A Nation Once Again – Invention and Amnesia


For, Freedom comes from God’s right hand,

And needs a godly train;

And righteous men must make our land

A Nation once again.


Thomas Davis

In Ireland, ‘nationalist’ rebels fought to unite the north east with the rest of the island. In Sri Lanka, ‘nationalist’ rebels fight to separate the north east from the rest of the island.

Nationalism became a common concept from the mid 19th century. Today, most people live in multi-ethnic independent nation-states. Eric Hobsbawm defined a nation-state as “a territory, preferably coherent and demarcated by frontier lines from its neighbours, within which all citizens, without exception, come under the exclusive rule of the territorial government and the rules under which it operates.”

Benedict Anderson wrote: “It is the magic of nationalism to turn chance into destiny”. Nations “loom out of an immemorial past” and “glide into a limitless future.”

Ernest Gellner wrote: “Nationalism is not the awakening of nations to self-consciousness: it invents nations where they do not exist.”

Paul Ignotus wrote about Hungary, “a nation is born when a few people decide that it should be.”

Attaturk, founding a modern, secular nation in Turkey, co-opted the Hittites and Sumerians to the project. The sociologist Çaglar Keyder has described the desperate retroactive peopling of Anatolia with ur-Turks in the shape of Hittites and Trojans as a compensation mechanism for the emptying by ethnic cleansing at the origins of the regime.

Linda Colley  wrote in the London Review of Books: “What is ‘national history’, and what is it for? Who and what should be included in it? And where does it take place? For all that it may appear to offer a uniquely intelligible account of a clearly demarcated political and geographical space, national history is intrinsically problematic. Territorial and maritime boundaries are usually porous. The frontiers of virtually all self-proclaimed nations have fluctuated considerably over the centuries, while claims to a single, all- embracing nationhood are often contested from within, and/or sporadically overwhelmed or denied from without. In some countries, at some point, politicians and state intellectuals may succeed in propagating a unitary version of national history that wins widespread domestic acceptance. But such linear and unalloyed master narratives rarely withstand detached scrutiny, and professional historians have increasingly come to regard them with impatience and suspicion.”

In two articles in the London Review of Books in September 2008, Perry Anderson described how Kemalism founded a new nation out of the decayed and dismembered Ottoman Empire.

“Ethnic cleansing on a massive scale was no novelty in the region. Wholesale expulsion of communities from their homes, typically as refugees from conquering armies, was a fate hundreds of thousands of Turks and Circassians had suffered, as Russia consolidated its grip in the northern Caucasus in the 1860s, and Balkan nations won their independence from Ottoman rule in the next half century. Anatolia was full of such mujahir, with bitter memories of their treatment by Christians.”

By early June, 1915, “centrally directed and co-ordinated destruction of the Armenian population was in full swing. As the leading comparative authority on modern ethnic cleansing, Michael Mann, writes, ‘the escalation from the first incidents to genocide occurred within three months, a much more rapid escalation than Hitler’s later attack on the Jews.’ … Without even pretexts of security, Armenians in Western Anatolia were wiped out hundreds of miles from the front.”

In 1921, “Kemal’s army entered Smyrna and burned it to the ground, driving the remaining Greek population into the sea in the most spectacular of the savageries committed on both sides.”

“In ethnically cleansed Anatolia, Kurds made up perhaps a quarter of the population. They had played a central role in the Armenian genocide, supplying shock troops for the extermination, and fought alongside Turks in the War of Independence. What was to be their place in the new state?… A full half of the Turkish army, more than fifty thousand troops, was mobilised to crush the Kurdish rebellion. On some reckonings, more of them died in its suppression than in the War of Independence.”

After the First World War, The Treaty of Versailles and the Treaty of Trianon doubled the size of Romania. The nation now included Transylvania from the old Austro-Hungarian Empire and Bessarabia reclaimed from Russia. Because these new terrirotories brought  a number of minorities into the nation – Germans, Hungarians, Bulgarians, Turks, Jews and others- a policy of Romanisation was deemed necessary. The Legion of the Archangel Michael  did not think the government was energetic enough in this policy. The Legion was not averse to using violence through its paramilitary branch the Iron Guard to pursue its agenda of absolute allegiance to a pure unadulterated  Romanian nation. The Romanian philosopher and essayist EM Cioran was a sympathiser  but approached Romanian nationalism from a somewhat eccentric angle. His book, The Transfiguration of Romania ,started off with the assumption that Romania was a second-rate country with  an underdeveloped culture. He envisaged a sudden rebirth in which the minorities would be obstacles. He later condemned fanaticism, including nationalist myths. “In itself any idea is neutral or should be , but man spurs it on, charges it with his own fire and madness. Adulterated, changed into belief, it enters time, becomes event: the move from logic to epilepsy is made. This is how ideologies, doctrines and bloody races are born”.

