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Small is Beautiful

Siniša Malešević

Much of the rhetoric of Irish nationalism focused on the idea of a small nation, oppressed by a larger one. The nationalism of the Balkan states, in contrast, tended to emphasise the idea of ‘greatness’, though in many important senses these were smaller polities than Ireland.

Nineteenth and early twentieth century Irish and Balkan nationalisms have often been interpreted as having much in common. For one thing they were seen as involving a similar form of popular resistance against illegitimate imperial rule. For another they were identified as having predominantly ethnic character, where the focus was on the cultural (religion, language, descent) as opposed to the political sense of group identification. Finally they are generally perceived to be the typical examples of small nation projects fending off the presence of the dominant large nations. In the words of the Czech historian Miroslav Hroch, small nations “are those which were in subjection to a ruling nation for such a long period that the relation of subjection took on a structural character for both parties”. In other words what, in this view, characterises a small nation is a long history of foreign rule that ultimately generates a particular relation of subjugation and interdependence.

While it is true that Irish and Balkan nationalisms have some common features, as all nationalisms do, these three apparent similarities may not be so straightforward as some would suggest. Firstly, all nationalisms that emerge in the context of imperial order appropriate a language of popular legitimacy that empires inevitably lack. In fact nationalism is first and foremost an ideology that rests on popularly shared perceptions that posit the nation as a principal unit of human solidarity and political legitimacy. In this context there is nothing unique in Irish and Balkan nationalisms: they resemble all other anti-imperial and post-imperial nationalisms. Secondly, to characterise the Balkan and Irish cases as essentially ethnic models of nationalism would suggest that the civic vs. ethnic dichotomy of nationhood is problem-free. However the scholars of nationalism, from Bernard Yack to Rogers Brubaker, have questioned this simplified dichotomy for years arguing that this very typology was often deployed in a crude ethnocentric way to label other nationalisms as ethnic (that is irrational, nativist, inherited) and one’s own as civic (voluntary, rational, consensual). It is quite clear now that all nationalisms are composed of ethnic and civic features and that civic nationalisms, such as the French or American, can be just as exclusive and xenophobic as ethnic ones. Hence depicting Irish, Serbian or Greek nationalisms as having solely ethnic components is conceptually problematic and empirically wrong. So this superficial similarity between Balkan and Irish nationalisms does not hold either.

The third, and most promising, point of resemblance is the notion of small nations. In some respects this seems obvious as Serbia, Greece, Croatia, Albania, Bulgaria and other Balkan states are, just like Ireland, small in terms of their territory, population size and international influence. Yet this category, I would argue, is the one that most clearly differentiates the trajectory of Irish nationalism from its Balkan counterparts.

In historical terms Irish nationalism has often been depicted as the political and cultural project of a small nation. At the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century Irish nationalists were keen to stress the similarity of the popular aspirations and the legitimacy of the claims for independence of many small nations in Europe. The focus here was clearly on the colonial status of such entities living under the yoke of various imperial powers – from the Ottomans in the Balkans, Habsburgs in the Central Europe, Romanovs in Russia and Eastern Europe to the presence of the British empire in Ireland. In this context Ireland was regularly compared to Finland, Bohemia/Czechoslovakia, Norway and the Baltic states in order to advance the cause of independence.

However the relative failure of 1916 coupled with the tighter British grip on Ireland in the wake of intensified WWI operations led towards disillusionment with such Europe-wide comparisons. Hence in 1918 Arthur Griffith was adamant that “the right of the Irish to political independence never was, is not, and never can be dependent on the admission of equal rights in all other peoples”. When the war ended and Ireland had not been granted independence while many other states of similar size now enjoyed full sovereignty the small nation argument was reformulated to emphasise the double standards of Great Power politics. Sinn Féin pamphlets published in this period made abundantly clear that Ireland was well ahead, in terms of population and territory size, revenue per capita and its longer history of resistance to colonial rule, of most of the states that were granted independence at Versailles. In the nationalist discourse of the time Ireland was deemed to be “First of the Small Nations”.

