Herder, Father of Nationalism, Can Explain the Rise of Hindutva

German writer and philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder.

Herder believed that a natural, God-sanctioned state was one with a single nationality and a single Volk.


WE CURRENTLY live in an age of rising ethno-religious nationalism across the world. From India to the United States, Russia, and numerous European countries we see a particular group within the nation identifying themselves with the state with gusto while simultaneously casting others outside of it—a process that has dangerous results particularly for ethnic and religious minorities. But how should we understand nationalism and its definition?

In my recent book Journey into Europe: Islam, Immigration, and Identity (Brookings Institution Press, 2018), I identified a strong ethnic or tribal identity in Europe, whereby the ethnic community of European countries fuses the state with itself and bands together against “outsiders”—people who are not of that ethnicity. These “outsiders,” even if they have been in the country for generations, are seen as foreigners unsuited to be a full part of the nation. This makes it difficult for Muslims in European countries as they are seen as the “other” and not part of the ethno-national community.

Our understanding of European nationalism, as I point out in my study, which went on to shape how nationalism was conceived and interpreted around the world including in South Asia comes from the work of Johann Gottfried on Herder (1744–1803), known as the “father of nationalism.” His articulation of the concept of the “Volk,” or people, became fundamentally important to how we understand nationalism.

One of the seminal European philosophers who would influence other major figures such as G. W. F. Hegel, Herder originated the concept of the Volksgeist, the unique spirit of a people rooted in their primeval characters, which soon became synonymous with Volk itself. While the concept of the Volk, meaning “people” and linked to the terrain, history, culture, and lineage of the community, had been with the Germanic peoples for centuries, it was only around the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, as the German-dominated Holy Roman Empire was approaching its demise, that the term was further refined and began to acquire its modern connotations of being aggressively linked to blood, soil, music, art, literature, culture, and ultimately ethnic nationalism. Characteristics of Volk and other overlapping definitions of identity were encapsulated by the phrase Blut und Boden, “Blood and Soil,” later appropriated by the Nazis for their malevolent purposes.

Herder, a pupil of Immanuel Kant, believed that every ethnic nation of the world had its own unique spirit, its own Volk. Each nation was seen as a plant, with its roots stretching back into history. That each distinct national plant should develop separately was part of God’s plan. For Herder, the world was likened to a garden of Völker, with each plant having its own particular fragrance. When taken as a whole, each nation in its distinctiveness contributed to a beautiful world, a sweet-smelling garden. Like other Germanic scholars, Herder emphasized soil and a link with ethnicity and blood as defining factors in determining both the spirit and identity of the Volk.

Herder believed that the essence of the Volk could be seen in its purest form in folk music, literature, and poetry. From these, Herder wrote, “one can learn the mode of thought of a nationality and its language of feeling.”

These poems and songs, often known by the peasantry or people in rural areas, were for Herder “the archives” and “living voice” of each nationality and the “imprints” of its soul. “A poet,” Herder wrote in 1773, “is the creator of the nation around him, he gives them a world to see and has their souls in his hand to lead them to that world.” In keeping with this notion, to discover the spirit of one’s authentic Volk one must eschew reason for emotion. The past, Herder said, can be understood “by feeling one’s way” into it.

Herder’s philosophy of the Volk overlapped with Ibn Khaldun’s concept of as abiyyah, or ethnic group cohesiveness, in conceptualizing people living in rural areas and tribal societies as being more authentic in their Volk than people in the cities, whose society, Herder believed, had been diluted and compromised. Herder also praised the traditional code of honor and hospitality of the rural tribes as being preferable to the vague Enlightenment notion of the unity of man, which had currency in the cosmopolitan cities.

Herder believed that a natural, God-sanctioned state was one with a single nationality and a single Volk. As the historian Pierre James explained, “for [Herder], nation, state, and Volk were virtually synonymous.” The thought of a pluralistic nation-state with different kinds of people living together was intolerable and horrifying. The nation, Herder wrote, is a family:“A kingdom consisting of a single nationality is a family, a well-regulated household. . . founded by nature.” “An empire formed by forcing together a hundred nationalities, and a hundred and fifty provinces,” he said, “is no body politic, but a monstrosity.”

