The most renowned historian of his time. Fernand Braudel owed his international reputation to the two great volumes on the Mediterranean in the age of Philip II which he published in 1949, and to his trilogy on the material civilisation of world capitalism, which appeared between 1967 and 1979. He died a few months before the first volumes of his incomplete final work came out in 1986. More local in topic, and limited in execution. The Identity of france has generally been treated as a charming but relatively slight coda to his achievement as a whole. In fact, this concluding project – on which Braudel embarked in his late seventies – was conceived on a colossal scale. The torso that survives, two volumes devoted to geography, demography and production, is over a thousand pages in its English edition. They were to be followed by two sequels: one concerned with French politics, culture and society, the other with external relations. This quartet on ‘Identity’ was then to be completed with two further works, respectively on the ‘Birth’ and the ‘Destiny’ of France, in which Braudel planned to re-totalise the structures analysed separately in the first four studies into an integrated narrative history of his country. Perhaps incredulous of such ambition, Sian Reynolds has taken the liberty of suppressing the full extent of it in her graceful English translation.
What were the aims of this vast design? Braudel’s previous themes were virtually invented by him – strikingly original quarries from the past little mined before. Here he chose the most traditional of subjects, on which an abundant literature already exists, much of it distinguished. Why then a new history of France? Because, Braudel contended, ‘the profession of historian has changed so utterly in the last half-century’ through the encroachment on its poorly-fenced territory of the ‘various social sciences – geography, polilical economy, demography, political science, anthropology, ethnology, social psychology, cultural studies, sociology’. Braudel’s claim was that these innovations made possible a much more profound exploration of the continuities shaping France, a speleological descent to the depths of ‘an obscure history, running along under the surface, refusing to die – which this book proposes, if possible, to bring to light’. The subterranean longues durées so discovered could then permit the comparative capture of what was historically specific to France: for only structures that are durable over time, as opposed to events that foam and fade away with it, allow meaningful contrasts between national experiences. Tacitly (it is never quite spell out), this is the double force of the term ‘identity’ in the title of the book – it denotes what subsists and what singles out, and suggests that they are the same. The premise of Braudel’s multi-disciplinary enquiry is that the particular and the permanent in France have been one.
Braudel called his enterprise a gamble. How far does it succeed? The work we possess has a quizzical attraction of its own which to some extent comes from its unfinished state. Braudel always aspired to totalities, but his forte was detail. Here, in a book confessedly personal, these are more wayward than elsewhere: but also often more delicate, and warmer. The first volume offers a physical description of the major regions of France and the tiers of its settlement; moving from general analyses of its villages and towns to particular reflections on the commercial role of the Rhone corridor, the agrarian primacy of the Parisian basin, the strategic fortresses of Metz and Toulon. The second traces a demographic profile of the populations who have lived in the area of the hexagon; explores the setting and range of their agricultural activities – livestock, wine, cereals: and ends by looking at the historical character of trade, industry and credit in France. The casually vivid, flowing style and bright jetsam of examples carries the reader effortlessly along, through terrain that might with other vehicles seem arbitrary, perhaps sometimes even arid. It is easy to understand why so many reviewers have dwelt on the pleasures of the text; but also why they have complained that Braudel seems to have lost sight of his initial aim along the way. For the work as a whole lacks any sustained – even fitful – comparative dimension. The differing European contexts which ought logically to have given relief to the specifically French experience are virtually all missing. The result is that much of Braudel’s book is taken up with extended accounts of settlement patterns, agrarian practices or commercial procedures that were often quite general to Western Europe as a whole. If its focus moves freely back and forth from remotest prehistory to contemporary times, it also slips seemingly unawares across large ranges of commonality more than identity, as what was distinctively French recedes into what was Medieval or Early Modern. Braudel says at the outset that his theme was seductive but elusive, and so it proves.
Nevertheless, amid the sunnily digressive mass of this history, unenclosed as he wished it, there are claims that do in principle indicate a special position for France within the Continent. The first of these is the contention that of all the countries of Europe, France has always been most various in its physical endowments. This is the most insistent thread of the work. For others, space would only be weakly historical as a feature. But Braudel’s empirical claim for France reflects the theoretical primacy he accorded geography at large in social causation. Spatial determinations, he declared elsewhere, are ‘the most ancient and important of all – what counts in any deeper history’. Here the privilege of France is to be such a happy illustration of the principle. For its regional variety, Braudel argues, meant material and cultural plenty – a wealth of contrasted settings and resources without equal among its neighbours. France has always been ‘the dazzling triumph of the plural, of the heterogeneous, of the never-quite-the same’.
In celebrating French diversity, Braudel had many predecessors. He cites his immediate master Lucien Febvre. But the theme ultimately derives from Michelet, whose history of France lyrically depicted the contrasts between its provinces, ‘diverse in climate, customs and language’, yet bound in mutual understanding and affection; and most directly from Vidal de Blache, whose Tableau de la Geographie de la France of 1903 declared that ‘the word which best characterises France is variety.’ For Vidal, the ‘harmony’ of its constituent parts and the ‘goodness of its soil, the pleasure of living there’, created an ambience that was ‘a beneficent force, a genius loci, that prepared our existence as a nation and imparted something healthly to it’. In other words, Febvre’s phrase ‘diversity is the name of France’ was already a long standing trope. Braudel affectionately embroiders it. But he makes no effort to substantiate the claim in the way Vidal did, when he pointed out that France alone of European countries combined a Mediterranean, an Atlantic and a Continental zone. Such climatic contrasts are real enough, but whether they suffice for greater regional diversity than anywhere else is another matter. Germany, too, contains three major geographical zones, between the Rhine, the Baltic and the Alps, with subdivisions which – contrary to Vidal’s assertion – rival or exceed those of France. The Länder are a lot more vigorous in their regional profiles than today’s emaciated provinces.
