Nationality, as a Principle in the Formation of States

Nationality, as a Principle in the Formation of States

Johann Kaspar Bluntschli

Authorised English Translation

from the Sixth German Edition

Chapter IV:

Nationality, as a Principle in the Formation of States

At all times in the history of the world nationality has had a powerful influence on States and on politics. It was the sense of national kinship and national freedom which inspired the Greeks in their struggle with Persia, and the Germans in their conflict with the Romans. Differences of nationality were at the root of the division of the Roman world between the Latin and Greek emperors. The split in the Frankish monarchy, and the separation of France and Germany, was largely due to the difference between the Roman and German languages. Even in the middle ages differences of nationality at times became prominent. Put it was not till the present age that the principle of nationality was asserted as a definite political principle. During the, middle ages the State was based on dynastic or class interests (ständisch), and was rather territorial than national. Later centuries saw the growth of the great European peoples (Nationen), but the State did not as yet gain a basis of nationality nor a national expression: it developed a magisterial character (obrigkeitlitche Stat), finding a centre in the king and his officials.

Even the theory of natural rights grounded its claims, not on a common nationality, but on human nature and its needs, and on the free will of individual men. Rousseau saw the foundation of the State in society, not in a people (Nation). The ‘nation’ to which he ascribes the supreme power in the State (souveraineté) is not the united people (Nation) but the ‘collective body,’ or the ‘majority of citizens’ who have arbitrarily combined to form the State, whether they form only a small fragment of one people or are composed of a union of several nationalities. The French constitutions of 1791 (Tit. III. Art. I) and 1793 (Arts. 25–28) and of 1795 (Art. 17) adopted the same principles: the words ‘people’ and ‘nation’ were used interchangeably, but both in the same sense of the collective body of citizens (universalité des citizens). The government of the State was simply transferred from the centre to the circumference, from the king to the demos.

When Napoleon, at the beginning of this century, attempted to revive the empire of Charles the Great, and, resting on the French people as a support, to erect a universal monarchy over Europe, he found a stumbling-block in the other peoples, who regarded the French rule with disgust and hatred. In spite of his genius, national resistance proved too strong for the Emperor who could not appreciate nationality. Even then the sense of nationality was only imperfectly developed. Though the sentiment was at work among the unconscious masses, the spirit of nationality was not yet aroused. Even the stubborn and enduring hatred of the English for the French was not so much based on a desire of freeing nationalities (Nationen) from French oppression, as on the hatred of the English aristocracy for the French Revolution, on fear of French pre-ponderance in Europe, and on commercial interests.

The English, in spite of the heightened political consciousness which springs from their manly pride and sense of law, distrust nationality as a political principle. They know that their island kingdom includes different nationalities, and that the national feeling of the Celtic Irish has more than once threatened the unity of the State. Their Indian Empire, too, might be endangered by too strong an insistence on nationality. The Spaniards, in their struggle with the French, felt their own unity as a nation, and hated the French as foreigners: but they regarded it, not so much as a struggle for nationality, as a war for their legitimate prince and the Catholic religion against the fiends of the Revolution. The Ger-mans, owing to the differences of religion and the disintegration of the empire into independent dynastic kingdoms, had lost all sense of nationality in politics, and only a few educated people listened to the inspiring words of Fichte and songs of Arndt, when they tried to revive it. The Russians went to battle and to death to defend their Czar and his holy empire against the godless West: they had no thought for their claims as a nation. The French Revolution vaguely proclaimed the principle of the independence of nationalities, but it was trodden under foot at the Restoration. The Congress of Vienna, with utter disregard of national rights, distributed fragments of great peoples among the restored dynasties. As Poland had been already divided among Russia, Austria, and Prussia, so now Italy and Germany were cut up into a number of sovereign states, and Belgium and Holland pieced together into one kingdom, in spite of conflicting nationalities.

The fact that neither the statesmen of the Revolution nor those of the Restoration recognised nationality as a political principle, makes its influence on the political history of today more marked and striking. Science, especially in Germany and Italy, had already pointed to the idea of nationality, and hinted at its consequences in politics. But only since about 1840 has the natural right of Peoples to express themselves in the State been appealed to as a practical principle. The impulses to nationality were roused more strongly than ever before, even among the masses, and demanded satisfaction in politics. Peoples desired to give their union a political form and to become Nations. The dynastic system which European States had inherited from the middle ages was now threatened by national demands and passions Austria especially was shaken by the consequent striving for independence among its various nationalities. The foundation of a united Italy and of the German Empire was inspired by the idea of nationality, which gathered the scattered members of one people and organised them in one State. The power of this national impulse is unquestionable, though its limits are not so certain.

