


Therefore, the properties generally presented as the properties that make people a nation are not merely theoretical mistakes. Of course, it is nonsense to claim that the commonality of people as a nation is a natural thing, that this is a natural property that people have. But on the other hand, this nonsense is a entirely adequate expression for the demand that a political power makes on its subjects: The nation-state doesn't merely subject people it its rule; it doesn't merely make them its subjects. Rather, it wants to have this subjection understood as the outflow and consequence of their own nature, be it their cultural or historical “nature.” The state thereby “implants itself” in the will of its subjects to such a degree that they can't help but be for the nation and its success. That's how all-encompassing the nation-state's claim on its people is.