National Endogamy and Double Standards: Sexuality and Nationalism in East-Central Europe during the 19th Century

By Maxwell, Alexander | Journal of Social History, Winter 2007 | Go to article overview

National Endogamy and Double Standards: Sexuality and Nationalism in East-Central Europe during the 19th Century


Maxwell, Alexander, Journal of Social History


During the "long nineteenth century," nationalism came to permeate all aspects of European society, including attitudes toward human sexuality. Both sexuality and nationalism are complex phenomena that overlap in myriad ways. However, national endogamy may be the most characteristically national of all possible sexual attributes: qualities such as chastity or fidelity, while frequently claimed as typical of a given national group, have religious and social dimensions independent of nationalism. An individual who makes nationality a decisive factor in selecting sexual partners, however, not only makes some concept of the nation a defining feature of sexual virtue, but implicitly defines the nation in sexual terms.

This essay examines national sexual endogamy in Central and Eastern Europe during the nineteenth century. It discusses patriots who promoted national endogamy: their ideals, their sexual lives, and their attempts to reconcile the frequent discrepancies between the former and the latter. Several patriots defined the nation through sexuality, but female sexuality played a special role. The nation may have been a "national brotherhood," but its survival depended on female sexuality: as Yuval-Davis and Floya Anthias observed, women were "biological reproducers of ethnic collectives." (1) National motherhood presupposes sexually-active national women, so the extensive literature on national motherhood implicitly recognizes national sexuality as a prelude to national child-birth and child rearing. (2) Few scholars, however, have examined the nationalization of sexual desire in its own right. This analysis restricts its attention to texts that discuss sexuality, including marriage, ignoring the nationalization of parenting or childhood.

Rhetoric on national sexuality concerned itself primarily with female sexuality: the national woman was expected and encouraged to find a partner of the same nationality. Nevertheless, male sexual choices also acquired national meanings. Specifically, several authors justified and celebrated male national exogamy by suggesting that patriotic men would be able to nationalize foreign women: sexual conquests were also national conquests. Both male and female sexuality helped define the porous boundary between the national and the foreign, but a national-sexual double standard enabled or even encouraged men to cross national boundaries in both theory and practice, while attempting to restrict the sexuality of women.

Central and Eastern Europe provides a useful setting for examining these questions, because so many national concepts coexisted and interacted within the region. East-Central Europe generally, and the Habsburg Empire in particular, was remarkable both for its ethnic heterogeneity and for complex federal political structures that underwent frequent reform and reconstitution, particularly during the nineteenth century. The ever-changing kaleidoscope of central European politics produced several sophisticated definitions of "the nation." The mish-mash of different ethnicities, furthermore, provided multiple opportunities for cross-national sexual encounters, however an individual patriot understood the nation.

The many permutations of nineteenth century Central European nationalism cannot be analyzed here, but a few key points deserve emphasis. First, central European nationalists often invoked different types of "nation" simultaneously. When writing in German, several authors distinguished the Volk, defined through language or ethnicity, from the Nation, typically defined through political structures; (3) other thinkers juxtaposed the Sprachnation ["linguistic nation"] with the Staatnation ["state nation"]. (4) In Hungary, political theorists often contrasted the politikai nemzet ["political nation"] with the nemzetisegek ["nationalities"] that inhabited it. (5) South Slavs distinguished the narod/[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (similar to the German Volk) from the nacija/[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (German Nation), and both from narodnost/[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] ("nationality"). …

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