In This Review

Who We Are: A History of Popular Nationalism
Who We Are: A History of Popular Nationalism
By Robert H. Wiebe
Princeton University Press, 2002, 288 pp
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In this elegant and sweeping account, the late historian Wiebe portrays nationalism as a genuinely authentic impulse of people who see themselves as linked by common ancestry and seek common governance. Chapters trace the origins of nationalism in Europe, then the United States, and finally its recent diffusion outside the West. In each instance, Wiebe argues, nationalism was essentially a social movement that rose up and competed with its rivals, democracy and socialism. America's distinctively open and ambiguous nationalism, for example, was forged in the nineteenth century by a weak central government and the deep divisions between whites and slaves. Nationalism has endured because it is utterly versatile, uniting people in some instances and drawing lines in others. The villain here is not nationalism as such but states that wreak havoc by triggering an ideology of cultural survival. Wiebe thus acquits nationalism for the misdeeds of the modern state and describes it instead as a sympathetic force in history: an expression of a basic human need to sort people into self-governed societies. Wiebe's thesis is lively, but it could have benefited from a more systematic look at the relationship between nationalism and democracy.