Recent developments in another part of the old Ottoman Empire give cause for concern. The conglomeration of nations known as Yugoslavia began unravelling 18 years ago. Europe’s newest nation recently emerged from the mess. For 90% of its inhabitants, the republic of Kosovo is the latest phase of the disintegration of Yugoslavia. Sri Lanka did not recognise the new state because of the message about national sovereignty it gave to the rest of the world. There will be at least 120,000 ethnic Serbs in Kosovo who will not recognise the new state. Roughly half of these live under NATO protection in scattered enclaves south of the Ibar river, which is the line around which the land would be re-partitioned. How will Serbia react to the loss of 15% of its territory.

Vladimir Putin promised that Russia would not follow the US and Britain’s bad behaviour by immediately recognising the independence claims of two provinces of Georgia, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, or of Transnistria, which separated from Moldova. But the precedent is now there and western backing for the territorial integrity of Georgia is the weaker for it.

Memories of ethnic cleansing carried out by English and Scottish colonisers and land-grabbers helped lay foundations for Irish nationalism. Later the foundation myths were re-forced by a literary movement. It has been said the literary renaissance in Dublin, which helped to forge the Irish national consciousness, came about because five or six people happened to be neighbours and cordially hated one another.

Sri Lankan nationalists such as AE Goonesinha were stimulated by accounts of Parnell, Davitt and the Irish freedom movement and closely followed Irish events in the late 19th and early 20th century.

Ratmalane Sri Dharmarama thero and Ananda Coomaraswamy wrote of an ancient, highly developed Lankan civilisation. Modern-day Sri Lankans might echo Adamantios Koraes’s 1803 remarks about his contemporary Greeks’ relation to their classical ancestors. He said, “We must either try to become again worthy of this name, or we must not bear it.” Dharmapala wistfully dreamed of a dazzling past: “We must wake from our slumber…We were a great people”. Ponnambalam Arunachalam wrote in his diary: “Thought much of the unhappy conditions of our country and what a glorious thing it would be for Ceylon to emulate and excel her great past.”

Historical symbols are selectively reinterpreted to create a myth of historical continuity, including a community of common ancestry and destiny.

Benedict Anderson uses the term ‘imagined communities’. He describes how Indonesia, a vast polyglot multi-ethnic accumulation of 3,000 islands under the colonial rule of the Dutch, imagined itself into a nation.

A very different nation is Switzerland, a country of three languages which was, until recently, poor and backward. The Swiss Confederation was supposed to have been founded 700 years ago. As Harry Lime said in The Third Man, ‘700 years of democracy and all they could come up with was the cuckoo clock.’ In fact, the Swiss nation only came about in 1891.

Shlomo Sand, a professor at Tel Aviv University, has shown that the Jews are neither a race nor a nation, but ancient pagans – in the main Berbers from North Africa, Arabs from the south of Arabia, and Turks from the Khazar empire – who converted to Judaism between the fourth and eighth centuries CE. He believes that the Palestinians are probably descended from Hebrews who embraced Islam or Christianity.

Sand doesn’t challenge Israel’s right to exist as a sovereign nation but believes that its legitimacy is compromised by its exclusively ethnic base, which stems from the racism of Zionist ideologues. Israel would prosper better if it were a democratic secular state belonging to all its citizens irrespective of ethnicity or religion.

Sand was quoted in Haaretz. He   was pessimistic about how his work would be received in Israel: “There was a time when anyone who claimed that the Jews had a pagan ancestry was accused on the spot of being an anti-Semite. Today, anyone who dares suggest that the Jews have never been, and still are not a people or a nation is immediately denounced as an enemy of the state of Israel.”

Two Israeli historians who take different views about many things, Ilan Pappé and Benny Morris, both maintain that the 1948 war was not a David and Goliath struggle as is often claimed, since the Israeli forces were clearly superior to their adversaries in both manpower and weaponry. Even at the height of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, there were only a few thousand poorly equipped Palestinian fighters, supported by some Arab volunteers from the Fawzi al-Qawuqji liberation army.

Morris and Pappé confirm that it was the Israeli authorities who forced the Palestinians to flee their land through blackmail, threats, brutality and terror. Israel had been granted more than half of Palestine. The rest was to be returned to the indigenous Arabs, who were twice as numerous as the Jews. However, they viewed the territory earmarked for Israel as too small for the millions of immigrants its leaders hoped to attract.

Moreover, 405,000 Palestinian Arabs would have lived there alongside 558,000 Jews, who would have accounted for just 58% of the population of the future Jewish state.

In 1938, following the proposal of a tiny Jewish state accompanied by a transfer of some Arabs envisaged by a British commission under Lord Peel, David Ben Gurion declared ”I am in favour of an obligatory transfer, a measure which is by no means immoral.”

