Nationalism has not brought and will not bring unity, if for no other reason than nationalism insists on uniformity and must always exclude those who do not conform. Yet, if there is a chance to achieve some measure of unity, patriotism might enable it.

In his thoughtful response to my essay, “History as Tragedy and Farce: The Rise of Nationalism,” Joseph Pearce sets out to provide “a coherent definition of nationalism” and to show that “the sort of nationalism which Mr. Malvasi criticizes… was not really nationalism at all but was, in fact, a form of imperialism.” I must confess at the outset to a certain antipathy for definitions. As the Spanish diplomat Salvador de Madariga observed, we know that beauty exists, but it is difficult, bothersome, and perhaps senseless to define it. A historian’s task is to describe, analyze, interpret, and explain rather than to define. There is an elusive, even illusory, quality to definitions. As Dr. Johnson showed, they can obscure rather than illuminate meaning and thereby can distort reality. 

That said, I have no objections to Mr. Pearce’s definition of nationalism as “a belief in the political sovereignty of nations.” Nor do I recoil from what I take to be the unstated purpose of his efforts: to recommend nationalism as an alternative to internationalism, the forces of which are presently “at work… to forge a united Europe on the ashes of the European Union’s member states, consolidating political power into bigger and bigger government, further and further away from the people which it purports to represent.” I share at least some of his concerns. I have more significant differences with his interpretation of history, and thus with his characterization of nationalism and his assessment of its impact.

Mr. Pearce is quite right to associate nationalism with imperialism, for they were inextricably linked. But nineteenth-century nationalism was not “born of imperialism,” as Mr. Pearce asserts. On the contrary, imperialist ambitions grew out of, and were made possible by, the consolidation of nation-states. The Crusades, the first important attempt of Europeans to expand beyond the boundaries of Europe, failed because no European kingdom had the organization, the wealth, or the manpower to administer the distant possesses the crusaders had seized. As a result, most of the territories that Europeans acquired reverted to Muslim control without the pressure of a counterattack. Only the consolidation of national power, which occurred earliest on the Iberian Peninsula, gave rise to the conditions necessary to make overseas ventures feasible.

During the nineteenth century, politicians in several European countries, such as Germany, suggested that imperialism might help to deflect public interest away from domestic problems and to excite a sense of national pride that would unify disparate and competing social groups. Such nationalist fervor, they hoped, would silence dissent at home. British statesmen justified imperialism with the opposite argument. Joseph Chamberlain, for example, asserted that empire would provide a source of profits with which to finance an extensive program of domestic reform and social welfare. The acquisition of colonies and the exploitation of colonial peoples, Chamberlain promised, would improve the standard of living among the English of all classes. All this is to say that Mr. Pearce makes a good point when he argues that imperialism abetted a nationalist agenda, even if he is mistaken to suggest that the variety of nationalism I criticized was, in reality, a form of imperialism in disguise.

Mr. Pearce confuses, or perhaps more accurately, conflates, empires and nations. Establishing the Roman, British, and Soviet empires was doubtless, in each instance, an imperialist endeavor; they involved the conquest and incorporation of foreign peoples. Although they also entailed war and conquest, the unification of Italy and Germany was of a different order. Nor was “Hitler’s so-called nationalism… merely the restoration of… German imperialism” from an earlier period. Nazi expansion was something without precedent in European history.

I will concede to Mr. Pearce that Italian unification was more an act of conquest, especially in the Mezzogiorno, than an expression of popular enthusiasm for an Italian nation-state. (The book to read is Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s novel Il Gattopardo, The Leopard in English.) Nationalist sentiments matured slowly in Italy if they matured at all. Except for members of the middle class in northern Italian cities, most Italians, if they may even be so designated, embraced the values of the old regime, accepting without question the authority of prince and pope as the representatives of God on earth. To traditionalists, whether peasant or aristocrat, the prospect of national unification was hateful. It is no surprise, then, that early attempts to unify Italy, first those of the Carbonari during the 1820s and then of Giuseppe Mazzini’s Young Italy Movement during the 1830s and 1840s, ended in abject failure. Yet, middle-class Italians continued to press for the expulsion of foreign powers from Italy and the creation of a liberal state that would continue the social, economic, political, and religious reforms that the French had begun when they occupied Italy during the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. After the Revolutions of 1848, Italian nationalists appealed to the only native dynasty to survive the upheaval: the House of Savoy, which held power in the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia.

Since 1815, the Spanish Bourbons had controlled the southern Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. In central Italy, the pope governed the Papal States. The Austrians ruled the northern Italian provinces of Lombardy and Venetia, while Hapsburg princes subservient to Austria held sway in the duchies of Tuscany, Parma, and Modena. The architect of Italian unification, Count Camillo Benso di Cavour, the prime minister of Piedmont-Sardinia, had no precise strategy for unifying Italy. His immediate aim was to expand the territory of Piedmont-Sardinia at the expense of the Austrians. Having secured an alliance with Napoleon III of France, Cavour, in 1859, provoked a war with Austria that resulted in the deliverance of Lombardy to Piedmontese control and incited popular uprisings in support of independence and unity in Parma, Modena, Tuscany, and Romagna, the northernmost of the Papal States.

