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Both controversial and hard to define, ethnicity is a term of vital importance for world history. In its most restricted form it refers to a group’s shared biological origins; in its broader definition it more closely resembles the concept of nationality. In practice, ethnicity is often linked to a specific language or religion. Ethnic prejudices have led to aggression, to feelings of ethnic superiority, and ultimately to genocide.
From the earliest civilizations to the present day, cultures have differentiated themselves from others on the basis of ethnicity. In many civilizations kings and nobles belonged to a different ethnicity than townspeople and peasants. And in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries researchers attempted to define ethnicity on a biological basis, creating pseudoscientific fields such as eugenics and “race science.” Even in today’s transnational and globalized world, ethnicity continues to play an important role in national identity and cooperation between different nations.
Ethnicity is exceedingly difficult to define in any precise way. In different contexts, it can come close in meaning to terms such as race, national origin, tribe, or nation. At the root of the word is the Greek term ethnos, meaning “nation,” but in the specific sense of a group of people descended from a common ancestor, a kind of large extended family. When Sumerians referred to themselves as the “black-headed people,” they were identifying themselves by ethnicity. To be sure, even by 2500 BCE considerable mixing of peoples had already occurred, but the crucial fact is that the Sumerians distinguished themselves from other cultures not only by their language and religion, but by their physical appearance and descent: that is, by ethnicity.
Ethnicity thus refers in its most restricted form to a group’s shared biological origins. But in any complex society intermarriage between diverse groups occurs. Thus ethnicity is often more correctly thought of as the way people perceive their own origins rather than a biological fact. While ethnicity in its narrow sense comes close to clan or race in meaning, in its broader definition ethnicity more closely resembles the concept of nationality. So when nineteenth-century nationalists praised the long historical existence and glorious past of, say, the German or Lithuanian nations, they did so in ethnic terms. Nation, a more political term, in this way became defined and propagandized as a function of ethnicity.
Strictly speaking, religion and culture have nothing to do with ethnicity. After all, a person can convert or learn a new language, even as an adult. In practice, however, ethnicity often becomes closely linked with a specific language or religion. Thus Poles and Croats came to see their ethnic identity closely linked with the Catholic religion. Similarly, tradition and history forged a tight link between the perception of Russian ethnicity and the Russian Orthodox Church. Again it is necessary to keep in mind that ethnic mythologies are frequently more important than actual bloodlines.
Ethnicity in the Premodern World
In the premodern world, before industrialization and the political-social changes of the past roughly 250 years, ethnicity very frequently overlapped with social class. Quite unlike in modern political systems, premodern princes often ruled over regions of extremely mixed ethnic populations with little concern about the origins or languages spoken by their subjects. Indeed, many rulers glorified their own ethnic origins as distinct from those of the people they ruled. The Mughal rulers of what is now India and Pakistan, starting with Zahir-ud-Din Muhammad (Babur; 1483–1530 CE), remembered Central Asia as their true homeland, even centuries afterwards. Similarly, the Manchu rulers of Qing China (1644–1911/12 CE) consciously emphasized their ethnic and cultural differences from the Han Chinese they ruled. The fact that the ruling classes were of a different ethnicity than the rest of the population was perceived as quite normal.
In the premodern world, ethnic and cultural diversity was seldom regarded as a political or social problem. On the whole, ethnic groups lived separately (even in the same territory), following their own rules and religious laws, but were tolerated by the rulers as long as they paid taxes and avoided rebellion. This is the situation in much of the Hebrew Bible, which recounts the story of one ethnicity (defined originally by religion) that lived under a variety of foreign rulers, from Persians to Egyptians. We should recall that in the premodern world social and physical mobility was quite restricted. Because different ethnic groups mixed less, they also were less likely to take on each other’s cultural and linguistic characteristics. That is, there was relatively little assimilation in the premodern world. Each group followed its own affairs, often guaranteed in its autonomy by the king or sultan, as in the Ottoman Empire’s millet system, which allowed Jews, Orthodox Christians, and other ethnic groups (though defined by religion) very broad autonomy in their internal affairs.
