Opinions & Ideas

Category: Nationalism


NYT obituaryAn ideology that does not have all the answers.
I  was in Asia when I read the New York Times obituary of Benedict Anderson posted above.
I confess I had never read any of his books but was struck by the huge contemporary relevance of the quotations from him in this  fascinating obituary.
Many of the disturbances in the world today are driven by the phenomenon Anderson spent his life analysing…..nationalism.
For example,
  • it is nationalism that lies behind the tension between China and its neighbours over islands in the South China Sea.
  • It is English nationalism that lies behind the UK effort to detach itself from the EU, while still enjoying its benefits.
  • It is French nationalism that is fuelling the growth in support for the Front National.
  • And it is, of course, a particularly virulent form of  American nationalism that lies behind the anti Muslim, and anti Mexican, rhetoric of Donald Trump and friends. 


Nationalism frequently defines itself by the people it is AGAINST, rather than by the values it is FOR.
US Senator Cruz exemplified  this aspect of nationalism when ,in a recent speech, he called for “moral clarity” in US foreign policy, defining moral clarity as knowing how to identify America’s enemies!
Unfortunately nationalism often has to pick on violent events to provided cohesion for the “imagined community” that is the “nation”.
In Ireland, for example, we are embarking on a year of celebration of killings and death, in the Dublin rebellion of Dublin in Easter Week 1916,  and this rebellion, and the Proclamation that launched it, is being presented as the  “founding event” for the Irish nation. 
This is historically inaccurate.
The Irish national identity was built,  much earlier, by peaceful agitation, by people like Daniel O Connell, Charles Stewart Parnell and others, much more than it was, by the killing and dying of the 1916 to 1923 period. In fact O Connell’s movement was arguably the first peaceful mass democratic movement in the world. 
But I fear that will not be not the message that will be conveyed to Irish school children during 2016. 
One interesting thing about nationalism is that is so un self critical.
It does not examine the assumptions it makes, whether about
+ who belongs to the nation,
+ who can opt out of the nation,
+ whether a nation is about territory or people and
+ whether the nation comes before the individual or vice versa.
Another thing to note is that nationalism is modern, and not an ancient, ideology.
It came about, as Benedict Anderson says, because  the other forces, that  previously sufficed to persuade people to cooperate such as a shared religious belief or a shared allegiance to a ruling dynasty, had lost their force . Nationalism has replaced Communism in Easter Europe since 1989.
Nationalism also uses simplifications of history, and mysticism, to  avoid asking difficult questions of itself.
This is evident in Japan, in its approach to China and to the legacy of its  war in China from 1936 to 1945.
Similar over simplifications and blindness to the other side are also present in the dispute between Israeli and Palestinian nationalisms.
These conflicting interpretations of history make it difficult for people, whose objective interests may actually largely coincide, to cooperate fruitfully with one another.
That is why I believe there should be an open debate about what nationalism really means.
The 150 traditional “nations” of the world ,who met in Paris on our global climate,  are all  of them far too small to cope on their own with the  challenges of global interdependence, global waste, and global environmental degradation. Nationalism does not have an answer to that problem.
While nationalism will always be with us, it needs to accompanied by other, more global, foci for loyalty and common action.


When one thinks of the First World War, the image that springs to mind is that of thousands of  soldiers being mown down by machine guns and heavy artillery in the mud of Northern France.
Little is written in English nowadays about the slaughter on the eastern front between Germany, Austria Hungary and Russia, or about the war in the Balkans ,when  the Serb army was crushed by the Central Powers.
Another dimension of the war that gets little attention is struggle between Italy and Hapsburg Austria .
This is the subject of an excellent book I have just read, entitled   ”The White War, life and death on the Italian Front ,  1915 to 1919“  by Mark Thompson.
Thompson shows that this was a thoroughly avoidable war.
 Italy and Hapsburg Austria had actually been allies up to just before the outbreak of the war between then in 1915.  But the Italian nationalist intelligentsia had long wanted to expand their territory to what they  regarded as Italy’s  “natural” frontiers on the Alps, regardless of the fact that many of the people  living south of the Alps did not consider themselves to be Italian. They also believed the Adriatic sea should be under effective Italian control, as it had been in Venetian and Roman times.
In 1915, in order to keep Italy neutral, Hapsburg Austria offered Italy territory in South Tyrol and elsewhere.
But the Italians were not satisfied. In return for Italy joining the allied side instead, the Allies guaranteed that Italy would get all South Tyrol, Trieste, and a big slice of  coastal territory in what is now Slovenia and Croatia. Italian speakers were a minority in these areas.
Unfortunately for Italy, it was ill prepared for war. It suffered huge casualties,  attacking well defended Hapsburg positions on high ground all along the frontier. Wave after wave of conscripted and often illiterate Italian soldiers were sent to certain death in Hapsburg machine gunfire. 
To the surprise of the Italian nationalists, the Hapsburgs army, although coming from a variety of ethnic groups, fought cohesively. The leading Hapsburg genera , Boroevic, was a Croat. Bosnian Muslims were among the fiercest fighters for the Hapsburg cause.
Although the Italians were comprehensively defeated in 1917 at Caporetto, and had to fall back far into their own territory, the eventual Allied victory did bring major gains to Italy.  But many of there had to be given up to Yugoslavia after the Second World War.
Mark Thompson tells this tragic human story very well. He illustrates the erroneous judgements, and extreme sacrifices, territorial nationalism can impose on those who fall under its spell.

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