The best books which document the spread of nationalism throughout the modern world

Dean Kostantaras Author Of Nationalism and Revolution in Europe, 1763-1848
By Dean Kostantaras

Who am I?

I was a pretty poor student in high school and college but did reasonably well in my history classes. Much of the credit goes to a few inspired teachers who, at least in memory, made me feel that I was a witness at every turn to some grand Gibbonesque moment of truth. Perhaps they aroused in my mind the wonderful prospect of a life spent roaming unfettered in the realm of ideas. In reality, much else comes with the territory but it is nevertheless true that we academic historians get to use up a fair number of unpoliced hours doing just that. Mine have largely been expended on problems of collective identity and the formation of national movements.

I wrote...

Nationalism and Revolution in Europe, 1763-1848

By Dean Kostantaras,

Book cover of Nationalism and Revolution in Europe, 1763-1848

What is my book about?

Nationalism and Revolution in Europe, 1763-1848 addresses enduring problems concerning the emergence of the first national movements in Europe and their role in the crises associated with the Age of Revolution. Considerable detail is supplied to the picture of Enlightenment era pursuits in which the nation appeared as both an object of theoretical interest and site of practice. The work thus offers an advance in narrative coherence by portraying how developments in the sphere of ideas influenced the terms of political debate in the years preceding the upheavals of 1789-1815. Subsequent chapters explore the composite nature of later revolutions and the relative capacity of the three chief sources of unrest – constitutional, national, and social – to inspire extra-legal challenges to the Restoration status quo.

The books I picked & why

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Discourses of Collective Identity in Central and Southeast Europe (1770-1945)

By Diana Mishkova (editor), Marius Turda (editor), Balazs Trencsenyi (editor)

Book cover of Discourses of Collective Identity in Central and Southeast Europe (1770-1945)

Why this book?

The sources found in Collective Identities illustrate how national ideas were received, fashioned, and conveyed by thinkers in many parts of Europe during the modern era. Each volume also includes a number of opening essays and chapter introductions which provide helpful references to additional foundational texts and matters of historical context. In sum, the volumes perform the very valuable service of introducing readers to some common elements in many ‘discourses’ from the period as well as important local variations in style and content.

Joseph Mazzini: His Life, Writings, and Political Principles

By Giuseppe Mazzini,

Book cover of Joseph Mazzini: His Life, Writings, and Political Principles

Why this book?

This work provides another sample of how the national idea was understood and represented by a leading figure from the European world. Along the way, one gains an introduction to many influential events, people, and ideas from the ‘classical age in nationalism,’ albeit as filtered through the sensibilities of one who was himself a subject of considerable controversy. Certainly, this immersion in the personality of Mazzini (1805-72) is no small part of the work’s appeal, at least for me. Memorable too is the odd little piece at the end in which an acquaintance offers a view of the exiled author as he might be found at home in his London abode: Clad always in black out of mourning for Italy, and puffing away on cigars, the smoke pierced here and there by the flight of a small bird ("He loved these signs of freedom"). I would pair this work with something like Ernest Renan’s famous essay "What is a Nation" (1882) for another, and rather different, contemporary reading of the ideas extolled by Mazzini.


By Rabindranath Tagore,

Book cover of Nationalism

Why this book?

Tagore (1861-1941) is generally known as a Nobel Prize-winning poet, but he was also a frequent commentator on contemporary political affairs and the crises of his age. Nationalism, which was composed over the years 1916-17, features long ruminations on imperialism, modernity, and the question of Indian independence, among other subjects of pressing interest to Tagore and his contemporaries. Each chapter affords the reader with an opportunity to experience in full the author’s talents as he strives to put into words his vision for a future shaped neither by "the colourless vagueness of cosmopolitanism, nor the fierce self-idolatry of nation-worship." Instructors may find the work to be an especially valuable resource for stimulating class discussions.

Nationalism in Asia and Africa

By Elie Kedourie (editor),

Book cover of Nationalism in Asia and Africa

Why this book?

Kedourie (1926-1992) was a scholar of Middle Eastern history who also exerted quite an influence upon the field of nationalism studies. This was achieved through his famous Nationalism and the follow-up project cited here. The diverse sources collected in Nationalism in Asia and Africa are introduced with a lengthy opening essay in which Kedourie attempts to account for the ‘family resemblance’ among the movements in question (mainly of late 19th and early 20th-century vintage). The sources themselves are far from ordinary. See for example document 17, which details the final days of an imprisoned Egyptian political dissident – these spent pouring over a few prized works (Bagehot, Rousseau, a volume of Arabic poetry, and the Koran) and scratching out with his boot lace a plan for the "constitution of a Muslim government." Kedourie can indeed surprise and intrigue the reader with his choices.

In Search of Wealth and Power: Yen Fu and the West

By Benjamin I. Schwartz,

Book cover of In Search of Wealth and Power: Yen Fu and the West

Why this book?

This book was recommended to me in graduate school and was a natural fit for the kind of comparative research I was then busy with concerning the global dispersion of national ideas among cultural elites in the nineteenth century. That story is contextualized here through an examination of the life and thought of Yen Fu (1854-1921). Shwartz's work was immediately praised as a model for such a study and continues to appear frequently in bibliographies and course reading lists.

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