Pavla discovered that her father has Ruthenian or Rusyn nationality, but Czech citizenship. In her identity documents, both the nationality and the citizenship of her parents are mentioned. This raises confusion about the true identity of her father. Is he a real Czech, or is he something else? Or, to put it more precisely: is nationality the first and most important kind of identity, with citizenship being only secondary?

  • What is...?

Nationality: A person declares with his nationality his or her adherence to a group of people with a common identity. This community has several attributes: a collective proper name, a myth of common ancestry, shared historical memories, one or more differentiating elements of common culture, an association with a specific homeland, a sense of solidarity. In the common use of the word, nationality does not include political implications or rights.

Citizenship: A citizen enjoys political and social rights from the state and assumes certain duties in these fields toward the state based on his or her citizenship. These rights include protection and participation in the political decision-making process. A visible sign of citizenship is the passport, which is a declaration of the state authorities that the person is a citizen of the state. Citizenship can be obtained through various processes of naturalization. In member states of the European Union, a citizen can not be deprived of his or her citizenship.

Nation: A named human population sharing a historic territory, common myths and historical memories, a mass, public culture, a common economy and common legal rights and duties for all members.

  • Topic

Nation, nationality and citizenship are relatively new phenomena in history. Up to the 19th century, people formulated their identity in the first place in a regional sense. They belonged to a certain area that was politically represented by the nobility, who had the duty to grant them proper and sufficient living conditions, for which they paid by their labour. This situation changed with the appearance of the Industrial Revolution at the end of the 18th century. The need for large numbers of labourers in the new factories caused a movement from the countryside to the cities, where they were often located. All cities on the territory of the Czech Lands saw a significant growth of population during the 19th century. Further measures taken by the authorities in the Habsburg Empire stimulated this development, especially the reign of Emperor Joseph II, who issued acts abolishing serfdom and the ban on freedom of religion, generating new dynamics in society.

This so-called modernisation of society put an end to the old understanding of identity based on territory and loyalty to local authorities. It could no longer satisfy the needs of a population that previously was static in terms of its location, but now was moving around from one place to another. From the one step of the development of new, larger and anonymous communities with its uncertainties, a new step had to be taken, i.e. the definition of a new understanding of collective identity.

In Central Europe, this understanding has two elements as its pillars. First, it engendered a new interest in language as an identity-building force. Especially languages that did not have the status of a means of communication for public discourse – in the Habsburg Empire, mostly the Slavic languages – saw a new interest and revival. It was their literary potential, in artistic terms, which had to demonstrate that the community using this language was indeed a full-blooded one.

The second pillar was a new interest in the histories of these new communities, which was their shared past, and what the meaning of that was for their present and future? The new interest in the history of the community had both the form of collecting fairy-tales as a source of ancient traditions, as well as collecting historical manuscripts documenting the rich past of the community. The aim of both activities was identical: to give the new community its own, distinct history. It is this development which some scholars call “the inventing of traditions” which had to strengthen the “imagined community.”

The construction of a new identity that would respond to the needs of modernity took place everywhere in Europe. The conditions under which people were discovering their new collective identity were not always the same. In some cases, mostly in Western Europe, existing borders usually followed the territory of the newly-defined nation. In other situations of states with a multi-ethnic population, the nation-building process was not supportive of the existing state, but rather conflicted with it. It was especially in these situations that a distinction between nationality and citizenship was to play a significant role. For nations that found themselves as part of a larger state entity, nationality became more important on the psychological and social level than citizenship. This was true in the case of the Czechs, but also of the ethnic German population in Bohemia and Moravia. Toward the state institutions of the Habsburg Empire, they felt loyalty only on a secondary level, as especially in the Czech perspective that the state would not automatically defend their interests.

This dichotomy between nationality and citizenship – or between loyalty to the nation or to the state – would play an important role in the independent Czechoslovakia after the collapse of the Habsburg Empire. Czechoslovakia defined itself as a nation-state, but was in fact a state of larger and smaller nationalities. Some of them, like the German or Hungarian population in the country, distrusted the new state which, in their view, did not easily satisfy their needs as a separate nationality. Again, loyalty to nationality came before loyalty to the state.