Nationality clearly has a closer and stronger connection with the State than with the Church, for it is easier for the Church to be universal. The State is an organised nation, and nations receive their character and spirit mainly from the peoples which live in the State. Hence there is a natural connection and constant interaction between People and Nation.

A People is not a political society; but if it is really conscious of its community of spirit and civilization, it is natural that it should ask to develop this into a full personality with a common will which can express itself in act; in fact, to become a State.

This is the basis of nationality as a practical principle in politics; it is not content with the State protecting national language, custom, and culture, but demands that the State itself should become national. Absolutely stated, it comes to this: ‘Every People has a call and a right to form a State. As mankind is divided into a number of Peoples, the world must be divided into the same number of States. One State for every People: nationality the basis of every State.’ Is this true? Let us first compare People and State in regard to limits and extent, and see what differences appear.

If the limits of the State are narrower than those of the people, we find two opposing tendencies:—
If the citizens have a strong and lively sense of their political unity, the State tries to form a new and distinct to people out of its inhabitants. Thus, in antiquity, the Athenians and Spartans became distinct nationalities by virtue of their political education and isolation; the same was the case with the Venetians and the Genoese in the middle ages, and later still with the Dutch, and partially with the Swiss. But the grandest example of the formation of a new people by the power of the political spirit, aided no doubt by geographical differences, was the separation of the North American States from England.

If, on the other hand, national impulses feel themselves cramped in a narrow State, they strive to go beyond its limits, and unite with those of the same nationality in other States to form a larger and a national State. Such was the origin in early days of the French State, and in this century of united Italy, and united Germany.

If the limits of the State are wider than those of the people, that is, if it includes two or more peoples, or portions of peoples—

If the different peoples are settled in masses, side by side with one another in one country; the following tendencies then appear:—

(1) The State, resting on the superior civilisation of one people, tends gradually to assimilate the other elements, and so to transform the whole nation into one people. Thus, in the old Roman Empire, the West was Latinised and the East Hellenised. So at the present day the Belgian State, resting on the Walloons and its French capital Brussels, seeks to Gallicise the higher classes of the Flemish population; so Russia endeavours to make the Poles Russian by force.

This only succeeds where the dominant people is decidedly superior to the rest in education, mind, and power. The resistance of the Germans and of the Persians shipwrecked the Latinising and Hellenising policy of Rome and Constantinople.

(a) The different peoples tend towards political separation. The movement for Repeal in Ireland, the separation of the Lombards and Venetians from Austria, the constitutional struggles in Austria gener-ally, the renewed double government of Austria and Hungary, as well as the conflict between Magyars and Slavs, Germans and Czechs, all show the persistent force of this tendency.

On the other hand, the State may hold the different peoples together without transforming them in favour of one nationality. But in that case it must be impartial, and give up any claim to be specifically national. It will allow each people free course in its inner life and civilization, and regard them all as possessing equal rights. Its policy will be governed by general and not by special and national considerations. This is how Switzerland has solved the difficult problem of retaining different nationalities side by side, without danger to the unity of the State. Thus in the central mountain region between Germany, France, and Italy, portions of the three great peoples have formed small republican communities, and united in a federation of peace and neutrality. No doubt individual cantons have a national character, either because all their inhabitants belong to one people, as in the German cantons of Northern and Eastern Switzerland, or in the French cantons of Western Switzerland, or in Italian Ticino, or because one nationality decidedly prevails, e.g., the German in Bern and Graubünden, the French in Fribourg and Valais.

A very different way of holding different peoples in political union, without transforming them, was long followed with apparent success by Austrian policy, after the failure of Joseph II’s attempt to Germanise Austria. Each individual state was to be compelled by the forces of the rest.40 This mechanical method will only hold the parts in an artificial union, which will last just as long as the compelling force is feared. If its iron hold relaxes, or cannot be brought to bear, the injured nationalities fly violently asunder. Austria has learnt this since 1848.

If the different nationalities are intermixed with one, another, there is no danger to the unity of the State, but the weaker nationality will probably be suppressed and destroyed by the stronger; the higher nationality becomes dominant and assimilates by degrees the isolated elements of the rest. Thus it was that the Germans were finally Romanised in what were once Roman provinces, although they were themselves the ruling race. Thus Irish, German, and French in the United States, after two generations, are assimilated by the Anglo-Saxon population.
From this general view it appears that the principles of Nationality and of the State interact, but that People and Nation do not necessarily coincide. We cannot therefore allow more than a relative claim to the principle of Nationality, and on closer consideration we arrive at the following results.

