Freedom and the humanities - Nation, homeland, and freedom in the 1900s

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Institutional Communication Service

19 April 2022

The dramatic events we are witnessing in the heart of Europe give a meaningful relevance to concepts such as freedom, nation, and country. For this reason, the second round of the series Reflections on Freedom. A look at the humanities seeks to deepen the meaning and historical relevance of these terms with the help of Massimo Baioni, Professor of Contemporary History at the Institute of Italian Studies at USI. 

The current events allow us to observe how, within the propaganda that accompanies and supports military operations, each side resorts to a sedimented heritage of images, representations, rhetoric formulas to legitimise, on a political and symbolic level, the reasons for the invasion on the one hand, and the reasons for the resistance on the other. 

This phenomenon is not surprising. In the modern age, starting from the acceleration given by the French Revolution, those concepts have taken on different meanings, which have inevitably been affected by the contexts of reference. From a historical point of view, by observing the transformations that give meaning to the presence of men in society over time (Marc Bloch), it is therefore important to avoid making generalisations that prevent us from grasping the interweaving of continuities and ruptures that run through the course of such complex phenomena. 

What are the passages that mark the debut of these concepts in the contemporary age? 

The revolutionary fracture at the end of the 18th century is decisive: removed from its claimed divine origin, the legitimation of power was transferred to the body of popular will, with disruptive effects on political life and the languages and practices of patriotic education. 

During the European "long nineteenth century", the freedom of people was inextricably linked in many countries with the affirmation of the principles of nationality, the demand for a constitution, and the aspiration for the nation-state. The "peoples' spring" of 1848, with the uprisings that exploded in so many European cities, well conveys the echoes of those forceful words, as well as the hopes, the results, the defeats: at the same time, those events highlight the different interpretations given by the forces engaged in the field of political competition and the organisation of society (moderate liberals, democrats, socialists, Catholics, etc.). 

Are there similarities or gaps between the 19th and 20th centuries? 

Some scholars underline the continuity between nineteenth-century nationalism and that which asserts itself in the twentieth century within regimes such as Italian Fascism and German National Socialism (but not only). There is no doubt that in the national "discourse", there are formulas that recur punctually over time: the nation as a community of descent, honour, martyrdom, religious codes and symbols applied to the "new politics" of the masses. On the other hand, the same words have had profoundly different meanings and impacts in the individual instances and contexts in which they have entered into relation with society. The bond between nation and freedom as found, to cite an exemplary case, in the thought of Giuseppe Mazzini, underwent a progressive erosion at the turn of the century: a new type of nationalism developed from then on, increasingly linked to the imperialistic race and aimed at exalting the exclusive character of the nation. 

Was there a difference in pattern in the period between the two world wars? 

I believe there is a difference between the concept of homeland, the one of nation from the nineteenth century, and the aggressive version of the first half of the twentieth century. In the years of the Great War (1914-18), various visions of freedom, nation and country were evoked to support the war effort: among others, the most radical nationalisms, the Bolshevik revolutionaries and the United States with Wilson's 14 points. In the decades between the two world wars, the three prevailing models (parliamentary liberalism, fascism, communism) embodied their respective ambitions to shape the contours of a new society. In the case of totalitarian regimes, the freedoms and rights of the individual dear to liberal doctrine gave way to the role of the State and the Party, which took upon themselves the task of "educating" citizens on the values of national regeneration. 

What about the second half of the twentieth century?

Since the Second World War, freedom, homeland, and nation have not ceased to exert their influence. Just think of the phenomenon of the European Resistance and the struggle for liberation against Nazi fascism: or the processes of decolonisation, which have leveraged the principle of self-determination of peoples, the freedom to be conquered, a nationalism that is intertwined with the new Third World ideologies. The scene following the fall of the Berlin Wall, which put an end to the ideological polarisation of the Cold War, was no less linear. The regained freedom of the people of Central and Eastern Europe took on specific connotations in individual national contexts, reactivating notions of homeland and nation that seemed to have faded away. The wars that ripped apart the territories of former Yugoslavia tragically summarise all the contradictions of that process.

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