Monday, March 08, 2010

German Nationalism

Michael Perry: Chesterton uses paradox to suggest that Germany's problem wasn't an excess of nationalism, as many were saying, but a nationalism so new and immature it had yet to recognise that a nation can only exist within a "community of nations." He equates trans-national cosmopolitanism - considered (then and now) as the height of modern, fashionable thinking - with a barbarism in which all barriers have been broken down, moral and territorial. Chesterton believed that humans lived best within boundaries such as nations, communities, and families.

It has certainly been the received wisdom all my life that Germany was dangerously nationalistic during WWII, thus discrediting nationalism per se in the minds of many. Reading Chesterton's description of German attitudes and philosophy during WWI provides powerful evidence for the theory that the two wars were a single war, won incompletely by the Allies by their own fault in 1919, and thus fought again in 1939.
The suggestion under discussion is broadly this: that Germany suffers from an overdose and debauch of national feeling, and that therefore Nationalism, which has 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.
The obvious had not occurred to me, meaning that my apprenticeship will have to continue. England has a nationalism extending back centuries, as does France, Russia, Italy, Poland, Spain, Switzerland...

There have been border changes and dominant provinces, certainly - Castille, Anjou - but a sense of greater nationality extending far into the past. Only Germany was a late-comer, and like a young athlete or entertainer newly rich, became drunk with sudden wealth. Its nationalism was never about its boundaries or inhabitants anyway, but about Teutonism, Das Volk, the race. It seeped across borders to include Germanish people in Austria and Czechoslovakia. It sought to include the English and Scandinavians as lesser partners. But it excluded many people actually in Germany itself: Jews, Gypsies, Poles.

I suspect that nationalism became unfashionable not because of Germany, but because it interfered with the spread of communism.


David Foster said...

To a significant extent, Naziism was less about *nationality* than about *race*. Austrians and Czechs, for example, counted a "Germans" even though they weren't part of Germany pe se, whereas Jews who *were* part of Germany were not considered as Germanic.

True nationalism could be thought of in terms of "we're all in this together since we all live in the same country," just as the crew of a ship has certain common interests regardless of their personal backgrounds and specialized jobs.

Retriever said...

Having spent most of my childhood overseas, going to English schools, I was raised on a somewhat similar point of view, that the nationalist Germans were bent on war and conquest from the 1860s on.

It was odd, given the German origins of the British royal family. But we were told stories of Queen Victoria's daughter going weeping off to marry Wilhelm. And the usual propaganda poster theories of the Evil Hun.

This of course was monstrously unjust to the civilized and educated Germans I knew then and since. But the realism about the continuity of national goals (from WWI to WWII) matches the history better than the revisionist history I later studied in college that blamed the English, French and American victors for imposing such harsh conditions on Germany after WWI. The view was that if we had just been nicer, Hitler would never have come to power.

But when you live in a country like England which (then) still had bomb craters and empty lots with the rubble from the Blitz, one was a little less philosophical. We had many, many friends and relatives (Christian and Jewish) who had been in concentration camps or prisoner of war camps, or had relatives killed, or been bombed to remind us. My school had been bombed and half the building sheered off twenty five years before I went there. The half that was pulverized was a parking lot, with the outlines of the rooms and fireplaces still visible on the outside of the half still standing.

This keyed into my earlier childish terror of the German fathers of my schoolmates when we lived in Argentina in the 1960s: I was convinced that they were all ex-Nazis.

Of course, for the other side, we had German family friends visiting my husband's family all thru the latter years of the 20th century, and we heard from a German au pair when our kids were babies about the horrors her city of Hamburg had endured during the fire bombings by the Allies.

I do think that there was a poisonous difference between the nationalism of the Germans between WWI and WWII and that of the rest of the civilized world. As you and David note, it was because it was more about race than about place. To this day, the most vicious wars and genocide are tribal in origin (which usually is religious as well).

A place can be sacred to many different groups, and good people can rise above tribal and religious divisions to cherish that place together. Britain is an example of this. The US used to be, but now the PC have hyphenized and divided many of us.

My British father emigrated to this country, became a citizen, married an American, served in the Navy, etc. Although he found my mother's WASP tribe congenial, he would fiercely say that "I am an American first". And he was right.

karrde said...

I doubt it was revisionist history when Chesterton said that the terms of peace in 1919 would lead to another war in Europe, between the same main group of antagonists, within a generation.

Retriever said...

You are right, Karrde. I was overstating a point. The terms of the 1919 treaty were punitive and caused misery and helped make people more receptive to the message of Nazism (much, some would later say, as certain sanctions of ours hurt "ordinary" people and made them more likely to support terrorists with a message of jihad). My point was that when you are making peace with a dangerous enemy, history says that your mistakes and cruelties played a larger role than they actually did. Things that exacerbate preexisting pathologies are mistakes and dangerous and often cruel. A modern example would be the tendency to blame Europeans and especially Americans for all African evils and tragedies, including slavery and current genocide, ongoing conflict and tribal wars, and corruption and poverty there. When in fact tribalism and the willingness to sell another into slavery or to coopt their labor (whether to the Arab slave trader or to kill a father and force a boy to join the child soldiers) has been a blight for centuries in that region, even before (sinful) buyers were willing to buy and use those slaves.

One could discuss for hours, but have to go off to my job where nobody discusses history or non PC theories. Just work loads, potential layoffs, sports and their feckless children and weight loss diets (bread and circuses)

Gringo said...

This keyed into my earlier childish terror of the German fathers of my schoolmates when we lived in Argentina in the 1960s: I was convinced that they were all ex-Nazis.

When I worked in Latin America, I was shocked to be invited in to two homes- Bolivia and Argentina- which prominently featured portraits of Hitler in the living room. The owners of the portraits were as German as I am a Hobbit: native-born Nazis. Not all German immigrants to Argentina were Nazis, and not all Nazis in Argentina were of German origin.

There is a definite anti-Semitic tinge in South America, which has much more to do with Spanish history than with German.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I'm not sure what my opinion's going to be, but Retriever and kaarde both hit different parts of Chesterton's thought. We let the leaders off, we punished the country monetarily, which means the common folk paid. The arrogant received only narcissistic injury, which they wished to avenge.

Pegaso said...

I think you people are confusing nationalism with civic patriotism

Civic patriotism is about places, Nationalism is about ethnicity and language

I,.e there are two Korea (places), but there is a single ethnic-linguistic unit, that is the korean nation. nationalism is about unifying and preserving these units, patriotism is more about loyality to a particular government or state, not to its people

there could be a prussian patriot, that thought that the kingdom of prussia was the best thing ever, and didnt want it to be absorbed by some sort of german superstate. Yet, a german nationalist could have happily welcomed such union, becaus nationalism is about creating countries from ethniclinguistic units, NOT from places.

Now, WWII german "nationalism", was more like some sort of imperialism mixed with darwinism, it was not about creating a german state out of german nation, but about "germanizing" other nations like the baltic states and czech republic, that is a very weird thing if you ask me