Ever since the foundation of Czechoslovakia, nationality has been an issue in various censuses. The first one after the independence of 1918 was performed in 1921, and considered the mother tongue as the most reliable sign of one’s nationality, which in accordance with the terminology of the time was called belonging to a tribe (kmenová příslušnost). Nevertheless, it was up to the decision of the citizen which was his or her nationality. The choice was limited to the recognised national minorities in the country. The second census was more directive, as it determined nationality only according to the mother tongue. Only in exceptional cases the officials who performed the census were allowed not to use language as the ultimate criterion for one’s national identity. The several censuses after the Second World War gave the citizen more freedom to decide about his or her nationality. The main issue was to which nationality one feels one belongs to, without taking into consideration the language one speaks.

In the census of 2001, citizens were allowed to fill out more than one nationality. Previous censuses presupposed that citizens can only have one nationality, though it is not the state or any other authority which can decide upon it. This change is proof of the tendency of at least institutions to see nationality as a part of one’s subjective reality, which is given to alterations and modifications. Nationality no longer plays a role in official documents. Passports or identification cards today lack the category of nationality. Only the category of citizen counts in the relationship to the state, and nationality is not relevant to communication with state institutions anymore.

On the level of institutional authority, this might be the case at the moment, but the question is whether most of the people do experience the significance of nationality in the same way. The final proof of a post-nationalist understanding of nationality could be the common acceptance that nationality is nothing more than some kind of membership one decides to abolish or change. This acceptance would make clear that, in the public mind, nationality is no longer a matter of descent, blood and parents, but of a free choice.

  • Stories and examples

Story 1
Jan came to Czechoslovakia in 1990. He was born in Denmark from Danish parents. They spoke Danish at home, and he learned English at school. He became interested in Czechoslovakia after the revolution of November 1989, as it was a country not far to the East. He decided to go to Prague and try his luck in a country which had recently been part of the Communist block. After some time, he found a regular job, for which he needed an official approval of his stay in the country.

Jan went to the foreigners’ police and collected the application forms for a residence permit. They were all in Czech, as was most of the information he received. Since he was in the beginning of his Czech course, he wasn’t able to understand most of it. Fortunately, a friend he had met recently named Klára offered to help him with these things. Jan took the forms over to her place and they sat down to fill them out. In the first section of the form, he first had to fill out his name, permanent place of residence and date of birth.

Then, two questions followed which Jan thought were identical. The first asked about his citizenship. That was easy: Jan had a Danish passport and so he certainly had Danish citizenship. The second question was confusing. It asked about Jan’s nationality, which to Jan’s understanding was the same question as the first one concerning his citizenship. Klára started to explain about the difference between these two categories. She was born in the neighbourhood of Český Těšín. Her citizenship was Czechoslovakian, but her nationality Polish, as she was born from parents with Polish nationality.

This confused Jan even more. How could Klára have Polish nationality if she did not have a Polish passport? Nationality was identical with citizenship, so how could there be any differences between the two? Back at home in Denmark, they had a German-speaking population that was defined as a cultural minority with certain rights. They did not speak about them in terms of nationality, but rather as a cultural minority. He found the form from the police very confusing, and responded accordingly. In the place for nationality, he wrote “I do not know” and as such he was registered in the files of the police.

Story 2
When a Czech woman wanted to marry a foreign man, she had two possibilities only several years ago. Either she accepted the Czech version of the foreign name with the suffix –ová (which causes administrative troubles abroad, where the couple is not easily recognised as one family) or she had to sign a proclamation that she would give up her Czech nationality and formally had to register another one. A colleague was very upset because of this when she wanted to marry Mr. Brown from Great Britain, and she did not want to accept the name Brownová. She had to choose another nationality very quickly in the office of the city council. Being so upset, she chose the Lapp nationality. The funny part of the story is that although there are no Lapps in the Czech Republic, the clerk nevertheless accepted her decision, which fully followed present legal regulations.

  • Sources


Anderson, B. (1991). Imagined Communities, Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, London-New York. (revised edition)

Gellner, E. (1983). Nations and Nationalism. Ithaca. (Czech edition: Národy a nacionalismus, Praha 1993)

Hobsbawn, E., J. (1992). The Invention of Tradition. Cambridge.

Hobsbawm, E., J. (1990). Nations and Nationalism since 1780: Programme, Myth, Reality. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hroch, M. (1996). V národním zájmu. Praha.

Hroch, M. (1999). Na prahu národní existence. Praha.

Hroch, M (ed.) (2003). Pohledy na národ a nacionalismus (Čítanka textů). Praha.

Smith, A. (1991). National Identity. London.


Czech Statistical office. Zjišťování národnosti ve sčítání lidu, domů a bytů v období 1921 – 2001 [The Research on nationality in census in the period 1921 - 2001]. Praha.

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