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Joep Leerssen


for the consideration of the Athens Workshop

of the Balkans Study Group,

February 2004

            a thought experiment

            three considerations

            three elaborations

            three working hypotheses





a thought experiment

Imagine a literary historian studying Romanticism (a culture-historical movement closely intertwined with phase A nationalism). It would be a grotesque cul-de-sac if s/he were to proceed as most historians of nationalism do: to study various romantic schools as "conditions" arising from, and in turn affecting, the societies within which they arise. The romantic Byronism of Heine and Puškin would immediately become an intractable conundrum if these authors were to be seen merely as the products of the societies from which they hail. Obviously, the most rewarding approach involves the traffic and Europe-wide exchange of ideas and attitudes between authors and critics. Since such an analysis or Romanticism as a cross-national web of influences in literary Europe is properly the domain of Comparative Literature, I call this approach "comparatist". [^]



three considerations

(1)         Nationalism has been predominantly studied by social historians or historical sociologists. The emphasis is either on the social conditions within which nationalism arises, or on its social-political impact. It is usually seen as a condition, or an impact of modernity, affecting a given society.

(2)         Following Miroslav Hroch, we can safely assume that nationalism arises as an intellectual fashion ("phase A") before manifesting itself as social or political movements.

(3)         This raises the possibility to study "phase A" nationalism, not merely as a precursor to later "phases" within the same societal framework, but also in its parallels and contacts with other "phase A" manifestations elsewhere.


suggestion: The time is ripe for a comparatist study of phase A nationalism. [^]



three elaborations

(1)         phase A nationalism is transnational. Although it is usually studied in a national framework (as the precursor of "phase B" or as a chapter in the nation's own, particular history) the actors in phase A nationalism were in intense mutual communication, and often worked in a context before national divisions and ethnic identities had crystallized into the patterns we know nowadays. These trans-national ties have until now received only marginal attention in the separate case studies of specific national movements

(2)         The pattern of communication between these phase A intellectuals may be analysed in terms of a network. This also accounts for the very rapid (epidemic-style) spread of ideas, insights and trends among them (cf. Dan Sperber, “La contagion des idées”). These networks are themselves implicated in a historical transition, from private contacts in a “Gelehrtenrepublik” towards bourgeois patterns of sociability and emerging professional/academic associations and organizations.

(3)         These actors involved straddle the fields of scholarship, literature and belles lettres. Later scholars often found them amateurs; later writers turned away from scholarly interests to purely artistic or activist ones. As a result their activities have been studied in the margins of differently-oriented histories: the footnotes and obiter dicta of histories of literature, histories of philological scholarship or of history-writing, histories of universities.


suggestion: The time is ripe to brings these "marginal" data together in their own right and to work towards a specific history of the phase A network and its activities. [^]



three working hypotheses

(1)         This network will prove to span all of Europe, from Reykjavik to Sofia and from Santiago de Compostela to St. Petersburg. It will prove to extend no further than the edge of Europe, not involving Central Asia, the Caucasus, Turkey, the Middle East, North Africa or the Americas.

(2)         This network spans and affects "old States" as well as newly emerging minority nationalities. In some cases, it leads on to full-fledged separatist activism (Hroch phases B through D), in other cases will develop into nothing more than mild regionalism (e.g., Friesland), in other cases again it merely strengthens the social and ideological dominance of the state's majority culture (e.g., France, Holland).

(3)         The impact of phase A nationalism can be registered, not only in later separatist or emancipation movements, but also in literature, the arts, and the nationalization of cultural memory.


suggestion: It must be possible to establish the European rise and spread of cultural nationalism by charting the activities of, at most, some 500 intellectuals and writers. [^]




How do we characterize phase A nationalism if not in its impact on subsequent national movements as per Hroch's model?


A number of markers of "intellectual nationalism" may be listed. All of these revolve around national consciousness-raising and "the cultivation of culture". We may loosely group them as per the matrices subjoined.

This matrix allows us to situate specific activities in the various countries; what at first appears as a vast, amorphous cloud of cultural issues can be identified in terms of a limited set of specific coordinates. In the second instance, this enables us to chart the even more complex ensemble of cross-national similarities, relations and contacts, likewise on the basis of a limited and specific set of parameters.


Chronologically, the "cultivation of culture" peaks in many areas between 1820 and 1850. Some areas are comparatively early (Denmark, Romania) others late (Albania), but a bell-shaped curve seems to suggest itself, with most activities concentrated around 1830-1850, tapering off at either end towards 1790 and 1890.

The most complex question is to situate a terminus a quo. I have attempted to outline some criteria on the basis of which we may distinguish the romantic "cultivation of culture" from its Enlightenment forerunners. These involve:

(a) the spread of cultural relativism, in the tradition of Herder;

(b) the rise of historicism as a method, in the tradition of Savigny and Jacob Grimm;

(c) the fission of the field of belles lettres between artistic literature and erudite disquisition;

(d) the professionalization of cultural (especially antiquarian) pursuits around institutions like libraries, archives, universities;

(e) the shift of cultural pursuits, institutions and collections from the private to the public sphere (Habermas), the development of middle-class sociability;

(f) the increasing cheapness of printed matter following the invention of woodpulp paper and the rotary printing press


The Balkan area (South-Eastern Europe) has been chosen as a pilot project because for various reasons. It has exemplary value for European developments at large, notwithstanding its geographically marginal position. Important factors are:

(a) its national movements are early and all share the common condition of a weakening Ottoman Empire;

(b) the relationship between Phases A and B from case to case is highly dissimilar;

(c) the area is culturally highly heterogeneous in terms of languages and religions;

(d) it exhibits a remarkable rivalry between ethnicity and religion as principal markers of identity;

(d) it attracted strong romantic interest in other parts of Europe;

(e) the legacy of nationalism is painfully obvious even today, but political-historical analyses of national conflict in this region are often superficial when it comes to cultural history.