the imaginative conservative logo

The Virtue of Nationalism, by Yoram Hazony (305 pages, Basic Books, 2018)

Yoram Hazony’s The Virtue of Nationalism has the great virtue of an easy summary… well, a reasonably easy one. The first sentence presents the author’s thesis that the world is composed of two “antithetical” types of government: universalist empires and free nation-states. There were earlier tribes and some governments that were considered federal, but the former must merge into one or the other category, and federalism must at the end of the day be either overruled by the center or dissolve.

Empires “impose a universal political order on mankind.” Nation-states are “bands of brothers” acting as a cooperative “body for the national defense and other large-scale projects.” Otherwise there is anarchy. Empires are bad because they are universal and want everyone to follow their ways. So they use force to control nation-states just desiring to go along in their own good ways.

Everything following in the book is forced into that all-inclusive doctrinal dichotomy. Dr. Hazony even concedes that his “foundational political philosophy” approach is analytically deductive.

Take federalism. To Dr. Hazony, it simply is a “myth.” It is appropriate for states to recognize clans below them, but there is no such thing as a true decentralized federal system. The United States, Switzerland, and the Holy Roman Empire were not federal because the central government finally rules the constituent states or the union dissolves, eventually.

Unlike empires which rely on force, nation-states must have common language, a tradition, religion, bonds of subgroup loyalty, symbols freely learned from childhood in families, and congregations built around a majority position. The ideal was the peaceful unification of Israel’s tribes in the Davidic nation-state. Britain too was a free nation-state because it was formed by agreement among clan heads under Alfred but did later find it necessary to suppress Welsh, Scottish, and Irish counter-cultures, especially Celtic languages. France too repressed its regional languages, and even the United States never admitted a non-English language state.

Like Britain, the United States required pressure to build its consensus, although it did take a century and more for the dominant, northern center to nationalize New England’s Puritan abolitionism and to socialize Southern fundamentalism, including a civil war and 14th Amendment incorporation doctrines; as well as teaching Protestant morality to northern, urban, Catholic ethnics, Mormons, and others imposing state-required education. Dr. Hazony’s doctrine thus finds it appropriate to force tribes to conform to nation-states but not nations to submit to empires.

Dr. Hazony’s archetypical empire is the Holy Roman Empire. But this requires a bit of explaining, since it is normally understood as a federation and lasted over a thousand years. Dr. Hazony solves this by ending the empire “after” the Thirty Years’ War. But the war ended in 1648 (800 years after the Empire’s founding), and the Empire did not actually expire until 1806 when it succumbed to Napoleon, a definite emperor. The Thirty Years’ War is critical for Dr. Hazony because he needs competing forces of empires and nation-states to make his dichotomy relevant to Europe. Europe, and particularly the empire, are essential because he means to demonstrate that the usual linking of Nazism to nationalism is wrong since Hitler had a “vision of conquering the world,” a universal aspiration, resulting from the “Catholic-German dream of universalism” and the “longstanding German aspirations to universal empire” that he traces to the holy empire.

The Thirty Years’ War divides imperialists and nationalists. Dr. Hazony finds that the Protestant sides of the war “quickly became tied to their unique national traditions,” while the Catholic sides rallied to empire. He posits a “Protestant principle,” in England traceable to John Fortescue, even though conceding he was pre-Reformation—and indeed was focused upon earlier medieval Magna Carta principles as opposed to Henry VII’s divine right nationalism. Still, the Netherlands, Britain, and Denmark fit rather well into Dr. Hazony’s hard dichotomy. What does not is that the major power on the “Protestant” side was France, which in fact was Catholic. That side was indeed opposed by the future Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand II. But he in fact was not emperor at the time but king of Bohemia (a nation-state). Another inconvenient fact was that Protestant Prussia (also a nation-state) was the second greatest power on the supposed Catholic side.

Dr. Hazony even concedes the Thirty Years’ War was a dynastic rather than religious war, but this too does not fit well into his great dichotomy. More fundamentally, why was a German Holy Roman Habsburg labeled an emperor but a French Bourbon, divine-right emperor not (back to Henry of Navarre who even sold out Protestantism for Catholicism)? The Bourbon Empire later included Spain, Naples, Sicily, and Parma. And why was the Holy Roman called imperial rather than both imperial and a federation since the constituent states elected the emperors, sometimes deposed them, and often fought against each other and the emperor, but held together? Its emperors were sometimes powerful, sometimes not, and were mainly restricted to foreign relations, keeping the peace between the states, and promoting common law (mostly not fully common).

None of this fits into Dr. Hazony’s neat a priori box. Conceding the simple fact France was Catholic and an empire and the Holy Roman religiously diverse and a federation would undermine the book’s most fundamental assumptions

Dr. Hazony celebrates that nationalism won the battle against universalism in the Thirty Years’ War and continued until the end of World War II. But two different conclusions were drawn from the victory over Hitler. Universalists concluded that the devastating war was caused by voracious nation-states competing against each other. The solution was internationalism to bring all nations together to pursue universal world peace. World opinion switched from brotherhood in nation-states to universal political institutions like the United Nations, the European Union, and NATO, founded upon secular, Kantian, universal idealism.

The second conclusion was that a people within an empire like Nazi Germany could not rely upon other countries, coalitions, or institutions to protect them from abuses like the Holocaust. That “Auschwitz lesson” required nationalism, solidarity in outlook, brotherhood, self-defense, and a common moral outlook, which was actualized by the foundation of the state of Israel. Things changed so much that a nation-state like the Netherlands that had won its own independence at so high a cost was now willing to give up its nationalism and with its new universalism question whether nations should act independently and whether one like Israel should even exist. These Kantians could overlook the tribal solidarity and aggression of third-world countries, but not Israel with its modernity, prosperity, and intellectual sophistication.

