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This article is about the political concept. For the Internet game, see Jennifer Government: NationStates.

A nation-state is a specific form of state (a geographical entity), which exists to provide a sovereign territory for a particular nation (an ethnic entity), and derives its legitimacy from that function. The compact OED defines it as: "a sovereign state of which most of the citizens or subjects are united also by factors which define a nation, such as language or common descent." Typically it is a unitary state with a single system of law and government. It is almost by definition a sovereign state, meaning that there is no external authority above the state itself. Dependent territories of any kind are not considered nation-states, until they achieve independence. The nation-state implies the parallel occurrence of a state and a nation. In the ideal nation-state, the population consists of the nation and only of the nation: the state not only houses it, but protects it and its national identity, that is they coincide exactly: every member of the nation is a permanent resident of the nation-state, and no member of the nation permanently resides outside it. There are no ideal nation-states, however examples of near ideal nation-states would be Japan and Iceland. This ideal has influenced almost all existing sovereign states, and they can not be understood without reference to that model. It also explains how they are different from their predecessor states. Thus, the term nation-state is also used, imprecisely, for a state that attempts to promote a single national identity, often beginning with a single national language, for example France or Germany or Italy. These nation-states did not always exist, and most of the present nation-states are located on territory that once belonged to another, non-national, state, for example, in the case of Europe, the original state was the Roman Empire. They came into existence at least partly as a result of political campaigns by nationalists. The establishment of a nation-state can be considered the central demand of any nationalist movement.



A nation-state is associated with a particular group of people, the nation, and derives its claim to legitimate existence from them. This in contrast to some monarchies, which derived their legitimacy from the ruling dynasty, or ancient land grants to its ancestors. The nation-state is in a sense the historical vehicle of that nation, and tries to ensure its survival as a nation. Almost always, it has an explicit policy to protect the national culture.

A nation-state is one of a class of similar states. To distinguish itself, and also to express a shared identity of its own population, it has national symbols, above all a national flag and a national anthem, often a wide range of national emblems. In fact, nation states have promoted a national identity in almost every area of human social and cultural life, from the national library to the national airline to the national language.

Nation-states attempt to create and maintain national unity, and at least a minimal internal uniformity. Nation states have a cultural policy and a language policy for this purpose, and the educational system is often subordinated to this goal. That always meant some compulsion, and in some cases brutal repression of minorities and xenophobic campaigns against non-national influences. The desire for uniformity is said to have positive economic effects, because nation-states generally try to reduce internal disparities in income and regional GDP. Most have a regional policy for that purpose.

What states existed before nation-states?

Division of the Austro-Hungarian Empire into nation states in 1918
Division of the Austro-Hungarian Empire into nation states in 1918

In Europe, before 1850, the classic non-national state was a multi-ethnic empire. It was a monarchy ruled by a king or emperor, or in the case of the Ottoman Empire, by a Sultan. The population belonged to many ethnic groups and they spoke many languages. The empire was dominated by one ethnic group, and their language was usually the language of public administration. The ruling dynasty was usually, but not always, from that group. This type of state is not specifically European: such empires existed on all continents. Some of the smaller European states were not so ethnically diverse, but were also dynastic states, ruled by a royal house. Their territory could expand by royal marriage, or merge with another state when the dynasty merged. In some parts of Europe, notably Germany, very small territorial units existed. They were recognised by their neighbours as independent, and had their own government and laws. Some were ruled by princes or other hereditary rulers, some were governed by bishops or abbots. Because they were so small, however, they had no separate language or culture: the inhabitants shared the language of the surrounding region.

In some cases these states were simply overthrown by nationalist uprisings, which were inspired by the so-called ideal of the nation-state, meaning a state with a uniform state sponsored national identity. In other cases a nation state seems to have grown by accretion of smaller entities. Some grew to unification by trade and political integration. Some were unified by force. The transition was complex, but this so-called nation-state became the standard ideal in Europe, and in the rest of the world because of European dominance of the world. This so-called nation-state, at least in theory, has a uniform population, language and culture. It stops where the nation stops, and it does not swap territory with other states simply, for example, because the king’s daughter got married. For example, at least in theory, there is a uniform French identity which is different from a supposed uniform German identity, despite the fact that the French-German state border is not the French-German ethnic border and there are some who would consider themselves of German ethnicity on the French state side and vice versa. This so-called ideal of the nation-state is actually a state which has attempted to define a national identity which justifies its existance, internally and externally, and this process is often ironically called nation-building.