Not every people is capable of creating and maintaining a State, and only a people of political capacity can claim to become an independent nation. The incapable need the guidance of other and more gifted nations; the weak must combine with others or submit to the protection of stronger powers. Thus, in the whole of Western Europe, the Celtic peoples have served as passive material in the formation of Romance and Teutonic states; the diverse nationalities in South-Eastern Europe can only maintain a political existence by resting on one another: the justification of the English rule in India rests on the need of the population for a higher guidance.

Strictly speaking, only those peoples in which the manly qualities, understanding and courage, predominate are fully capable of creating and maintaining a national State. Peoples of more feminine characteristics are, in the end, always governed by other and superior forces.

As the essence of a people consists in a common civilization, not in political unity, a people may be conscious of the former and yet be politically divided. One part of it may be inclined to monarchy, another to a republic, and each may be resolved to realise the ideal it prefers. Such a people may not feel satisfied until it has expressed its character in various forms of constitution. But this diversity is sometimes a source of political weakness: it was because the Greeks were broken up into a number of small city states, that they fell a prey, first, to Macedon, and then to Rome. Owing to similar divisions, Italy and Germany have suffered from foreign domination, and have been hampered in their political growth.

On the other hand, the development of two or more States from one people sometimes enriches the resources of the people, and is a sign of great vitality: as in the case of the sister States of England with its aristocratic monarchy, and North America with its democratic republic. So, too, the existence of a German Switzerland and a German Austria, outside the German Empire, is a proof of the resources of the German people.

A People which is conscious of itself, and of a political vocation, feels a natural need to embody itself in a State. If it has the power to satisfy this impulse, it has a natural right to found a State.

In the face of the supreme right of a people to its existence and development, all rights of its individual members or of its princes fall into insignificance. The destiny of mankind cannot be fulfilled if the peoples of which it is composed are not in a position to fulfil their function in the world. Peoples must, to use Prince Bismarck’s words, be able to breathe and move their limbs, if they are to live. This is the basis of the sacred right of peoples to take political shape and to develop organs for the movement and expression of their common life; the most sacred of all rights, save that of humanity itself, and the foundation and bond of all others.

But a ‘national’ State (ein nationaler Stat) need not include an entire people: only it must embrace a part which is large and strong enough to assert its character and spirit effectively in the State. It is stretching the principle of nationality too far to demand that the limits of the national State should be as wide and as shifting as those of the language of a People: and is incompatible with the permanence of the State-personality (Statsperson) and with the general security of rights. France, Italy, and the German Empire are ‘national’ States, although there are parts of the French, Italian and German peoples which do not belong to them.

A people (Nation) which has become or is just becoming a nation (Volk), may be justified in drawing to itself such scattered members as it needs for its existence, but has no right, if it can do without them, to tear them away forcibly from a union with another State in which they find satisfaction.

But Nationality is not the highest limit of political development. The development of humanity demands as an essential condition, not merely the free manifestation and competition of peoples, but also the combination of these peoples in a higher unity. Law (das Recht) rests more upon human nature than upon the peculiarities of Peoples. The developed law of civilised nations is determined more by the require-ments of human intercourse than by national custom. The essential institutions of the State are the same in different nations. The highest ideal is of a State which should be based on humanity (die höchste Statsidee ist menschlich).

And so a national State (Volksstat) may embrace various nationalities, and even a State which is distinctively based on nationality may gain in breadth and variety by the inclusion of foreign elements, which serve to establish and keep open communication with the civilization of other peoples. Such an admixture may serve as an alloy to give strength and currency to the nobler metal.

On the other hand, it is of great advantage to the unity of the State if the nation is based, in the main, a distinct nationality (Hauptnation), to which the other elements of the population bear an insignificant proportion, like the Germans in Russia, the Slavonic races in Prussia, the Jews in Germany, and the French in North America. It is much harder to establish and maintain the unity of a nation if it is composed of several peoples viewing with one another in power and importance. England had to overcome this difficulty by the union, first of the Saxons with the Normans, then of the English with the Scotch, and finally of the two last with the Irish; and it is a difficulty which Austria has not yet overcome.

