flag icon
Jumping ship
It's my group!
My country, right or wrong
"We" won!
Can a paycheck buy loyalty?


© David Tenenbaum.



The Volkerschlachtdenkmal was unveiled at Leipzig in 1913. As an appeal to Germans' historical memories through myths and symbols, it helps solidify national feeling.
Image courtesy of Bildarchiv, Preussischer Kulturbesitz, Berlin.


Monument to Iwo Jima

Monument to Iwo Jima
Image courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution.


statue of liberty Oh say can you see?
National loyalty. It's a fact of life -- people get attached to their nation, and often will risk their lives when it asks for help. The phenomenon is evident in the Caucasus Mountains where Chechen rebels are battling an overwhelming force of Russian troops and artillery.

Their loyalty, obviously, stems from the fact that they consider Chechnya, not the Russian Federation, their legitimate nation. In the battle, that intense affiliation is their most important weapon against the enormous firepower of the former Red Army.

As Russia tends to fall apart, a more intriguing example of national loyalty is occurring in Congo, the African nation that was called Zaire during the decades of corrupt rule by the dictator Mobutu Sese Seko.

Strangely, a long history of chaos, rebellion and invasion has failed to obliterate the idea of Congo as a nation.

"Congo is an interesting case in point," says M. Crawford Young, a political scientist at University of Wisconsin-Madison who has studied the country for decades. "There's an impressive sense of national loyalty" despite the fragile political situation. "You have seven or eight foreign armies, and a large number of domestic insurgent militias, the government controls only a fraction of the country." Nonetheless, "about the only thing the government and its opponents agree on is that no-one wants to break the country up. It's extraordinary, because they could do this quite easily."

Bloody past, bloody present
Congo emerged from the Congo Free State, a private fiefdom established by Belgium's King Leopold in the late 1880s, and its history under Leopold's bloodthirsty rule, and later under the homegrown strongman Mobutu (whose thieving ways earned him the title of "kleptocrat"), was hardly the sort of leadership that we'd think would encourage loyalty.

How has the nation succeeded in inculcating such strong loyalty? In Congo, as elsewhere, the state uses considerable resources to instill a feeling of fealty among its citizens, Young says. "States often control the school system or at least the curriculum. And in much of the world, the state controls the broadcast media." Other common techniques include promoting national rituals, the local counterparts of the United State's Fourth of July or France's Bastille Day, and establishing national symbols -- equivalent of the statue of liberty in New York or the Arc of Triumph in Paris.

A global village?
The Volkerschlachtdenkmal If governments have a clear motivation for inculcating national identity, what's in it for those of us who are asked to be loyal? As is true of loyalty to other groups, national identity promotes a sense of belonging and, yes, identity. I'm from the United States, you're from Canada. I'm from Mexico, you're from Cuba.

National identity remains strong in what Young calls the "derelict" state of Congo. This is true even along its long border, where ethnic groups span national boundaries, offering a competing sense of loyalty. "There's a sense that Rwandans are different, but they don't look different, their language is fairly close to Eastern Congolese languages... There's a sense that 'we are not them, and they are not us.'" The distinct music and art of the Congo help counterbalance the centrifugal force caused by the range of competing ethnic groups in the nation, he adds.

Young would not venture to guess what might happen to national loyalty in the face of increasing globalization, but he did note that despite increases in trade, communication and tourism, few people identify themselves as citizens of the world. After decades of successful efforts to unify the economy, foreign policy and social policy, Europeans are spending Euros -- and still thinking of themselves as Italians or Germans, Spaniards or English. "Although Europe has accomplished an impressive thing in creating a multi-national framework of cooperation, the number of people who identify themselves in polls as 'Europeans' is in single digits," Young notes.

You think this stuff about national identity is fierce? Then check out your hometown on a football Sunday.

back more
  The Why Files There are 1 2 3 4 5 pages in this feature.
Bibliography | Credits | Feedback | Search

©1999, University of Wisconsin, Board of Regents.