"The history of the term 'nation' reflects the historical genesis of the nation-state. For the Romans, Natio was the goddess of birth and origin. Natio refers like gens and populus but unlike civitas, to peoples and tribes who were not yet organized in political associations; indeed, the Romans often used it to refer to 'savage,' 'barbaric,' or 'pagan' peoples. In this classical usage, then, nations are communities of people of the same descent, who are integrated geographically, in the form of settlements or neighborhoods, and culturally by their common language, customs, and traditions, but who are not yet politically integrated through the organizational form of the state. This meaning of 'nation' persisted through the Middle Ages and worked its way into the vernacular languages in the fifteenth century. Even Kant still wrote that 'those inhabitants… which recognize themselves as being united into a civil whole through common descent, are called a nation (gens).' However, in the early-modern period a competing usage arose: the nation is the bearer of sovereignty. The estates represented the 'nation' over against the 'king.' Since the middle of the eighteenth century, these two meaning of 'nation'— community of descent and 'people of a state'— have intertwined. With the French Revolution, the 'nation' became the source of state sovereignty, for example, in the thought of Emmanuel Sieyes. Each nation is now supposed to be granted the right to political self-determination. The international democratic community takes the place of the ethnic complex.
With the French Revolution, then, the meaning of 'nation' was transformed from a prepolitical quantity into a constitutive feature of the political identity of the citizens of a democratic polity. At the end of the nineteenth century, the conditional relation between ascribed national identity and acquired democratic citizenship could even be reversed. Thus the gist of Ernest Renan’s famous saying, 'the existence of a nation is… a daily plebiscite,' was already directed against nationalism. After 1871, Renan could rebut German’s claims to the Alsace by referring to the inhabitants' French nationality only because he thought of the 'nation' as a nation o citizens, and not as a community of descent. The nation of citizens finds its identity not in ethnic and cultural commonalities but in the practice of citizens who actively exercise their rights to participation and communication. At this juncture, the republican strand of citizenship completely parts company with the idea of belonging to a prepolitical community integrated on the basis of descent, shared tradition, and common language. Viewed from this end, the initial fusion of national consciousness with republican conviction only functioned as a catalyst.
The nationalism mediated by the works of historians and romantic writers, hence by scholarship and lierature, grounded a collective identity that played a functional role for the notion of citizenship that originated in the French Revolution. In the melting ot of national consciousness, the ascriptive features of one' origin were transformed into just so many results of a conscious appropriation of tradition. Ascribed nationality gave way to an achieved nationalism, that is, to a conscious product of one's own efforts. This nationalism was able to foster people's identification with a role that demanded a high degree of personal commitment, even to the point of self-sacrifice; in this respect, general conscription was simply the flip side of civil rights. National consciousness and republican conviction in a sense proved themselves in the willingness to fight and die for one’s country. This explains the complementary relation that originally obtained between nationalism and republicanism: one became the vehicle for the emergence of the other" (Habermas 1996:494-495).
1996 Between Facts And Norms: Contributions to a Discourse Theory of Law and Democracy. William Rehg, trans. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
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