Why Nationalism is Sometimes Evil and Sometimes Holy

“Towards the east they level their bayonets against nationality, towards the north they level them for nationality.” 

Carl Ferdinand Allen, On Nationality and Language (1848)

Carl Ferdinand Allen was a nationalist historian and a Dane, and in this line he exposes the opportunism of nineteenth-century German attitudes towards nationality.  When Slavs to the east resisted German expansion on the grounds that they were Slavs, the Germans said nationality was a dangerous delusion that must be destroyed; when Germans to the north, in in what was then the Danish duchy of Schleswig, invited German expansion on the grounds that they were Germans, the Germans of Germany said nationality was a sacred compact that must be preserved.

There was, Allen observed, an unmistakable opportunism in these nineteenth-century German attitudes towards nationality, but one can at least see what the old Germans were about.  They wished to expand their empire and fitted their opinion to the circumstances and that end.

The empire builders of our own time likewise fit their opinion of nationality to circumstances and the end of power, and therefore likewise speak out of both sides of their mouths; but they differ from the nineteenth-century Germans insofar as they turn their bayonets against the nationality of what they claim is their own nation, and for the nationality of strange nations far away.

We have in recent days seen impressive displays of this updated, opportunistic, pro-and-anti-nationalism, as the nominally American empire builders in Washington shed simultaneous tears over January 6th and poor, bleeding Ukraine.  This is by no means a solitary case, since one leitmotif of contemporary moralizing is that nationality is a sacred compact that must be preserved, except in those cases, always closer to home, when it is a dangerous delusion that must be destroyed.

As Allen saw one hundred and seventy years ago, the will to power is the key that unlocks this apparent riddle.  The nationality on display on January 6, 2021, vexes the nominally American empire builders in Washington, and so they have turned their bayonets against it.  The nationality on display in Ukraine oils the wheels of their power, and so they have turned their bayonets for it.  Thus it is easy to make sense of what we see today by making small emendations to another line from Carl Ferdinand Allen.

“If they turn towards the east [towards what is, ostensibly, their own nation], then they say, nationality is a nuisance that must be put down by force; if they turn to the north [towards some alien catspaw nation, foreign or domestic], they say, nationality is a sacred right that must be maintained by arms.”*

*) Carl Ferdinand Allen, On Nationality and Language in the Dutchy of Sleswick or South Jutland (Copenhagen: Thieles, 1848), pp. 12-13.

6 thoughts on “Why Nationalism is Sometimes Evil and Sometimes Holy

  1. From the CS Lewis perspective, things can fall farther if they can rise higher. Nationalism, in an interactive Christian perspective has more modest claims. That these can become swollen and dangerous is true. But withing their limits, they do not have to be deadly. The various internationalisms aspire to rise higher. Well, if only. Human beings have yet to establish they can rise to the level of modest nationalism and keep their tempers. To pretend that “Well, we could all become better people in a generation or so if people would just try this obviously exalted way” is to invite more disaster. Might there someday be a day when humans could do this? I personally doubt it short of massive genetic engineering (and what could possibly go wrong there?), but I won’t entirely discard it. Yet we live in the years that we live in, not some mythical future. Humans are not able to be internationalists at present without merely switching their hatred from the tribe next door to a vaguer, elite-defined outgroup who must be brought to heel. Ugly.

    • Lucifer is, I suppose, the prototype of overweening pride and catastrophic fall, but this is also the theme of Greek tragedy. Some of this may be due to the fact that there is more story to tell when the story is of a fall from great heights. Some of it may be the audience’s appetite for schadenfreude. But there remains the psychological, perhaps cosmic, fact that that excellence often becomes hubris, hubris becomes atë, and atë invites nemesis. For anti-globalists, Nimrod’s hubris and the atë of the Tower of Babel is the go-to illustration of this tragic cycle.

      I think the ancient wisdom was that a man becomes hubristic when he ceases to accept his excellence as a gift of God (or the gods, or fortune). He then become like Icarus and forget that he did not actually make his wings, and he therefore uses them to fly too high. Human associations like nations can no doubt do this too. But that means man organized as a Global Brotherhood can also do succumb to hubris and undertake the atë of flying too high. If we follow the ancient wisdom, it is hubris to think mankind can escape the tragic cycle of hubris by reorganization of the social order.

      You are correct that there is, today, a good deal of anarchic, anti-elite sentiment. The irony is that most of this is on the Right, which is typically keen on hierarchy and authority. One consolation of life today is being able to chuckle as a Right-wing rabble and a Left-wing establishment clash, both sides continuing to use their now-nonsensical jargon from days gone by.


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