Daily Archives: 9 March 2023

Literacy and the Rise of Nationalism

From The Making of Eastern Europe: From Prehistory to Postcommunism, by Philip Longworth (Lume Books, 2020), Kindle pp. 196-198:

Czechs benefiting from new educational opportunities learned German … and were thus able to devour the classics of German Romanticism. The University of Buda Press, founded in 1777, not only printed the first good Hungarian grammars but soon began to publish in Serbian, Slovak and Romanian. A grammar was vital to the definition of a single, literary language on which a sense of linguistic nationhood could be based (a collection of contrasting dialects could form no such basis). Furthermore, publication in a variety of emerging literary languages was to help spread a consciousness of a linguistic identity.

The march of the French armies into Eastern Europe also stimulated a rise of national consciousness. Napoleon’s creation of a province of ‘Illyria’ and a Duchy of Warsaw encouraged more people to think in terms of some sort of national independence, though he disappointed the hopes of his Polish followers. Moreover his conquests stimulated patriotic reactions which, in Prussia, began to develop into a German national feeling. The repeated defeats and humiliations suffered by Francis (who not only lost territories, but his ancient title of Holy Roman Emperor, and had to marry one of his daughters to the Corsican upstart) damaged the aura of unassailable majesty that had been carefully created around the House of Habsburg in the seventeenth century. No doubt this encouraged the idea that an alternative republican, and perhaps national, form of state might be feasible. However, the Hungarians spurned Napoleon’s invitation to rebel.

It should be stressed, however, that this stage of budding nationalism also drew on older concepts of group identification. Both Poles and Hungarians were to take pride in the traditions of the ‘noble nation’ (though not the Czechs whose nobility had been effectively Germanized). Recognising the sense of identity (and superiority) that genealogy can give, enthusiasts set out to provide their nationalities with atavistic pedigrees, preferably ones that stretched back to ancient times. Attempts were also made to extend traditional loyalties to village and locality to all the territory inhabited by ‘the folk’; and priests played an important role in the rise of Balkan and especially Polish nationalism. Indeed, in the Polish case, exiled poets were to develop the mystical notions that Poles were God’s chosen people, that Poland was the Christ among nations, the crucified Messiah who would be resurrected; the saviour of mankind.

The nation-makers included philologists, historians and archaeologists as well as poets – for the people had to be persuaded to use a standard language that was, as far as possible, free from ‘foreign’ influences; and taught about the nation’s heroic past. In most cases both the sense of the nation and loyalty to it had to be created. This proved to be a slow process. For decades to come Bohemian villagers were to speak Czech and German dialects which were sometimes unintelligible to sophisticates from Prague who spoke proper Czech and Hochdeutsch. The first volume of the anti-German Palacky’s history was published in German, not Czech; and when Hungarian enthusiasts eventually translated the Marseillaise they rendered it not into Magyar, but into the official language of the Hungarian Diet, Latin.

Literacy, then, was a key factor in the rise of nationalism, and in particular the literacy of the ‘middle class’ of poorer nobles (the magnates still tended to be cosmopolitan), junior civil servants, officers, seminarists and poorer clergy. Jacobinism had attracted elements of the same groups. Indeed Ferenc Kazinczy, one of Martinovics’s co-conspirators, was to assume a pioneering role in the creation of a Hungarian literary language once he was released from gaol. The size of this nascent intelligentsia continued to increase, for the Emperor Francis, determined though he was to keep revolutionary forces at bay, continued to promote education. Following in the tradition of Enlightened Despotism, he extended the educational system and even encouraged teaching in local vernaculars in order to spread ‘useful knowledge’. However, the emphasis was placed firmly on technical subjects. The dissemination of ideas was severely discouraged.

As matters turned out, the policy contained two unforeseen weaknesses. At the elementary level the poorly-paid teachers constituted the sort of intellectual proletariat that was susceptible to radical ideas. Schoolteachers were to be major carriers of the nationalist virus throughout Eastern Europe. The second weakness concerned the exclusion of philosophy in favour of theology (a policy that was to be followed by Soviet regimes, too, of course). This created a hunger for forbidden fruits in people who lacked the capacity to digest them properly.

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