The best books about nationalism

6 authors have picked their favorite books about nationalism and why they recommend each book.

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Imagined Communities

By Benedict Anderson,

Book cover of Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism

If you fancy ‘nations’ to ‘empires’ in world history, then Imagined Communities is the book for you. Beware though, for once you begin reading this wonderfully written little book on nationalism, you may have to rethink what you thought you knew about ‘your nation’. To put it bluntly, empires have been around since antiquity, but nations have not. We might try to convince ourselves that our nations – the United States, France, or India – are eternal entities with their roots located in the distant past; but they are not. What makes Anderson so fun to read is that he is not out to bash the nation (in fact, he quite likes it.). But what he wants us to understand is how we made them and why so many are willing to die for them. Whatever your politics, you will not be disappointed. In fact, you will want to read…


Who am I?

Christopher Goscha first fell in love with world history while reading Fernand Braudel's La Méditerranée in graduate school in France and doing research for his PhD in Southeast Asia. He is currently a professor of international relations at the Université du Québec à Montréal where he teaches world history and publishes on the wars for Vietnam in a global context. He does this most recently in his forthcoming book entitled The Road to Dien Bien Phu: A History of the First Vietnam War.

I wrote...

The Road to Dien Bien Phu: A History of the First War for Vietnam

By Christopher Goscha,

Book cover of The Road to Dien Bien Phu: A History of the First War for Vietnam

What is my book about?

On May 7, 1954, when the bullets stopped and the air stilled in Dien Bien Phu, there was no doubt that Vietnam could fight a mighty colonial power and win. After nearly a decade of struggle, a nation forged in the crucible of war had achieved a victory undreamed of by any other national liberation movement. The Road to Dien Bien Phu tells the story of how Ho Chi Minh turned a ragtag guerilla army into a modern fighting force capable of bringing down the formidable French army.

Panoramic in scope, The Road to Dien Bien Phu transforms our understanding of this conflict and the one the United States would later enter, and sheds new light on communist warfare and statecraft in East Asia today.

National History and New Nationalism in the Twenty-First Century

By Niels F. May (editor), Thomas Maissen (editor),

Book cover of National History and New Nationalism in the Twenty-First Century: A Global Comparison

We are living in a world in which right-wing populisms thrive from North America to India and from Latin America to Europe. Everywhere they promote nationalism, xenophobia, homophobia, and religious fundamentalism. This is a book that analyzes the new nationalism in different parts of the world and dissects to what extent essentialist national identities are constructed with often devastating results in terms of violent conflict in a range of societies.


Who am I?

I've been working on questions of identity and history for more than thirty years. It's a very personal topic for me, as I come from a working-class background – something that I was acutely aware of throughout my school and university education, where people of my background were comparatively rare. History in my view has the power to construct essentialist identities that exclude and are potentially deadly. But history also has the power to critically question this essentialism and contribute to a more tolerant, open-minded, and self-reflective society. Hence, as a historian, I've been trying to support and strengthen an engaged and enlightened historiography that bolsters a range of progressive identifications without leading to essentialist constructions of collective identities.


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History and Identity: How Historical Theory Shapes Historical Practice

By Stefan Berger,

Book cover of History and Identity: How Historical Theory Shapes Historical Practice

What is my book about?

History-writing is often related to the formation of collective identities. Historians write the history of nations which answers questions about how those who think of themselves as belonging to a nation, developed over time. History has been, for many centuries, meaningful in the construction of collective identities.

This volume reflects on the ways in which professional historians have, since the 1980s become more self-reflective about their role in providing identities and identifications, and it analyzes the different ways in which they have attempted to stay clear of essentialisms. How did they manage to introduce more self-reflectivity and critical potential into their handling of identitarian questions in historical writing? The volume looks at a range of different histories, political, social, economic, cultural, the history of concepts, visual histories, material culture histories, historical anthropology, environmental history, big history, and global history to demonstrate, how across a range of different sub-disciplines we can speak of a self-reflective turn of historical studies in relation to collective identities.

The Embarrassment of Slavery

By Michael Salman,

Book cover of The Embarrassment of Slavery: Controversies Over Bondage and Nationalism in the American Colonial Philippines

Salman shows how the anti-slavery discourse became part of American imperialism and how contentious this issue became during US colonial administration over the Philippines. While the American administration acted with growing determination and harshness against slave-holding societies particularly in the Muslim southern part of the Philippines, it also adopted abolitionism as a legitimation for colonial rule over the entire Philippines. Salman exposes the paradoxes of imperialist rhetoric in which people were subjugated to free them from slavery. 


