Dignitaries gathering in the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles, France, for the signing of the Treaty of Versailles on 28 June 1919, which became the cause of the Second World War. Source: Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. - Photo: 2024

Nationalism Is a Virus and Needs to Be Contained

By Jonathan Power*

LUND, Sweden | 23 April 2024 (IDN) — Former British prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, would never have agreed with her French counterpart, the late President Francois Mitterrand, who said “Nationalism is war”. To her, nationalism was necessary and good and she felt much as Mitterrand’s predecessor, Charles de Gaulle, who said of the French nation, “it comprises a past, a present and a future that are indissoluble.”

But the nationalism that Thatcher fought for was a largely negative force. It antagonized the other members of the European Union. She did not believe her country could learn from them how to carry out economic reform without severe social disruption. She went to war with Argentina without trying to enlist the US as a mediator because it lent towards Argentina’s side.

One can date European nationalism from the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 which effectively put an end to religious identity being the defining reason for both social cohesion and war. This was the start of the great powers of Europe, the foundation for the US and the Latin American nations, the revolutionary and Napoleonic wars across Europe and the “nation-making” of the nineteenth century which led to the
carnage of the First World War.

“National self-determination”

At war’s end there was the Treaty of Versailles which reorganised Europe according to the principle of “national self-determination”. It became a major cause of the Second World War since the European map remained mixed up and illogical. Versailles was unable to create coherent nations, as when it reconstituted a Poland containing a population of two million Germans.

The post Second World War decolonisation by the European powers created new nations that were as nationalistic as Europe. Post-colonialist nationalism has led to many serious conflicts—as between India and Pakistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan, Rwanda and Congo, Cambodia and Vietnam, Malaysia and Singapore and, not least, Israel and the Arab world and Russia and Ukraine.

Religion has played a part with India and Pakistan, and Israel and the Arab countries, but even here nationalism is today the predominant driving force.

David Cannadine writes in his book, “The Undivided Past” that nationalism only thrives when the people are beholden to “selective myths, the sanitized memories, and the carefully edited narratives that galvanize collective resolve and sustain national solidarities over time.”

Nation-state made war and war made the nation state

As the great historian Eric Hobsbawm wrote, getting history wrong is part of being a nation. We can go further and argue that over time the nation-state made war and war made the nation state. This is certainly the lesson of World War 1. Millions
volunteered to fight out of a shared sense of national loyalty and identity. Very few historians argue that the First World War was necessary or justified. Most but not all- the great AJP Taylor is one of the exceptions—argue that, given Hitler’s proclivities, the Second World War was unavoidable. Again, millions volunteered for battle.
Dying in battle for one’s country was the highest national calling.

The creation of the European Union was conceived as project to ensure that the madness of European war was never repeated again. Europe over the ages has been the site of more wars than any other comparatively sized or populated region in the world. But one of the two most important European nations in both world wars, Britain, today has a powerful minority within the ruling Conservative party who long
fought—successfully—to take Britain out of Europe. These parliamentarians say they are out and out Thatcherites. They seem not to remember the bloody record of nationalism.

“To See Further”

Sylvie Goulard and Mario Monti, the current Italian prime minister, in their book, “To See Further”, write that European nations are modern-—and mostly artificial- constructions, in whose name millions have been murdered. If they had not already been created, they would not have been created today. They are unsuited to our era. Nationalism is a virus and needs to be contained rather than celebrated- and this goes or the rest of the world too.

They argue that the EU’s members have not been ambitious enough. What is needed to salvage the union from today’s Euro-zone crisis is another institutional redesign, a democratic revolution and a bold leap forward into the future. The genius of the union is that its 450 million people can focus on the next generation rather than the next election.

Much of the union’s inspiration is drawn from the Federalist Papers written when the union of the USA was in its early stages. Back in the 18th century its authors argued the case for a federal state. Today, Europe needs to resurrect the task of emulating the USA, and other federal states like India.

More economic and political union is needed in Europe, not less. The European parliament must become more democratic, independent, free of overriding American influence (except on the issue of federalism), and able to initiate legislation and raise taxes to serve its own priorities.

“Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel”, said Samuel Johnson. Thatcherites exist all over the world. They must be defeated.

*Note: For 17 years, Jonathan Power was a foreign affairs columnist for the International Herald Tribune. [IDN-InDepthNews]

Copyright Jonathan Power


Image: Dignitaries gathering in the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles, France, for the signing of the Treaty of Versailles on 28 June 1919, which became the cause of the Second World War. Source: Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

IDN is the flagship agency of the Non-profit International Press Syndicate.

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