Herder was concerned that the Germany of his time had been harmed by the influence of foreign ideas and customs and that it had been subjected to “an imposed foreign civilization.” Herder was especially disparaging of the German tendency to speak foreign languages, particularly Latin and French. The dishonorable desire in a Volk to construct a culture based on foreign influences was an indication, as Herder put it, of “disease, flatulence, abnormal surfeit and approaching death.”The native language, Herder wrote, “is filled with the life and blood of our forefathers.” Herder appealed to the honor of the Germans, arguing, “He that despises the language of his nationality dishonors its most noble public; he becomes the most dangerous murderer of her spirit, of her honor at home and abroad, of her sentiments, of her finer morality and activity.”

In the poem “An die Deutschen” (To the Germans), Herder put his sentiments in verse:

“And you German alone, returning from abroad,

Wouldst greet your mother in French?

O spew it out, before your door

Spew out the ugly slime of the Seine

Speak German, O you German!”

Herder lamented that the Germans did not seem to know their own folk literature. He desired a national literature that would be specifically and characteristically German and attempted to shame the German nation for not having come up with one: “You have no Shakespeare; have you also no songs of your for bears of which you can boast? . . . Without doubt they have been and still exist; but they are lying under the slime, are unappreciated and despised.”

The honoring of ancestors was also fundamental to the exercise of rediscovering and reviving the spirit of the Volk. The Fatherland, as explained by Herder, “has descended from our fathers; it arouses the remembrance of all the meritorious who went before us, and of all the worthy ones whose fathers we shall be.”

Herder believed that the key to the Germanre discovery of the authentic Volk and the spirit of the German ancestors lay in the study of the Roman historian Tacitus’s examination of German tribal society, Germania: “Look about you in Germany for the character of the nation, for their particular sound of thought, for the true mood of their language; where are they? Read Tacitus; there you will find their character.”Herder celebrated the bodies of the tribal Germans, describing “their big, strong and beautiful figure, their terribly blue eyes . . . filled with the spirit of moderation and loyalty.” The Germans, Herder wrote, were “a living wall against which the mad fury of Huns, Hungarians, Mongols, and Turks dashed itself to pieces.”

Herder’s ideas were extremely influential in banding together the German people, who formed the nation-state of Germany in 1871. Herder’s ideas spread rapidly from Germany to Germanic Scandinavia and the Nordic region, as Norwegians, Swedes, Danes, and Finns also took up the task of finding their authentic Volk, known as folk in Scandinavia. In all these countries, poets, artists, and scholars followed Herder in going to the countryside. Their aim was to seek out the peasantry and locate the sources for a new nationalism rooted in their ethnic identity, which was of crucial importance in shaping the character of their respective modern states.

In Denmark, for example, NFS Grundtvig, the nineteenth-century bishop, teacher, philosopher, poet, and Danish national hero, founded the field of folklore studies in the country. Attempting to avert what he called the “folk-death” of the Danes at the hands of foreign influences, he was inspired by Herder to develop and widely promote the idea of folkelighed, the communal egalitarian spirit of the people. Today we can see the importance of the folk in local culture and identity: the Danish Parliament is Folketinget, the People’s House; the Danish national church is Folkekirken, the People’s Church; and democracy is called Folkestyret, rule of the people. Folkelig is a commonly used term meaning something popular, simple, unassuming, or for the people, and one of the leading political parties in the nation is the far-right Dansk Folkeparti, the Danish People’s Party, whose leadership we interviewed during our fieldwork for Journey into Europe.

The Eastern European peoples were similarly influenced by Herder in the development of their ethno-nationalist identities including the Czechs, Hungarians, Russians, Romanians, and Bulgarians. Herder addressed the Slavic peoples of Europe like the Czechs and Serbs who lived under empires such as Austria-Hungary and the Ottomans directly with his hope that “you will at last awake refreshed from your long listless slumber and, having shaken off the chains of slavery, will enjoy again the possession of your fair lands . . . and celebrate on them your ancient festivals in peace together with the prosperity of your industry and trade.”

