The militant nationalism of the twentieth century made it futile to assert clear ideas, to ask honest questions, to make reasoned judgments, or to engage in truthful debate…
Permit me to begin at the end. Joseph Pearce is concerned with the power of an international bureaucracy and the advent of a world government that will rob nations of their dominion and citizens of their freedom. I share many of his concerns about globalism, although my disquiet arises more from the prospect of an international economy that offers affluent depravity to the few and unrelenting privation to the rest. If I have understood our debate, Mr. Pearce and I differ most about the nature, history, and perils of nationalism.
Mr. Pearce makes a complicated argument. He interprets the creation of nation-states during the nineteenth century not as a manifestation of nationalism but rather as an example of imperialism since:
the inherent dynamic in nineteenth-century nationalism was a movement towards the ‘unification’ of previously non-existent ‘nations’ through the destruction of the political autonomy of the previously existing regions. This was a manifestation of the progressive centralization of power into the hands of fewer and bigger governments which has since metamorphosed into the globalism which, ironically, threatens to destroy the very nations which this same centralizing dynamic had established.
At the same time, Mr. Pearce sees “the political sovereignty of existing nation-states as a bulwark against the centralizing tendency of globalism.” I surmise that for Mr. Peace the nation-states that, in the nineteenth century, destroyed regional autonomy are, in the twenty-first century, a lesser evil than a global state that threatens national independence. To that end, he distinguishes “historical nationalism” from “‘contemporary nationalism’… which serves to prevent or obstruct the centralization or ‘unification’ of power into fewer globalist hands” (Italics in the original).
From the outset of this exchange, Mr. Pearce and I have been, in many respects, examining different phenomenon. In my original essay (“History as Tragedy and Farce”) that inspired Mr. Pearce’s response, I emphasized not the formation of nation-states, but the emergence of an attitude that, by the late nineteenth century, increasingly found its expression in an ever more dogmatic, ever more intolerant, ever-more venomous form of nationalism. For the purposes of my analysis, nationalism was the vehicle, not the driver. My focus remains the devastating history of European nationalism during the twentieth century as well as the ongoing dangers that a reinvigorated nationalist movement still presents. Conservative though not reactionary in its original spirit, the Congress of Vienna offers as good a starting point as any to explore a historical alternative to nationalism.
His myopic vision and repressive policies notwithstanding, Prince Klemens von Metternich, the Austrian Minister of Foreign Affairs for nearly forty years, between 1809 and 1848, recognized that the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars created a diplomatic situation unlike any that European statesmen had faced since the end of the Thirty Years’ War. Revolution and war had transformed every problem into an international problem that was impossible to manage and solve within the political and jurisdictional framework of individual nation-states. No dispute remained confined to the nations directly involved. Every crisis reverberated across the continent and demanded an international response. Irresistible circumstance had forced a Europe composed of sovereign nations to cooperate rather than to compete.
Like his counterparts at the Congress of Vienna, Viscount Castlereagh, Prince von Hardenberg, and even the French representative Talleyrand, Metternich acknowledged the necessity of establishing a permanent international accord. To that end, he joined with the other delegates to fashion a balance-of-power “to… save ourselves from the ambition of a conqueror.” No one man and no single nation must again be permitted to subjugate the continent. But the balance-of-power that the delegates proposed was not designed merely to contain or deter the international rivalries that had characterized eighteenth-century politics, countering fear with fear and strength with strength. These statesmen instead determined that the maintenance of peace must be the shared responsibility of all the Great Powers.
The resulting Quadruple Alliance, which linked Great Britain, Russia, Austria, and Prussia, pledged the member states to enforce the Second Treaty of Paris for “the repose and prosperity of Nations… the maintenance of the Peace of Europe… [and] the happiness of the world.” Metternich believed that the efforts to organize society around the ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity had produced nothing save twenty-five years of revolution and war. In addition, by arousing the masses and turning peoples against one another, the nationalist fervor that the French Revolution had unleashed promised to subvert his beloved Hapsburg Empire, while it also threatened to destroy civilization in Europe. The Congress of Vienna and the Quadruple Alliance marked the effort to restore peace, order, and sanity to European affairs.