The war of 1948 enabled him   to put his plan into action. In a few months, several dozen massacres and summary executions were recorded; 531 villages out of a thousand were destroyed or converted to accommodate Jewish immigrants; 11 ethnically mixed towns were purged of their Arab inhabitants.

On Ben Gurion’s instructions, all 70,000 of the Palestinian inhabitants of Ramleh and Lydda, including children and old people, were forced from their homes at bayonet point in the space of a few hours in mid-July 1948.

Yigal Allon and the future prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, who was then a high-ranking officer in the military, ran the operation. Numerous refugees died of exhaustion en route, as they were driven towards the Transjordanian border.

There had been similar scenes in April 1948 in Jaffa when 50,000 of its Arab citizens had to flee, terrorised by particularly intense artillery bombardment from the Irgun, a militant, some might say terrorist, Zionist organisation.

In total 750-800,000 Palestinians were forced into exile between 1947 and 1949 and lost their land and property.

Avi Shlaim, a fellow of St Anthony’s College, Oxford, and author of The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World (Allen Lane and WW Norton, 2000) has demolished yet another myth: that of an Israel devoted to peace but confronted with belligerent Arab states bent on its annihilation. Shlaim recognises the legitimacy of the Zionist movement and of Israel’s 1967 borders. “On the other hand,” he says, “I entirely reject the Zionist colonial project beyond that border.”

Yehuda Lancry, former Israeli ambassador to France and the US, said: “The `new historians’, even a radical such as Ilan Pappé, bring light to the dark region of the Israeli collective consciousness and pave the way for a stronger adherence to mutual respect for and peace with the Palestinians. Their work, far from representing a threat to Israel, does their country honour, and more: it is a duty, a moral obligation, a prodigious assumption of a liberating enterprise in order that the fault lines, the healthy interstices, necessary to the integration of the discourse of the Other, may take their place in Israeli experience”.


Young Irish historians have been chipping away at the Irish state’s foundation myths, causing some pain to members of the old guard and the diaspora who feel that the comfort blanket of their atavistic identity is being torn away. This did not prevent émigrés from investing in the Celtic Tiger economy.

EM Forster wrote, ‘If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.”

Orson Welles had a similar attitude: “Ask not what you can do for your country. Ask ‘what’s for lunch?’”

A country is an aggregation of rocks, soil, plants, animals and humans existing under certain climatic conditions in a geographical location. Can the result of a succession of such accidents inspire love?

Nations can inspire profoundly self-sacrificing love – dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.

Benedict Anderson: “Dying for one’s country, which usually one does not choose, assumes a moral grandeur which dying for the Labour Party, the American Medical Association, or perhaps even Amnesty International cannot rival, for these are all bodies one can join or leave at easy will”.

Einstein and Freud exchanged letters on this topic. Freud believed the human psyche is motivated on one side by erotic instincts that seek to “preserve and unite” and on the other by destructive instincts that seek to “kill and destroy”.

Politics embodies an aspiration to promote identification and love, alongside permission to foster aggressiveness. It is unfortunate that love of country often has to entail hatred of something else. Nationalism is an effective vehicle for this dual message of love and hostility which is why it has been co-opted by so many different ideologies.

‘Peace’ has descended on the North of Ireland, (although remnants of dissident hardliners still have access to arms and sectarian violence still occurs) and the South was briefly blessed with wealth, although the global crisis has undermined the economic “miracle”.

Those who sought peace have been marginalised and those who cynically destroyed power-sharing and devolution now share power in a devolved statelet, advising other countries, like Sri Lanka, how to achieve peace.  After thirty-odd years and three thousand deaths Paisley and McGuinness became a double–act as lovable as Laurel and Hardy.

The IRA’s bombs failed to achieve a united Ireland. It was the boring bureaucratic EU that brought peace, because republicans and loyalists could join together in cross-border, pan-European institutions without ‘surrendering’ to the institutions of the old enemy.

As the old imperial blocs disintegrated, regions and aspirant nations voluntarily subsumed themselves in other blocs. Ireland and Spain deal with their conflicting nationalisms and assuage separatists by dispensing the economic benefits of the EU, which also welcomes the fragmented Balkans and the Baltic nations freed from the Soviet Union.

The Commonwealth is different from the British Empire because Mozambique from the Portuguese empire is a voluntary member and the former Belgian colony, Rwanda, has applied to join and has changed from French to English as an official language.

Could Sri Lanka strengthen its unitary sovereignty and economy by subsuming its disparate parts in a larger Asian association?

Ernest Renan wrote that nationhood requires forgetting many things. He cited the massacre of Huguenots on St Bartholomew’s Day as a symbol of the kind of thing France needed to forget in order to be a nation.

Will Sri Lanka be able to forget and fashion an entity combining all cultural histories as successfully as the Sri Lankan cricket team?