Inspired by Cavour’s success, Giuseppe Garibaldi and his force of Red Shirts invaded Sicily in May 1860, vowing to liberate all of southern Italy from Spanish rule. He did so. Greeting King Vittorio Emanuele II at Teano, Garibaldi hailed him as the “King of Italy,” a title formally conferred at the first all-Italian parliament convened on March 17, 1861. The actions of Cavour and Garibaldi that brought about the unification of Italy might just as readily be construed as anti-imperialist since both sought to expel foreign powers from Italian soil.

In Germany, the quest for unification arose from the turmoil of Prussian domestic politics rather than from any imperialist ambitions that the Kingdom of Prussia may have entertained. As in Italy, unification in Germany began as a liberal initiative. Summoned to the Chancellorship to direct the battle against a liberal majority in the Landtag, the lower house of the Prussian legislature, Prince Otto von Bismarck determined at all costs to preserve monarchical power. Bismarck set out to discredit Prussian liberals by depriving them of their most powerful weapon: nationalism and the call for a unified Germany.

Under Bismarck’s leadership, Prussia conducted a series of decisive but limited wars, chiefly against Austria and France, which ignited nationalist fervor throughout Germany and paved the way for national unification. In 1866, Bismarck provoked a war with Austria. At issue ostensibly was the disposition of the Danish territories of Schleswig and Holstein. Bismarck’s real purpose was to discredit the Grossdeutsch (“Great German”) plan of unification by eliminating Austrian influence in German affairs. If Germany were ever to unify, Bismarck reasoned, Prussia, not Austria, must dominate the new country.

Following the defeat of Austria in the Seven Weeks’ War, Bismarck organized the North German Confederation to unite all north German states under Prussian governance. His victory also placed Prussian liberals in a hopelessly awkward position. In the war against Austria, Bismarck had appropriated nationalism and unification, which had heretofore been liberal causes. By heralding the Prussian state as the champion of national unification, Bismarck had outmaneuvered his liberal adversaries. To resist him now would have been tantamount to opposing German unification, the goal that liberals had so long espoused. Prussian liberals had few alternatives open to them besides withdrawing into political silence or joining Bismarck in the quest to achieve national glory.

To complete the process of unification, Bismarck needed to draw the kingdoms and principalities of South Germany into the new German Confederation. Predominately Catholic and implacably hostile to Prussian authority, the states of South Germany more naturally allied with Austria or France. Having already discredited Austria, Bismarck now targeted France as his next victim. The defeat of France, he was convinced, would compel the South German states to go it alone, which Bismarck believed lacked the strength and the will to do, or to associate themselves with the North German Confederation and acquiesce in Prussian dominance.

A dispute over the vacated throne of Spain provided the diplomatic incident that enabled Bismarck to start a war with France—a war that he hoped would excite nationalist enthusiasm among the South Germans. When Bismarck released an altered transcript of the telegram he had received from Kaiser Wilhelm I, making it appear that the French had presented an insolent ultimatum to Prussia and that the Prussians had responded with an equally insulting reply, militants on both sides clamored for war. Thus did Bismarck get his war with France, except it was not the war he wanted. For once, he lost control of events, or at least he lost control of his generals, who continued the war beyond the realization of Bismarck’s limited political objective. By inducing the South German states to join the North German Confederation, the Franco-Prussian War completed the process of German unification, but the aftermath had far-reaching consequences for Europe. German annexation of Alsace and Lorraine, which Bismarck had opposed and regarded as a major blunder, humiliated and angered the French, who vowed one day to take their revenge.

The unification of Germany meant an end to French domination of the continent, which had persisted since the conclusion of the Thirty Years’ War in 1648. Bismarck determined to preserve German ascendancy, but war and conquest could not have been further from his mind. Bismarck pursued a cautious and moderate, if intricate and dangerous, foreign policy, which he managed expertly for almost twenty years. His principal intention was to keep France diplomatically isolated. If the French could form no alliances, especially with Russia, it would minimize the prospect of a general war that would enable the French to gratify what Victor Hugo called their “sacred anger.” Intelligent and restrained, though often cunning and duplicitous, Bismarck thought he could best protect German interests by maintaining order, stability, and peace throughout Europe, not by launching wars of conquest that he was certain would be destructive to all.

Adolf Hitler’s brand of nationalism and imperialism was hardly a continuation of Bismarck’s policies. Edward Wood, the First Earl of Halifax and British Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs during the crucial years between 1938 and 1940, observed that the world would have been a better place and far easier to manage had Herr Hitler attended Oxford and behaved like an English gentleman. Lord Halifax had a point. But the world would also have been a better place, or at least it would have been easier to manage, had Herr Hitler adopted something of Bismarck’s realpolitik, which was animated by considerations of national interest, rather than embracing a racial nationalism that propelled him to conduct a war of extermination in Eastern Europe, not merely against the Jewish but also against the Slavic peoples.