By this model, non-national entities have survived in Europe: the dependent principalities of Liechtenstein, Andorra, and Monaco, the republic of San Marino, and the Vatican City.

Examples of nation-states

Oddly, Switzerland is often called a nation-state, despite having no dominant ethnic group, no national identity, and several national languages. This is odd because Switzerland's primary reason to be is to protect against a state attempting to enforce a statewide national identity. A classic nation-state, by definition, is inhabited by one ethnic group, who speak one language, have one culture, and share one religion. The population, in other words, is homogeneous. This group is referred to as ‘the nation’ or ‘the people’. They all live inside the border of the nation-state. No other ethnic or cultural group lives there. It is often said that island states are the best place to find something like this, and Iceland is often cited as the best example of a nation-state. Although the inhabitants are ethnically related to other Scandinavian groups, the national culture and language are found only in Iceland. There are no cross-border minorities, the nearest land is too far away. Japan is also seen as a good example, although it acquired a Korean minority during the colonial period, as well as a very restricted number of immigrants since the early 1960s. The Republic of Ireland was until recently inhabited almost entirely by ethnic Irish, but the national territory is not considered complete by nationalists because it does not include Northern Ireland.

Very few others approach the ideal model of the nation-state: the border does not correspond to the distribution of the national group. Sometimes that is impossible, because population is ethnically mixed, down to the level of individual streets or buildings. Where part of the national group lives in a neighbouring nation-state, it is usually called a national minority. In some cases states have reciprocal national minorities, for instance the Slovaks in Hungary and the Hungarian in Slovakia.

National minorities should not be confused with a national diaspora, which is typically located far from the national border. Most modern diasporas result from economic migration. The existence of an Irish diaspora does not make the Republic of Ireland any less a nation-state, and does not affect Northern Ireland, since few emigrants go there anyway.

The possession of dependent territories does influence the status of nation-state. A state with large colonial possessions is obviously inhabited by many ethnic groups, and does not conform to the ideal of a single-culture state. However, in most cases, the colonies were not considered an integral part of the motherland anyway, and were separately administered. Some European nation-states have dependent territories in Europe. Denmark contains virtually all ethnic Danes and has relatively few foreign nationals within it. However, it exercises sovereignty over the Faroe Islands and Greenland. If these are considered separate nations, then Denmark is not a classic nation-state.

Minorities and irredentism

So-called nation-states differ from the definition in two main ways: the population includes minorities, and the border does not include all the national group or its territory. Both have led to violent responses by nation-states, and nationalist movements.

The nationalist definition of a nation is always exclusive: no nation has open membership. In most cases, there is a clear idea that surrounding nations are different. There are also historical examples of groups within the nation-state's territory who are specifically singled out as outsiders, such as the Roma and Jews in Europe, or Copts in Egypt. Negative responses to minorities within the nation-state have ranged from total assimilation to total extermination. Typically these responses are effected as state policy, though non-state violence in the form of pogroms occurs. However, many so-called nation-states do accept specific minorities as being in some way part of the nation, and the term national minority is often used in this sense. The Sorbs in Germany are an example: for centuries they have lived in German-speaking states, surrounded by a much larger ethnic German population, and they have no other historical territory. They are now generally considered to be part of the German nation, and are accepted as such by the Federal Republic of Germany, which constitutionally guarantees their cultural rights. Of the thousands of minorities and underlying ethnic nationalities in so-called nation-states across the world, only a few have this level of acceptance and protection.

Main article: Irredentism.

