When Identities Turn Violent

Facing History and Ourselves hosted a Day of Learning “Reimagining Self and Others” at Harvard Law School on May 10, 2013. This is a summary of the “When Identities Turn Violent” segment featuring historian of genocide Omer Bartov and sociologist of religion Jose Casanova.

Omer Bartov on Nationalism and Violence

Bartov begins by discussing the view of Nazi Germany that we get from popular media: a state driven by zealots and the dregs of society, people very different from everyone else. He counters that what really made Nazi Germany possible were scientists, lawyers, and law-abiding citizens. Without them, the Third Reich would not have had the legitimacy it needed.

He continues by offering context to the film Schindler’s List. The title character, Oscar Schindler, did save 1000 Jews. But Schindler was also a crook both before and after the war, and hoped to make money off the Jews during the war. When he learned of their fate, he was moved to use the tools of a crook to break the law and save these people. Bartov’s point is that we need to interrogate the nature and histories of national identity and how difference has been constructed.

Self-determination and enlightenment were part of what brought about nationalism, says Bartov. And religion was the motivating force behind it. We see the before and after of European nationalization in the characterization of the wars during the two centuries of major war in modern European history:

  • 17th century: wars of religion
  • 20th century: wars of nations

To illustrate the complex process of nationalization, Bartov looks at the case of a small part of the Austro-Hungarian (Hapsburg) Empire: Eastern Galicia in present-day western Ukraine. The Hapbsurg Empire comprised many religions and ethnic groups. The empire determined groups by religion and nationality. Religion was the faith someone had. Nationality was the language they commonly spoke.

In Eastern Galicia, Ukrainians (then called Ruthenians), Poles, and Jews lived in this area and were defined by three religions and two languages. The religions were Roman Catholic, Greek Catholic, and Judaism. And they actually all spoke different languages; at that time the Jews spoke Yiddish. But the Jews across the Empire said they spoke German because that was teh lingua franca. The Polish people achieved autonomy in this region as the landowners, and managed a kind of hegemony there. The Ukrainians outnumbered both groups but were serfs. The Jews were the merchants, the middlemen between the Poles and Ukrainians. The Jews here said they spoke Polish when asked by the authorities in order to reap the benefits of Polish nationality. In this case, national groups were essentially created by policies of the empire.

In the course of World War I, the Hapsburg Empire falls and Poland becomes a nation-state. However, only 60% of Poland’s population are native Poles, which they now defined as speaking Polish and practicing Roman Catholicism. Jews were now excluded from nationality and marginalized by the religious requirement.

During World War II, Germany invades and occupies Poland and contemporary Ukraine. Ukrainian Nationalists seize the opportunity to create a nation-state, meaning a Pole- and Jew-free state. Ukrainian Nationalists execute a campaign of ethnic cleansing across their northern regions, including Eastern Galicia. First, they kill the Poles. Then they join the Germans in killing the Jews.

After the way, the Soviet Union along with the communist government of Poland seeks to solve Ukraine’s nationalism problem. They carry-out a population exchange. Poles are sent west to Poland and ethnic Ukrainians are moved East to Ukraine. At this point, 90% of Jewish population has been killed, and whoever survived leaves. During this period “liberation” takes on different meanings for different groups. When the Red Army arrived in the region, the Jews felt liberated because they were no longer under the threat of murder. But Ukrainians felt like they were being re-occupied by Soviets. And finally, the Poles were made to feel unwelcome in the tranisition to the “unmixing of people.”

The moral irony is that they had all lived side-by-side for centuries. But contemporary nation-states sought to “simplify” the question of nationalism by killing / ethnic cleansing or moving people away from each other.

Jose Casanova on Religion, Secularism, and Violence

Casanova wants to dispel the “Myth of European Secularism,” which says that as people become more civilized or advanced (like the Europeans) they leave religion behind. He gives three examples of how this myth is propagated. In Salzburg, he observed European elites tell Middle Eastern guests during a discussion of conflict in their region that once upon a time Europe had not learned to separate religion and politics, but then they secularized the state, and lived peacefully thereafter. In Berlin, he encountered public intellectuals in the form of artists choosing to end a performance by symbolically decapitating the heads of the major religions to make a point about violence entering history through religion. Muslims reacted violently to the decapitation of Muhammad, which only served to confirm the theory to the public intellectuals. Finally, public opinion polls regularly find European respondents saying that religion is intolerant and leads to violence, though this most likely refers to other people’s religions.

Why do we forget about the wars of the 20th Century? Casanova asks. The October Revolution, World War I, World War II: these all had nothing to do with religion. Perhaps, we need myths just like Appiah says we need identities. We need biases because without them we could not have judgments. Referring back to the 17th century wars over religion mentioned by Bartov, Casanova says that their outcome was not the secular state romanticized by Westerners but rather the “confessional state.”

The principle followed in the confessional state was cuius regio, eius religio; in other words, the religion of the sovereign becomes the religion of the subjects. The goal was a homogenization of religion. After the 17th Century, Northern Europe became Protestant and Southern Europe became Roman Catholic. A few states in which this was impossible — Holland, Germany, and Switzerland — developed bi-religious systems.

A similar situation occurred in 1492 with the expulsion of the Jews and Muslims from Spain during the Spanish Inquisition meant to create the nation-state through ethno-religious cleansing. All through this period, denominations became associated with particular nation-states and other religious groups were marginalized, fleeing to non-religiously pure states like the Russian and Ottoman Empires, as well as to the New World.

Casanova’s main argument is that when the mother state tries to organize itself, it goes through a process of separating diverse groups that brings about violence. This has been passed on since the 17th Century to the present. Contemporary European states have tremendous problems accepting that modern societies are actually more diverse, and so can’t handle the influx of Muslims and other religions and ethnicities into their nation-states.

The myth of the European secular state is that they didn’t leave religion behind, but rather their early practice of homogenizing the population made religion a temporary non-issue because everyone was the same. Converting a population to a single, national religion and then calling it secular is not “leaving religion behind.”

In America, Casanova suggests there was a similar attempt to create a national identity around WASPs (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants). This construction of nativism (what he calls confessionalism) is simply the attempt to construct what the proper identity of the nation-state should be.

Westerners expect the rest of the world to be as secular as they are, and decide that other people are not advanced as much as they are. This is based on an old hierarchy of difference.

But if we re-write the history of how European nation-states became these homogenous nation-states, then we can appreciate how these groups were actually the ones who moved away from the norm, which is diversity everywhere else in the world. Casanova encourages us to carry this out to realize that violence is not a result of religion itself, but the attempt to separate religions. Mother state formation is the cause of these struggles. And “the sacred” is a closer source of violence: the mother nation-state makes its own violence sacred and all others sacrilegious.