The term is too evocative, and its connotations too various, to function as shorthand for political ideas that need to be unambiguous.
Israel figures prominently in the latest segment of the episodic nationalism debate at National Review. Rich Lowry praises Zionism as a model of nationalism. Models are helpful. We point to them when we need to talk about a concept but are not sure how to define it: “I know it when I see it.” In Suicide of the West (1964), James Burnham compiled a long list of politicians, publications, and institutions that “everybody knows” to be liberal. He distilled their shared essence, as he saw it, and constructed a critique of it. We can apply his method to the question of what nationalism is, but first we need to gather many examples, not just one.
“Zionism was the most inspiring nationalist movement of the 20th Century,” Rich writes. Let’s agree that it was inspiring. You probably won’t if you’re a descendant of Palestinian Arabs displaced by the war of 1947–49. In that case, you’re liable to be inspired by a different nationalist movement, one that sets itself in opposition to Zionism.
No nationalism can be understood in isolation. From one perspective, Zionism exemplifies nationalism, but the fuller truth is that it was conceived as a counter-nationalism, a creative reaction to anti-Semitism in the nations of 19th-century Europe. (That’s not to deny modern Zionism’s ancient precursors in, e.g., the Babylonian exile: “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem . . .”) The immediate impetus for the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 was the Holocaust, that poison fruit of the century’s most destructive nationalist movement.
Wait — National Socialism wasn’t nationalist, because it was imperialist, one nation’s agenda to trample other nations: I wouldn’t argue that, but Yoram Hazony does. He’s an Israeli philosopher, the author of The Virtue of Nationalism, and lately a looming presence in the conversation here at NR.
The genesis of any nation involves a defensive response to threats of physical danger. They alarm and galvanize loosely associated individuals, who rush to strengthen their bonds with one another and coalesce. Families, clans, and tribes that find themselves living in geographical proximity and facing common challenges to their survival are likely to share DNA and a language, history, religion, culture, or some combination thereof. They organize themselves to advance their common welfare and defend against potential aggressors, including other people who have already so organized themselves and enjoy the advantages that come from joining together in large numbers and cooperating in big collective projects. It’s the process by which the ancient Greeks formed their illustrious city-states: “Synoikismos,” they called it, a merging of households.
‘Nationalism’ Can Be Centrifugal or Centripetal — the Term Is Ambiguous
For those who hold up nationalism as a political sentiment that the world as a whole ought to celebrate more roundly, the nation is the optimum-sized unit of social organization for pursuing and preserving the common good for the greatest number. The nation should be large, but it can’t be too large. It grows to the point that it achieves a maximum economy of scale; if it grows any bigger, it begins to collapse of its own weight. At the same time, the nation is as compact as it can be without excluding any who belong to it naturally by virtue of birth, geography, or some other given criterion. Multinational organization is okay, a moderate nationalist might concede, if it serves a security or economic function that’s narrowly defined. He would, however, be quick to contend that the total population of the European Union, for example, is too large and diverse for that political entity to assume the broader role of a legitimate democratic nation-state.
That theory of nationalism is coherent. In light of it, the lines on the map of the world as they appear today need to be redrawn. In 2019, the difference between the most populous nation (China, with 1.4 billion people, nearly three times as many as are encompassed by the EU) and that of the least populous (Tuvalu, unless you want to count Vatican City) is a factor of 127,000; in area, the difference between Russia and Monaco is a factor of 3 million. The languages of 30 percent of China’s population are mostly unintelligible to the Mandarin-speaking majority. The differences are at least as great as those among the Romance languages, which are natural markers of separate Spanish, French, and Italian national identities. By linguistic criteria, the People’s Republic of China, though a state, is not a unified nation. Or, if it is a unified nation, so are Spain, France, and Italy taken together, along with much of the rest of Europe.