The response to the non-inclusion of territory and population may take the form of irredentism, demands to annex unredeemed territory and incorporate it into the evolving so-called nation-state, as part of the national homeland. Irredentist claims are usually based on the fact that an identifiable part of the national group lives across the border, in another so-called nation-state. However, they can include claims to territory where no members of that nation live at present, either because they lived there in the past, or because the national language is spoken in that region, or because the national culture has influenced it, or because of geographical unity with the existing territory, or for a wide variety of other reasons. Past grievances are usually involved (see Revanchism). It is sometimes difficult to distinguish irredentism from pan-nationalism, since both claim that all members of an ethnic and cultural natio belong in one specific state. Pan-nationalism is less likely to ethnically specify the nation. For instance, variants of Pan-Germanism has different ideas about what constituted Greater Germany, including the confusing term Grossdeutschland - which in fact implied the inclusion of huge Slavic minorities from the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Typically, irredentist demands are at first made by members of non-state nationalist movements. When they are adopted by a state, they result in tensions, and actual attempts at annexation are always considered a casus belli, a cause for war. In many cases, such claims result in long-term hostile relations between neighbouring states. Irredentist movements typically circulate maps of the claimed national territory, the greater nation-state. That territory, which is often much larger than the existing state, plays a central role in their propaganda. Examples include:

Irredentism should not be confused with claims to overseas colonies, which are not generally considered part of the national homeland. Some French overseas colonies would be an exception: French rule in Algeria did indeed treat the colony legally as a département of France, unsuccessfully. The US was more successful in Hawaii.

Conflicting nationalisms

Iceland not only has clear borders, it is inhabited by people who are either immigrants or self-identify as Icelandic. In many nation-states, all or part of the territory is claimed on behalf of more than one nation, by more than one nationalist movement. The intensity of the claims varies: some are no more than a suggestion, others are backed by armed secessionist groups. Belgium is a classic example of a disputed nation-state. The state was formed by secession from the United Kingdom of the Netherlands in 1830, and the Flemish population in the north speaks a dialect of Dutch. The Flemish identity is also ethnic and cultural, and there is a strong separatist movement. The Walloon identity is linguistic (French-speaking) and regionalist. There is also a unitary Belgian nationalism, several versions of a Greater Netherlands ideal, and a German-speaking region annexed from Prussia in 1920, and re-annexed by Germany in 1940-1944.

The fact that a nation-state has a disputed territory in this way, does not make it less of a nation-state. If large sections of the population reject the national identity, the legitimacy of the state is undermined, and the efficiency of government is reduced, That is certainly the case in Belgium, where the inter-communal tensions dominate politics.

Most states now declare themselves to be nation-states, that is states that attempt to define and enforce a state sponsored national identity. In the case of very large states, there are many competing claims and often many separatist movements. These movements usually dispute that the larger state is a real nation-state, and refer to it as an empire and what is called nation-building is actually empire-building. There is no objective standard for assessing which claim is correct, they are competing political claims. Large nation-states certainly need to define the nation on a broad basis. China, for example, uses the concept of "Zhonghua minzu," a Chinese people, although it also officially recognises the majority Han ethnic group, and no less than 55 national minorities.


The origins of the nation-state are disputed: see the main article on nationalism. Some theories see them as a 19th-century European invention, the product of nationalist movements, facilitated by developments such as mass literacy and the early mass media. Some see the nation-state as emerging in a few specific states, such as France and its rival England. They expanded from a core region, and developed a national consciousness, and sense of national identity (Englishness). Both assimilated peripheral regions and their cultures (Wales, Brittany, Aquitaine and Occitania), where regionalism and nationalism resurfaced in the 19th century.

The idea of a nation-state is associated with the rise of the modern system of states, usually dated to the Treaty of Westphalia (1648). The balance of power, which characterises that system, depends for its effectiveness on clearly-defined, centrally controlled, independent entities, whether empires or nation-states. The nation-state received a philosophical underpinning from the era of Romanticism, at first as the 'natural' expression of the individual peoples (romantic nationalism). Since then many varieties of nationalism have developed.

The increasing emphasis on the ethnic and racial origins of the nation, during the 19th century, led to a redefinition of the nation-state in ethnic and racial terms. That reached its height in the fascist movements of the 20th century. The combination of 'nation' ('people') and 'state' expressed in such terms as the Völkische Staat made fascist states such as early Nazi Germany qualitatively different from non-fascist nation-states. Obviously minorities, who are not part of the Volk, have no authentic or legitimate role in such a state. (The ultimate development of the Nazi state was determined by the total war which its conquests initiated, rather than Nazi theories of the state).

In recent years, the nation-state's claim to absolute sovereignty within its borders has been much criticised. A global political system based on international agreements, and superanational blocs characterized the post-war era. Non-state actors, such as international corporations and non-governmental organizations, are widely seen as eroding the economic and political power of the nation-states.

See also

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