How romantic notions of nations fosters national identity


Jonathan Haas once said that “one of the favourite pastimes of social scientists over the course of the past century has been to theorise about the evolution of the world’s great civilisations.” From the copious amount of state-formation theories prevalent in IR, the different theoretical understandings of ‘sovereignty’, and the multiple contributions that other fields such as Anthropology, History, Economics contribute to the understanding of ‘states’; this is surely the case. Yet it is hard to deny that state formation is possible without national identity. For many IR students, concepts of nations and states have always been confusing, as the line that differentiates that two can be blurred easily. While there are crossovers, they are completely different concepts. By definition, nation “refers to a group of people who feel bound into a single body by shared culture, values, folkways, religion or language.” Whereas, states refers to “land with a sovereign government.”  


For a word that has such strong masculine connotations, the word ‘nation’ is arguably built upon feminine and romantic sentiments. The almost poetic feeling of belonging and the empowering notion of nurturing a homeland are routinely strategically used by leaders to foster national identity. If it is believed that geographical borders are abstract, fluid, and in-tangible and therefore have little relevance to the construction of a meaning of nations or that a geographical centre-point is not necessary for national identity, then it leads to the question of what does. For the longest time, politics has been divided into the public and private sphere. This division is based on a dichotomy rooted in the Western philosophy. The dichotomy of the masculine and the rational on one side, in contrast to the feminine and the emotive on the other, is central to traditional ways of understanding society and traditional Western, post-Enlightenment thought. If ideas of sovereignty in the state-building context is based on masculine ideas of control, power and governance; understandings of nation arguably falls on the other side of the dichotomy. Just like how ‘mother-Earth’ has divine but powerful connotations, nationalistic passions such as fighting for the country, or sacrifice in wars are powerful in a dramatic and poetic way — almost reminiscent of Greek tragedies and plays. In this logic, nationalism is fueled by these passions. If understanding national identity cannot be done by solely looking into geography or state-formation, perhaps the constructivist theory that inspects the formation of norms through shared understanding of identity could provide us insight to how national identity is formed. At the core of constructivism in IR is the understanding that humans aren’t atomistic and completely self-interested, but rather influenced by ideas and concepts. In this logic, national identity cannot be fostered without ideas and concept that connect people. Therefore, it can be argued that national identity is nothing without the aid of great literature, emotive art and good propaganda. When this point is recognised, the rhetoric of national identity is commonly used by leaders to justify their regime and unite the people together for a greater goal. As a result, the narratives leaders choose to use surrounding historical and cultural depictions of a nation is significant to understand their goal for the nation. After-all, national identity is a feeling that is evoked in a group of people.


To many the most obvious example of Romantic nationalism in Europe can be attributed to ideas linked to the French Revolution. Romantic nationalism suggests that nation building does not have to be a top-down process. The passions linked to belonging with a group of people does not have to be implemented and fostered through policies, rather it is a sentiment shared with a group of people who share the same language, race, or culture — all of which are built by folklore, hymns or scriptures. It is believed that Rousseau’s philosophy inspired Romantic nationalism and the resulting revolutions European revolutions in the 19th century. ‘The father of Romanticism’ believed in the general will of the people. He argued that if men are assembled together and consider themselves to be a community, they will be able to share a common will have have shared goals. As he believes that people in the state of nature are free, wise and kind, he does not see a need in the state to control or limit the desires of the people, as none of these are problematic; rather, to provide a means for them to reach the general will is sufficient. He didn’t only believe that people in the state of nature are free and wise but that it is the inherent virtue of nature that leads people to be this way. Hence, it can be seen that romanticism places importance in nature, and the raw feelings it entices in the people. The passionate feelings of sacrifice for the land in a battle has been romanticised and immortalised through poetry, tragedies and song throughout many countries and over many years. The emotive response that romanticism cannot be denied —  the power of it is demonstrated in how paintings such as ‘Liberty Leading the People’ or Beethoven’s late patriotic romantic symphonies have lasted the test of time.