In point of fact, it seems more plausible to argue that France was historically distinguished from its neighbours not so much by its geographical variety as by its early political unity. This is in effect the ease made by another Annales historian, Pierre Chaunu, who likes to dwell on the singularity of the French ‘super-state’, by the age of the Renaissance four times the size and population of the only comparable unified monarchy, its English rival. Braudel himself seems to concede as much when he suggests that provincial diversity in France was actually a forcing-house of royal centralisation. In the actual triumph of the unitary state probably lies the clue to the popularity of the motif of national variety – the one functioning as symbolic compensation for the other in the French ideology. Confirmation of this is suggested by the reversal of the relationship in an Italy which lacked any unitary state. There Manzoni vehemently rejected the patronage of the well-meaning Lamartine, during the revolution of 1848: ‘Do you not realise that there is no harsher word to throw at us than that of diversitvy, which epitomises for us a long past of misfortune and abjection?’ It may be less the fact than the cult of regional diversity that tells us something Specific about the history of France.
There is a second claim for French specificity in Braudel’s account, less prominent or pursued, but comparable in kind. Turning from geography to demography, he argues that the great challenge for the historical imagination today is to overcome the artificial divide between prehistory and history, as traditionally conceived – one which the advances of archaeology have rendered anachronistic. Once this is done, he maintains, a striking phenomenon comes into view. France knew a greater antiquity of dense continuous settlement than any other part of the Continent. Towards 1800 BC it supported perhaps as many as five million inhabitants. The basic ‘biological combination’ making up the population stock of France was thus already in place four millennia ago. In developing this case. Braudel appeals to the notion of a ‘national neolithic civilisation’ proposed by a leading French prehistorian, Jean Guilaine, author of a recent work entitled La France d’avant la France. Again the theme is by no means new. Introducing his tableau of French spatial diversity, Vidal stressed that its complement was temporal continuity. ‘The relationships between land and man are marked, in France, by a distinctive character of antiquity and continuity … It has often been remarked of our country that its inhabitants have succeeded each other from time immemorial in the same sites.’ Facination with prehistory is widespread today. Some of the impulses behind Braudel’s interest in it can be sensed in Raymond Williams’s multi-secular fiction of place. But transposed into proto-national register, the distance to myth is short. Braudel’s claim for five million neolithic farmers closes it. Guilaine himself allows no more than two to four hundred thousand. Here, too, the attributes of identity prove to be less specific than specious.
The claims of diversity and of continuity share, however, a common structure. They should be read, not as the findings of empirical history, but as fixed points of national ideology. All ethnic mythologies, it has been pointed out, are either territorial or genealogical in character – tracing the identity of the group to an original location or a primordial ancestry. Later nationalist ideologies reworked these basic mythemes into their own forms of ‘poetic space’ or ‘heroic memory’, as Anthony Smith terms them in his fundamental study of The Ethnic Origins of Nations. In a moving passage, Braudel confessed his passion for France, but promised to put it aside in his book. He characteristically added: ‘It is possible that it will play tricks on me and catch me out, so I shall keep it under close watch.’ It bamboozled him just the same. But it was also typical of him that, found out, he could concede his errors with disarming bonhomie. At the end of his second volume, he reports that an audience at Göttingen would not let him get away with the thesis of France’s superior diversity, and that he had no answer to their claims for equal German variety; and just before his death, he ruefully yielded to more modest estimates of France’s genetic continuity. Although at times the creature of a national self-image, he was never a captive of it.
Where do these retractions leave the quest for the identity of France? In the last and longest part of his work, Braudel develops the elements of another approach to it, more serious and less congenial to collective amourpropre. The title of this part sums up its message: ‘A Peasant Economy down to the 20th Century’. Here Braudel dwells on the extraordinary stability of French agrarian life, with its inveterate routines of cultivation and sluggish levels of productivity; the early adoption of birth-control, checking population in the countryside; the peripheral pattern of urbanisation – all major towns save Paris and Toulouse scattered round the edges of the country, leaving a ‘hollow interior’, yet without stimulating major foreign trade; the lack of new industrial complexes comparable to the Ruhr or the Midlands; the hoarding of coinage and weakness of domestic credit; the failure to take effectively to the seas. France, Braudel concludes, was marginalised within the history of capitalism, which developed in a circular movement around it from the later Middle Ages onwards, from Italy to the Low Countries to England to Germany, without ever transforming the slow metabolisms of the hexagon between them. The peculiar identity of France derives from this fate – of fortune. ‘Is it perhaps both France’s tragedy and the secret of its charm that it has never really been won – what is called won – over to capitalism?’ The French Revolution, contrary to received opinion, was not responsible for the economic misfiring of the country – any more than for its political unification. The die was cast much earlier. France enjoyed a brief period of economic leadership in the 13th century, when the Champagne fans were the commercial hub of the continent. Thereafter, bypassed by sea routes linking the Mediterranean and North Sea economies, ‘France was no longer a partner in the most advanced economic activities of Europe’: from now on it would be a covetous spectator of other people’s successes, on occasion tempted to annex them – 15th-century Italy or 17th-century Holland – by force of arms, in vain forays to offset the peasant stillness at home.