The founding fathers of Eastern European countries, such as František Palacký, the Czech “Father of the Nation,” expressed their admiration for Herder. For Palacky, Herder was the “Apostle of Humanity.” Herder also had a particularly strong impact on the Hungarians, causing in them an existential dread of the death of the very identity that drove their nationalist struggle. Herder’s assertion that the Hungarians would lose their language by living among non-Hungarian peoples like the Slavs and Germans caused a panic among Hungarian intellectuals and led to a vigorous and rapid effort to preserve and promote Hungarian language, culture, and identity.

The famous nineteenth-century statesman and modernizer, István Széchenyi, known as “the Greatest Hungarian,” wrote, “Every day I am more convinced that Herder is right; the Hungarian nation will soon cease to exist.” Herder’s dire prediction for the Hungarians, known in Hungary as nemzet-halál, or “national death,” became an important part of Hungarian identity. The fear of nemzet-halál is expressed in poems such as “Himnusz” (1823), by Ferenc Kölcsey, which became the Hungarian national anthem, and “Szózat” (Appeal) (1836), by Mihály Vörösmarty, known as the second national anthem, in which the Hungarian nation becomes a mass grave.

The urge to preserve and promote ethno-national identity among Eastern European peoples has historically often been accompanied by an intolerable living situation for minorities among them including Jews and Roma, which has persisted until the present day. These nations are now displaying such attitudes towards Muslim migrants, which they associate with the Ottoman Empire that ruled much of Eastern Europe until modern times.

We saw this in 2015 when Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán likened the Syrians and other Muslims fleeing into Europe — whom Orbán said “look like an army” — to the Ottoman Turks, and vowed that they be kept out of the country at all costs. Orbán that year spoke for the world’s ethno-nationalists when he declared in a speech, “Only the strong survive. We Hungarians are on the threshold of a great era. The name of Hungary will be great again, worthy of its old, great honour. Honour to the brave!” Addressing recipients of the Széchenyi Prize, Hungary’s highest recognition for scholarly achievement, in 2017 Orbán affirmed the continuing importance of Herder, stating, “We are proud of you, who — in defiance of Johann Gottfried Herder’s prophecy of our doom — have accepted the mission that we must all continue to undertake, even in the twenty-first century.”

It is important to note that Herder’s ideas and philosophy were not the same as Hitler’s. The misuse of Herder’s conception of the Volk and Volksgeist is an example of how Hitler could take what is essentially a descriptive concept of ethno-nationalist identity, which I have described as tribal, and twist it into a perverse form. Yet this is a persistent danger whenever we are discussing the subject of nationalism.

While Herder envisaged different Volk living in an environment of harmony, each cherishing its own special identity and each living on its own territory, Hitler took this idea to a horrific extreme, enacting a genocidal campaign to kill the Jews and groups such as the Roma not believed to be part of the ethnic community. He fused the idea of Volk with his own Nazi Party, proclaiming, “To the same degree as the basic ideas of the National Socialist movement are folkish [völkisch], the folkish ideas are National Socialist.”

As I point out in Journey into Europe, ethnic nationalism in Europe — and indeed the world — is a reality and must be understood and appreciated. European ethnic identity in the form identified, articulated, and promoted by Herder provides stability and continuity in uncertain times and gives pride to the community.

Yet in order for Muslims and non-Muslims to co-exist in Europe, I have called for Europeans, while honoring their own identities, to also rediscover the spirit of humanism, scientific discovery, and the arts that characterized the Muslim presence in Europe in places like Andalusia, Spain and Sicily. This ethos made a profound impact on European culture and civilization, contributing in significant ways to the Renaissance and Enlightenment.

It also led to path breaking scholarship and societal and human advances in Europe a thousand years ago, especially concerning the Greek classics, and led to the formation of societies where Jews, Christians, and Muslims lived, worked, and created together. This European identity characterized by humanism and knowledge is just as authentically European as the ethno-nationalist identity we are discussing here. Only the balancing of the two could create what I have called a “New Andalusia,” a pluralistic society where the dominant ethnic group can feel secure and proud of its identity while also coexisting with and recognizing the worth and value of others in working towards the flourishing of the greater society and nation as a whole.


(The writer is the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University, Washington, DC, and author of Journey into Europe: Islam, Immigration, and Identity. The article is taken from Daily Times.)


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