Dr. Hazony traces the false charge that nationalism means hatred for outsiders to biased imperialists under the influence of Christianity, who were “prolific in the hatred they inspired in their adherents,” particularly “hatred of Jews.” Only after Christians began reading the Hebrew Bible recently has this moderated somewhat. The underlying flaw in Western civilization is its Christian universalism, which is the inspiration for internationalism. Even liberalism and Kantianism were secular version of Christianity’s universalism, including Protestantism’s. Indeed, it was Dr. Hazony’s favorite in the Thirty Years’ War, the liberal Protestant Netherlands, that so embraced the E.U. Even English Calvinism failed until Brexit. The U.S. was lost to internationalism until Donald Trump. Only Israel was consistently nationalist.

The universalist ideologies today threatening the modern world are listed by the author as “Christianity, Islam, liberalism, Marxism and Nazism,” in that order, several times. What is left in Dr. Hazony’s world with two of these passé and the others excluded as universalist—constituting at least two-thirds of the world—and probably more? The Tablet’s David Goodman can only explain this by arguing that Dr. Hazony’s real purpose was simply to legitimize the current state of Israel and properly promote it as Isaiah’s “light unto the nations,” a thesis Mr. Goodman thinks Dr. Hazony would like to “shout from the rooftops” but which he repressed at the cost of distorting history.

How about breaking the rigid dichotomy at least to thank Persian Emperor Cyrus, without whom Israel arguably would not have been re-founded in the Promised Land? The topic of Christian medieval antisemitism is too complex to consider here, but let me suggest a more empirical view by Sara Lipton in Dark Mirror: The Medieval Origins of Anti-Jewish Iconography.

Or consider Dr. Hazony’s core myth of the “Catholic-German dream of universalism” and “longstanding German aspirations to universal empire” connecting the Holy Roman Empire to Hitler. This connection is a bit difficult to make after an article in the Journal of Ecclesial History in 2015 calculated that in the critical 1932 election, Hitler won 23 percent of the vote in Catholic areas and 56 percent in Protestant ones. It would be a further distortion to blame Protestantism as this basically concerned one national denomination, and Germany was under desperate economic hyper-inflation, and people were grasping at anything that promised relief.

While Dr. Hazony recognizes the medieval term subsidiarity as a Christian moral solution for government, he insists the “truth” is that there “is no federal solution” between imperial and national solutions, focusing his wrath on the EU, where in fact it is abrogated. Yet, actual European and American history breaks this iron dichotomy for most of its existence. By necessity or plan, after Rome’s fall, European society decentralized into fiefdoms. While Pippin II and Charlemagne envisaged a more traditional empire, it had limited reach, and when Louis the Pius divided the empire this solidified the role of the constituent states.

By the Ottonian dynasty (of which there were dozens, many lasting a century or more), the feudal states were formed under an emperor but with much of the power in the constituent states. There was no universal empire as the Pope (in his Papal Sates) and the Emperor were in constant disagreement and even at war. France was mostly out. England was isolated and before Henry also decentralized. There were regular struggles internally between church and state, kings in snow and in self-flagellation (but getting away with murder anyway). Ultimately the Black Death undermined the Middle Ages’ religious legitimacy and the divine-right kings (not the Emperor) subdued the principalities, which Dr. Hazony dismisses as merely tribes.

Magna Carta fled to America before it died in Europe and became the basis for U.S. federalism, which—though the division of the Civil War mitigates this to a degree—is at nearly 230 years old the longest-lasting Constitution in modern times. Yet, the U.S. Constitution’s longevity, a five-hundred year division of power in medievalism, and the even longer-lasting Holy Roman Empire are impossible under Dr. Hazony’s axioms, so apparently subsidiarity cannot have existed.

Voltaire is the better guide. The Empire was neither holy, Roman, nor an empire but secular, German, and federal. These are not myths, but historical facts obscured by rigid apriorism.

Dr. Hazony does sometimes slip from his rigid dichotomy. While stressing the nationalism of Moses, he feels it necessary to concede that Abraham spoke of universalism—but did not support an empire—breaking the author’s own universalist dichotomy and the whole framework of the book, proving that the author is much superior to his restrictive apriorism.

Isaiah goes unmentioned in this regard.

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.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
"All comments are subject to moderation. We welcome the comments of those who disagree, but not those who are disagreeable."
1 reply to this post
  1. What part of Christiandom only recently began reading the Hebrew Bible? The genealogy of the promised Mesiah, through King David, woven through the entirety of the Old Covenant, by the Holy Spirit to the Profits, was recognized and fulfilled in Jesus Christ the anointed. What Jesus witnessed to was what was Prophesied; He, being the Logo come in the flesh, fully God and fully man in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. The new tree of life, the cross, is where Christ Jesus declared, “ ‘It’ is finished! ”, and died and was buried. His resurrection from the dead sealed God’s victory, that was promised in the beginning to Adam and Eve. Christianity does not claim to have been given the authority of power over the world through the government of law, which God established among men, to keep peace and order to the lives of men; to subdue evil, like those who murder or steal. To be “free” to gather around God’s Word, both the Old and the New, distributing Baptism, the Holy Communion, the forgiveness of sin, is why Christian’s pray for “good government” and pray for all officials of authority, in order that peace can prevail.

    Great essay. I view the Holy Bible as the History that prevails over all history; dichotomy between captivity and freedom.

Please leave a thoughtful, civil, and constructive comment: