[The] modern [study of] history was born in the nineteenth century, conceived and developed as an instrument of European nationalism. As a tool of nationalist ideology, the history of Europe's nations was a great success, but it has turned our understanding of the past into a toxic waste dump, filled with the poison of ethnic nationalism, and the poison has seeped deep into popular consciousness.
Although the emergence of the nation into political consciousness is often placed in the nineteenth century, attempts by political leaders to craft new national identities, with their dynasty at the center, have been identified as early as the twilight of the Roman Empire. The Barbarian rulers of the successor states crafted these new identities on the basis of descent of the ruler from ancient noble families, a shared descent of a single people with common language, custom, and religious identity, and a definition in law of the rights and responsibilities of members of the new nation.
The eighteenth and nineteenth century saw the resurgence of national ideologies. During the French revolution a national identity was crafted, identifying the common people with the Gauls. In Germany historians and humanists, such as Johann Gottfried Herder and Johann Gottlieb Fichte, identified a linguistic and cultural identity of the German nation, which became the basis of a political movement to unite the fragmented states of this German nation.
A significant historiographical outcome of this movement of German nationalism was the formation of a "Society for Older German Historical Knowledge," which sponsored the editing of a massive collection of documents of German history, the Monumenta Germaniae Historica. The sponsors of the MGH, as it is commonly known, defined German history very broadly; they edited documents concerning all territories where German-speaking people had once lived or ruled. Thus, documents from Italy to France to the Baltic were grist for the mill of the MGH's editors.
This model of scholarship focussing on detailed historical and linguistic investigations of the origins of a nation, set by the founders of the MGH, was imitated throughout Europe. In this framework, historical phenomena were interpreted as they related to the development of the nation-state; the state was projected into the past. National histories are thus expanded to cover everything that has ever happened within the largest extent of the expansion of a nation, turning Mousterian hunter-gatherers into incipient Frenchmen. Conversely, historical developments spanning many current countries may be ignored, or analyzed from narrow parochial viewpoints.
In ancient times, ethnicities often derived their or their rulers' origin from divine or semi-divine founders of a mythical past (for example, the Anglo-Saxons deriving their dynasties from Woden; see also Euhemerism). In modern times, such mythical aetiologies in nationalist constructions of history were replaced by the frequent attempt to link one's own ethnic group to a source as ancient as possible, often known not from tradition but only from archaeology or philology, such as Armenians claiming as their origin the Urartians, the Albanians claiming as their origin the Illyrians, the Georgians claiming as their origin the Mushki, or Hindu nationalists claiming as the origin of their religion the Indus Valley Civilization (see Indigenous Aryans (India)) — all of the mentioned groups being known only from either ancient historiographers or archaeology.
In extreme cases, nationalists will ignore the process of ethnogenesis altogether and claim ethnic identity of their own group with some scarcely attested ancient ethnicity known to scholarship by the chances of textual transmission or archaeological excavation. While such simplistic views are often harmless popularisations of history, they have led to catastrophic results in the past, in the worst case ending in genocide; most notable is the case of the Nazi concept of an ancient "Aryan" ethnic essence, but most other instances of ethnic cleansing known to history were fuelled by similarly naive concepts of ethnic history.
Frequently this involves the uncritical identification of one's own ethnic group with some ancient or even prehistoric (known only archaeologically) group (" antiquity frenzy", a term coined by the 'Warring States Project' of the University of Massachusetts). For the ideological implications of such identifications, it is secondary whether mainstream scholarship does accept as plausible or reject as pseudoarchaeology the historical derivation of a contemporary group from an ancient one. The decisive point is the ideology, often assumed implicitly, that it is possible to derive nationalist or ethnic pride from a population that lived millennia ago and, being known only archaeologically or epigraphically, is not remembered in living tradition.
Examples include Albanians claiming as their origin the Illyrians, Bulgarians claiming identity with the Thracians, Iraqi propaganda invoking Sumer or Babylonia, Georgians claiming as their origin the Mushki, Hindu nationalists claiming as their origin the Indus Valley Civilization — all of the mentioned groups being known only from either ancient historiographers or archaeology. In extreme cases, nationalists will ignore the process of ethnogenesis altogether and claim ethnic identity of their own group with some scarcely attested ancient ethnicity known to scholarship by the chances of textual transmission or archaeological excavation.
Speaking to an audience of anthropologists, the historian E. J. Hobsbawm pointed out the central role of the historical profession in the development of nationalism:
Martin Bernal's much debated book "Black Athena" (1987) argues that the historiography on Ancient Greece has been in part influenced by nationalism and ethnocentrism. He also claimed that influences by non-Greek or non-Indo-European cultures on Ancient Greek were marginalized.