During the Great War, G. K. Chesterton wrote a scathing critique of those who attacked nationalism or tried to redefine it in negative ways in his own country. He began his 1916 essay “On Nationalism” with this line:
The suggestion under discussion is broadly this: that Germany suffers chiefly from an overdose and debauch of national feeling, and that therefore Nationalism, which has thus destroyed our enemies, must be watched with a wary eye even in our friends and in ourselves as if it were a highly dubious explosive.
According to him, nation-states were the byproduct of civilization, and “the typical nations, first France, then England, Spain, Scotland, Poland, etc. arose like islands in a sea of barbarism.”
Later in the same essay, Chesterton eloquently says:
The Nationalist is only a Nationalist if he appeals to a general rule of Nationalism. Nations, like marriages, or like properties, are a class of things accorded a certain recognition by the conscience of our civilization. One of them cannot logically plead its own rights without pleading the rights of the class. And to say that a nation which disregards frontiers and annexes or destroys neighbors is suffering from an excess of Nationalism is intrinsically nonsensical. We might as well say that a man who runs away with his neighbor’s wife is suffering from an excess of reverence for the institution of marriage.
In other words, the concept of nationalism is not only putting one’s national interests and defense first, but it also requires recognition of the right of others to claim the same sentiment for their own. The stigma nationalism acquired after the World Wars is based on a dubious definition of the term by those who rejected it and some of the modern adherents who abused it.
Since Nazi Germany is often used as an example of nationalism gone wrong, let’s examine the following two quotations from Joseph Goebbels and Adolph Hitler — the first from a propaganda pamphlet published before Hitler rose to power and the second from a talk Hitler gave in the middle of the war.
In his 1929 essay, “Those Damned Nazis,” Nazi politician Joseph Goebbels writes, “If as a German nationalist I affirm Germany, how can I hold it against a French nationalist who affirms France? Only when these affirmations conflict in vital ways will there be a power-political struggle.”
And in Adolf Hilter’s 1942 book, “Hitler’s Table Talk,” he explains:
Let’s be cautious, especially with the Czechs and the Poles. According to Himmler, history proves that the Poles have their nationality tattooed on their bodies. They must therefore be kept under control by giving them the strongest possible stiffening of German officers and N.C.O.’s, and by trying to have them outnumbered by the German elements.
Goebbels’s quote is not alarming in any way here, but his absolute support for the invasion of Poland and France a decade years later exposed his hypocrisy. Hitler, on the other hand, had no respect for national borders; he wanted living space, refused to assist Russian nationalists against the Communists, and aimed to create a united Europe dominated by Germans.
In fact, Hitler was willing to eliminate German nationals that didn’t fit his racial criteria while declaring kinship with other “Aryans” around the globe.
Engish novelist George Orwell’s writings during the war, like “England your England,” had a distinct national tone to them. The problem with Orwell, however, is that he had a knack for redefining terms in ways that made them unrecognizable even to their adherents.
In “The Road to Wigan Pier,” for instance, he decided that socialism simply meant “tyranny overthrown” and admitted “that the majority of orthodox Marxists would not accept that definition.” To someone who applies the proper definition of socialism as the state ownership of the means of production, this redefinition creates a problem.
In “Notes on Nationalism,” Orwell decides to redefine nationalism before denouncing it: “Nationalism, in the extended sense in which I am using the word, includes such movements and tendencies as Communism, political Catholicism, Zionism, Antisemitism, Trotskyism and Pacifism.”
In other words, any radical belief, even in Internationalism, would now be called “nationalism.” The subsequent critique of nationalism in this essay becomes problematic as a result, and many choose to quote passages from this piece to attack nationalism even though he’s obviously not talking about nationalism proper.
Later in the same essay, Orwell presents his reader with a list of leaders that not only did not belong to the nations they eventually led but who actually did not really stand for nationalism in the classical sense. They all defended internationalist, imperialist or colonialist movements that were multi-national or anti-national.
After World War II, many preferred the use of “patriotism” to “nationalism.” In the age of the “United Nations” and growing Communism, “patriotism” became the politically correct substitute. The Soviets used it even when they were resorting to the nationalist appeal of Orthodox Christianity and Russian history to defend the “motherland” during the war.
In India, Gandhi displayed a different attitude:
I call myself a nationalist, but my nationalism is as broad as the universe… I do not want my India to rise on the ashes of other nations. I do not want India to exploit a single human being. I want India to be strong in order that she can infect the other nations also with her strength. Not so with a single nation in Europe today.
Claiming that hatred or disregard for others is somehow a component of nationalism is an idea that spread rapidly after the war, and it was based on a fallacious redefinition of the term.
It is no wonder the “globalists” and imperialists always find nationalism abhorrent. National self-determination (which became a Wilsonian ideal after the Great War) was responsible for the collapse of old empires and the failure of Communism.
It was the biggest threat to national socialism, fascism and monstrosities like the European Union where multiculturalism, unity and homogeneity are more important than local character, autonomy and democracy.
Ibrahim Aboud is an English Professor at Barstaw College.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.