January 14, 2008
Several of the most interesting commenters on this site (okay, I’ll name them: Sid Cundiff, John Ball, and the enigmatic, exquisite “Adriana,” whom I imagine as a younger Sonia Braga) are persistent critics of Nationalism, and take the opportunity whenever it presents itself to warn us of its dangers. They frequently cite the observations of the delightfully cranky John Lukacs, who characterizes the regnant ideology of Europe today as (lower case) “national socialism.” I’ve been giving this issue some thought over the months I’ve read Takimag, and I’d like to respond with my own observations—confident that this will provoke yet another thoughtful online debate.
I think that conservative critics of Nationalism are largely right, but they need to make some distinctions and remember some events which complicate the picture. First, the things which I think the anti-Nationalists get right. (Not that I’m attributing all these views to any particular person, but here’s the conservative critical account of Nationalism as I understand it):
- Nationalism as we know it began with the rise of centralizing monarchies during the Renaissance. It may have had organic roots, but it was quickly promoted by court historians and polemicists as an ideology that would serve their monarchs. Rulers such as Francis I (in France) drew on Roman Law which granted vastly greater power to the monarch, over against traditional feudal practice and the various local forms of “Common Law.” Court propagandists also fed into national mythologies to serve rulers who wished to subject the local Church to their control, and remove it as a competing center of authority to the State. This happened most obviously in Germany, where Luther wrote a letter to the princes of the Holy Roman Empire calling on them to protect “German” interests counter the universalist claims of the Papacy. The ruthless nationalization of the English Church by Elizabeth I was justified by the creation of another national myth—one to which we are still subjected in the “official” versions of history passed down in English. (Rent the glittering, dismally propagandistic film “Elizabeth” to see what I mean, or its recent sequel, “Elizabeth: The Golden Years.”) Nationalism in the service of the State eventually subjected the Church in France, Spain, Portugal, and even (under Joseph I) Austria. At last, the absurd situation was reached that Bourbon monarchs, under the influence of Enlightenment ideologues, were able to force the Pope to suppress the Jesuits—pesky advocates of spiritual independence, papal authority, and the rights of subjects to resist tyrants (a claim which John Locke may well have taken from St. Robert Bellarmine).
- Nationalism ran rampant in the French Revolution, whose outrages against foreign visitors, nobles and clergy, have been amply documented. Xenophobia played a part in the Revolution itself, with hatred of the monarchy fed by resentment of Marie Antoinette for her Austrian blood (France had fought a long series of wars against Austria, which this marriage had been meant to patch up; the alliance remained deeply unpopular). The words of Le Marseillaise refer specifically to the “impure blood” that must be spilled. Fanatical nationalism combined with the bizarre universalist claims of the Revolutionaries, fueling their genocide in the Vendee, and their wars against the rest of Europe, culminating in Napoleon’s destructive rampage—the first war since 1648 to claim lives in the millions.
- Nationalism helped monarchs to run roughshod over the local claims of historic minority cultures, from Brittany and Catalonia to Flanders and Corsica—just to cite instances where the scars still show. Local languages were forcibly suppressed (this happened to French-speaking Louisianans up through the early 1960s), and customs discouraged, as monarchs and then republican centralists tried to produce a uniform, militarized “national culture.”
- Nationalism was a major force in the often-brutal expansion of European empires—whose demographic backwash now threatens to overwhelm the original mother countries.
- Nationalism fueled the destruction of traditional monarchies, such as the tolerant Habsburg Empire, and their replacement by warlike and intolerant “successor” states.
- Nationalism, in metastized form, was one of the main components in the appeal of fascism—an ideology almost as inimical as Communism to everything conservatives value.
- Nationalism is one of the main components in neoconservatism. Enough said.
And now for the other hand, which doesn’t have nearly as many fingers:
- Nationalism was the strongest force resisting Communism in the 20th century, and was certainly the force that finally brought it down. Of course, one might quibble here, and insist that the Polish sentiment that finally broke the dam was really “patriotism”, since it included no agenda for expansion, or explicit claims about national superiority. But in my reading of history, the line between patriotism and nationalism rarely holds—especially when one is claiming to “love” something as vast as country, instead of, say, a county.
- Nationalism is currently the single force holding back, albeit ineffectively, the conspiracy of EU bureaucrats to impose an administrative oligarchy on that continent—one which is already imposing restrictions on free speech and the free press, and even the free practice of Christianity. The appallingly undemocratic, statist, leftist European Union is groping as you read these words to abrogate the sovereign rights of over a dozen historic nations without allowing the peoples of those nations to vote. The EU treaty which was rejected a few years back has been revived, and is being forced through without referenda in any member country—save Ireland. God bless the Fenians who wrote into their excellent constitution the necessity of holding such a vote. It may well be nationalism of that sort which saves Europe from the Orwellian future which its managerial elites have in mind.
To sum up: Nationalism is much worse than localism, but a hell of a lot better than malign internationalism, of the Bolshevik or EU variety. It’s a dangerous genie to conjure up, and is probably most often left in the bottle. But sometimes it takes a poltergeist to scare off the devil.