Nations on paper

From the middle of the XIXe century, statistics and its derivatives made it possible to strengthen the State by quantifying the populations of multicultural countries such as Austria-Hungary or Russia. Spotlight on the political uses of numbers.

“How did we move from the idea of ​​a nation, a state of mindto the objectified, measured and quantified national fact, from the national imagination to statistical engineering? » (p. 6) This question alone sums up Morgane Labbé’s work and her work of putting it into perspective. Participating in several fields of research, Nationality, a story of numbers allows us to concretely understand statistics as a scientific and political object.

The case of Poland

The book shows statistics at work as a tool for public policies aimed at shaping populations, diplomacy as a field of interactions between political leaders and scientists with complex interests and strategies, a complexity not exempt from contradictions. Similarly, it analyzes its relationship to empires and the persistence of their frames of reference, often still valid today, to nationalisms and the emergence of nation-states, and finally to the circulation of knowledge and its producers.

Poland, which constitutes the author’s field of study, proves to be particularly heuristic. Shared at the end of the XVIIIe century between Prussia, Russia and Austria-Hungary, this country is a typical case of the transition from an elitist nationalism to a nationalism widely shared by other social groups, including the peasantry. It is also a territory whose populations have experienced different political regimes, nation-states and multinational or multi-ethnic empires.

This state of affairs allows us to question the different political frameworks that have shaped strategies of classification, differentiation, and hierarchization. At the end of the First World War, this space was also coveted by belligerent powers. Statistics concerning Poland – both those produced by Poles and others – allow us to identify military and diplomatic strategies and thus serve as support for the different strategies of political and territorial claims.

Map deployment

To explain these issues, the author offers a chronological dive based on a return to German statistics, very early, born of the national emancipation movement of 1848. In a nascent German nation-state, it allows a representation of the distribution of German-speaking populations. It is therefore first linguistic data, projected into population maps, which fuel the debate on the existence of the “space of the German nation (which) was first the product of an internal unity before being a space determined by its borders” (p. 21).

It is therefore not surprising to see that this “nation” extends cartographically beyond the borders of the German states, as evidenced by the first cartographic works of Karl Bernhardi and Heindrich Berghaus. The Linguistic Map of the Prussian State by Richard Böckh (1864) is a novelty: not only does it allow a visualization of the limits of linguistic areas, but it also makes immediately readable by comparing them the quantified relations of national groups. It also responds to the new political context: it is no longer a question of picturing a territory to be unified, but of administratively conquering the weakly German-speaking eastern confines of a unified State.

Prussia was not alone in adopting this state technology. Karl von Czoernig’s team at the Imperial Statistical Office of Austria-Hungary produced in 1848 the Ethnographic map of the Austrian monarchythe result of a titanic and unprecedented work of collecting data in the field, made possible by the extent of the Austrian administration and not, as was usually the case, from encyclopedic compilations. It presents itself as “a portrait of the monarchy, which had been endangered by the national uprisings of 1848: it thus symbolized the restoration of the unity of the empire” (p. 28).

In this perspective, the monarchy presents itself as the guarantor of the diversity of peoples, their languages ​​and the nineteen nationalities listed. While the liberal Constitution of 1867 recognizes nationalities and guarantees them a right to equality and protection of their languages, statistics is solicited by new demands from national groups in the context of the 1869 census, conducted by Adolf Ficker.

Ethno-national diversity

Russia also began the statistical exploration of its empire. Pyotr Ivanovich Keppen produced in 1851 an important Ethnographic Atlas of European Russia in which, as with the Austrian maps, statistical data are correlated with narrative data.

However, until the 1860s, the country’s ethno-national and confessional diversity was not the subject of particular issues. From 1863, the date of a Polish uprising, tsarist policy changed: “cartographic and statistical work then took on a marked political character” (p. 43), aimed at strengthening the imperial state with its Russian linguistic and Orthodox religious components.

