Time to Dismantle the Myth of the Nation State? by Carol P. Christ

I am a citizen of two countries currently being torn apart by popular nationalism. In Greece, the cry is “Macedonia is only Greek,” while in the United States a nation of immigrants is being told that it must fear being invaded by immigrants. The truth is that the idea of a nation state is a fiction created in the nineteenth century. It is high time to dismantle it.

Here is the Greek case. Phillip of Macedon invaded from the north and created a federation of Greek states in 338 BCE. His son Alexander the (so-called) Great conquered territories extending as far as India before his death in 323 BCE, establishing the seat of his empire in the newly founded city of Alexandria in Egypt. Phillip and Alexander are claimed as Greek, but in fact Phillip forced independent Greek-speaking city states into union under his rule.

Although the Greek language became the lingua franca of the Alexandrian Empire, the people who spoke forms of Greek did not become an ethnically pure free Greek nation under Alexander. Rather they became subjects in an empire ruled by a king that united people of different cultural traditions under a newly imposed Greek language. It is probable that Phillip and Alexander originally spoke a form of Greek, but even this is debated by experts.

The Alexandrian Empire was defeated by the Roman Empire in 31-30 BCE, which became the Holy Roman or Byzantine Empire with its capital in Constantinople in the 4th century CE. In 1453, the eastern part of the Holy Roman Empire was conquered by the Ottomans and became part of the Ottoman Empire, while during the same period, northern and western Europe were ruled by a series of warring states with radically shifting boundaries.

In the nineteenth century the idea of a the “nation state” took hold. According to UNESCO:

The nation-state “is one where the great majority are conscious of a common identity and share the same culture.” The nation-state is an area where the cultural boundaries match up with the political boundaries. The ideal of ‘nation-state’ is that the state incorporates people of a single ethnic stock and cultural traditions.

Affirming this idea, people who had earlier called themselves “Bavarian,” “Prussian,” “Hessian,” and so forth began to affirm that they had a common language and set of cultural traditions that identified them as “German,” while others identified as “French,” “Danish,” “Swedish,” and so on.

Those of you who, like me, have had your DNA analyzed know that national identities cannot be confirmed genetically. My historical research confirms that 37 ½ per cent of my ancestors lived in areas now known as German, dating back to the 1500s. Yet Ancestry currently places 41% of my DNA in England, Wales, and Northwestern Europe, 27% in Sweden, 17% in Ireland and Scotland, and only 5% in Germanic Europe. The percentages of Irish-Scottish and Swedish DNA are not very different from what I found in historical records, but the percentages of English and German DNA are radically wrong. This discrepancy might be explained by the fact that the Vikings invaded both Europe and England, the English invaded France, the Normans invaded England, and people moved around over the centuries. The bottom line is that European nationalities cannot be confirmed by DNA.

In the Ottoman Empire, people who had identified as “Romoi (Roman)” or simply as “Christian,” began to identify themselves as “Greek,” “Bulgarian,” and so forth, based on shifting criteria, including language and place. In fact, in the Ottoman Empire there were few places where only a single ethnic group resided.

In the island of Lesbos, for example, Greeks lived alongside Turks, Armenians, Jews, and other Europeans. Many of the most popular “Greek” dances were adopted from others in this milieu. It took the infamous “exchange of populations” involving several million Muslims and Christians to create the (still fictional) nation states of Turkey and Greece in 1922. This “compromise” that conflated religious and national identity left the Jews of Greece and Turkey without a place to call home. A decade earlier, a territory known as Macedonia had become part of Greece in the aftermath of the Balkan wars.

Here is UNESCO again:

However, most contemporary states are polyethnic. Thus, it can be argued that the nation-state “[…] would exist if nearly all the members of a single nation were organised in a single state, without any other national communities being present. Although the term is widely used, no such entities exist.”

Yes, you are reading correctly: UNESCO says the nation state does not exist!

Shift to the aftermath of Second World War: General Tito named Macedonia one of the six states that made up the newly constituted Soviet-aligned state of Yugoslavia (land of the Southern Slavs). Fast forward to the break-up of the Soviet Union. Following a series of wars in the former Yugoslavia, the Republic of Macedonia declared its independence in September 1991.

Macedonia is also a geographical area in modern Greece and the place of origin of Phillip and Alexander is in Greece. The declaration of a Macedonian republic led to a popular uprising in Greece orchestrated by the Orthodox Church and right-wing nationalist parties asserting that Macedonia is only Greek and claiming Alexander of Macedon as the primary symbol of Greek identity.

Because of this popular nationalism, the Greek government was not able to negotiate any form of compromise on the name–for example, North Macedonia or New Macedonia or Upper Macedonia—for nearly 30 years. In 1993 the new nation was admitted to the United Nations under the name “Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM),” but continued to call itself Macedonia.

In June 2018 the SYRIZA government of Greece and FYROM government signed the Prespa Agreement, which stipulated the change of name to Republic of Northern Macedonia. In the weeks leading up to the transition which occurred on February 12, 2019, people took to the streets again, the junior partner of the Greek government coalition resigned, the governor of Central Macedonia in Greece refused to put North Macedonia on directional signs, and the ability of SYRIZA to finish its term of office was thrown into question.

As someone opposed to war, I have often wondered why anyone would want to identify with the leaders of armies who conquered them. It is well-known that conquerors assert the divine right of kings, but why do people continue to revere tyrants centuries and even millennia after their kingdoms and empires have dissolved?