This is not to say that assimilation did not exist in the premodern world. Any powerful and successful culture attracts imitation among people with enough time, affluence, and ambition to attempt to take on a new culture. For example, in the Roman Empire non-Romans were actively encouraged to learn Latin, dress like the Romans, and accept Roman culture in all its forms. Thus so-called barbarians (to use the Roman term) like Franks, Visigoths, and Lombards gradually shed their original languages even while retaining important ethnic and cultural differences. With the collapse of the Roman Empire in the fifth century CE, the mixture of indigenous, Roman, and “barbarian” cultures allowed new ethnic groups like Frenchmen, Italians, and Spaniards to develop.
Even in the premodern world some cultural and ethnic mixing took place. But there were limits to these processes. For example, stark physical differences in skin color and outward appearance between Europeans, Asians, Africans, and (Native) Americans made it difficult if not impossible for, say, a Mexican or Peruvian to claim to belong to the Spanish ethnicity. In this way race precluded or at the least stymied a broader process of ethnic-racial assimilation. Ethnicity played a crucial role in “ordering” the social order of the post-Columbian New World. At the highest ranks of society were the European-born, closely followed by Creoles (of European ethnicity but born in the New World). Descending down the social hierarchy, people of mixed American and European parentage (“mestizos”) came next, with indigenous people and African slaves occupying the lowest social ranks.
Ethnicity and Nationalism
As we have seen, in the premodern world princes and their subjects frequently belonged to different ethnicities. Because premodern rulers did not derive their legitimacy from “the nation” (that is, the people they ruled over), this ethnic difference had no effect on their power. All this was to change in the nineteenth century CE with the growth of nationalism. Nationalism can be simply defined as the political doctrine that demands that all “nations” (groups of people bound together by language, culture, religion, shared history, or some combination of these factors) should have their own “states” (sovereign political units). As a political movement, nationalism traces its origins back to the French Revolution, which demanded that the nation—not the king—should decide France’s politics and future. One great sticking point of early nationalism, however, was the definition of a nation. This is where ethnicity often came in. To be sure, few nationalists sincerely believed that, say, all Germans were really descended from the same ancestors, but in their rhetoric they acted as if this was the case. Some extreme cases, like the historian and racist philosopher Joseph-Arthur de Gobineau (1816–1882), specifically defined nations on the basis of ethnicity and even race. The evil consequences of such racist theories became entirely apparent with the rise of Adolf Hitler (1889–1945) to power in Germany. As part of his perverse program to “purify” the German nation, Hitler helped perpetrate one of the most appalling mass murders in history, causing millions of deaths.
In the United States, too, ethnicity played a major part in politics. Before 1864 the vast majority of African Americans were enslaved and long afterward did not enjoy de facto equal rights with other Americans. Asians immigrated to the United States in large numbers in the mid-1800s and helped build the transcontinental railroad (completed 1869), but they also suffered prejudice and legal disabilities. By the end of the century legal immigration from Asia (especially China) was almost impossible, while the descendants of earlier Asian immigrants were often denied citizens’ rights.
In the last quarter of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, European nations (joined to some extent by the United States) extended their dominion over much of the rest of the world, especially in Africa. During this boom of “new imperialism,” ethnicity—usually in a racist sense—was employed as a tool to justify European control over Asians and Africans. Rudyard Kipling’s poem “The White Man’s Burden,” which urged the United States to take on the responsibilities of this imperialism, nicely sums up these beliefs.
The Age of Globalism
After World War II, racism, extreme forms of nationalism, and imperialism were explicitly rejected by the United Nations (formed 1945). Though many forms of these vicious ideologies and practices continued, few world leaders were prepared to defend theories of ethnic or racial superiority. Optimists looked forward to a world free of nationalism and racism in the near future. Unfortunately their expectations were not realized.
