Yet, there is something inherently contradictory in the nation-state. If it is indeed the home of one people, why has the drive to unify it been so painful, and sometimes violent? Here it may be helpful to use Benedict Anderson’s phrase of the nation as an “imagined community,” even if in a somewhat different sense. Every school child in France learns the traditional “Our ancestors the Gauls,” with Vercingetorix as the first national hero. He then learns the benefits of Gallo-Roman civilization, before the Germanic invasions and the Middle Ages and the rule of Charlemagne, then the Renaissance, Louis XIV, before spending a great deal of time on the Revolution and subsequent centuries. Such curriculum gives the impression of a continuous development of the nation since prehistoric times. Yet can France really be said to have existed in Roman times? The Gauls have spanned much more than the territory of modern France, and they are not the only ancestors of the French–whose name and dynasties are, for that matter, Germanic rather than Roman or Celtic, with Clovis as the recognized first king. The same applies to England, Spain, Germany, Italy, and most Western European countries generally. Does Italy as a nation really exist, or is it a creation of modern times. Even the language does not necessarily unify the Peninsula: modern Italian is a descendent of the Florentine dialect, rather than a language spoken uniformly by all.
In this sense, because it tries to give sometimes very different peoples a common identity, the nation-state is, in Western Europe and its offshoots at least, an imaginary community–Eastern Europe has different circumstances. Yet, it has succeeded in creating nations from what were once only nominal kingdoms. Its fragility, however, is apparent from the various separatist movements that have emerged over the past century to reclaim a certain identity, a claim followed in a milder way by the European Union today. The trend in the EU, in this sense, seems to go back to the older concept of multi-ethnic empire. Let us hope that Europe will not forget her own history so as to root its own identity in firm and solid ground.