What is a Nation?

“The migration of people between one nation and another is challenging long-held assumptions about who belongs.”

Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines a nation as:

  1. a politically organized nationality . . .
  2. a community of people composed of one or more nation- alities and possessing a more or less defined territory and government
  3. a territorial division containing a body of people of one or more nationalities and usually characterized by relatively large size and independent status.

In his influential 1882 essay “What Is a Nation?” French philosopher Ernest Renan wrote about the bonds that hold nations together. He explained, “A heroic past, great men, glory [are the links between people] upon which one bases a national idea. . . . A nation is . . . a large-scale solidarity, constituted by the feeling of sacrifices that one has made in the past and of those that one is prepared to make in the future.”1 Others have stressed language, ethnicity, or even pseudo- scientific ideas about “race.” The migration of people between one nation and another is challenging long-held assumptions about who belongs.

The way that many nations officially recognize that people belong is by allowing them to become citizens. In some countries, such as the United States, all individuals who are born in the country are considered citizens regardless of their parents’ country of origin. Other countries have different requirements for citizenship. The Germans traditionally defined their nation by race and genealogy. That is, German citizens were part of the Volk—a community that linked blood and citizenship. The idea of the German Volk was notoriously celebrated by the Nazis and used to justify the persecution and murder of Jews, Gypsies (Sinti and Roma), and others. In 2004, however, the German Parliament passed a law allowing for naturalization, whereby German-born children of immigrants could apply for German citizenship on the basis of residence, work, and other criteria. As a result, some of Germany’s approximately 2.3 million Turkish residents were able to become citizens. The hope is that as immigrants become citizens they will become more integrated into society. Will allowing immigrants to become citizens change the identity of the German nation?

As the changes to Germany’s citizenship law were being debated, artist Hans Haacke was invited to submit a proposal for a project housed in the German Parliament building, the Reichstag. Echoing the famous inscription on the front of the building—“ To the German People”— Haacke called his project “ To the Population.” His project soon became the focus of a debate about citizenship and German national identity.

Roger Cohen wrote about the debate for The New York Times.

On the western facade of the Reichstag is an old inscription: “Dem Deutschen Volke”—“To the German People.” Straightforward enough. But just how charged and divisive those words are has been revealed by an outcry over a proposed work of art for the refurbished parliamentary building.

The problem . . . is who Germans are. Are they still a “Volk”? The word is associated with identity through blood, was debased by Hitler with his clamor of “Fuhrer, Volk und Vaterland [fatherland]” and was further tarnished by the pervasive “Volkspolizei” [secret police] of the East German Communist dictatorship.

Or, with seven million foreigners in their midst and as many restaurants offering “Turkish doner kebab” as wurst, have Germans moved beyond a “volkisch” appreciation of nationality to a more embracing view of the German soul?

That is the central question posed by the work that Hans Haacke, a German artist living in New York, has proposed for the northern courtyard of the Reichstag. Above a trough filled with earth from throughout Germany would appear the illuminated words “Der Bevolkerung” — “To the Population.”

. . . The “Volk,” of course, is composed of German citizens. The “Bevolkerung” includes the 2.2 million Turks, more than 800,000 people from the former Yugoslavia, more than 600,000 Italians and many others who live here.

. . . The uproar reflects just how sensitive the issue of German identity remains, even after the approval last year of a law making it easier for immigrants and their children to obtain citizenship. The suggestion that Germany is a “land of immigration,” a notion strongly supported by the facts, still stirs widespread unease or anger.

...Peter Ramsauer and many other conservative members of Parliament...believe “This is political art, a provocative attempt to portray the words on the facade of the Reichstag as nationalistic,” he said. “But ‘Volk’ is just a normal word; it’s ridiculous to think Hitler tainted it forever. German history is more than the 12 Nazi years.”

...In a telephone interview, Mr. Haacke conceded that the word “Volk” has had some “good meanings” over the years. But he argued that it was also charged with ominous connotations, thanks to the Nazis and the East German leadership. To the artist, the word reeks of myth, of tribes, of blood lines, of all that Germany should now shun.2

Reprinted by permission from the New York Times (March 31, 2000). Copyright © 2000 by The New York Times Company.


  • 1 : Ernest Renan, “What Is a Nation?” as quoted in Geoff Eley & Ronald Grigor Suny, Becoming National. A Reader (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 52–4.
  • Volk : The term Volk (pronounced “folk”) literally means “people.” Volk implies that citizenship in the national community is inseparable from blood relations. Volk includes language, custom, history, and mythology shared by all German people. In the 1930s and 1940s, the term was used to justify the persecution of the Jews, who were deemed a threat to the purity of the German nation. Some proposed the word Bevölkerung, which means “population,” to signify the diversity of German citizens.
  • Gypsies : At the time of the Holocaust, Germans and other non-Roma Europeans used the name “Gypsies” when referring to the ethnic group of people who referred to themselves as Roma. Thus, to avoid historical anachronism, for the lesson plans in this book we use the word “Gypsies” when identifying the groups of people who were targeted for segregation and annihilation by the Nazis. Since the Holocaust, the derogatory qualities of the label “Gypsy” have been recognized, and Roma is considered the more respectful term.
  • 2 : Roger Cohen, “Berlin Journal; Poking Fun, Artfully, at a Heady German World.” the New York Times, March 31, 2000, (accessed January 9, 2008).

Connection Questions

  1. What is a nation? How does a nation get its identity? From its people? From its past? From its laws? From shared experiences? How do national identities change over time? To what extent do nations have a permanent culture? Should they have one?
  2. How did Renan define a nation? What did he believe gives a nation its identity? Compare his ideas with yours and those of your classmates.
  3. When scholars discuss nations and national identity, many try to identify the “social glue” that serves as a bond between different groups and people within a nation. What ideas and experiences serve as the social glue for your community? For your country?
  4. Why do you think people see immigration as a challenge to national identity? What does this suggest about how people understand the concept of “nation”?
  5. In his project for the German Parliament building, the Reichstag, Haacke reworked the famous phrase “To the German People” (or Volk) and made it “To the Population.” Why do you think Haacke felt it was important to change the words? How does his rephrasing change the meaning? What does it suggest about his vision for the future of Germany?
  6. For many, the word Volk is associated with National Socialism and the Holocaust. How can countries signal to their populations and the rest of the world that they are working to create a more inclusive national identity and culture?

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