‘Liberty Leading the People’ by Eugène Delacroix

Perhaps an awareness to how romantic sentiments can be powerful and transformative explains why many leaders look to literature, art and music to foster national identity and justify their sometimes totalitarian regimes. Leaders not only create propaganda through literature, art and music; but also refer to literature, art and music that are culturally and historically specific to the people to incite passions within them. This can be demonstrated in how Putin uses pan-Russian identity to push his foreign policy goals. A peek into Putin’s favourite writers would give us an idea of the ideas that fuels his discourse and goals for Russia. Russian philosophers from the 19th and 20th century such as Nikolai Berdyaev, Vladimir Solovyov and Ivan Ilyin describes the ‘historical mission’ or ‘destiny’ of Russia. For Putin who views the collapse of the Soviet Union as the greatest disaster of the modern era and views Moscow as the ‘third Rome’, these philosophers are attractive to him as they all have a mystical view of the purpose of Russia. Russia’s foreign policy prioritises recreating Russia as a great power beyond the post-Soviet space. They aim to coerce its former partners from the Soviet Union and create cohesion amongst those with the pan-Russian identity that they believe in. In 2017, the Russian parliament passed a law that would allow anyone who speaks Russian or has any connection to Russia and the former Soviet Union to become a Russian citizen. This mentality of creating a common pan-Russian identity is crucial not only for the Russians to gain hegemonic power, but also to maintain their culture. Perhaps this mentality is present in Russia’s actions towards Ukraine and Crimea — a belief in uniting their people towards a commons. Similarly, this could be a reason for their expansionist policies in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. By constantly referring to these philosophers in his speeches, the Kremlin tries to encourage this notion of a Russian destiny. If romanticism is characterised by the ‘5 Is’; imagination, intuition, individuality, idealism, and inspiration; the idea of a ‘destiny’ encompasses all 5 of these characteristics. This is especially so as it creates an idealistic dream that bonds people to a shared dream that is only understood by those who have been taught to dream this dream. If it wasn’t for this dream that Putin references to frequently, that he supposedly is out to build, perhaps he would have less national support for his attitudes towards Ukraine and Crimea. In this case, building this discourse, and fostering this national identity with romantic ideas of destiny is beneficial to him. Under this perspective, ‘National Posts’ commentary about Putin is fitting — “Putin is less the philosopher king off to war, and more like a military man dabbling in a library, finding among the stacks a validation of his own pre-determined vision.”

Ancient Chinese painting of the Yellow River

This notion of destiny can also be fueled by discourse surrounding physical landscape. This is a feature used by leaders to create a stronger link to national identity and a source of propaganda. As the land is something that is permanent, and larger than the man itself; the idea of destiny becomes more persuasive paired with such discourse. An idea put out by Solovoyov, one of the philosophers Putin cites, is the belief that Russia is conveniently located between the Catholic West and the non-Christian East, therefore it has the role to lead human unification. Looking to a map, this is true. Geographically, Russia makes a perfect bridge between the East and the West. This is an idea raised in Mackinder’s dated ‘Heartland Theory’ that sees the future of human development in Eastern Europe and regions in Russia he calls the ‘Heartland’. His argument for this is that this area could become a ‘pivot area’ of the ‘World Island’.It is believed that Mackinder’s theory may have influenced Nazis when invading Eastern Europe. While this theory is outdated, it demonstrates the power of geopolitics, and reference to geography. Therefore, when geographical facts about land is used to create a discourse about national destiny, it becomes more powerful. However, when such sentiment is backed up by myth, national identity becomes more powerful. The Chinese creation myth ‘Nuwa’ where the Chinese people are said to be sculpted yellow clay from the Yellow river creates a cultural connection between the Chinese people and their land. This concept is fundamentally romantic, as it develops an intimate link to ‘Mother Earth’. Encouraging such discourses about intimacy and connection to the land is important as connection to the country and nation is inevitable once emotionally connected to the land. During Chinese Civil War, promise for land reforms is something that attracted many Chinese to the Chinese Communist Party. Furthermore, the imagery and powerful story of the Red Army of the Communist Party fighting off the Japanese in the Long March by deep understanding of their geography, escaping narrowly through bridges only known by local villagers, and painful treks through difficult terrains; is commonly used in Chinese propaganda to demonstrate how the Communist Party’s heroic victory is due to their ability to fight for their land and the people. For a country that is heavily reliant on Agriculture, where 75% of China’s cultivated land is used for food cops; and a party that still believes in the collectivisation of land, unbeknownst to many; this discourse of helpful in maintaining the survival of the party. Another classic example of how landscape can be used for propaganda is how the Kim administration twisted Kim Jong-il’s birthplace to the Paektu mountains that is located between China and North Korea despite evidence suggesting that he was born in the Soviet Union. With a crater lake named ‘Heaven Lake’, the Paektu is the setting of traditional Korean mythology. Presented as sacred, it is said to be the birthplace of Dangun, the founder of the first Korean kingdom. Coincidently, it is also the location where Kim Il-sung led the Korean People’s Revolutionary Army against the Japanese. Scared of losing power and prestige, the Paektu mountains serves as propaganda to highlight the sacred bloodline of the Kim family. The Kim family recognises this as the Paektu is an image that is government projects, slogans and the emblem of North Korea. It is therefore evident how the Kim regime is using this discourse strategically for the power of the party.

Kim Jong Un at the Paektu Mountains

It can be seen that national identity is more emotive, fluid and passionate than the institutionalised, formal and rigid understandings of the state. If a state can be developed in a top-down fashion, feelings of belonging in a nation would usually be the opposite. However, recognising the power of national identity, many leaders utilise this feeling for a cause they believe in. If good literature and art is a means of expression, a nation is nothing without these mediums. A leader is nothing without feeling that they have a destiny to fulfill.

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Yuk-Ting is a 2nd year PPE student in Durham. She enjoys reading about virtue-ethics and ecofeminist theory and thinking about how this can be applied in Politics, IR and Economics.

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