This is a memorable description. But what were the causes of the web of inertias that made up this French identity? Braudel has rather little to say about them. The luxuriant foliage of documentation surrounds a very slender trunk of explanation. The nearest he comes to a comparative hypothesis is to wonder, at a number of points, whether the very size of France was not an essential handicap to integrated economic development in the Early Modern epoch, preventing the emergence of a national market and creating an exorbitant state to hold it together – where England, by contrast, was small enough both to form a single market centred on London and to maintain political unity with a modest state. The observation is in itself a reasonable one. But it will hardly do as a central explanation of the French path of development. What Braudel’s whole account of France’s ‘peasant economy’ significantly ignores is the peculiar dynamic of its smallholder property. The omission is all the more arresting in that it was here, precisely, that Marc Bloch located the originality of French agrarian history. The pivot of his great work on the subject is a comparison of the differing fates of the peasantry as their lords sought to resolve the crisis of feudal rents in Late Medieval Europe. In Eastern Europe, the outcome was the spread of demesne farming and a new serfdom – the loss of personal freedom and security; in England, it was the transformation of perpetual leases into tenancies at will – personal freedom and insecurity. In France alone, it was the widespread conversion of customary leases into heritable property – personal freedom and security. The consolidation of this smallholder agriculture, never completed but never rolled back, became the key to the social stability and the technological backwardness of the French countryside down to Bloch’s own time.
Some fifty years later, Robert Brenner was to develop the kernel of Bloch’s insight into a magisterial comparative analysis of the variant property relations thrown up by class struggles on the land across Europe, and their consequences for the development of agrarian capitalism – deploying the same three-way contrast between Eastern Europe, England and France in a fully systematic framework. Brenner’s account was widely seen to be a landmark, and set off perhaps the most important international debate among historians since the war. The absence of any reference to it in Braudel’s book is astonishing. More than an individual foible, however, may be discernible here. For this controversy – focusing centrally on France, in which leading French historians participated – has never been translated into French. Perhaps the illustrious figure of Emmanuel LeRoy Ladurie felt uneasy about an exchange in which his own ideas were among those at issue. But could this have amounted to an embargo? The explanation seems to be wider, touching on the evolution of the Annales tradition itself. One of the most striking features of its latterday development is the extent to which it has relinquished two of the central legacies of Bloch’s work: his insistence on a fully comparative history, and his concern with social relations of property and dependence. The overwhelming bulk of recent Annales output has been devoted simply to France – the contrast with Anglo-Saxon production is quite startling. Within this newer literature the place of property has in practice increasingly been taken by demography, often posed as an alternative to it. Much of the Brenner debate hinged on the rival importance ascribed to these explanatory mechanisms.
In the version made famous by Le Roy Ladurie, the demographic interpretation of French agrarian history stresses the long-range Malthusian cycles of the countryside. Population increase among the peasantry would push up rents and sub-divide plots, so precipitating subsistence crises that led to decline of population and concentration of land, which eventually triggered a renewed upswing of prices and population which in due course hit the same limits as before. The result, Le Roy Ladurie maintained, was a ‘homeostatic’ system which imposed iron constraints on pre-capitalist economic growth. Tested out in the Languedoc, between the late 15th and mid-18th centuries, this model was then generalised across Western Europe, no longer – at any rate in principle – distinguishing French experience as such. Against this background, another Annaliste then picked out a much more striking and specifically French phenomenon.
Pierre Chaunu focused on the precocious spread of contraception in the countryside during the 18th century – birth control that no longer took the ‘ascetic’ form of late marriage, traditional in the downswings of the Malthusian cycle, but the new ‘hedonistic’ form, to the scandal of contemporary preachers, of the saut de l’ange in the marital bed. Here something exceptional certainly did occur in France, as Braudel emphasises: a sexual pattern which set the country apart from the rest of Europe, resulting in much lower population growth in the 19th century. What were its reasons? He suggests a combination of longstanding rural density with a new-found moral scepticism, after-effect of the peculiar short-circuiting of both Reformation and Counter-Reformation in France. Chaunu’s version is more lurid: the dry tinder for ‘the revolution against life’ lay in the hyper-individualism of the small proprietors, in an overcrowded countryside, suddenly ignited by the rupture with traditional religion in the 1790s. But in either case, there is no doubt that the stability of the French peasant economy down to the last days of the Third Republic was to be secured by a biological self-regulation unique of its kind; and that if there was one structural complex which defined the character of modern French society more than any other, it was this configuration – what, in Weberian terms, might be called tradition-bound production and rationalised reproduction.
What has become of these features since the Second World War? For some two decades after 1945, France suddenly reversed its past and experienced high birth rates – a surge Chaunu attributes to the ‘suicidal’ self elimination of the secularised majority in the inter-war years, when two-fifths of French adults produced only one out of ten children, while a minority (nearly all Catholic) of about one-thirteenth produced one out of four children. This miraculous reversal, as Chaunu sees it, did not last long. By the Seventies, the faithful too had been struck by the ‘White Death’ of negative rates of reproduction. But this was now a catastrophic general pattern in the West, which France had rejoined. Meanwhile, in the countryside, the peasantry was carried away by what Braudel calls ‘a deluge Bloch could never have imagined’, as modernisation finally engulfed the old rural order, leaving a mere 7 per cent of the labour force in agriculture. ‘The spectacle that overshadow all others, in the France of the past and even more of today, is the collapse of a peasant society,’ a balanced way of life so long sustained by its virtues – hard work, practical wisdom, modest comfort. Although on occasion he suggests these may survive in the small towns where half of the French still live, his book ends on a note of regret at the landslides that have buried the village world in which he grew up. The sense of loss is tempered by the stoical creed which separated him from Marxists and liberals alike: ‘Men scarcely make their own history, it is history that rather makes them, and therewith absolves them from blame.’ But the conclusion of the work can only put its title into question. If the historical complex most distinctive of modern France has disappeared, what is left of its identity? Normalised to a standard pattern of advanced capitalist production and reproduction, how far has France simply lost the numen Braudel was seeking?
