Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Naziism Was Not Nationalism

This post is an interim between Monday's We Are The World post and the discussion of whether that philosophy is theoretically more moral, more Christian, aside from any practical considerations. That latter post is proving unwieldy, requiring caveats and explanations at every turn. This should clear out some of the rubbish in preparation for the full discussion.

To claim that the Nazis were not nationalists is so counterintuitive, so out-of-step with what people usually think, that we have to attack the idea full on to have it seen clearly. Heck, it's got national right in its party name. If it wasn't nationalist, then what was all that with the flags and the speeches about German destiny?

The nazis did not exalt the German nation, but only a subset of it - tribal Germans. Because that tribe was a significant enough portion of the total population, it was easy for people to be slid over to the idea that they were the Real Germans, the heart of Germany, the part that carried its destiny. But the national boundaries were never the dividing line. Jews, half-Jews, quarter-Jews, born within the boundaries or not, we not considered real Germans. Poles, communists, gypsies, Jehovah's Witnesses - it never mattered if they were born part of the nation or not. Across the national boundaries, people of German blood in neighboring countries were considered part of this supposed nation.

It was pure tribalism, not nationalism.

On the other hand, it was nationalism that defeated the Nazis. The English, Scots, Welsh, and even the Irish made common cause, though they hadn't worked out their own difficulties - still haven't, really. But we're in this one together anyway lads, like it or not, eh? Multi-racial America (and Canada, Australia) banded its tribes together into a nation despite severe animosities. Ironically, we easily kept the Italian- and German-Americans in our court. I'll bet we could have done so with the Japanese-Americans as well, had we ourselves not slipped back into tribalism and screwed them over. We accomplished what the Germans were unable to: nationalism. Our great failing was when we abandoned our own ideal and reverted to a more primitive morality.

It's an important point to clear up because in the usual We Are The World framing, nationalism is seen as the great obstacle to international comity. National feeling and even patriotism are regarded as dangerous, with a jerk of the head and reference to "look what happened with the Germans, after all." Imagine there's no countries...

With that as lead in, here are the questions for tomorrow:

1. When people divide themselves into us versus them, who is the us they are thinking about? The government? The individuals? The native-born? The dominant culture? We have to define that at least vaguely to know what we even mean by us versus them, and whether that division is a good thing or a bad one. Try the examples of Israelis/Palestinians; Democrats/Greens; criminals/victims to see how slippery this is. Who is this "we" and what are our obligations to them? (Refer to Der Hahn's comment on the original post for some excellent thinking on the matter).

2. There will never be unanimity of purpose. What do we do with the folks who don't want to be part of the "we?" What if "we" want to share everything but some refuse to go along? This one cuts both ways. People might refuse to be part of the general "we" for very good reasons or very bad ones. What do we do about them? What's the theoretical moral response to that?


David Foster said...

An interesting post on an important topic.

Quasimodo said...

I agree that the Nazis were less Nationalists than they were racists and tribal.

I suppose the difficulty is the connotation that "nationalism" carries in common discourse today. The popular idea of nationalism today is an exultation of ones own nation or culture above all others - and typically at the expense of others. This is not how I see the response of the Allies. Rather, they responded like patriots.

drank said...

"Nationalism" means a movement that identifies a particular "people" or "nation" and seeks a sovereign state that is coextensive with that "nation". This fits, exactly, your description of the Nazi movement.

The Nazis gained absolute control of the German state and governed in the name of the German Volk. They used traditional instruments of state power (war, annexation, genocide) to pursue their ends.

When an Iraqi Arab expresses solidarity with a Palestinian Arab, it means that he hopes that Palestine's national aspirations will be realized. When the Nazis talked about solidarity with ethnic Germans in Austria or Czechoslovakia, it was a demand that those ethnic Germans and the territory they inhabited be brought under the control of the German state because they were part of the German Volk.

If this isn't "Nationalism", then what on earth is?

If your point is that the Nazis had a single ethnicity in their "people", while the US in 1940 defined its "people" as a plurality of ethnicities (as you say, the Japanese weren't on the list!), then you should say that. Both are examples of Nationalism.

Anonymous said...

I recall reading once that this "Arianism" he took so much stock in, was actually not the blue-eyed blondish race many interpreted (not that he personally was either anyway), but rather of some possibly (my memory not serving me well) Persian decent(?) Which would indicate his having been way off track in his racialist fantasies - to be so off on his terminology, and perhaps even ethnic attributions.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

drank, I take your point that a people seeking to be a nation are in some sense nationalists, whatever the current state of their boundaries is. I am making an additional distinction because of the connotations that nationalism currently carries in current discussion. A multi-ethnic America, founded around a set of ideas rather than a people, is accused of a dangerous nationalism, even though it is philosophically distinct from German nationalism in the 30's.

karrde said...


I do not consider myself an expert in this...but I became aware, partly through G.K. Chesterton's critique of the intellectual fads about Aryan people, that there was more imagination and wild theory than solid evidence about who and what the Aryans were, and who their rightful descendants are in the modern world.

karrde said...

What I find curious is that "Nationalism" can almost be classified as a null-word.

That is, with one definition of "Nationalism", the post makes perfect sense. With another definition of "Nationalism", the post becomes sadly mistaken, perhaps even nonsense.

Neither definition does justice to the subject of Nationalism, and neither is totally wrong.

Thus, "Nationalism" has a null meaning, which can be filled with argumentative power by the appropriate choice of definition.

It should be easy, however, to argue that Nationalism was a tool of evil, not a cause of evil.

The same can be said about transnationalism. It can be a tool for either good or evil, but it does not itself make the deeds of the people who hold it either good or evil.

Anonymous said...

Hi karrde, I must apologize - it's been a long week at work. I was on my way into work this morn, when I realized, upon trying to recall what I'd written here, that I typed Arianism instead of Aryanism - the first being a major early Church heresy of no relevance to this topic. To your point though, yes I've read some books and articles about Hitler's involvement in a lot of Super-race oriented theories - and possibly even membership in a Teutonic-themed anachronistic group, which may have spawned his delusional yearnings all the more. However, I do not pretend to be an expert in any of these matters - only having once had a more curious imagination in especially my latter-teen years (when Chariots of the Gods was one of my favorite books - enough said). Cheers, Tom

karrde said...

And somehow, my usual eagle eye for misspellings didn't catch that particular one.