A cosmopolitan aristocrat, Metternich had always devoted himself to the welfare of Europe. So, too, did Prince Otto von Bismarck. Mr. Pearce may be forgiven for presuming my unqualified admiration of Bismarck. His was a reasonable, though erroneous, conclusion. It is closer to the truth to say that I admire Bismarck in comparison to those who succeeded him. Although just as cunning, they lacked Bismarck’s keen foresight, meticulous attention to detail, astute judgment, and unerring sense of the nature and limits of power.
Bismarck did not come to preside over European diplomatic relations until after the Congress of Berlin in 1878. The Congress ended thirty years of upheaval. Except for two insignificant conflicts, the first between Serbia and Bulgaria in 1885 and the second between Turkey and Greece in 1897, Europe remained at peace until the outbreak of the First Balkan War in 1912. Economic developments, specifically the spread of the Industrial Revolution that enhanced the dream of prosperity for all, contributed to this era of stability. Europeans were too busy trying to make money and get rich to bother about fighting a general war. The statesmen who attended the Congress of Vienna had entertained realistic fears of war and revolution. Leopold I, the first king of Belgium, spoke for nearly every leader represented at the Congress when he said:
In Europe’s present state of social illness it would be unheard of to let loose… a general war. Such a war… would certainly bring a conflict of principles, [and] from what I know of Europe, I think that such a conflict would change her form and overthrow her whole structure.
War, it seems, did not breed revolution; it had become revolutionary.
In the decades that followed the Congress of Berlin, European statesmen, by contrast, persuaded themselves that peace was the ordinary state of affairs, and that any departure from the norm was an unintentional irregularity easily corrected. National antagonisms persisted. Rulers uttered bellicose statements and rattled their sabers, never imagining that they would have to brandish them. General Staffs prepared elaborate strategies. Soldiers drilled and maneuvered. Warships set sail. Nothing happened. If economic considerations muted hostilities in Europe, overseas expansion also prevented war by enabling Europeans to export conflict abroad.
Amid the diplomatic squabbling and the military preparations, Bismarck sought to maintain German neutrality, as the Prussians had managed to do during the Crimean War. A Europe subject to German dominance was abhorrent to him, marking one of the principal differences between his outlook and that of Adolf Hitler. Yet, Bismarck could no more escape his own success than he could disregard the logic of German supremacy. He had created a new order in Europe, and left himself with no option but to preserve it. Bismarck thus kept up the balance of power, which, more than any single event, the unification of Germany had disturbed. He understood that the foremost obstacle to doing so was not Russian belligerence but Austrian ambition in the Balkans and the uncompromising Austrian distrust of Russian objectives. To prevent war, Bismarck offered to Austria the security of a German alliance, and then made it a condition of the agreement that the Austrians reconcile their differences with the Russians.[i] The principal influence that he exercised over Austria, it seems, lay in the threat to repudiate the treaty he had made.
The evolution of Bismarck’s foreign policy is far too intricate and complex to analyze in full. Perhaps it is sufficient to note his fear that geography had rendered Germany vulnerable. Occupying the center of Europe, Germany would be caught between the belligerent powers should war set Russia against the West. The only solution was German and Austrian neutrality. In that event, Russia, France, and Great Britain would be compelled to fight on the periphery of the continent, and could do battle without harming Germany or devastating Europe. However prescient he was, much of Bismarck’s foreign policy seems outdated and old-fashioned. He sought to guard against a repeat of the Crimean War, which, in the late 1870s and early 1880s, was an unrealistic possibility. He also invites reproach for linking German security to Austria. Although far more adept at disciplining the Austrians than Kaiser Wilhelm II was, or that he wanted to be, it was Bismarck who placed Germany in danger of being drawn into Austrian quarrels. The alliance he formed with Austria thus initiated a struggle between Vienna and Berlin that ended with Germany being thrust into war in 1914.