The answer is, of course, that what differentiates one country from another is not only social structure but culture. Although these are never independent of each other, there is a wide range of possible relationships between them. At one extreme, the Hindu caste system – specifying divinely-ordained hereditary roles for all incumbents in the division of labour – could virtually fuse the two. At the other, modern capitalist societies can resemble each other very closely in all structural features – distribution of the labour force, degree of urbanisation, demographic profile, size and functions of the state – while remaining significantly dissimilar in culture: no one would confuse Belgium with Japan. In so far as Braudel look up what he called ‘the perspective of the present’ in his historical reflections, one might say he was looking for the identity of France in the wrong place. For the underground streams of long-term population and production which occupy his two volumes have tended to converge with those of other countries. It was the sequel he did not live to write on politics and culture that might have yielded answers less subject to contemporary erosion.
National character is a notion that has largely fallen into intellectual disgrace. One suspects that few readers Of this journal, if asked point-blank, would assert their belief in it. But how many scruple over the familiar judgment, ‘typically – ’, of foreigner or friend, in daily conversation? There are no generalisations that seem in principle so indefensible, yet in practice so unavoidable. The shadow of prejudice that falls across them was felt already in the Enlightenment. The first major writer on the subject, David Hume, introduced it with the caveat that ‘the vulgar are apt to carry all national characters to extremes.’ But that was not a reason to deny their existence. ‘Men of sense condemn these undistinguishing judgments; though, at the same time, they allow that each nation has a peculiar set of manners, and that some particular qualities are more frequently to be met with among one people than their neighbours.’ Hume’s aim was to show that national character, so understood, was not a product of fixed geographical environment but of changing political, economic and diplomatic circumstances: ‘the nature of the government, the revolutions of public affairs, the plenty or penury in which people live, the situation of the people with regard lo their neighbours’. The most he would concede to climate was perhaps the greater inclination of northern peoples to alcohol and of southern to sex (‘wine and distilled waters warm the frozen blood,’ whereas ‘the genial heat of the sun exalts the passion between the sexes’). Otherwise, it was moral not physical factors that counted. The English were the most various in individual temperament of any nation in the world, displaying ‘the least of a national character, unless this very singularity may pass for such’. This variety owed nothing to the uncertainty of their weather (shared by the more conformist Scots), and everything to the mixed nature of their government (a blend of monarchy, aristocracy and democracy), the composite make-up of their rulers (joining gentry and merchants), the number of their religions (every sect could be found), and the personal freedom these pluralisms made possible. With the substitution of temperament for territory, diversity here becomes the hallmark of England rather than France.
Its flattering function did not escape notice then, any more than it might today. Kant retorted that it was precisely the English affectation of individuality that expressed their collective contempt for foreigners, an arrogance born of the illusion of self-sufficiency. Character, in any case, was not so much a mere factual disposition as a normative unity only achieved by coherence of ethical conduct. ‘The man of principles has character.’ Fortunately, the Germans were well-known for their good character – combining honesty, industry, profundity, modesty (with a touch of undue deference and pedantry). A century later, Nietzsche reverted to the higher ground. Compared with the English, ‘a herd of drunkards and rakes who once learnt moral grunting under the sway of Methodism, and more recently the Salvation Army’, the Germans might deserve their share of sarcasms, yet they were more intangible, more ample, more incalculable than any other people – the nation which, above all, escaped definition. The adaptability of the figure is striking. Beyond the Alps, Vincenzo Gioberti could weave it no less deftly into his explanation of the Moral and Civil Primacy of the Italians. First in the world of action through the role of the Roman Church, and in the realm of thought through Italian leadership in philosophy, theology, science, statecraft, literature, painting, the civilising mission of ‘the mother nation of the human race’ was to foster the unity of the continent: Italy’s variety made it ‘the mirror and synthesis of Europe’. Among so many self-addressed compliments, one indictment stands out in relief. Leopardi, at least, was proof against the conceit. Brooding on the character of his compatriots under the Restoration, he came to the conclusion that their outstanding trait was not diversity but conformity – their unfailing display of a cynicism immune to medieval superstition yet incapable of modern sociability, the product of a broken-backed history combining the wrong kinds of sophistication and backwardness. The customs of the Italians called for reform rather than indulgence. These bitter reflections remained unpublished till the early 20th century.
By then, in the new world of industrial armaments and academic scholarship, national character had become the object of major theoretical treatises in the competing powers. Three cases exemplify this change. In France, Alfred Fouilée – a colleague of Durkheim and fellow spokesman for the Solidarist cabinets of the Nineties – published his Esquisse Psychologique des Peuples Européens in 1902, the first comprehensive tour of the different temperaments of the Continent. His patriotic aim, he explained, was to inform the French more thoroughly about their neighbours so that they should not fall dupe or prey to them. Five years later, Otto Bauer published his massive work on The Question of Nationalities and Social-Democracy in Austria. At its centre, often forgotten today, was a full-tilt theoretical construction of the idea of national character – a concept which Kautsky and other Marxists held heretical, but which Bauer considered essential to rescue from the ode, the feuilleton and the tavern if nationalism was to be combated effectively. That could never be done by denying the self-evident specificities of each nation, but only by explaining them rationally as so many different products of history – which Bauer sought to show by an analysis of the social origins of English empiricism and French rationalism as salient national traits, very much in the spirit of Hume.
