Lessons From History

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In 1848, revolutions erupted across the continent of Europe. A variety of nationalists, socialists, and republicans joined forces to topple, if only temporarily, many of the continent's leading conservative, monarchical regimes. These rebels were on a quest for things we, today, take as given rights, bedrock values of Western Civilization. Things like universal suffrage, religious toleration and representation for minority ethnic and religious groups. Soon, however, divisions developed, and the revolutionaries faltered.

Each country was unique, but in Austria it came down to national divisions. Historians point out that those who embraced a form of civic nationalism -- in which one's loyalty is based on a commitment to shared civic and political rights and values -- lost out to those who championed the cause of a more exclusive "ethnic" national identity. The former fosters a setting for diverse backgrounds to coexist; the latter encourages divisions and ultimately oppression, as was the case for the minority groups of the ethnically diverse Austrian empire. The dominant Germans and Hungarians were intent on maintaining their ethnic hegemony at the expense of other national groups.

The uprisings of 1848 failed for a variety of reasons, but divisions along ethnic lines were significant. Ultimately this attempt at keeping the lid on diverse national interest groups ended with the empire when it went up in the flames of WWI.

I believe many of us in the US see the greater importance of what binds our nation together -- not in terms of our ethnic national and cultural identity groups, but rather in those Western and uniquely American ideals of tolerance, equal protection under the law, and basic individual freedoms. In effect, our nation is strongest when we look to those binding ideals of America's civic nationalism. If our nation holds true to those values, I think we'll weather this rocky storm. If we succumb to divisions along ethnic lines and the preservation of some abstract "European American" ethnic and Christian nation at the expense of other groups, I fear we'll go the way of Austria.

With a Perspective, I'm Josh Gnass.


Josh Gnass teaches high school history in Burlingame and lives in San Francisco.