Extremism and Violence: War and National Reconstruction

As part of our current theme on extremism and violence, SEN Journal: Online Exclusives is thrilled to present an original article by Dr. Bill Kissane. He has recently edited a new book, entitled Reconstructing National Identity after Europe’s Internal Wars, 1918-2011, which is forthcoming.

There are many words that creep into the social science vocabulary from the real world without sufficient critical analysis. One of these is  ‘reconstruction’. Commonly used with reference to places, events, and objects of art, its place within the social science lexicon is very specific. It denotes  large-scale projects of social and political engineering after the experience of war and/or natural disaster, events that are of such magnitude that either the state or international organisations play a major role in restoring the status quo ante. The first such experiment was of course the Reconstruction era following the American Civil  War. Yet the importance of such episodes in contemporary European history has been so marked that one recent study of democratic theory in the twentieth century summarised (and praised) the era of ‘Reconstruction Thought’  that followed the Second World  War [1]. As opposed to the ideological zeal of the 1920s and 1930s, in this period radical visions of mass politics were tempered by the experience of disaster and war between 1939 and 1945. Reconstruction, like much else, comes ‘after the fall’.

Within political science, reconstruction is applied mainly to post-conflict situations,  and since such projects have been largely internal since the end of the Cold War (though involving international agencies), the state is normally seen as the main agent of reconstruction. When the social science literature began to write about this type of  reconstruction  in the 1990s,  the focus was on state-building, and the earlier literature on  nation-building was largely forgotten about. The success or failure of reconstruction was  seen in terms of capacity-building. Others, more steeped in the older nation-building literature, continued to see the viability of states entirely  in terms of ethnicity and nationalism, and lacked the practical interests that could inform actual reconstruction projects. Nonetheless, studies of nationalism [2] still use the term ‘the reconstruction of nations’.  On the one hand, policy-makers either ducked the identity question or assumed that a civic model of identity could silently emerge in a divided society as an indirect consequences of economic development and institutional reform. On the other hand, the older assumption that the role of nationalism in providing legitimacy for such projects is crucial, remains as relevant now as it was in the 1960s.

Yet there is an ambiguity in the term of ‘reconstruction’ that applies to both the nationalism and the policy-oriented literatures. The purpose of post-conflict reconstruction is obviously not to reproduce the conditions which existed before the conflict. Yet neither are societies rebuilt from scratch. Likewise, nationalist thinkers want to revive nations, but do so in a manner that makes them fit for modern developmental needs. The theme of path dependence envelops all new beginnings in the world of politics and it is one that is present in most detailed accounts of reconstruction.

In March 2011, I organised an international workshop at the LSE on the topic of reconstructing identity after twentieth century Europe’s civil wars. Papers were presented on Russia, Finland, Ireland, Spain, Greece, Cyprus, Bosnia, Northern Ireland, Kosovo, and Turkey. The workshop was supported by the LSE’s Annual Fund and the Government Department’s small conferences and workshop funds. The book which followed, Reconstructing National Identity after Europe’s Internal Wars, 1918-2011 (edited by Bill Kissane), is under contract with the University of Pennsylvania Press, to be published next year. It will consist of a theoretical  introduction, a conclusion and case study chapters on Bosnia, Cyprus, Finland, Greece, the Irish Free State, Spain , Kosovo, Northern Ireland, and Turkey.  One  logic of the case selection was to compare ethnic with non-ethnic conflicts. National  identity was no less divisive an issue in Finland, Greece, Ireland, or Spain, where the civil wars were largely fought not between ethnic groups, but within one  political community. Nor were the civil wars any less violent. Indeed, the political struggles of  the reconstruction period were fought over who had a right to define what was national.

Since reconstruction involves much more than market reform and democratization (the twin ships of the liberal approach), it was appropriate to make this an inter-disciplinary project. The workshop included an anthropologist, a rural geographer, historians, political scientists, and two sociologists. The papers ranged from a discussion of the violent struggles for state power in the aftermath of the Spanish civil war, to a consideration of the connection between forced migration and the Kurdish conflict in Turkey. Indeed, migration or emigration seemed to be an essential part of the European experience of civil war, whether we refer to the departure of some socialist Finns to Soviet Karelia after the Finnish civil war, the forcible adoption of children and their export to other countries during the Greek civil war, or the rejection of village life and the move to the cities under Franco in Spain. In the case of Turkey, with its huge number of internally displaced people, this process of migration towards the West has resulted in assimilation to the dominant identity, resistance in the form of Kurdish nationalism, and many things in-between.