In England, it was a liberal who gave the subject the most systematic treatment of all. In his work on National Character, published in 1927, Ernest Barker provided both a careful theoretical framework for its analysis and an empirical application of his schema to England. Barker divided the factors in its formation into a material base, comprising genetic stock, geographical setting and socio-economic composition, and a cultural superstructure, embracing law and government, religion, language and literature, and education. The second set was both more significant than the first, and more amenable to conscious alteration. The national character so formed was best understood as a transmitted ‘tradition’, if opaline in the number of its hues. Nations ought to coincide with states, Barker thought, yet he conceded the United Kingdom did not: he registers its ambiguities with a delicate prefix – Scotland is a nation that is something like a quasi-state, Britain a state that is at least a quasi-nation.
Barker’s study was to be the last ambitious attempt to analyse the constituents of national character. Not that the idea disappeared, but it gradually subsided back into the undergrowth of folklore and feuilleton from which Bauer had wanted to extricate it. Popular tracts like Orwell’s Lion and Unicorn or radio addresses like Pevsner’s Englishness of English Art continued to minister to conventional kinds of self-esteem, while public libraries came to be filled with works of reportage on ‘The Russians’, ‘The Germans’, ‘The Italians’, The French’, a well-established genre for satisfying curiosity about others. But works of a more strenuous and comparative nature ceased to appear. By the Sixties, national character was no longer serious. What were the reasons for its eclipse? In its heyday, it had been embedded in the larger idea of a national culture. This term was rarely defined with much rigour, as it entered general currency in the 19th century. But it came in time to include four main ingredients: traditional customs, codified values, learned arts and objects of daily use – roughly, the domains of sociability, morality, creativity and consumption. (Paradigmatically, let us say, Fanny drinking too much negus at the ball in Mansfield Park.) In the age of Hume, the accent fell on the first two – manners and qualities; by the time of Bauer, the third was often regarded as most significant – philosophy or literature; it was not till the domestic ethnography of Mass Observation that the last really came into its own, releasing Orwell’s copy for the English bob and bitter.
Since the Second World War, each of these traditional contributions to the nationally distinct cultures of Western Europe has been under pressure. The object-world of all the rich capitalist countries has been relentlessly hybridised or homogenised, as the circuits of multinational production and exchange grow more pervasive. The old signifiers of difference have progressively waned. First, dress – the days of the bowler and beret are long gone; of a once extensive repertoire, only the Austrian Tracht survives, perhaps because it always had elements of dressing-up. Then diet – still much more resistant, but the time when hamburger advertisements in the Metro could be surcharged with graffiti like Français, Françaises rejetez cette bouffe déshonorante is also past: fast food and nouvelle cuisine are in principle at home everywhere. Then furniture – with the spreading modules of Ikea. If buildings have been least affected, despite the office block and service flat, it is mainly because so many houses pre-date the post-war world, rather than display current regional styles. In the spheres of art and communication, the rise of image at the expense of print, and of demotic relative to élite genres, increasingly creates a single time-zone of the imaginary, bounded by optical fibre. Language, still far the strongest of cultural enclosures, has been at critical points by-passed. Meanwhile the disciplines of socialisation which once inculcated sharply distinct codes and manners have relaxed: school systems no longer embody contrasting educational ideals to the same degree, since a common measure of progressivism, out of conviction or demoralisation, laps them all. Classrooms formerly conceived as crucibles of national culture convey less of the nation, and at times of culture.
If national character was the human precipitate of a national culture – the range of qualities and forms of conduct it encouraged – the thinning of the latter was bound to unsettle ideas of the former. But as it happened, the notion of character had fallen under suspicion in its own right. If its most powerful version had once been provided by realist fiction, the first radical attacks on it came from literature too, with the widespread rejection of any stable ego in early? 20th-century Modernism, even in a transitional figure like Lawrence. The impact of psychoanalysis then further weakened traditional assumptions of individual character as a moral unity, the term had thus already suffered a loss of confidence as a personal category by the time cultural conditions had changed to its detriment as a national attribute. A new situation was created, in Which both could be repudiated. The logic of this change has recently been taken to its conclusion by at least one historian, Theodore Zeldin. A tart critic of Braudel’s enterprise in the pages of the London Review of Books, his own study of The French disavows any notion of national or individual coherence at all, on the grounds that people are becoming more different from each other than ever before, and more disjointed in themselves. The result, he enthuses, is a society in which everyone can customise a happily tatterdemalion life-style of then own: Durkheim laid to rest, anomie becomes luxury as France advances into ‘the Age of Whim’. Why the French should any longer even be called such, from the viewpoint of this ‘post-pluralism’, is not explained – is perhaps itself a whim. The only reason left for the book would appear to be that ‘all the human passions can be seen at play in France’. Few historians have been willing to noyer le poisson quite like this.
What has taken place is a change of register. Over the past decade, the discourse of national difference has shifted from character to identity. The two terms are often treated as if they were interchangeable. In fact, their connotations are significantly distinct. The concept of character is in principle comprehensive, covering all the traits of an individual, or a group; it is self-sufficient, needing no external reference for its definition; and it is mutable, allowing for partial or general modifications. By contrast the notion of identity has a more selective charge, conjuring up what is inward and essential; relational, implying some element of alterity for its definition; and perpetual, indicating what is continuously the same. Talking of individuals, we typically use the term ‘identity’ in two main ways. One is quasi-ontological, when we want to suggest the deepest core of a personality. The other is social, and customarily refers to roles in the division of labour. There is an obvious tension between the two. Compared with character, we might say, identity appears both more profound and more fragile; metaphysically grounded in one way, yet sociologically exposed and dependent in another. It is no accident that current parlance speaks of a ‘change’ of character, but a ‘crisis’ of identity. Vice-versa, character is not generally held subject to crisis, nor identity amenable to change – save in the cloak-and-dagger sense that disguises rather alters it. What separates the two conceptions here is not just the difference between an evolution and an upheaval. There is a further important contrast: the second must involve some self-awareness, while the first need not. Identity, in other words, always possesses a reflexive or subjective dimension, while character can at the limit remain wholly objective, something perceived by others without the agent being conscious of it.