Who am I?

I find it crucially important that we acknowledge that slavery is a global phenomenon that still exists this very day. Dutch historians like me have an obligation to show that the Dutch East India Company, called the world’s first multinational, was a major slave trader and employer of slavery. I am also personally involved in this endeavour as I am one of the leaders of the “Exploring the Slave Trade in Asia” project, an international consortium that brings together knowledge on this subject, and is currently a slave trade in Asia database.


I wrote...

The Making of a Periphery: How Island Southeast Asia Became a Mass Exporter of Labor

By Ulbe Bosma,

Book cover of The Making of a Periphery: How Island Southeast Asia Became a Mass Exporter of Labor

What is my book about?

Island Southeast Asia was once a thriving region, and its products found eager consumers from China to Europe. Today, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia are primarily exporters of their surplus of cheap labor, with more than ten million emigrants from the region working all over the world. How did a prosperous region become a peripheral one?

In The Making of a Periphery, Ulbe Bosma draws on new archival sources from the colonial period to the present to demonstrate how high demographic growth and a long history of bonded labor relegated Southeast Asia to the margins of the global economy. Bosma finds that the intensifying colonial presence in the region during the early nineteenth century led to improved health care and longer life spans as the Spanish and Dutch colonial governments began to vaccinate their subjects against smallpox. The resulting abundance of workers ushered in extensive migration toward emerging labor-intensive plantation and mining belts. 

Nationalism

By Rabindranath Tagore,

Book cover of Nationalism

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.

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.

Nationalism in Asia and Africa

By Elie Kedourie (editor),

Book cover of Nationalism in Asia and Africa

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.

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.

In Search of Wealth and Power

By Benjamin I. Schwartz,

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

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.

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.

Germany

By Helmut Walser Smith,

Book cover of Germany: A Nation in Its Time: Before, During, and After Nationalism, 1500-2000

As the title suggests, Smith’s recent book is not about the imperial era alone, but it is an important and thought-provoking text for anyone with an interest in modern German history. I particularly admire the book’s erudition, breadth of scope, and bold ambition, which I know I could never match. The book makes impressive use of literary and visual sources (most notably a fascinating array of maps). As with any attempt at a ‘grand narrative,’ it is relatively easy to pick small holes in the argument, but there is no doubt that this is a book that will be read and discussed for many years to come. 


Who am I?

I have been studying this period of German history for more than 40 years and teaching it at Manchester since 1991. I have no family connections to Germany, but I went on a school exchange to Hannover when I was 14 and became fascinated by the country and its history. I chose to do my PhD on this period because it seemed less researched than the Weimar and Nazi eras which followed. Contesting the German Empire was an attempt to show how historians’ views of Imperial Germany have changed over time, and to give a flavor of their arguments. Reading it will save you from having to digest 500 books yourself! 


I wrote...

Contesting the German Empire, 1871 - 1918

By Matthew Jefferies,

Book cover of Contesting the German Empire, 1871 - 1918

What is my book about?

This book provides an engaging and accessible guide to current thinking on Imperial Germany. It offers a historiographical overview, spanning more than a century of works on the German Empire guides readers through the main approaches, from ‘personalist’ to ‘structuralist’ and ‘post-structuralist’; presents varying perspectives on gender, cultural history, international relations, colonialism, and war; explores the controversial reputations of Bismarck and Kaiser Wilhelm II; and reflects the wide range of opinions on Imperial Germany held by historians today.

As the book shows, history is never static. Since it appeared, some debates have moved on and exciting new works have appeared. This list highlights five recent books which I would certainly look to include in any new edition.

The End of the Myth

By Greg Grandin,

Book cover of The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America

Grandin makes a masterful argument that “frontier” is the defining American obsession, from Manifest Destiny to 21st Century capitalist imperialism. According to Grandin, it is America’s sense of an ever-expanding frontier that guides so much of our decision-making on an individualistic and national scale. His thesis gives clarity to all of the energy and enthusiasm that has gone into the idea of building an impractical, impossible 2,000-mile-long barrier along the U.S. southern border. 


Who am I?

For over a decade I’ve been writing about the lines that define us. Whether it’s the work we do or the communities we live in, we all create “borders” in our everyday lives. I’ve interviewed thousands of people from all walks of life to gain a better understanding of the lines we use to carve out our identities and our place in this world, whether it’s on the individual level, within a small community, or on a national scale. My work is always getting at how these lines of separation function, practically speaking, particularly in an increasingly globalized, interconnected world. 