The small nation discourse was just as influential in the Free State period although it was often articulated more widely to suggest a degree of similarity between Ireland and the postcolonial world. This interpretation was reinforced by John F Kennedy’s 1963 speech at Leinster House, where he proclaimed that “every new nation knows that Ireland was the first of the small nations in the twentieth century to win its struggle for independence”. During the Celtic Tiger era the small nation idea was reformulated yet again to demonstrate how small polities such as Ireland were capable of unparalleled economic success in a globalised world. Most recently it has been deployed by politicians to indicate how the enormous challenges of post-2008 recovery can be overcome by the strong will of the small nation. Hence in one of his 2012 speeches Taoiseach Enda Kenny emphasises that “in the long history of our small nation there has never been such an unprecedented challenge nor such an extraordinary opportunity”.

In sharp contrast, the dominant discourse of many nineteenth and early twentieth century Balkan nationalisms was the emphasis on greatness. Thus the leading Greek, Serbian, Bulgarian, Albanian and Croatia nationalist movements tended to focus not on the small size of their nations but on the past glories of the ancient and medieval polities that dominated this part of the world. While Irish nationalism was framed around the question of territorial unification of the entire island, Balkan nationalisms centred on large-scale territorial expansions along the line of clearly articulated nationalist blueprints: Greater Greece (Megáli Idéa), Greater Serbia (Velika Srbija), Greater Bulgaria (Velika i Obedinena Bulgariia) Greater Croatia (Velika Hrvatska), Greater Albania (Shqipëria Etnike) and so on. In the Greek case that meant partial recuperation of the territories controlled by the Byzantine empire as well as the recapturing all the ethnic-Greek-inhabited areas that were part of the Ottoman empire. Serbian nationalist ambitions centred on recreating the greatness of the tsar Dušan’s medieval empire by expanding the state’s borders towards regions where a Serb population lived – from Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina to Macedonia, parts of Albania and further afield. In a similar vein, Bulgarian nationalists aspired to bring to life a Greater Bulgaria that would invoke the legacy of the medieval Bulgarian empire under Simeon the Great and include the territories of Macedonia, Thrace and Moesia as stipulated in the 1878 Treaty of San Stefano. Croatian nationalists envisaged the establishment of Greater Croatia on a blueprint inspired by the medieval kingdom of King Tomislav which would incorporate Bosnia and Herzegovina and parts of Serbia and Montenegro. Although Albanian nationalist movements developed later and could not invoke medieval roots (apart from rather spurious links with the ancient Illyrians) they too advocated pan-Albanian ethnic unification through the prism of “Ethnic Albania” (covering Kosovo, western Macedonia, parts of Montenegro and Greece).

While these expansionist nationalist projects dominated late nineteenth and early twentieth century politics and intellectual debate they remained present and influential throughout much of twentieth century. The 1912-13 Balkan wars and two world wars kept the blueprints alive as the borders of Balkan states continued to shift until 1945. Although the Cold War stabilised the existing borders for decades, expansionist nationalist ideologies remained visible throughout the region. Despite nominal commitment to communist universalism, the policies of the state-socialist Balkan republics did not significantly differ from those of anti-communist Greece or Turkey: they all espoused firm nation-centric ideologies in education, mass media, foreign policy and many other fields. With the collapse of communism and disintegration of Yugoslavia, expansionist nationalism became even more prominent in the public eye as post-Yugoslav wars were in part waged to realise such ideological blueprints. Actual, or in other cases prospective, membership of the EU has dented some of these ideas, but they have not gone away. While partially accepting the label of a small nation, the dominant nationalist discourses in the Balkans are still, unlike Irish nationalism, strongly wedded to the notion of national greatness.