If a State consists of different nationalities, which together form one nation, political rights cannot be apportioned by nationality: political community and equality of rights must be shared by all alike.2

How far a people is able and worthy to form a State, cannot in the imperfect condition of international law be decided by any human judgment, but only by the judgment of God as revealed in the history of the world. As a rule it is only by great struggles, by its own sufferings and its own acts, that a nation can justify its claim.

If the State is to fulfil its part as the embodiment of the nation, it is plain that its laws and institutions must have regard to the capacities and needs of the nation, in a word, it must be popular (volksthümlich). A constitution which disregards the peculiar character of the nation, and which does not correspond with its spirit and thought, is an unnatural and incapable body. If it is forced upon a people by a foreign power, or if, as we have seen before now, in times of great political fever, it has been chosen by the disordered and misguided nation, it collapses again as soon as ever that power slackens or the nation recovers its reason. In either case, however, the damage to the political organism is so serious that it may result in the fall of the nation, and at least cripples its vigour for a long time.

Every great people which is fit to become a nation and a State, has its own political point of view and its own special function as a State, and this cannot be fulfilled unless the nation gives to the State the impress of its own character. This is what is meant by the natural right of a nation to a national constitution (volksthümliche Verfassung). Thus the diversity of constitutions corresponds to the diversity of gifts with which nations and peoples are endowed by God.

But it may well be that the peculiar character of a nation is not mirrored, once for all, in the State. A nation outlives the changing phases of its development, and although it remains essentially the same, yet its needs and its views alter with the periods of its life. A national and popular State adapts its organism to the continual development of the nation, but without completely losing its identity. The Roman State through all its varied changes reveals the character of the Roman people. The monarchy, the republic, the empire correspond to the different stages in the life of the people, but in all we see the distinctive impress of Rome. The English monarchy of the Tudors differed from that of the house of Hanover, because the nation developed between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries. This is what is meant by the natural right of a nation to adapt its constitution to the time.

To sum up: a State is natural if its form, at any time, corresponds to the peculiar character and period of development of the nation embodied in it.


1. Cato in Cic. de Rep. ii. 21: ‘Nec temporis unius nec hominis est constitutio reipublicae.’

2. Frederick the Great, Anti-Machiavel 12: ‘Tout est varié dans l’univers les temperaments des hommes sont différents, et la nature établit la même varieté, si j’ose m’exprimer ainsi, dans le tempérament des États. J’entends en général par le tempérament d’un État sa situation, son étendue, le nombre et le génie de ses peuples, son commerce, ses coutumes, ses lois, son fort, son faible, ses richesses et ses ressources.’

3. De Maistre, Considérations sur la France. ch 6: ‘Mais one con-stitution qui est faite pour toutes les nations, n’est faite pour aucune; c’est une pure abstraction, une oeuvre scholastique faite pour exercer l’esprit d’apres une hypothèse idéale, et qu’il faut adresser à l’homme dans les espaces imaginaires où il habite.’

4. Napoleon to the Swiss (1803): ‘Une forme de gouvemement qui n’est pas le résultat d’une longue suite d’evenements, de malheur d’efforts et d’entreprises de la part d’un peuple, ne prendra jamais racine.’

5. Sismondi, Études sur la Constitution des peuples libres: ‘La Constitution comprend toutes les habitudes d’une nation, ses affections, ses souvenirs, les besoins de son imagination, tout aussi bien que ses lois. . . . Aussi rien n’indique un esprit plus superficiel et plus faux en même temps que l’entreprise de transplanter la Constitution d’un pays dans un autre, ou celle de donner une constitution nouvelle a un people, non d’après son propre genie ou sa propre histoire, mais d’après quelques règles générales qu’on a décorées du nom de principes. Le dernier demi-siècle, qui a vu naître tent de ces Constitutions d’emprunt, peut aussi rendre témoignage qu’il n’y en a pas une seule qui a répondu ou aux vues de l’auteur, ou aux espérances de ceux qui l’acceptèrent.’ (Intro-duction, p. 38.)

6. L. Ranke (Zeitschr. i. 91): ‘Our theory is that every nation has a policy of its own. But what is the meaning of this principle of national independence (Nationalunabhängigkeit) which penetrates all spirits? Is it merely that no foreign judge must sit in our cities, and no foreign troops march through our land? Is it not rather this, that we must de-velop our own mental powers, independently of others, to the full extent of which they are capable?’
[There is an interesting chapter on ‘Nationalities’ in Laveleye, Le Gouvernement dans la démocratie, Livre II. ch. iii.]