What obtains for individuals, holds good for peoples. If national character was thought to be a settled disposition, national identity is a self-conscious projection. It always involves a process of selection, in which the empirical mass of collective living is distilled into armorial form. Subjectivity is here inseparable from symbolization. The symbols capture the past and announce the future. Memory is crucial to identity, as it is not to character. So, too, is mission – the raison d’être of a specific contribution to the world, rather than the mere être of a particular existence within it. Together these two give the idea of national identity its eminently normative force. The notion of national character had itself never been purely descriptive, for the reason indicated by Kant: that character was also the virtue of self-mastery. Fouillée could say that he would only discuss the good sides of the French character, not to flatter his countrymen, but to spur them to live up to their ideals. Orwell, for whom depicting and extolling his compatriots was mostly one, still felt there was a vital task of elevation ahead – his account of them was dedicated to ‘bringing the real England to the surface’. Here, as the heraldic title suggests, the work of extraction and sublimation is already closer to the tack of national identity. Orwell’s own term hovers between the two notions – the ‘native genius’, But his apostrophe of it anticipates many of the themes of the later literature; ‘England will still be England, an everlasting animal stretching into the future and the past, and like all living things, having the power to change out of recognition and yet remain the same’. Definitely a unicorn, rather than a lion.
In a more literate, less rawly demagogic way, national identity was to assume something like this guise: fusing the factual and the ideal, the mutable and the eternal. Braudel gives eloquent expression to the protean result.
What, then, do we mean by the identity of France – if not a kind of superlative, if not a central problematic, if not the shaping of France by its own hand, if not the living result of what the interminable past has deposited, layer by layer, just as the imperceptible sedimentation of the seabed in the end created the firm foundations of the earth’s crust? It is in sum a residue, an amalgam, a thing of additions and mixtures. It is a process, a fight against itself, destined to go on indefinitely. If it were to stop, everything would fall apart. A nation can have its being only at the price of for ever searching for itself, for ever transforming itself in the direction of its logical development, unceasingly testing itself against others and identifying itself with the best, the most essential part of itself.
Here the prose, mimicking the accretions it evokes, continually alternates between layers of geology and of deontology – what has immemorially come to be, and what transcendentally ought to be – as principles of definition. The Identity of France can in this sense be regarded as a classic statement of the genre, at its most dignified and open-minded.
What has occasioned the rise of the discourse of national identity? Part of the answer lies in the decline of the idea of national character itself. As its reassuring outlines appeared to waver amid post-war social changes, there was a need for some moral substitute. The narrower conception of identity fitted this role well, suggesting a more intimate, idealised bond than the gross links of daily custom. But there was to be a snag. Identity might be the deeper concept, but it is also – for nations as for persons –the more brittle. The very rigidity of its social projection, into a few cherished images, makes it prey to a kind of structural anxiety. Causes for the latter were not long in coming. The developments that seemed to undermine the supports of national character in Europe sprang essentially from the market. On their heels have come two changes affecting the state. The first was mass immigration from non-European zones, and the second the consolidation of the European Community. Issues of citizenship and sovereignty touch the nerves of national identity in a way that consumption and diversion do not. The symbolic political plane is its natural habitat. The growth of concern with national identity since the mid-Eighties must be understood against this background.
Braudel’s book was one of its products. Of all European nations, France has traditionally been most prolific with historical self-portraits, which from the time of Guizot and Michelet onwards have served successive versions of the country’s role in the world – bearer of culture, or liberty, or valour. Braudel rightly situated himself in this descent. But he was writing in an immediate context as well. By the Mitterrand Presidency, France had lost the illusions of grandeur revived with De Gaulle’s magisterial rule of the Fifth Republic. Economically, it could no longer steer an independant policy in a Community dominated by Germany. Diplomatically, it had rejoined the ranks of the Atlantic Alliance commanded by America. Culturally, its prestige was being sustained with garish outworks from London or Orlando. Moreover, within its borders it now contained a population of four million North African Muslims, jarring every racial and many republican images of the country. France had once been the great land of European immigration, capable of assimilating Poles, Italians, Jews, Belgians like no other: Maghrebin Arabs have so far proved a different matter. The historical shock they represent to the solaces of narcissism must be measured against the unusual nature of the French nation-state. It is often forgotten that France is the only large example in Western Europe of an ancient territorial state coinciding with a national community. Germany and Italy were long territorially divided; Britain and Spain remain nationally composite. In these conditions, the stage was set for the rise of Le Pen. It was the electoral breakthrough of the Front National that forced the vocabulary of French identity onto the political agenda. Braudel’s book appeared in early 1986, surrounded by polemical volumes across the ideological spectrum on the same subject – L’Identité Francaise mounted by Espaces 89 for the Left, countered by L’Identité de la France from the Club de l’Horloge for the Right. Immigration and education, as one would expect, lie at the centre of these exchanges. Braudel broaches them, decently and slightly apprehensively, as unavoidable topics. It was in this climate, of communal tension and intellectual bemusement, that his book sold 400,000 copies – becoming a public event in its own right.