Bismarck had ventured to tame nationalism in Germany and in Europe. For more than three decades, the German alliance with Austria steadied the international order and thereby helped to keep the peace. Just as surely, the nationalist enthusiasm that Bismarck had restrained overwhelmed his successors in Germany. It, at last, made them the hostages and the pawns of their Austrian counterparts. In The Struggle For Mastery in Europe, A.J.P. Taylor condensed the entire history of European diplomatic relations during the forty years before the Great War into a single, penetrating sentence when he wrote “perhaps it is enough to say that diplomacy helped men to remain at peace, so long as they wished to do so.”
In censuring my “sympathetic portrayal” of Bismarck’s “secular fundamentalist regime,” whatever that is, Mr. Pearce shifts the focus of the discussion from foreign to domestic policy. In so doing, he weakens his own defense of nationalism, for Mr. Pearce is correct that Bismarck persecuted German Catholics, to say nothing of German socialists, “all in the name of national pride and ‘unity.'” Well, something like that. As with his foreign policy, vital aspects of Bismarck’s domestic policy were antiquated. The nightmares that troubled his sleep were those of the previous generation, and no longer represented actual risks. Bismarck was determined to forestall a repetition of the Revolutions of 1848. He need not have worried.
For Bismarck, monarchical authority was the surest guarantee of national unity and strength. Any opposition to the power of the monarchy became not only unpatriotic but also immoral. Resistance was an act of disloyalty to the nation that the government must suppress. Using as a pretext the doctrine of Papal Infallibility, which, he argued, was a challenge to the authority of the state, Bismarck assailed the Catholic Church in Germany. As was usually the case, his real object rested on pragmatic rather than ideological considerations. German Catholics resisted the Prussian dominance of a united Germany, maintaining cordial relations with the Austrians and with the Polish minority in East Prussia. Not to diminish the persecution that Bismarck inflicted on Church, but his “struggle for culture” against German Catholicism failed. In response, Catholics organized the Catholic Center Party; Bismarck’s continued assault only broadened its appeal and increased its numbers. By the 1880s, Bismarck halted his unsuccessful campaign, recognizing the folly of battling a Church that, as Mr. Pearce points out, commanded the allegiance of more than one-third of the German population.
Mr. Pearce does not mention it, but at the same time that Bismarck waged war against German Catholics, he also launched a political offensive against German socialists. Bismarck feared the socialists for much the same reason that he feared the Catholics: both appeared insufficiently nationalist. His policy against the socialists was as ill-conceived and ill-fated as his policy against the Catholics. Far from being treacherous revolutionaries, German socialists, by the 1870s, had become devoted parliamentarians. But when the Social Democratic Party polled 500,000 votes in the election of 1877, Bismarck was propelled into action.
This time, he found the pretext he needed in two attempts on the life of Emperor Wilhelm I. No official or constituent of the Social Democratic Party had been involved in either plot. Bismarck nonetheless pressured the Reichstag into passing the Anti-Socialist Law, which prohibited socialists from holding public meetings, raising funds, and publishing pamphlets or newspapers. Yet, the Anti-Socialist Law neither outlawed the Social Democratic Party nor prevented socialist candidates from pursuing elected office. It is a revealing distinction between Bismarck’s authoritarianism and Hitler’s totalitarianism that, while the Anti-Socialist Law was in effect, socialists could still win seats in the legislature and could continue to speak out against the government.
Bismarck also sought to discredit German socialists much in the same way that he had earlier seized upon nationalism to humiliate German liberals. This time, instead of nationalism, he embraced state socialism and laid the foundations for the welfare state by initiating a series of reforms designed to ensure workers against illness, accident, unemployment, disability, and old age. If Bismarck’s intention was to destroy the socialists, he endured another bitter disappointment. Despite the impediments under which Bismarck had placed it, the Social Democratic Party continued to attract new members until, in the election of 1912, it collected almost as many votes as the other parties combined.
