In a Europe, which over the last decade has seen the demise of totalitarian regimes and subsequently splintered up into new states, the concept of nationhood and what it really signifies has become one of burning relevance. Britons, Bosnians, Ukrainians and Russians have at least one thing in common, their wish to keep their distinct identity and to distance themselves from those of another nation. The British, while wishing for closer ties between the member states of the European Community, are still anxious not to lose their sovereignty.
The word nation is bandied about considerably; we talk of the French nation, the Spanish nation, etc. In many continental countries the concept of the 'patrie' is part of their cultural heritage. President de Gaulle when addressing the nation would virtually always allude, in the course of his allocution, to 'Francaises, Francais', thereby reminding his listeners of their national affiliation. How many countries have allusions to common national origins in their national anthems? e.g. 'Land of my fathers', 'Enfants dela patrie', 'Deutschland uber alles'. Yet what constitutes a nation? Is it an ethnic division? Is it a political one? a geographical one? a linguistic one? a combination of all these?
The term is certainly loaded with political force. In times of threat, when a group of individuals feels in danger from another, then it would seem that the spirit of the nation is revived and fomented as a unifying factor of defence. Since time immemorial, ancestors have been invoked as an encouragement to the living. Where no knowledge of ancestors has existed then leaders or would-be leaders have not hesitated to invent them. During the Renaissance in Europe families employed men of letters to invent a genealogy for them and their followers, a legacy from the Emperor Augustus who found a worthy singer of Rome's past in Virgil.
There is a strong correlation between political demands made by minority groups and their economic and political standing within the greater community. Linguistic autonomy or rather movements which have as their avowed aim the maintenance of a minority language are often associated with political ambitions which once they are achieved or palliated can lead to minority languages being left to fend for themselves and, ironically, to perish. In the former Soviet Union, Stalin realised the unifying factor of a single language and tried to impose Russian upon the whole country to the detriment of local languages. This led to the right to speak one's own language becoming one of the proclaimed aims of the emergent independent states. It will be interesting to see how they fare in the future. Should we be like Dr Johnson and feel 'sorry when any language is lost, because languages are the pedigree of nations'?
Is the 'nation' therefore myth or reality? Are our own characteristics a result of our society or part of a pattern which has been imposed on us? The boundaries of a nation, can they be justified? Or are they the result of political activity, which subsequently tries to provide a raison d'être for their existence? We all believe that it exists, but is it just a socially accepted paradox?