“What is a nation?” Ernest Renan’s famous rhetorical question to an audience at the Sorbonne on 11 March 1882 has remained vital for a wide variety of scholars in fields as diverse as history, literary criticism, sociology, philosophy, and political science. Renan initially posed the question barely ten years after the close of the Franco-Prussian War, which had sparked the establishment of the French Third Republic, the unification of Germany under the leadership of Wilhelm I, and the transfer of the disputed territory of Alsace-Lorraine from French to German control in the months between July 1870 and May 1871. Renan made no overt mention of these events while he was speaking, but he rejected any possible answer to his question that might attempt to base the creation of nations and national identities on shared “race, language, [economic] interests, religious affinity, geography, [or] military necessities.” This explicit refusal constituted an implicit rejection of the entire range of German justifications for the acquisition of the two recently French border provinces.

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