I wrote...

14 Miles: Building the Border Wall

By D.W. Gibson,

Book cover of 14 Miles: Building the Border Wall

What is my book about?

In August of 2019, Donald Trump finished building his border wall—at least a portion of it. In San Diego, the Army Corps of engineers completed two years of construction on a 14-mile steel beamed barrier that extends eighteen feet high and costs a staggering $147 million. As one border patrol agent told reporters visiting the site, “It was funded and approved and it was built under his administration. It is Trump’s wall.” 14 Miles is a definitive account of all the dramatic construction, showing readers what it feels like to stand on both sides of the border looking up at the imposing and controversial barrier.

14 Miles explains not only how the wall has reshaped our landscape and countless lives but also how its shadow looms over our identity as a nation.

Sovereignty and Authenticity

By Prasenjit Duara,

Book cover of Sovereignty and Authenticity: Manchukuo and the East Asian Modern

One of the first scholars to write a full-length monograph on Manchukuo, Duara delves into the Chinese and Japanese writers who viewed northeast China under Japanese occupation as a means to envision their own Pan-Asianist ideals. He analyses this in the context of a broader "East Asian modern" in Manchukuo, and utilizes political and literary sources to unearth previous connections with previous iterations and currents of Chinese nationalism tied to the Pan-Asianism of the early twentieth century.

Who am I?

I began formally researching Japanese occupied northeast China in the late nineties in graduate school at Harvard University. Manchuria always fascinated me as a confluence of cultures: even prior to the 19th century, Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Russians, Eastern Europeans, Mongols, and indigenous peoples circulated within the region in China's periphery. In the 1930s until 1945, Japanese propaganda portrayed the area as a "utopia" under Confucian principles, but in the mid-1990s, the horrors of the occupation for colonized peoples as well as imperial Japan's biological weapons experimentation during the Asia-Pacific War came to light in Japan and elsewhere as former Japanese settlers as well as researchers began to tell their stories.


I wrote...

Glorify the Empire: Japanese Avant-Garde Propaganda in Manchukuo

By Annika A. Culver,

Book cover of Glorify the Empire: Japanese Avant-Garde Propaganda in Manchukuo

What is my book about?

I investigate what drew formerly leftist Japanese intellectuals to Manchukuo and led them to produce literature, art, and photography there that served as "unofficial" propaganda in a state-organized around rightwing socialist political ideals.   When I began this project, I was fascinated by the idea of how someone could so readily switch their political orientation in a different context or setting.  What I discovered is that, instead of a complete breakage with earlier political ideologies, these intellectuals in the Manchukuo context still perceived a certain continuity with what they had believed in the past.  Their work both celebrating and criticizing reflections of a fascist state is absolutely fascinating!

Ordinary Egyptians

By Ziad Fahmy,

Book cover of Ordinary Egyptians: Creating the Modern Nation Through Popular Culture

Ziad Fahmy’s book on the importance of popular culture in the history of modern Egypt and the anti-British revolution of 1919 was a real landmark. Bringing together songs, jokes, vaudeville plays, and more, he manages to draw out a story of Egyptian anti-colonial, nationalism that is not confined to elite circles or confined by bourgeois morality. This is history from the streets. Although it is an academic book, it is written with an engaging style that captures some of the excitement of this period. Published in 2011, Fahmy’s book opened up space for research and writing on the history of Arabic pop culture.


Who am I?

I am a writer and an Arabic to English translator, with a PhD in Arabic Theatre from the University of Edinburgh. In recent years, I have gravitated towards the history of popular culture and the demi-monde in the Middle East. The stories of singers and dancers say much more to me than the conventional subjects of histories of the Arab world – politicians, soldiers, etc. Through them, we can see the Middle East in a way that we seldom see in the West means much more to a lot of the people who live there.


I wrote...

Midnight in Cairo: The Divas of Egypt's Roaring '20s

By Raphael Cormack,

Book cover of Midnight in Cairo: The Divas of Egypt's Roaring '20s

What is my book about?

Following the lives of the most powerful, charismatic, and independent female stars of Cairo’s early-twentieth-century nightlife, this book delves into stories that many historians ignore. Away from high parliamentary politics and elite circles, a group of women were defining what it meant to be Egyptian in the modern world. In smoke-filled nightclubs, a new world was being born and the singers, dancers, and cabaret owners of Egypt were its central protagonists.

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