Identity is a peculiarly modern preoccupation, or so we are led to believe. It accompanies the self-conscious reflection on the self that, as a matter of psychology as well as epistemology, arose in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, with the speculations of Montaigne, Descartes, Bacon, and others. But for much of the time, the factors that have affected identity have continued to be those that, whether or not so regarded, shaped conceptions of the self in earlier times. Family, religion, place, ethnicity, and, occasionally, class—these were the things that, consciously or not, provided a sense of identity for most people both before and after the onset of modernization.
A few, like Voltaire and his fellow philosophes, might have lived in the “republic of the mind,” and like medieval priests and scholars before them, aspired to a truly cosmopolitan existence. And royalty and aristocracy remained international right up to the First World War. But not only was French no substitute for Latin, in an increasingly nationalistic age, intellectuals as well as aristocrats were forced to pursue their activities within the mold of the nation-state. It was a striking symbol of the change that the British royal family, of impeccably German stock, was forced to change its name to the homely, English “Windsor” when nationalist clamor during the First World War made it politic to drop the correct but unacceptably German, dynastic name of “Saxe-Coburg.”
It was indeed the growing force of nationalism that made nationhood increasingly trump other sources of identity. Not that other agencies—the family, religion, and so forth—lost their hold entirely, but they were generally subordinated to the greater requirement of nationality. Only in times of war was this really obvious, but the tendencies were there in every field, from sport to the teaching of history in schools. When it came to a conflict between competing claims of identity, it was the nation that was expected to triumph. Communist “fellow-travelers” in non-communist lands were widely regarded as potential traitors, and the fate of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and other religious protesters against the policies of their country during the Nazi period was simply an extreme case of the overriding claims of nationalism.