Why was the idea of the small nation so appealing to Irish nationalists and not to their counterparts in the Balkans? Where do these two diametrically opposed views of nationhood come from? One could argue that the difference comes from geographical limits, whereby Irish nationalism inevitably encounters the finite borders of an island whereas the territories subject to Balkan nationalist ambitions were substantially less limited. However geographical restrictions were not an obstacle for the rise of expansionist nationalist and imperial projects in many other cases (from Denmark, Japan and Britain to Indonesia) while Greek nationalism was also able to overcome the territorial spread into thousands of small islands. Although geography plays a small role here it is difficult to see it as being the main reason for such contrasting visions of a nation.

Another possible interpretation would focus on the different historical legacies of the two regions: while nineteenth century nationalisms in the Balkan states could draw upon powerful, unified medieval kingdoms as the alleged cradles of nationhood Irish medieval history was characterised by less centralised and more patchy clan-based chieftaincies, often at war with each other. Nevertheless this argument fails to account for the expansionist narratives of Albanian nationalism, which could not invoke memories of medieval statehood. Moreover Greek nationalist narrative was not build around a particular medieval kingdom but continued to be deeply split between those who envisaged an enlarged Greece on the blueprint of the Byzantine empire (conservatives) and those eager to resurrect the philosophical traditions and the territories of the ancient Hellenic world (liberals). As all nationalisms draw upon the mythology of the glorious past, Irish nationalism might just as easily have created a narrative of greatness on the basis of military and political success in the pre-modern era: from the legendary kingship of Tara to the mythologies associated with the High Kings of Ireland to the glorification of Brain Boru as “the heroic Irish unifier”. The expansionist version of Irish nationalism could also have been built on claims that all people of “Celtic descent” are part of the Greater Irish nation. This, however, never happened.

One could also pinpoint the extremely competitive and culturally highly diverse world of the Balkans, often steeped in violent conflicts, as triggering exclusivist nationalism. This would contrast with Ireland, where conflicts were allegedly more sporadic and focused largely on the Catholic-Protestant power struggle. However this stereotypical view of both regions has been challenged by scholars who now emphasise that for much of its history the Balkan region was not particularly violent, with the actual death tolls of conflict being significantly lower than in many other parts of Europe. It is only in the wake of the 1912-13 Balkan wars that the region became associated with violent nationalism. In a similar vein, students of Irish history highlight the complexity and changing dynamics of group relations on the island, where violence often occurred outside and across the religious divides.   

Another line of argument could focus on the different role these small nations have played in nineteenth and early twentieth century imperial conflicts. In this context, political and national conflicts in Ireland would be viewed as a peripheral issue at the margins of the British empire. In contrast, the Balkans were often seen as the geopolitical battleground for several empire, with the Ottomans, Habsburgs and Romanovs all fighting for the control of the strategically important region. These different geopolitical contexts could be viewed as triggering different types of nationalisms in Ireland and the Balkans.

This mode of arguing is closer to providing an answer, but it is framed in the wrong way. Rather than emphasising Ireland’s marginality and Balkan centrality in world politics it is looking at things the other way around that will lead us towards the more accurate explanation. The nationalist rhetoric of the small nation often hides the level of Ireland’s importance in the nineteenth and early twentieth century world.

This historical idea of Irish smallness was largely built around the continuous comparison with the Britain. In this context Ireland does appear as a much smaller and less significant entity in almost every respect: size of territory, population, natural resources, industry, technology, science, military might, economy etc. However, considering that for much of the nineteenth and early twentieth century Britain was the largest and most powerful empire in the world, such decontextualised comparison with Ireland is analytically futile. The truth is that in this period Ireland was not a small nation: the pre-Famine island boasted a very large and highly dense population that by the 1840s reached 8.5 million people. With this population Ireland was far ahead of Belgium (4 million), the Netherlands (3 million), Sweden (3 million), Norway, Denmark and Finland (each less than 1.5 million), Portugal (3.7 million) and many other European states. At the time Ireland’s population size was much closer to some of Europe’s largest states such as Spain (14 million), England (15.9 million) and Austria (16.7 million) than the other “small nations”. At the same time the populations of Balkan nations were very small, ranging from 1,5 million in Croatia, a million in Bulgaria to 0.8 million in Greece and Serbia each and 0.2 million in Albania.