The time has come to deconstruct the fiction that nation states exist or have ever existed. The serious problems that face the world today–including extreme climate change, unequal distribution of wealth, environmental degradation, the proliferation of war with weapons supplied by a military-industrial complex impervious to national boundaries, and resulting migrations–will not and cannot be solved by those who cling to the fiction of the nation state. People have always learned to live with each other and the future of the world depends upon our continuing to do so.


Carol P. Christ is an internationally known feminist writer, activist, and educator living in Heraklion, Crete. Carol’s recent book written with Judith Plaskow, Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology, is on Amazon. A Serpentine Path: Mysteries of the Goddess is on sale for $9.99 on Amazon. Carol  has been leading Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete for over twenty years: join her in Crete. Carol’s photo by Michael Honneger.

Listen to Carol’s a-mazing interview with Mary Hynes on CBC’s Tapestry recorded in conjunction with her keynote address to the Parliament of World’s Religions.

Categories: Feminism, Feminism and Religion, Feminist Ethics, General

Tags: , , , , , ,

11 replies

  1. An extremely interesting and thought provoking post.


  2. Reblogged this on aunt polly's rants and commented:


  3. Excellent post, wonderful history lesson. It is time for all of us to retire this damaging myth. Folks in power in multi-national corporations have already figured out that need pay nation states no heed–to our detriment as a planet. Better to look to our feathered, furred, and finned kin for our understanding of earth, how we species have always migrated on a planet with evolving and now drastically changing conditions.

    Liked by 4 people

  4. Brava! I think you’re right that it’s time to abandon our idea of nation states that don’t truly exist anyway. I guess that makes me a Californian, not an American. At least I quit being a Missourian about 40 years ago; I don’t agree with any of the politicians in Missouri that I know anything about.

    I recently read that the True Religion of America is the corporation. I bet the corporation is also the true political state.

    Have there ever been the truly united states of anywhere?? I’ve read a lot of history. “United” has nearly always meant “united” under a king or queen or big business or powerful church.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I feel a deep grief for our planet these days.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Another term invented by patriarchal, power-hungry men. Women must lead us into a cooperative way of living that includes respect for the earth and all of its inhabitants.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Yours is the question I keep on asking: “As someone opposed to war, I have often wondered why anyone would want to identify with the leaders of armies who conquered them. It is well-known that conquerors assert the divine right of kings, but why do people continue to revere tyrants centuries and even millennia after their kingdoms and empires have dissolved?”

    My answer: People are consciously or unconsciously attracted to those who have or have had power.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Thank you for this thoughtful post Carol. My own Egyptian-Jewish family–along with many others–suffered from the rise of the nation-state in the early twentieth century. So many of us were what was then called “apatride”–stateless–and so we were unable to claim Egyptian citizenship when such a thing became available–and hence were subject to persecution, deportation, etc.. . . In the recent, wonderful film “Capernaum” by Lebanese director Nadine Labaki, much of the tragedy hinges on people (migrant or not) not having identity papers–another damaging product of the nation-state. Time to dismantle it indeed!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Great post, Carol. I agree completely that the nation-state has been a fiction with very deleterious consequences.

    In answer to your question: “As someone opposed to war, I have often wondered why anyone would want to identify with the leaders of armies who conquered them. It is well-known that conquerors assert the divine right of kings, but why do people continue to revere tyrants centuries and even millennia after their kingdoms and empires have dissolved?” I believe that this has much to do with the mythology of warfare. The so-called hero myth was invented so that men would leave home (and the possibility of having children — the only true route to “immortality”) and go off to war in order to be “immortalized” in the epic ballads of war. In order to undergird the validity of this “promise” of immortality through warfare, warring cultures needed to have heroes. Hence, Alexander, the “Great,” etc.


  10. Undoubtedly, in the ancient world there were city states with military alliances only under a common threat, e.g. the Persian invasion.
    But there is a clear continuity connection between Alexander and hence the kingdom of Macedonia with the rest of the Greeks. Definitive proof is Alexander’s education by Aristotle, the most well known philosopher/scientist of Ancient Greece.
    Now geographically Macedonia extends into many modern nations, including Greece, North Macedonia and Bulgaria.
    And it makes me proud that a foreign nation would like to present Alexander as part of their history because they acknowledge him. But in fact, the modern ‘Macedonian’ language did not even exist back then. Do you think that it is a coincidence that it shares more similarities with Bulgarian?

    Think of it this way.
    Garibaldi is an Italian hero that was born in Nice, which is part of France today. He fought in the Italian revolution for independence and there is a statue of him in Nice. Yet, nobody would say he’s French.


  11. Aristotle, who held a low opinion of non-Greek “barbarians” generally and Persians specifically, encouraged Alexander’s conquest of their empire. As with most – if not all – Greeks, Aristotle would have been brought up hearing stories of the Battle of Marathon of 490 BCE, the Persian Invasion of 480 BCE, and the Greek triumph over the Persian forces at Salamis and Plataea. His advocacy of conquest, then, is hardly surprising considering the cultural atmosphere he grew up in which had remained largely anti-Persian.

    Even without this consideration, Aristotle was philosophically pro-war on the grounds that it provided opportunity for greatness and the application of one’s personal excellence to practical, difficult, situations.

    Although I have more respect for Aristotle than for Alexander, I reject the idea that any good ever comes from war, and I personally do not revere Alexander, Constantine, George Washington, Garibaldi, or any other so-called “hero” of war.


Please familiarize yourself with our Comment Policy before posting.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: