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Ludwig von Mises

3. National Changes

For a long time nations have been regarded as unchanging categories, and it has not been noticed that peoples and languages are subject to very great changes in the course of history. The German nation of the tenth century is a different one from the German nation of the twentieth century. That is even outwardly evident in the fact that the Germans of today speak a different language from that of the contemporaries of the Ottonians.

For an individual, belonging to a nation is no unchangeable characteristic. One can come closer to one's nation or become alienated from it; one can even leave it entirely and exchange it for another.

National assimilation, which must of course be distinguished from the blending and turnover of races, with which it undergoes certain interactions, is a phenomenon whose historical significance cannot be assessed too highly. It is one manifestation of those forces whose operation shapes the history of peoples and states. We see it at work everywhere. If we could fully understand it in its conditions and in its essence, then we would have taken a good step further on the path that leads to understanding of historical development. In striking contrast to this importance of the problem is the disregard with which historical science and sociology have so far passed it by.

Language serves for intercourse with one's fellow men. Whoever wants to speak with his fellow men and to understand what they say must use their language. Everyone must therefore strive to understand and speak the language of his environment. For that reason individuals and minorities adopt the language of the majority. It is always a precondition for that, however, that contacts occur between the majority and the minority; if this is not the case, then no national assimilation ensues either. Assimilation proceeds the faster the closer are the contacts of the minority with the majority and the weaker the contacts within the minority itself and the weaker its contacts with fellow nationals living at a distance. From that it immediately follows that the social positions of the different nationalities must be of special significance in this regard, for personal contacts are more or less bound up with class membership. Thus, particular social strata in an environment of a foreign nation can not only maintain their own customs and own languages for centuries but also assimilate others to them. A German nobleman who immigrated to Eastern Galicia around 1850 did not become a Ruthenian but a Pole; a Frenchman who settled in Prague around 1800 became not a Czech but a German. However, the Ruthenian peasant in Eastern Galicia who by upward social mobility joined the ruling class also became a Pole, and the Czech peasant's son who rose into the bourgeoisie became a German.[12]

In a society organized by classes or castes, different nations can live side by side in the same territory for centuries without losing their national distinctness. History provides enough examples of that. In the Baltic lands of Livonia, Estonia, and Courland, in Carniola and in South Styria, the German nobility maintained itself for many generations amidst the environment of a different people; so did the German bourgeoisie in the Bohemian, Hungarian, and Polish cities. Another example is the Gypsies. If social contacts between the nations are lacking, if between them no connubium and only to a restricted extent commercium exists, if changing one's class or caste is possible only in rare exceptional cases, then the conditions for national assimilation are rarely present. Thus, self-contained peasant settlements inside a country inhabited by a population with another language could maintain themselves as long as the agricultural strata were bound to the soil. As, however, the liberal economic order set aside all bonds, removed the special privileges of classes, and gave the workers freedom of movement, the rigid national stratification was loosened. Upward social mobility and migrations made national minorities disappear rapidly, or at least pushed them into defensive positions tenable only with difficulty.

The tearing down of barriers that guarded against shifting from one social class to another, freedom of movement of the person, everything that has made modern man free, has very much facilitated the advance of standard languages against dialects. "Where the so greatly improved means of transport and communication have shaken people up today and mingled them together in an undreamed-of manner, this signals the end of local dialects, of local manners, traditions and usage's; the railroad whistle has sung their funeral dirge. In a few years they will disappear; in a few years it will be too late to collect them and perhaps still protect them," an English philologist already remarked decades ago.[13] Today one can no longer live even as a peasant or worker in Germany without at least understanding the standard High German language and being able, if necessary, to use it. The school is making its contribution to hastening this process.

Quite distinct from natural assimilation through personal contact with people speaking other languages is artificial assimilation?denationalization by state or other compulsion. As a social process, assimilation hinges on certain preconditions; it can only occur when its preconditions exist. Compulsory methods then remain powerless; they can never succeed when the preconditions are not at hand or are not created. Administrative compulsion can sometimes bring about these conditions and so indirectly bring about assimilation; it cannot bring about national transformation directly. If individuals are put into an environment where they are cut off from contact with their fellow nationals and made exclusively dependent on contacts with foreigners, then the way is prepared for their assimilation. But if one can use only compulsory means that do not influence the colloquial language, then attempts at national oppression have scarcely any prospect of success.

Before the opening of the age of modern democracy, when national questions did not yet have the political significance that they have today, for this reason alone there could be no question of national oppression. If the Catholic Church and the Habsburg state suppressed Czech literature in the seventeenth century in Bohemia, they were motivated by religious and political but not yet by national-policy considerations; they persecuted heretics and rebels, not the Czech nation. Only very recent times have seen attempts at national oppression on a large scale. Russia, Prussia, and Hungary, above all, have been the classical countries of compulsory denationalization. How much success Russianization, Germanization, and Magyarization have achieved is well known. After these experiences, the prognosis that one can make about possible future efforts at Polonization or Czechification is not a favorable one.


[12] Cf. Otto Bauer, "Die Bedingungen der Nationalen Assimilation," Der Kampf, vol. V, pp. 246 ff.

[13] Cf. Socin, Schriftsprache und Dialekte im Deutschen nach Zeugnissen alter und neuer Zeit (Heilbronn; 1888), p. 501.

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