Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

Identity on a Personal Level: Sleswig Biographies during the Age of Nationalism

Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

Identity on a Personal Level: Sleswig Biographies during the Age of Nationalism

Article excerpt

SOCIAL IDENTITIES REPRESENT a group phenomenon, but they are also lived and experienced on a personal level. This makes the dividing line between individual and collective identities less rigid. The line is further blurred in environments that permit a personal choice of group affiliation. In earlier periods, many of these memberships were predetermined. Modern societies with their focus on individualism have expanded autonomous self-definition.

This essay explores individual responses to the challenge of national identification in the German-Danish border region of Sleswig during the last two centuries. (1) Together, they cover a broad selection of Sleswig society. They include people born in the late 1700s as well as people alive today, people from different walks of life, and people with diverse national identifications. Yet although the essay examines intellectual life histories, it strives to provide more than abstract biographies. Instead, the article uses concrete life experiences to empiricize the concept of subjective nationality in border regions.

As a consequence, the article focuses especially on individuals at the national crossroads. Although their life experiences also display a process, which ranges from the gradual transformation of prenational conceptions under the influence of social and economic modernization in the early 1800s all the way to the increasing questioning of national concepts in the period following World War II, their presentation is thematic rather than chronological. The progression is not linear and leaves room for alternative self-definitions. As a group, the cases selected illustrate the diverse responses of the Sleswig populace to modern group formation. (2)

The theoretical debate of nationalism and nationhood has been passionate and complex. Although analyzing these concepts has been an important scholarly enterprise since the nineteenth century, it has not led to convincing, generally applicable models. The divergent historical experiences of different populations resulted in divergent perceptions of nationhood, even if experiences as well as perceptions have become increasingly similar over time. Originally, concepts of nationhood tended to differ along political and geographical lines, but the analytical threads can be more easily pulled together now. The growing importance of non-Western experiences has blurred the once prevalent juxtaposition of western and eastern European models and can serve as a starting point for more universal viewpoints.

If one carefully analyzes the various concepts of nationhood, their demarcations frequently prove to be fluid, and their rigid juxtaposition becomes less persuasive. Most nations display characteristics found in a variety of theoretical models, and conceptual variances among national self-images tend to be based on the particular historical circumstances more than on irreconcilable ideological differences.

French nationalism, which is generally seen as the archetype of a state-centered conception, was not content with mere political loyalty; on the contrary, ethnic minorities enjoyed fewer cultural rights in France than in most other European countries. For the Corsicans and Bretons, French political nationalism essentially entailed an adaptation to French language and customs that left little room for autochthonous cultural traditions. (3) At the same time, the process that Renan had defined as a daily plebiscite was not simply left to popular initiative, but relied on a thorough policy of national mobilization, as Eugen Weber demonstrated in his magisterial Peasants into Frenchmen. (4)

Civic participation, in turn, does not inherently conflict with cultural definitions of nationhood. Civic life frequently functions more smoothly in culturally homogenous societies, and it was hardly coincidental that the egalitarian social policies of the welfare state had their earliest and most comprehensive expressions in the countries of the Scandinavian north, in which a high degree of cultural coherence strengthened the sense of responsibility toward society's less fortunate. …

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