The Last Word on Nationalism

Written by AC Grayling on 09 February 2000.

Nationalism is our form of incest, is our idolatry, is our insanity. "Patriotism" is its cult. – Erich Fromm

This week's campaign to persuade the United Kingdom into closer ties with Europe coincides with renewed trouble in the Balkans. There is a link between the two events: namely, the question of nationalism. The European campaign has to meet or refute nationalistic prejudices among the British – chiefly, among sections of the British press. It would do well to point out that nationalistic prejudice is a major part of the cancer destroying the Balkans.

Nationalism is an evil. It causes wars, its roots lie in xenophobia and racism, it is a recent phenomenon – an invention of the last few centuries – which has been of immense service to demagogues and tyrants but to no-one else. Disguised as patriotism and love of one's country, it trades on the unreason of mass psychology to make a variety of horrors seem acceptable, even honourable. For example: if someone said to you, "I am going to send your son to kill the boy next door" you would hotly protest. But only let him seduce you with "Queen and Country!" "The Fatherland!" "My country right or wrong!" and you would find yourself permitting him to send all our sons to kill not just the sons of other people, but other people indiscriminately – which is what bombs and bullets do.

Demagogues know what they are about when they preach nationalism. Hitler said, "The effectiveness of the truly national leader consists in preventing his people from dividing their attention, and keeping it fixed on a common enemy." And he knew who to appeal to: Goethe had long since remarked that nationalistic feelings "are at their strongest and most violent where there is the lowest degree of culture."

Nationalists take certain unexceptionable desires and muddle them with unacceptable ones. We individually wish to run our own affairs; that is unexceptionable. Most of us value the culture which shaped our development and gave us our sense of personal and group identity; that too is unexceptionable. But the nationalist persuades us that the existence of other groups and cultures somehow puts these things at risk, and that the only way to protect them is to see ourselves as members of a distinct collective, defined by ethnicity, geography, or sameness of language or religion, and to build a wall around ourselves to keep out "foreigners". It is not enough that the others are other; we have to see them as a threat at very least to "our way of life", perhaps to our jobs, even to our daughters.

When Europe's overseas colonies sought independence, the only rhetoric to hand was that of nationalism. It had well served the unifiers of Italy and Germany in the nineteenth century (which in turn prepared the way for some of their activities in the twentieth century), and we see a number of the ex-colonial nations going the same way today.

[The idea of nationalism turns on that of a "nation". The word is a joke: we British are one of the most mongrel of "nations", a mixture of so many immigrations in the last two millenia that the idea of a British ethnicity is comical, except for the Celtic fringes, whose boast has to be either that they remained so remote and disengaged, or so conquered, for the greater part of history, that they succeeded in keeping their gene pool "pure" (a cynic might unkindly say "inbred").] Much nonsense is talked about nations as entities: Emerson spoke of the "genius" of a nation as something separate from its numerical citizens; Giradoux described the "spirit of a nation" as "the look in its eyes"; other such meaningless assertions abound. Nations are artificial constructs, their boundaries drawn in the blood of past wars. And one should not confuse culure and nationality: there is no country on earth which is not home to more than one different but usually coexisting culture. Cultural heritage is not the same thing as national identity.

The blindness of people who fall for nationalistic demagoguery is surprising. Those who oppose closer relations in Europe, or who seek to detach themselves from the larger comities to which they belong, need to understand the lesson of the Balkans, or – the same thing writ larger – Europe's tragic history in the last hundred years.