In the same year, German public life was being shaken by the so-called Historians’ Dispute, which broke out in the summer of 1986. Formally, its principal focus was the meaning of the Final Solution. But its substantive political battlefield – perceived as such on all sides – was the future of national identity. The conservatives Michael Stürmer and Andreas Hillgruber argued, in effect, that the crimes of the Third Reich did not cancel the traditional and fateful position of Germany in the centre of the Continent. The most historically discontinuous national identity in Europe was still anchored geographically: the Germans continued to be the people of the Middle, as Nietzsche had termed them, and their reunification could not be deferred indefinitely. On the other side of the dispute, Hans-Ulrich Wehler and Jürgen Habermas rejected any geopolitical definition of the nation as a retrograde heritage of the past that had led to the Nazi regime. For Habermas, German – indeed any acceptable modern – national identity could only be ‘post-conventional’, that is, based on a critical reception of universal principles. For Habermas, the political form of collective maturity would be a ‘constitutional patriotism’ cleaving to the West alone. Events revealed the price for this lack of historical sense, when it was repeated by the SPD three years later and left Kohl master of German unity.
If in France national self-examination was a reaction to loss of coherence and standing, in Germany the same concerns spelt a return to power and position in the world. The early Eighties had already seen a wave of collections in which leading scholars debated the concept of national identity and its shape in Germany. Behind such probing lay the formidable economic success of the Federal Republic. The dangers of this connection have since formed the central argument of the spirited study by the young English historian Harold James, A German Identity. In a lively sketch, James suggests that historically, German conceptions of their identity as a nation moved through a sequence from cultural to political to economic definitions in the late 18th and 19th centuries (roughly, Herder to Mommsen to Rochau), and then repeated the cycle in the 20th (Mann to Hitler to Erhard). Relatively benign though current pride in the D-Mark might be, compared with the hubris of the Gründerzeit, economic performance was an inherently unreliable basis for a sense of national identity, subject to downswings and disillusionments. What was needed instead was stable political institutions commanding a dense network of traditional allegiances – in other words, what Burke recommended and Westminster supplies. James was to be a trenchant critic of the left-liberal myopia about German unity, but his own prescriptions confuse legitimacy with identity as much as those of Habermas. The German constitution is in fact far more democratic than the British, but it is not these specific national differences that interest either – merely a generic parliamentary order as such, which of course in no way distinguishes Germany from any other member of OECD. If economic nationalism is perilous, such constitutional patriotism is vacuous. Amidst the remorseless grinding of Eastern regions and classes in the cement-mixer of the new unity, we can be sure we have not heard the end of the quest for German identity.
Meanwhile, over in Oxford, the assembled ranks of History Workshop were debating the same issues from a more radical perspective, in a series of conferences from 1984 onwards. The final results were published in three volumes on Patriotism: The Making and Unmarking of British National Identity in 1989.In his rich keynote essay Raphael Samuel put his emphasis on the second of these processes. Distinguishing British from English identity at the outset – as harder and more formal, its connotations military-diplomatic-imperial rather than literary or rural, but also more inclusive for newcomers – he argued that attachment to it had notably fallen away since the Fifties. The fading of the Commonwealth, the decline or denaturalisation of much of the economy, the discrediting of the Civil Service, the marginalisation of the Established Church, the disappearance of anti-Americanism, had brought a loss of respect for its traditional fixed points. What had multiplied by way of compensation were the innumerable efforts of the heritage industry, seconded by popular sensibility, to conserve or counterfeit the material bric-à-brac of the past – from bakelite cups to slag-heaps, and the folk life that went them. Deadly official bombast had for the most part given way to inoffensively meretricious nostalgia. National identity, Samuel observed, is always a fitful ideal in the lives of individuals: but perhaps, he hinted, its forms were always more variegated in Britain than elsewhere, because of the absence of the binding pressure of invasions – a surmise in which Hume’s agreeable fancy is still running.
The most pointed alternative to this vision of patriotic declension to a mildly sentimental pluralism came from Tom Nairn, who pointed out that it hardly squared with the monolithic devotion of the British to their monarchy – a devotion which had, if anything, intensified in the post-war period. Nairn’s study of the royal fixation, The Enchanted Glass, is in fact far the deepest single exploration of the mechanisms of national identification that we possess. But its thrust is precisely that the Ukanian case is an abnormal one – the monarchy functioning as a fetishised surrogate for an ordinary attachment to the nation-state, blocked by the composite jurisdiction and constitutional archaism of ‘Great Britain’. If the construction of any national identity involves projection of a few selected features of historical experience onto an emblematic plane, here – Nairn suggested – the exceptional rigidity of the symbolic investment was to be explained, as in fetishism proper, by the prohibition of the whole for which the magical part stood: a ‘democratic and egalitarian nationalism’. The normality of the latter may be doubted – the adjectives cling too smoothly to the noun; the ideologies of national unity have just as frequently served to mask social division and inequality. But the central force of the diagnosis is all too compelling. Britain has in no way escaped the modern anxieties of national identity, as the Bruges spirit and curicular lobbies testify: it has merely cast them in its own frozen forms.
Such tensions have been most acute in the three leading countries of Western Europe, the large states with a recent hegemonic past. They are significantly less in the two countries in the next rank down. Italy, with its long sense of disconnection between popular life and public institutions, has seen no comparable output on national identity. Pavese’s exchange – Do you love Italy?’ ‘No. Not Italy. The Italians’ – still expresses a widespread attitude. In keeping with it, the one major text on the subject is the caustic essay L’Italiano. Il Carattere Nazionale come Storia e come invenzione by Giulio Bollati, a study of Risorgimento projcets of cultural engineering and their sequels, seen as the successive efforts of a manipulative trasformismo to create a suitable Italian people for the Italian state. In Spain, where once Unamuno and Ortega anguished over the essence of the nation – was its flaw a cult of isolating purity, or a lack of élites to give it backbone? – a robust pragmatism now rules. In no country are the prosperous and educated so determined to shed everything formerly taken for national characteristics (cult of pride, disdain for work, austerity, fanaticism etc). Here, as in Italy too, European integration represents upward, not downward, national mobility – an opportunity to rise above traditional identity rather than a potential threat to it. The only prime minister thinking of changing his post for the Presidency of the Commission is in Madrid.
