Florian Scheucher

The fabric of our society is in swift transformation. Decades of deflective individualism initiated a progression of circumstances, economical, ecological and cultural, that do not abide to the rules of nation/alities and the hegemony of occidental power structures any more. Between those who want to reinstate the old world order and those who wish to reap the leftover profits of an obsolete system, some questions are still left unasked. But stepping back from troublesome explorations means accepting the operative trajectory without trying to shift it. We need to investigate societal structures and ask ourselves, if present global changes could be incorporated in the future development of our society through the oscillation between local and global environments.

We are living in a time of upheaval. Western democracies encounter unexpected election outcomes, that are not compatible with the prevailing trajectory of their political systems. Problems of an international to a global scale become ever more urgent. From sociopolitical issues, the instability of Russia-United States relations, the refugee crisis, the growing discontentment with the European Union; through economical chaos, the last breaths and lashing out of dying neoliberalism; to ecological turmoil, melting glaciers, entire species becoming extinct and the ubiquitous dig for ever more resources, it seems that our time prevalently faces problems that far extend the limits of singular nations to span the whole globe.

Conversely, studies show that the world in its entirety is now in a golden age of human development. Over the last 100 years humanity has undergone a steady increase in prosperity, literacy and access to clean water, and a decline of infant mortality, exposure to violence and disease. Where the average life expectancy in 1900 was only 31 years old, it is now 71. In the last 25 years, for the first time in human history extreme poverty has plunged below 10 percent of the entire population, while the population has grown from 5.3 to 7.4 billion people.1 These unparalleled improvements mark the emergence of a more balanced distribution of power and resources, the coming of unavoidable equalisation on a global scale starts to dissolve the economical and social differences between contemporary nations.

The development of global communication technologies and the access to information that comes with it permeates national borders and allows people to connect, personally or indirectly, from all around the globe in a way that changes their perception of space and time. Nonetheless, nationality seems to be an unshakable entity within those advancements. It has been deeply weaved into the fabric of occidental society, and as such refuses to be questioned in its universally central role in the societal structure.

Surfacing in the 19th century, nationality was ready to fill the vacuum left by the undermining of religious world views to form a new idea of society. The spread of print and a unified, common language made it possible for people to develop a sense of belonging to a larger group with which they would share certain feelings and sentiments about the world and their identity. They would be connected, even though never having met, through the idea of a common entity under which they were united. At first the modern nation was regarded to be a spiritual principle, a soul shared among its citizens. Citizenship was not a question of politics or personal affairs. It was an inherent quality to every person, unchangeable and hereditary. The german philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder used the idea of the ‘Volksgeist’ to encourage german-speaking peoples to unite under one germanic cultural and national identity. “There is only one class in the state, the Volk, (not the rabble), and the king belongs to this class as well as the peasant”, he maintained, astonishingly disregarding the prevailing social structures of his time and predicting the rise of ‘the people’ as the basis for the emergence of a classless national body. Not even 100 years later in 1882, french historian Ernest Renan famously neglected the idea of the nation being defined by an ethnic group sharing common characteristics, and developed his idea of the ‘daily plebiscite’2, a theory that has become ever more applicable throughout the 20th century.

The nation, according to him, is based on the clearly expressed desire of a people to live together and continue to do so. Its successful existence is secured by the citizen’s daily questioning of their nationality. Renan writes, that every day people need to ask themselves, if they still want to be part of the nation, if the nation still holds governing power over them. If citizens do not recognise their nation’s sovereignty, its legitimacy or its institutional powers (not just governmental, but also educational, cultural and so on), the nations existence is no longer secured. If the citizens stop to believe in the existence of the nation altogether, the nation would seize to exist as an immediate result. Through Renan, the matter of nationality has therefore been transformed from a question of ethnicity with ethereal and racial vocabulary and based on a common principle, to take on the form of civic nationality, a nationality based solely on the people’s belief in the nation and their theoretical power over it. Nationality is no longer a characteristic inherent to every human being. It is solely invented and maintained by peoples to unite themselves, and as such is “imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign”3. Sovereign here means that every nation strives towards the elimination of every limitation by outside forces of itself and its citizens. Limited, more importantly, means that no nation can be conceived as equal to the whole of mankind. A nation can only exist in the opposition of other nations or similar entities, since by its very nature it tells a story of segregation based on ethnicity, spirituality, cultural values, traditions or language.

