Religion and the Rise of Nationalism: A Profile of an East-Central European City
James E. Bjork
By Robert E. Alvis. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse Univ. Press (www.SyracuseUniversityPress.syr.edu), 2005. xxvi + 227 pages. Index, bibliographies. ISBN 0-856-3081-6. Hardcover. $34.95.
Over the past quarter century, there has been no lack of scholarly interest in the phenomenon of nationalism, and East-Central Europe has been widely viewed as a crucial region for understanding hw nationalist programs have emerged and evolved. And yet there remain scandalously few detailed, English-language studies focusing on exactly how and why the idea of the nation mobilized specific populations and resonated in people’s daily lives. Robert Alvis’s book is a welcome contribution to overcoming this deficit. Tightly written, highly readable, and based on a solid array of church and state archival sources, the monograph should be read not only by historians and regional specialists but also by students of nationalism-and especially the intersection between religion and nationalism-across a range of disciplines in the humanities and social sciences.
Alvis situates his study squarely in the context of recent theoretical literature on the development of nationalism. He takes issue with the dominant “modernist” understanding of nationalism (formulated, in different ways, by authors like Ernest Gellner and Benedict Anderson), which views nations as innovations and tends to stress the affinities between nationalist programs and those of liberals and radicals in the revolutionary era stretching from 1789 to 1848. As Alvis rightly notes, this approach suggests a close link between the rise of nationalism and the process of secularization. The modernist model is, he argues, of limited use in understanding the growth of nationalist aspirations and conflicts in the city of Poznaƒ (Posen) during the early nineteenth century. Following scholars like Adrian Hastings and Liah Greenfield, he sees much more long-term continuity in the formation of national cultures, with “pre-existing ethnic identities and historical and cultural legacies” providing “genuine, compelling substance” that shapes and constrains the “invention” of nations (xxi). In contrast to other studies of nation-buliding. like Eugen Weber’s classic Peasants into Frenchmen or Jeremy King’s more recent Budweisers into Czechs and Germans, which strive to impress on readers the novelty of the national way of understanding the world, Alvis’s book insists that there already was a significant national component to earlier religious identities, just as there remained a significant religious component to later national identities.
The book begins and ends with two descriptive snapshots of the city of Poznan-the first at the time of the Second Partition of Poland and the beginning of Prussian rule (1793), the second on the eve of the 1848 revolutions. In the intervening chapters, Alvis traces social, economic, political, and cultural changes, looking first at the city as a whole, then at internal developments within each of the two main Christian communities. This approach generally works well, conveying a sense of place as well as time, of shared municipal experiences as well as specifically intracommunal ones. But the book’s structure makes all the more poignant the absence of a sustained treatment of Poznan's Jewish community, which was roughly as large as the Protestant community (about a quarter of the population). There are many possible pragmatic reasons for this absence (time, space, language skills), but Alvis’s attempt to make a more substantive case, arguing that the Jewish community “was not central to the question of religion and nationalism in our time period” (xx) is not convincing. His own account makes clear that attitudes toward Jews were central to how Protestants and Catholics defined their own religious identities as well as how they understood various notions of Germanness and Polishness. Indeed, while the absence of a more sustained and equivalent treatment of the Jewish community is unfortunate, Alvis is to be commended for including quite a few interesting tidbits regarding attitudes toward Jews, ranging from the durability of “blood libel” rhetoric and imagery to the evolving attitude of Prussian state officials toward Jewish emancipation.
Over the course of the book, Alvis provides a generally persuasive account of how the transformation of Protestants’ and Catholics’ sense of community involved not only a process of nationalization but also, in various ways, an intensification of religious identifications. For Poznan's Protestants, a growing sense of connection with and reliance on the Prussian state was often buttressed by providentialist understandings of Protestantism’s role in Prussian and German history. Likewise, and despite the sympathy of many Polish-patriotic writers and political activists for the French revolutionary tradition, the expansion of the Polish national movement beyond the ranks of the szlachta most often involved embracing rather than rejecting religious language and symbols. In one telling example from the spring of 1848, the story of a Prussian soldier casting a Polish cockade into the mud only seemed to generate a radical response among local Catholic peasants when it was reported that the cockade had been worn by a Catholic priest and that Protestants/Prussians had also defiled a monstrance and the interior of a local church. As religious, national, and state loyalties became ever more mutually reinforcing, Poznan’s population became increasingly polarized. At the height of the revolutionary unrest in 1848, a German-national petition condemning the “evil of mixing both nations” garnered a thousand signatures; a petition pleading for German-Polish coexistence mustered fifty (174).
This narrative is eerily suggestive of the dynamics that have escalated into “ethnic cleansing” in so many corners of East-Central Europe (and elsewhere) in the century and a half that has followed. The danger of such narratives, of course, is that their momentum can appear so inexorable that the process of polarization becomes functionally indistinguishable from a story of timeless “ancient hatreds.” Alvis cannot be accused of such backdoor primordialism. He is conscientious about noting contrary cases in which national and confessional allegiances did not smoothly dovetail. Nonetheless, the author is a bit too quick to characterize these cases as outliers. There were, in fact, some major ideological currents and demographic blocs that made a bipolar ordering of Poznanian society highly problematic. One, already noted, was the sizable Jewish population, which could, depending on one’s point of view, be counted as German (and thus undermine any easy association between Germanness and Protestantism) or be considered a formidable third force. Another wild card that only became more important toward the end of the period Alvis examines was the phenomenon of ultramontanism. Just as modernizing trends were expanding the horizons of national communities, nineteenth-century Roman Catholics were also developing a greater sense of extralocal identification with coreligionists. For the small but significant German Catholic population, this meant that an alternative “imagined community,” one that was neither Prussian-Protestant nor Polish-Catholic, was becoming available. Alvis briefly gestures toward these developments (e.g., in his account of the “Cologne Troubles” of the 1830s) but does not really explore these broader possibilities.
But these are relatively minor quibbles about a well-written book that deserves a broad audience.
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