Although my interpretation will likely displease Mr. Pearce, Bismarck’s most serious political blunder was his determination to eradicate liberalism from Germany. Surveying the terrible carnage of the Second World War, the historian Friedrich Meinecke exaggerated when he ascribed to Bismarck’s crusade against liberalism the reason for Hitler’s coming to power. Among other considerations, Meinecke ignored German defeat in the First World War, the consequences of a vengeful peace treaty, and the often laudable, if ultimately ineffective, efforts of the Weimar Republic to revitalize liberal government. All the same, Meinecke had a point. In principle, Bismarck objected neither to political parties nor to parliaments, as long as they reinforced the authority of the monarch and the power of the state. “I consider parliamentary cooperation—if properly practiced necessary and useful,” he declared, “as much as I consider parliamentary rule harmful and impossible” (italics in the original). But the near-dictatorial control that Bismarck exercised over politics for nearly thirty years did diminish the capacity for responsible self-government in Germany, an occurrence that, in the fullness of time, had dreadful consequences.
In my original response to Mr. Pearce, I uttered not a word in defense of either Bismarck’s foreign or domestic policy. Nor did I extol the regime he constructed. I continue to appreciate his estimable moderation and restraint, especially in comparison to Kaiser Wilhelm’s petulant unpredictability and in contrast to Adolf Hitler’s ideological obsessions. Bismarck’s devotion to Prussia never blinded him to the problems and needs of Europe, and never prompted him to work against the preservation of European stability and peace. At the same time, Bismarck’s illiberal policies in the service of authoritarian government ought at least to give pause to those who admire nationalism overmuch.
The Continuing Peril of Nationalism
In his essay, Mr. Pearce casts himself as the intellectual, and perhaps the spiritual, heir to the Romantic Nationalists of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. He writes:
I love my own country but I wouldn’t dream of thinking that other people’s countries are inferior to mine. We should see the nations of the world as distinct and beautiful flowers in the garden of culture, each offering something unique to the whole bella vista of humanity’s cultural panorama. It is the love of this uniqueness of each nation which should inspire all lovers of national integrity to fight against the globalized monoculture that the globalist Imperium wishes to impose.
Could Herder have said it better? Like the Romantic Nationalists, Mr. Pearce tends to confuse, or rather to conflate, nation and culture. In Ideas Toward a Philosophy of the History of Mankind, Herder extolled the unique contributions that every culture had made to the endlessly varied mosaic of the human drama. Each culture was equally near to the divine, Herder asserted; none was superior or inferior to the rest. But it required only the passage of a little time before Romantic Nationalists began to assert not only cultural uniqueness but also national preeminence. In the Addresses to the German People, published in 1807 and 1808, Johann Gottlieb Fichte argued for German supremacy. Nearly forty years later, in 1843, Vincenzo Gioberti’s On the Civil and Moral Primacy of the Italians similarly exalted the ascendancy of the Italian people. Every Romantic Nationalist alleged the inimitable greatness of their country. None seemed troubled by the mutual incompatibility of their discrete visions.
Nowhere does Mr. Pearce put forth such extravagant claims. And if for a moment I may be presumptuous, neither does he believe that Russia, Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia, or North Korea, among others, really constitute “distinct and beautiful flowers in the garden of culture.” Yet, he is unwilling to acknowledge that, in the past, the emphasis on cultural exceptionalism stimulated the development of more treacherous forms of national consciousness. The Romantics conceived of the state and the nation as expressions of the divine spirit of a people. Binding individuals to a revered and sacred past, the state and the nation provided a sense of identity, community, meaning, and purpose to which all else had to be subordinate. Mr. Pearce, wrongly I think, complains that “Orwell’s patronizing patriotism, which presumes a supercilious superiority over other countries, is not something to which any true patriot should subscribe.” Unless it is I who am mistaken, Orwell feared the worship of power that nationalism encouraged, and which he thought facilitated the very affirmations of superiority that Mr. Pearce himself detests.
Mr. Pearce similarly decries totalitarianism, and regards the nation-state as a bulwark against it. I am far less convinced that nationalism, at least in its most radical and virulent manifestations, does not itself constitute a totalitarian menace. Mr. Pearce may deny that what I have described is nationalism at all. Fine. He may call it by whatever name he chooses. Nevertheless, the problem remains.