The stiff construct of national borders allows for a simple and oftentimes arbitrary partition of the globe into nationalities and therefore a precise differentiation of peoples. By limiting themselves to their own borders, nations provide their citizens with a perfectly clear entity to identify with, and by extension adopt their values from. This process replaces the inherent spirituality of the 19th century in forging what is now naturally understood as national identities. According to a 2003 paper by psychologists Peter Weinreich and Wendy Saunderson, the formation of one’s identity always is a classifying act, and as such processual. It occurs through an identification of oneself with others and with groups, such as that one aspires to certain characteristics and wishes to dissociate from others.4 Therefore one always has to create particular antagonisms in order to develop their identity. Nationality provides the perfect set of foundational principles to allow enough segregation to make this process of identification possible. Yet at the same time the values of identification have since its conception until now been broad enough to include a large enough number of people to affirm nations’ preservation.

In the heart of Europe, in the border triangle of Austria, Germany and Switzerland, Lake Constance offers a peculiar circumstance of nationalities: Throughout their history the three neighbouring countries never drew definite borders through the entirety of the lake. The majority of the Obersee, the largest part of the lake over which all three countries have specific claims of sovereignty, remains undefined and therefore a subject of dispute. Two differing opinions about where the border runs through the water exist. The first one, ‘Realteilungstheorie’, places the borders at the median line between all shores, a system usually applied to borders marked by natural bodies of water such as rivers. The second one, ‘Haldentheorie’, considers the majority of the lake, everything outside the ‘Halde’, the shoreline of up to 25m of depth, a condominium of the three neighbouring countries. In this theory shared sovereignty is given to all three nations over the offshore zone of the lake. None of them can claim the lake as their own entirely. Even though the countries do not actually agree on the territoriality of the region - Switzerland claims the ‘Realteilungstheorie’ as being correct, while Germany and Austria are proponents of the ‘Haldentheorie’ - it seems that the specificities of the three countries’ shared history and culture make it possible for such a particularly blurred situation of nationality to persist. On an institutional level it is above all else the common desire to strengthen the region’s economical capacities and gain international recognition as a potential business location, that causes the municipalities to exceed their nationalities. The cooperative union ’Internationale Bodenseekonferenz’ (International Conference of Lake Constance), established in 1972 between the states and cantons bordering the lake, forms a structure of cross-collaborations between people and municipalities of the region and the European Union. Using shared economical, ecological and cultural values, they aim to expand their nations’ limitations on profitable relations. However, even if their set of goals includes the permeation of national borders for economically collaborative means, they do not challenge the nationalities’ role in the development of the region and the peoples.

The blurred borders, comparatively small scale and retained characteristics of Lake Constance contain the potential for prolific recalibration of how identity can be shaped in the formation of a community. Uninhibited by the rules of nationality and oscillating between the micro-environment of the region and the macro-environment of the globe, an inevitable question emerges: What form of societal restructuring could provide the peoples of Lake Constance with the necessary tools to further develop their community in the world we are experiencing today? Could an additional institution arising next to nationality as an identity giving entity combine regional and cosmopolitan values to superimpose, expand and negate national identity?


1. Lake Constance, Author’s own


1.    Johan Norberg, Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future
(London: Oneworld Publications, 2016)
2.    Ernest Renan, What Is A Nation? (Text of a conference delivered at the Sorbonne on March 11th, 1882)
3.    Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, Revised Edition (London: Verso, 2001), p. 7
4.    Wendy Saunderson, Peter Weinreich, Analysing Identity: Cross-Cultural, Societal and Clinical Contexts (Hove: Routledge, 2003), pp. 54-61