Below this duo there stretch the smaller states, already a majority of the members of the Community, and one that is going to increase. Will their numbers tend to multiply the alarms of national identity, or gradually muffle them? This is the Europe of Hans-Magnus Enzensberger’s Ach Europa! His tour of the Continent, composed in the mid-Eighties, circles the periphery from Scandinavia through Poland to Portugal, in an elegant gesture ignoring the three central powers altogether. The boldness of the selection has its limits: the Balkans – as in much journalistic curiosity of the time – remain out of bounds. But it was too much for the American publisher, who crassly deleted the longest and most revealing chapter from the English language editions, perhaps because it was devoted to the smallest country. Norway – the one its author knew best. Enzensberger’s reportage proceeds by vignette, anecdote, boutade, skirting comparisons or conclusions for queries and speculations. His wry collages avoid any grand claim of portraiture. There is scarcely any mention of national identities, and national character is roundly scouted. ‘Could anything be more barren than the study of “national psychology”, that mouldy compost heap of stereotypes, prejudices and idees reçues?’ Yet, he typically adds, ‘it is impossible to dislodge these traditional garden gnomes’, who even in his pages make an occasional appearance – the docile Swedes or the tolerant Portuguese. But what Ach Eurapa! really offers is something else: a kaleideoscope of manners disereetly shaken into the glimpse of a politics. Enzensberger’s wayward cameos have a definite message: detestation of bureaucratic dictatorship, and reserve towards clerical revival, in the East; and suspicion of the welfare state, social planning, mass production, heavy industry, traditional parties, ideological extremism in the West. The land where these values are most nearly realised is Norway, of which Enzensberger writes with an intimate affection: at once behind and in front of the rest of Europe, folk museum and future-laboratory, ‘monument to obstinacy and moody idyll’, whose social arrangements might yet recapture the utopian ideas of Marx.
Norway was also, of course, the only country to reject membership of the European Community by popular vote. Consistent with his dislike for all that is too big and systemic, Enzensberger shows no inclination to find the antidote to the pretensions of Paris, London or Bonn in Strasbourg, let alone Brussels, as others of his generation on the left have done. In his imaginary conclusion, depicting the Continent in 2006, European unity is sidestepped as deftly as national identity was in the real accounts that precede it. Communist tyrants overthrown and American troops gone, the Commission is little more than ceremonial, as Europe – the follies of integration forgotten – basks in a congenial cantonalism. A modest Kleinstaaterei is welcome to all, save the recidivist French. The peoples of Europe are spared world power, which – as the continuing fate of the US demonstrates – has always made a collective cretin of those who enjoy it.
War in the Middle East has since put this proposition to a test, in which it might be said that its author, now seer of a nihilist menace in the Arab soul, has unexpectedly illustrated it. Diagrammatically, the opposite political response to the Allied expedition came from Régis Debray, the writer on the left whose theoretical vision of the future of nations and of Europe forms the most striking antithesis to Enzensberger’s. Pointing out how venerable is the tradition of comparing Middle Eastern dictators with Hitler (it was the standard image for Nasser at the time of Suez), and how deeply Mitterrand was involved in the associated propaganda and repression by the Fourth Republic in North Africa, Debray rejected French participation in the attack on Iraq; the line to which France should adhere was the contrary tradition represented by De Gaulle. As it happened, Debray had just devoted a programmatic book to the General, A Demain De Gaulle, intended to reclaim his inspiration for a contemporary politics of the French Left. For Debray, De Gaulle was the statesman who best understood that – contrary to both liberal and Marxist beliefs – the principal agents of modern history are neither ideas nor classes, but nations. Tins was not a blinkered or irrational nationalism. De Gaulle avoided the vocabulary of French chauvinism, never speaking of native roots or foreign bodies. ‘The term national “identity” was foreign to him.’ The General did not believe in any fixed essence of France – he was an existentialist of the nation.
The lesson of his achievement, Debray argues, is the permanence of national passion as a motor force of political life even in the world of high-tech consumption and international integration that marks European capitalism today. The advance of technology does not produce a dream-free mentality. In post-Communist or post-colonial societies, the arrival of the modern typically triggers the eruption of the archaic as compensation – the queues in Moscow lengthen for MacDonalds and St Basil’s alike. In post-industrial conditions, the same dialectic can be more benign. Delivered from older material pressures, peoples will above all seek to recover themselves, in new forms of national culture made that much more precious by the global commodity-nexus encompassing them. The more European the Community becomes, the more inventively and consciously distinct its members will want to be, as nations in their own right.
The differing diagnoses of these writers point to a central ambiguity of capitalist rationalisation and its discontents, which only events can resolve. If the preoccupations of national identity are a product of the material erosion of much of what was once associated with national character, will the further progress of a cosmopolitan modernity dissolve or intensify these? In his recent survey of their development since 1750 Eric Hobsbawm concludes that the owl of Minerva has now flown over nations and nationalism. In the skies over the USSR and Eastern Europe, some would more readily detect the petrel; others the albatross. The rival hypotheses are, at all events, going to be tested in two huge experimental theatres – the disintegration of the former Soviet world, and the integration of the western half of Europe. Capitalism and the nation-state are more or less co-evals. There were once those who thought they would pass away together, or that the second would outlive the first. Now it is more generally wondered whether capitalism is not final, and the nation-state destined to become nominal. The answers to these questions are not necessarily going to be the same. They constitute the two main unknowns of fin-de-siècle politics.