In the two decades after the end of World War II, dozens of new independent states were created out of former colonies, for the most part in Africa and Asia. Almost all of these new countries contained a variety of ethnic groups among its citizens, often speaking very different languages and following different cultures. For example, the new state known as Pakistan was created from mainly Muslim regions of British India without consideration of its citizens’ ethnic diversity. The very name “Pakistan” was created to reflect this ethnic variety, its first letters referring to different regions dominated by diverse ethnic groups—Punjab, Afghania, Kashmir.
While British India split along religious lines (Hindu-Muslim) when achieving independence from Britain in 1947, most colonies were transformed into sovereign states without any border changes. Since colonial lines were drawn in the nineteenth century without considering ethnic difference, African countries are some of the most ethnically diverse in the world. In many cases this has caused serious problems, including difficulties in communication among populations speaking extremely different languages. An even greater tragedy occurred in the late 1960s when the oil-rich region of Biafra attempted to secede from Nigeria. Biafra’s declaration of independence was based in part on the ethnic demands of the Ibo (or Igbo) nation against Yoruba dominance. In the end Nigerian troops crushed Biafran independence, and an uneasy truce was declared between the three main ethnic groups (Ibo, Yoruba, Hausa) that together make up some two-thirds of the country’s population.
While progress on interethnic relations has been made in Nigeria, the central African country of Rwanda witnessed a horrendous ethnic-based genocide in 1994. Two main ethnic groups, Tutsis and Hutus, dominated the small country created by Belgian colonists. The assassination of the Hutu president of the country set off a massacre of the Tutsi minority in which the majority of the country’s Tutsis were brutally murdered. In part, the Hutu hatred for Tutsis stemmed from historical factors. Tutsis had dominated the region’s politics before independence, and the Belgian colonial authorities had generally favored the Tutsi minority over their Hutu neighbors, causing widespread resentment.
Socialist states aimed to overcome ethnic hatred and create new national identities not based on ethnicity. The two best examples of such attempts are the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and Yugoslavia. In the USSR, officially all languages and ethnicities enjoyed equal rights. The country was divided up into fifteen “union republics” (Soviet Socialist Republics)— Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Estonia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldavia, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, Uzbekistan—in which generally two official languages were used: Russian and the local language. Thus in Vilnius, the capital of Soviet Lithuania, street signs were always bilingual, in Russian and Lithuanian. But with the economic problems and political fumbling of the late 1980s in the USSR, ethnic strife grew. Bloody clashes occurred in the Caucasus region, between Muslim Azeris and Christian Armenians. In the Baltic republics (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania) ethnic pride was one tool used by local activists against the USSR, culminating in independence in the early 1990s. Considering the huge size and ethnic diversity of the USSR, it is remarkable that its collapse engendered so little ethnic violence.
In Yugoslavia the situation was different. The south Slav state had been created out of an expanded Serbia after World War I. After World War II, Marshal Josip Broz Tito (1892–1980) led the country to liberation from the Nazis, then created a socialist state in which no one ethnic group was dominant. As long as Tito lived, the compromise between Yugoslavia’s diverse ethnicities lasted. In the 1980s, however, a combination of political and economic breakdowns led to ethnic massacres in the early 1990s. Once again historical memories played some role here: many Serbs remembered the murderous activities of the fascist Croatian Ustasha, which had collaborated with the Nazis during World War II and massacred thousands of Serbs and Jews. Since the Dayton Peace Accords of 1995, an uneasy peace has existed in the region, though clashes between ethnic Serbs and Albanians in the Kosovo region have flared up periodically.
In the early twenty-first century, one catchword constantly repeated is “globalization.” But even while the Internet, popular culture, and international trade bring the world closer, ethnicity remains a key and defining issue in domestic and international politics throughout the world. Only the future will reveal whether humanity will learn to appreciate and celebrate ethnic diversity in a spirit of toleration and mutual respect or will take instead the negative path of prejudice, aggression, and genocide.
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