The politics of group identity that nationalism takes for granted has always been easier to understand than a political order resting on civil liberties and constitutional restraints, especially when those principles are applied to the benefit of ethnic, linguistic, and cultural outsiders. Xenophobia and racism have long served as a powerful impetus to nationalist sentiments, since the essence of both is an intuitive hostility to peoples who differ from us. As was the case in the past, disorder and uncertainty still provide the most fertile breeding ground for nationalist agitation. The collapse of the multi-ethnic Hapsburg, Ottoman, and Tsarist regimes at the end of the First World War gave rise to explosive nationalist movements. “Where the old regime disintegrates, where old social relations have become unstable, amid the rise of general insecurity,” acknowledged the Czech historian Miroslav Hroch, “belonging to a common language and culture may become the only certainty in society, the only value beyond ambiguity and doubt.”
Closer to our own time, the disintegration of the Soviet Empire illuminates both the prospects and the limits of the call to arms against nationalist tyranny. Conservative thinkers such as Russell Kirk celebrated the liberation of “half the peoples of the world” from the oppression of the Soviet Union. Kirk rightly acclaimed the independence of those who had spent seventy years groaning under Soviet ineptitude and ruthlessness. At the same time, the sudden freedom of various ethnic nationalities throughout Central and Eastern Europe did not establish or reinforce political democracy and social justice. Václav Havel, the dissident playwright, the implacable anti-Communist, and the late president of the former Czechoslovakia, observed in Summer Meditations (1992) that “the more serious and dangerous” consequences of Soviet collapse included:
hatred among nationalities, suspicion, racism, even signs of Fascism; politicking, an unrestrained, unheeding struggle for purely particular interests, unadulterated ambition, fanaticism of every conceivable kind, new and unprecedented varieties of robbery, the rise of different mafias; and a prevailing lack of tolerance, understanding, taste, moderation, and reason.
Within the newly-independent nation-states, many relinquished their intelligence, their decency, their conscience, and their responsibility, which constituted their real freedom, and succumbed to the disgrace of bigotry, the impulse for vengeance, and the will to power. They thereby unleashed their fury not against the crumbling remnants of the Soviet Leviathan, but against one another and the minorities within their borders.
During the twentieth century, the nation-state gathered to itself the most powerful means of coercion, which resulted not only in the rise of dictatorial governments but also in the establishment of totalitarian forms of social organization that enabled the state to dominate all aspects of life, including, and perhaps especially, thought. Such a development brought turmoil, bewilderment, and misery in its wake. It has long struck me as wishful thinking to assume that we can avoid the fate of those who went before us. Can we suppose ourselves to be immune to the diseases that infected our forebears and, in the end, tormented them into madness? As a historian gazing backward into the past and as a man looking as far forward into the future as it is possible for him to see (which is not very far), I fear that tyrannical governments will continue to degrade peoples until they come at last love their degradation.
Such intellectual and moral confusion has always released the mind to invent monsters, to manufacture conspiracies, and to fashion idols. Almost everyone then comes to imagine that power resides with those for whom they feel nothing but mistrust and contempt. As a consequence, without understanding what is happening to them, almost everyone experiences the fear that arises from having lost touch with reality. During the twentieth century, this terrifying existence prompted some in Germany and elsewhere to attribute to other nations and other peoples the most diabolical malevolence. Under those circumstances, it became easy to disseminate lies, since so many were already predisposed to believe them. Under those circumstances, it became effortless to expect of a miracle from heaven or to await the coming of a messiah who promised deliverance. Under those circumstances, it came to seem natural for the many to admire themselves in the one.
To return to the focus of my original essay, I assert in conclusion that whenever and wherever irrationality has prevailed, force has become widespread and omnipotent. The militant nationalism of the twentieth century made it futile to assert clear ideas, to ask honest questions, to make reasoned judgments, or to engage in truthful debate. It may thus not be quite true to suggest, as I earlier did, that totalitarianism annihilates thought. Perhaps it is more accurate to say that, in reality, the abdication of thought makes totalitarianism possible.
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[i] To persuade Kaiser Wilhelm I to support the alliance with Austria, Bismarck conjured before his eyes the specter of a Russian menace. If the Kaiser should ever come to believe that Russia presented no danger to Germany, which, of course, Bismarck knew to be the case, then the rationale for the alliance with Austria would disappear. Bismarck kept up the ruse until he had secured the agreement he wanted.