However, it was not until 1897 that the first and only census was held in Russia, which marked a change in the hierarchical era. It was no longer the statuses (soslovia), but citizenship regimes based on nationalities (Russian and non-Russian) which become operational to structure public policies of standardization of a vast imperial space.

Stick out your tongue

The ideal of harmonization and comparability within imperial or national spaces resulted in an international movement aimed at establishing standardized measures of data collection. The variable “nation”, perceived by statisticians as “an attractive category of action due to its progressive and unifying connotations” (p. 51), was on the agenda of the International Statistical Congress as early as 1857, which was held regularly from 1853 to 1876.

It was in this context that the 1872 Congress of Saint Petersburg considered the criterion of language as a determinant of nationality, even though the Austrians considered language as one criterion among others. The problem arose of knowing which definition of language to retain. The “mother tongue”, the “usual language”, the “family language”, the one that is usually spoken in the administration?

The stakes are high, because the definition chosen considerably modifies the results and their political consequences. By adopting the administrative and not the “individual” definition of language, the Austrian government refuses to recognize a Jewish language and nationality, despite the demands of the Zionist movements.

In Russia, for Keppen, it is the “spoken” language that will determine nationality in rural areas, as in the case of Catholics speaking Lithuanian and therefore classified as “Lithuanians”. But this criterion seems insufficient to him when it comes to urban populations, for whom the Catholic religion will serve as a criterion of nationality to designate the Poles, just as Orthodoxy will “define” the Russians.

In Prussia, in a context of increasing Polish populations and the deployment of the Polenpolitikdescribed by the Poles as “Germanization”, respondents to the 1910 census were explicitly asked to specify whether they used the Mazurian or Kashubian languages, as distinct from Polish.


But if statistics serve as a tool for repressive policies against the Poles, including military ones through population displacements, they can give rise to counter-offensives. The Statistical Service of the Kingdom of Poland, the Municipal Statistical Office of Krakow, learned societies, such as the Society of Economists and Statisticians or the Society of Social Work, oppose it with counter-statistics, explicitly aiming at a political claim objective.

While being based on a scientific framework, Polish statistics in Prussia aimed to “obtain a higher figure for the Polish population”. Because if, “like other scholarly utopias, the census was incontestably a “fiction”, (…) its totalizing and operational rationality founded collective conquests and appropriations” (p. 9).

At the beginning of the world conflict of 1914-1918, statistics served as a military tool for the conquest of Russian-speaking or German-speaking territories, to support the war economy and to control populations. But “producing ‘Polish figures’ without a state” (p. 166) proved particularly relevant, including for the Poles. Already, the first volume of The Statistical Yearbook of the Kingdom of Polandpublished in 1913 and coordinated by Władysław Grabski, aimed, through its very form of directory – the most legitimate of all administrative statistics – at the state-like development of Polish territory.

In times of war, “these are Polish territories shattered and dispersed by occupations that Polish projects (such as theStatistical and geographical atlas of Poland edited by Eugeniusz Romer in 1916) aimed to bring together” (p. 239). The objective seems to have been achieved, if we are to believe the results of the Peace Conference of 1919: political decisions were strategically based on the authority of the two main committees of experts – the French Study Committee and theInquiry American – themselves basing their legitimacy on the authority of figures.

Statistics and democracy

Statistics in Polish territories is therefore a history of the political uses of figures, the conditions of their production and their reappropriation by non-state actors.

With this fascinating fresco, which restores the character, both stable and shifting, of collective identifications and classification categories relating to ethnicity, nation, religion or language and their uses, both scientific and political, Morgane Labbé comes to ask herself “how a language of political modernity (statistics) has been able to alternately reinforce representative regimes and be the instrument of their gravediggers” (p. 365).

A salutary and richly argued questioning which refers, in a documented manner, to a very contemporary problem: that of the necessarily stormy relations of democracy with itself and the uses of scientific thought.