As Mr. Pearce has ably demonstrated, it is too facile to insist that all forms of nationalism are the same. But I am hard pressed to know what form of nationalism he had in mind when he wrote that “genuine nationalism seeks the preservation or restoration of authentic national and regional cultures and the preservation or restoration of the strong local government necessary to defend them. It is intrinsically anti-imperialist, intrinsically local, intrinsically decentralist in its being and its raison d’être.” We would do well to recall that the French Revolution gave birth to modern nationalism. The leaders of the Revolution during its most radical phase sought to direct the loyalty of the people to the nation, not to the village, the province, the church, or the monarch. France became the fatherland to which all citizens owed respect and devotion. At the time, few, perhaps, suspected that nationalism would become so fraught with peril. But Louis-Antoine de Saint-Juste, an ardent disciple of Robespierre, must have been gazing into the future when he declared that “there is something terrible in the sacred love of the fatherland. This love is so exclusive that it sacrifices everything to the public interest, without pity, without fear, with no respect for the human individual.”

As nationalism evolved during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, its adherents came increasingly to think in terms of what George Orwell in “Notes on Nationalism” called “competitive prestige.” They wanted to believe that their party, race, or nation was always getting the better of some other party, race, or nation. Focusing exclusively on victories and defeats, conquests and humiliations, nationalists grew ever more power-hungry and self-deceptive. Capable of flagrant dishonesty and yet unshakeable in the conviction that they were always right and always superior, nationalists became uncritical in the admiration of their party, their race, and their nation. The most insignificant criticism elicited from them the sharpest retort.

Brooding on power and revenge, tormented by suspicion, hatred, and fear, militant nationalists became ever more indifferent to truth and reality. They held to no objective standard of judgment. Actions were good or bad not according to their merits but according to who had undertaken them. For nationalists throughout the twentieth century, and not just in Germany, there was no outrage—including torture, hostage-taking, forced labor, mass deportations, imprisonment without trial, forgery, theft, and assassination—that did not change its moral tenor when committed by their allies rather than by their enemies. Nationalists have not only failed to disapprove of the atrocities that their side commits, but they have also often minimized, ignored, or denied them.

Finally, as Orwell pointed out, nationalists believe that the past can be altered. They expend a great deal of time and energy indulging the fantasy that they can, at last, make things turn out as they should have done, as the nationalists themselves desire them to be. This act is more complicated than simply lying. People who traffic in delusion may actually believe that they are reinserting “facts” into the past that others, motivated by their own ideological commitments and political agendas, have deliberately left out. Nationalists are thus determined to set the historical record straight, even though they have based their arguments and conclusions on utter falsehoods.

We need not welcome the triumph of the internationalism that Mr. Pearce wisely rejects to wish to view our fellow human beings as compatriots rather than competitors. That wish, alas, may be impossible in a world in which so few common bonds exist even among countrymen, who can now scarcely imagine that they belong to the same community as those against whom they harbor such deep and abiding resentments. As I hope the foregoing has made clear, to my mind nationalism has not brought and will not bring such unity, if for no other reason than nationalism insists on uniformity and must always exclude those who do not conform. Yet, if there is a chance to achieve some measure of unity, patriotism might enable it.

Obscured in contemporary usage, the differences between “nationalism” and “patriotism” are fundamental. Patriotism, as Orwell described it, emphasizes tradition. It is often conservative, even reactionary. It is deeply rooted in the soil of a specific place and the history of a particular people. It is introverted and defensive. A patriot, Orwell wrote, does not take for granted the benefits that accompany his way of life, “which he considers to be the best in the world but which he has no wish to force… upon other people.” Nationalism, by contrast, is extroverted, aggressive, and ideological. It can substitute for a religious faith in a way that patriotism cannot. Nationalism, Orwell maintained, was inseparable from the desire for power. Convinced that the foundation of totalitarianism lay in this worship of power for its own sake, Orwell resolved that “the consistent purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation, or other entity, in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality.”

At the same time, and notwithstanding his allegiance to democratic socialism, Orwell was not an internationalist. He trusted in the essential goodness and decency of ordinary Englishmen as much as he appreciated the familiar and common aspects of English life, including, as he wrote in Down and Out in Paris and London, “mint sauce, new potatoes properly cooked, brown bread, marmalade, beer made with veritable hops.” In important respects, then, Orwell’s patriotism was outside of, and beyond, politics. Nor was it primarily intellectual. Orwell’s England was not an idea or a concept. His version of patriotism found its significance and enjoyed its fullest expression, in social custom and practice—that is, in the concrete ways in which and by which a people live. Content with what he has and proud of who he is, a patriot can love his own country without hating, or seeking to dominate, another.

The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.

The featured image is courtesy of Pixabay.

All comments are moderated and must be civil, concise, and constructive to the conversation. Comments that are critical of an essay may be approved, but comments containing ad hominem criticism of the author will not be published. Also, comments containing web links or block quotations are unlikely to be approved. Keep in mind that essays represent the opinions of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Imaginative Conservative or its editor or publisher.

Leave a Comment
Print Friendly, PDF & Email