Furthermore unlike the Balkans and many central European polities Ireland was well integrated into the world economy and many Irishmen (and some women) played a significant role in the spread of British empire throughout the world. The Irish population was an integral part of the imperial project, with settlers, traders, administrators and soldiers from Ireland acting on behalf of the British empire from New Zealand and Australia to Africa, India and further afield. For example between 1825 and 1850 almost half of the Bengal army’s European soldiers were from Ireland (many of whom were Catholic”. Since Irish ports were crucial in the Atlantic trade routes its population had access to the imperial markets of Britain. At the beginning of the nineteenth century Dublin was the second largest city in the British Isles and the sixth largest in Europe. By the end of that century Dublin, Belfast and Cork were important centres of trade, industry and manufacturing. In addition to Belfast’s world leading role in shipbuilding and linen production other Irish cities were also more industrialised than most parts of central Europe. The industries that dominated at that time very quite diverse, ranging from baking and brewing to textile production. Even after a dramatic decline in population size after the Famine, Ireland was still an important part of world trade, shipping and the textile industry.

With unprecedented levels of emigration to North America, Australia, Britain and other parts of the world, Irish population was also soon involved in forging a global nationalist movement, centred on anti-imperial activities, which ultimately had decisive influence on British and thus world politics. If it was not for the presence of millions of Irish emigrants in North America influential organisations such as Clan na Gael and the Fenian Brotherhood would not have emerged, impacting on political life in the British Isles. Thus Ireland was not always a small nation. Indeed for much of its recent history it left a significant mark in the political, economic and social affairs of the British empire, and thus the world.

In contrast, Balkan nationalist projects developed later and also started off from a much weaker organisational and ideological base. At the beginning of the nineteenth century most Balkan populations were still ruled by the Ottomans, who by this time largely lagged behind the West in economic development. Although once a superior military and organisational power, by the early nineteenth century the empire was significantly weakened and unable to prevent the ever growing political autonomy of the Balkan polities. By the time of the Treaty of Berlin (1878) most Balkan states had gained full independence and embarked on the project of state- and nation-building. However the new polities had no administrative apparatuses, industries, viable transport and communication networks, educational systems, media or publishing services. Most these new states did not have the national banks, currency system or even a town with more than 30,000 people until the second half of the nineteenth century. Literacy levels were also abysmal and the overwhelming majority of the population consisted of impoverished peasants.

Nevertheless, with intense and speedy modernisation centred on state formation and nation-building, this all changed relatively quickly. By the early twentieth century the new states had built large capital cities and continued with urbanisation and industrialisation programmes. They established quite large civil services. For example, while in 1814 Serbia had only twenty-four civil servants by 1902 twenty-two per cent of all Belgrade households consisted of civil servants and their families (more than 15,000 people). The new polities also invested heavily in the two pillars decisive for the transformation of the population into nationally conscious Serbs, Bulgarians and Greeks: the educational system and the mass media. In Bulgaria, for example, between 1879 and 1911 the budget for education grew by an astounding 650 per cent between 1879 and 1911. Governments also supported and financed newspapers and other media. By the early twentieth century, Serbia, Greece and Bulgaria had a large number of daily and weekly papers, many of them eager to pursue intensely nationalist agendas. New transport and communication networks were built: between 1885 and 1912 the length of railway lines increased by a staggering 841 per cent in Bulgaria and 613 per cent in Greece.

These significant structural changes and investments were possible because the Balkan states, unlike Ireland, had become fully independent entities where government could use state budgets to finance expensive nation-building exercises. Nevertheless, despite these impressive improvements, the region continued to lag behind Western Europe. Saddled with huge foreign loans used to prop up state-building projects (and with very large military establishments), Balkan polities become even more marginal in European and world affairs. With the collapse of the Ottoman empire and the changed geopolitical priorities of the Great Powers the Balkan region was, yet again, confined to the periphery of European politics and economy.