The range of reference in the recent reconstruction literature has  generally been  limited to contemporary cases, with less attention paid to older examples in Europe. The comparisons between older ideological conflicts and more recent ethnic conflicts posed the question of whether reconstruction benefits from the relative homogeneity of society in ethnic terms. The conclusion that reconstruction is almost always a divisive process,  and that the relationship between institution-building and identity-formation has been no less complicated in the older cases, was counter-intuitive. The cases under discussion in the workshop showed reconstruction to be something other than a one-off exercise in social engineering, but an iterative process, involving reconstructions across the  decades. Reconstruction has of course specific and desirable policy aims: disarmament, demobilisation, physical rebuilding, political integration, judicial reform etc., that form part of peace-building. Yet institution-building is only the first phase, and longer-term   psychological and cultural reconstructions usually follow. Generally, the pattern has been for the polity to be reconstructed first, but the trauma of civil war (and the needs for closure, commemoration, and  reconciliation) are addressed over the longue durée.

Some participants in this project were uneasy with (a) the amount of social engineering  implicit in the term ‘reconstruction’; and (b) the assumption that the reconstruction of the state should also  involve the reconstruction of national identity. Nonetheless, civil wars inflict a deep wound on a society’s sense of themselves, and this wound remains the most sensitive part of its body politic. Civil wars raise questions about what holds a society together, easily leading to accusations of betrayal and treason. It is not possible to understand this legacy or its potential solvents without reference to nationalism. Moreover, as shown by Riki von Boeschoten’s paper on Greece, the focus on reconstructing identity allows one to link the different arenas within which reconstruction takes place: reconstruction of the physical environment (the roads and the economy for example), reconstruction of institutions, reconstruction of social relations within communities, and also the reconstruction of national identity itself, without which no society recovers from conflict.

Although a natural tendency in this field is to ‘deconstruct reconstruction’  as a concept, it remains the case that all reconstruction projects have to be evaluated with reference to the goal of reconciliation. Where this goal has been abandoned, as in the former Soviet Union, the result was genocide and the complete obliteration of the folk memory of the civil war. On the other hand, the reconstruction of nationalist myths, feeding civil war memories,  has also  been  incompatible with reconciliation and co-existence, whether because of their conservative bias, or because ethnic forms of nationalism are incompatible with the existence of multi-ethnic  communities.

There seems no easy answer. Nationalism is a potential source of unity, but even where national unity predated the civil war, it is usually co-opted in the struggle for power, and modified for  the purpose of reconstruction. Indeed, the experiences of reconstruction compared in this project pose a strong challenge to those that believe that national  unity primarily reflects either the strength of civic ties or something more primordial. Many factors are at work and there is no automatic connection between shared national identity and the willingness to reconcile. Perhaps societies can only come to terms with their divided past if social change places them in a context where civil war divisions cease to be central, and where different circumstances allow a re-evaluation. The question of how a state which needs to generate a sense of political unity can do so when its main elites promote rival versions of the nation’s past, largely assumes a nation-state context. Yet the evidence is that it is not the state which dictates the terms of reconstructions in the long- run, but rather social transformation and indeed globalisation. Recent reconstructions have taken place in contexts where international institutions have become more important, where democracy has become a central aim, where changes in foreign policy goals affect attitudes to domestic oppositions, and where global processes like immigration allow the nation to be recycled, for good or bad. These changes allow for a perspective in which the civil war trauma does not dominate public life, and enable new values to guide new interpretations of the civil war past.

Dr. Bill Kissane is a Reader in Politics at the London School of Economics and Political Science. SEN Journal: Online Exclusives would like to thank him for his contribution. 

If you are interested in submitting an article to SEN Journal: Online Exclusives, please email us at sen@lse.ac.uk.


[1] J.W. Miller; Contesting Democracy. New Haven and London, 2011, pp.125-171.

[2] See for example. T. Synder, The Reconstruction of Nations: Poland, Ukraine Lithuania, Belarus, 1569-1999. New Haven and London. 2003.


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