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A Brief, Painful History of Nationalism

And the threat it presents today.
June 20, 2019
A Brief, Painful History of Nationalism
(Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

The far-right in Europe is making gains both at the national and EU level. Donald Trump has made noise about reuniting with self-identified economic nationalist Steve Bannon. It’s a trend that’s not going away, even as we debate the true meaning of nationalism and its political implications. So it’s worth remembering what it did to Europe in the 20th century.

Persistent confusion about nationalism prevails

In the United States, there is a clear and evident attempt to rebrand nationalism with a more positive, patriotic spin. And indeed, the word “nationalism” doesn’t quite carry the same weight as other destructive political ideologies, to the point that columnists use hyperbolics such as “ultra-nationalism” or “fascism,” even though the latter is an even more precise brand of political ideology and strategy.

In December, during a public event by the right-wing organisation Turning Point UK, American conservative commentator and activist Candace Owens answered a question on nationalism and globalism by explaining how Adolf Hitler was not a nationalist, because his policy was expansionist.

Needless to say, curiosity got the best of us over here in Europe. We attempted to find out how apparently not all historical evidence points us to the conclusion that nationalism – and its unholy alliance with bigotry and institutionalised discrimination – created the Third Reich and its destructive motivations. Owens “clarified” her statements by doubling down: “I’m saying Hitler wasn’t a nationalist.” For her, Hitler was “a homicidal, psychotic maniac” and there is “no excuse or defense ever for … everything that he did.”

Owens is, to nobody’s surprise, very wrong. While Hitler did not create the nationalist movement as such, he did need to tap into it to justify expansionism and ethnic cleansing.

Hitler’s nationalism was expressed through those two wishes: giving the Germans “Lebensraum” (habitat) by reuniting Greater Germany (incorporating Austria, the Baltics, Belarus, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, the Caucasus region, and all of European Russia).

But this was not the first time that nationalism had effectively destroyed Europe. In fact, nationalist destruction peaked with World War I, which would bring the continent from prosperity to decades of destruction.

A terrible story of voluntary destruction 

Life in the Austro-Hungarian Empire (which engulfed what is today Austria, Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Croatia, Slovenia, parts of Bosnia, parts of Serbia, parts of Romania, parts of Poland, and parts of Ukraine) wasn’t entirely good: individual rights weren’t respected, and society was institutionally divided by classes as well as discriminated based on sex. However, from the standpoint of the 19th century and the early 20th century, Habsburg rule provided prosperity and peace. The architecture of cities such as Prague (Czech Republic), Budapest (Hungary), Lviv (Ukraine), or Novi Sad (Serbia) are all testaments to that. When the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968, the Russian soldiers were mesmerized by the fact that, in Czech cities, people had toilets in their own homes. That prosperity had come out of the Austrian times. You were lucky to live under the Austro-Hungarian emperor, and the wealth reflected into culture as well: people attended opera houses, theaters and classical music concerts in impressive numbers.

The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914 marked the beginning of World War I. The Austro-Hungarian Empire declared war on Serbia, which was believed to have carried out the attack, and consequently both Austria and Serbia’s allies all declared war on each other. The war and its aftermath marked the end of long-lasting monarchs: the Principality of Albania, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the German Empire, the German Kingdom, the German Principalities, Duchies and Grand Duchies, the Kingdom of Montenegro, as well as the Russian Empire. Other countries, such as Italy and Greece, abolished their monarchies at a later stage.

During the war, the belief in dynasties was replaced by nationalism, which had set foot in all European nations. Uniting “your people” was an opportunity, and national identity was a good way of riling up the troops. The enthusiasm for men to fight in the Great War was immense.

The war turned out to be an unprecedented human disaster, killing 7 million civilians and 10 million military personnel and leaving cities in ashes. Victorious Britain and France sought to crush expansionist tendencies by burdening Germany with overwhelming debt. Deprived of territories, the Germans were humiliated by the defeat, and hyperinflation wiped out any savings that one could have possessed. It was thriving ground for nationalism.

The victors had defeated armies but not ideas. Hitler’s nationalism was able to grow because in times of great hardships, nationalism gives people a palpable idea of whom the enemy is. It is exclusionary, and did not differentiate between nations, but between people. Nazi Germany turned individuals against each other, not Germans against the French. This particular reality is what Candace Owens would need to make note of.

The threat as it exists today

Nationalism is a dangerous lens through which to view the world. The civic nationalists have almost vanished, and the only ones who pride themselves in the virtues of the individual rights that their country provides are more often calling themselves patriots or constitutionalists – two terms also at the risk of being hijacked by nefarious people.

The demise of the Nazis didn’t kill nationalism. Identitarianism in France, neo-fascists in Italy, Nazis in Slovakia, nationalist hooligans in Ukraine – depending on the country the seed of the philosophy roots deeper than you think. Their philosophy and approach isn’t much different from what we witnessed in the first half of the 20th century. The migration crisis in Europe has inspired a nationalist response all across the continent, but the ideology still requires a really upset population to release all of its toxic effect on society. If there would be a major new crisis, military or economic, it could very well be the last straw that breaks the camel’s back.

It will take the intellectual ability of Europe’s greatest influencers to avoid that from happening.

Bill Wirtz

Bill Wirtz is a freelance journalist who writes about politics and the virtues of a free society.