In contrast, and around the same time, Irish nationalism gained worldwide prominence. The late nineteenth and early twentieth century was a defining period for Ireland, an era of political turbulence, economic development and cultural expansion when Irishness acquired global visibility and influence. The political wrangling with Britain, from the Home Rule debates to the Easter Rising, all had global ramifications spreading to the British colonies, the English-speaking countries hosting a large Irish diaspora and to many other regions where political movements were inspired by the Irish political events. The Easter Rising had a direct impact on similar revolutionary attempts from India (Chittagong), Indochina and Egypt to African American movements in the US and the Irish diaspora in Australia and North America. The event was expensively reported in all important newspapers in the world, with The New York Times covering the events on its front page for the full two weeks. In addition, as Joe Lee has demonstrated, by the beginning of the twentieth century Ireland had experienced rapid economic and political modernisation where high rates of emigration generated a new economy centred on tenant farmers engaged in a market-focused agriculture. This period also witnessed unprecedented cultural successes resulting in literature and arts that ultimately gained world fame (from Yeats and Joyce to Stoker and Wilde). None of these developments would suggest that Ireland was a small nation in any way. Yet the idiom of smallness continued to dominate Irish public discourse.  

So why was Irish nationalism steeped in the idea of a “small nation” while the Balkan nationalisms, which objectively represented smaller and less influential entities, were obsessed with the notion of a “great nation”? The paradox owes much to the different structural conditions of Ireland and the Balkans in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. These nationalisms emerged in very different historical contexts and as such had to articulate quite different interpretations of nationhood. In order to legitimise their claims for independence and to mobilise public support Irish nationalists had to depict Ireland as a small and innocent victim of the most powerful and still-rising world empire. Such a discourse had to portray Ireland as the exact opposite of Britain: so if Britain is big and powerful Ireland must be small and weak; if Britain was defined by imperial expansionism Ireland was to be seen upholding the right of the small nations in the world; if Britain cherished past military glories Ireland had to celebrate non-military national traditions and so on. Furthermore as much of the Irish population was already nationalised to some extent by the mid-nineteenth century there was less need to utilise the violent mythological past or excessive territorial projects to mobilise mass scale support for the nationalist cause. The focus here was less on nation-building and much more on the capture of the (independent) state. Hence any attempt to invoke the idea of expansionist nationalism would undermine the Irish nationalist project.

In contrast the Balkan states found themselves in a situation whereby they acquired independent statehood before the majority of their populations could identify first and foremost as members of their respective nations. Since fully-fledged nationalism presupposes the existence of state-wide educational systems, mass media, high literacy rates and other ideological and organisational developments the Balkan states had first to create these, largely from scratch. In this context the mythology of past (and future) national greatness was deployed to inculcate a sense of nationhood among people who still identified more in local, clan, family or religious terms. Hence utopian projects of Greater Greece, Serbia or Bulgaria were often used as quasi-pedagogical tools to socialise the peasantry as nationally conscious Greeks, Serbs or Bulgarians. Moreover, as the Balkan states found themselves often at the bottom of European status hierarchies, nationalist megalomania was also employed as a substitute to compensate for their objective smallness, grand maximalist projections being used to mask an ever-increasing sense of geopolitical insignificance.

In other words, while in the Irish case the focus was on ownership of the state, in the Balkan case the emphasis was on the substance of the nation. While these were clearly two very different nationalist strategies they were still similar in the sense that both were engaged in articulating a moral argument to justify one’s claim to independent nationhood. In this context the rhetoric of a “small nation” should not be simply read as a politically innocent and objective statement of fact but as a particular strategy to make the nationalist case more legitimate and popular while simultaneously delegitimising the political claims of one’s adversary. These two cases demonstrate how nationalist projects can acquire very different form while still pursuing similar aims and ambitions. Whether nationalism speaks in the language of smallness or greatness its target is still the same: the idea that nationhood matters more than other forms of group attachments and that every nation should have a state of its own.


Siniša Malešević is a professor of sociology at University College, Dublin. His recent books include Nation-States and Nationalisms (Polity 2013). His The Rise of Organised Brutality (Cambridge University Press 2017) is in the press.