A state struggles to maintain its identity as a nation when a segment of its population — e.g., Scots in the United Kingdom, Catalans in Spain — seeks to secede and form itself into a separate, smaller, more homogeneous nation-state. Separatist movements are micro-nationalism carried to its logical conclusion. They’re an inevitable feature of the system of states and always will be, because societies are dynamic. Maps are always changing. Boundaries have to be drawn somewhere. Some strong-identity nationalities will find themselves either divided across state boundaries — e.g., the Kurds (in Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran) and the Pashtun (Pakistan, Afghanistan, India) — or minorities (e.g., Ukrainians who identify as Russian) in states where one nationality constitutes a majority.
A state’s cohesion may be strained as well when too many of its people yield to the opposite attraction, of identifying with a population grouping that lives mostly beyond its borders. The suspicion under which the Chinese government places organized religions, and the Catholic Church in particular, with its highly structured form of governance and its global headquarters in a foreign capital, is offensive to modern liberal sensibilities but unsurprising given the fierce nationalism that runs through Beijing’s rhetoric and informs its domestic policy under Xi Jinping. In China’s far west, the government persecutes an ethnic and religious minority, the Uighurs, in a campaign to stamp out their perceived foreignness and scare them into a more thorough adoption of Chinese identity. The principle of Westphalian sovereignty clashes with the moral imperative to intervene in another state’s domestic affairs when its people need humanitarian aid (e.g., Venezuela) or their human rights are violated, as in China. Supranational organizations are invented in part to coordinate appropriate interventions and in part to provide a forum for deliberating, in any given case, whether they would be appropriate.
Expand and amalgamate? Split apart, like an amoeba? Or maintain homeostasis? The questions are constant in the life of every state, though we seldom ask them explicitly. States are subject both to the centripetal forces (that, e.g., draw the European nations into the EU) and to the centrifugal forces whereby Catalans, for example, demand separation from Spain, Venetians from Italy, and so on. Everyone who advocates nationalism has in mind an optimum degree of it. What that degree is varies from nationalist to nationalist. The Catalan separatist is a nationalist for Catalonia. To a Spanish nationalist in Madrid, he’s a traitor to Spain.
When a nationalist notices that his nation-state has begun to fragment, he stresses the sentiment that helped fuel its formation. The need then was to be expansive. Little platoons, reaching out, joined forces to form a larger body: E pluribus, unum. The nationalist who urges his neighbors to put aside their differences and look at the bigger picture thinks that Scotland should remain in the United Kingdom. But then he might also think that the United Kingdom should leave the European Union: Ex uno, plures. And in that spirit, he may join with nationalists of other nations, in an international movement of nationalists. They dream of a new kind of global order, designed by new architects (themselves) and run by new bosses (guess who).
The ambiguities inherent in the term “nationalist” are endless. They’re commensurate with the ambiguities inherent in the concept of nationality. A quirk of English and other modern languages leads us to talk past one another: The word “nation” has taken on a meaning beyond its original sense of nationality, or ethnicity, of a people whose members are related to one another intimately, typically by blood. (At its root, natio in Latin means “birth.”) Just as often we now use the word “nation” to mean “state.” But not every nation, or nationality, has a state unto itself — ask the Kurds. And not every state corresponds to a single nationality. Israel was founded for Jews, but a sizable minority of its citizens are Arabs.
The Balkans and the Dark Side of Nationalism
Some multinational states are more vividly so than others. Remember Yugoslavia, that attempt at a federation of South Slavic peoples on the Balkan peninsula? The unification of the more than half a dozen states on the Italian peninsula across the Adriatic Sea in the 19th century proved that a political experiment on such a scale was feasible. The era of Romantic nationalism across the Continent was at its peak. Just as the campaign for the Italian Risorgimento was beginning to gather steam, Croat intellectuals of the Illyrian movement revived the idea that the South Slavs, too, were destined to unify. The concept gestated for nearly a century before its birth in the aftermath of the First World War, which was ignited by a Serbian nationalist when he assassinated the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne. The global order of the day had rendered the Balkans, long a cauldron of political discontent, a miscellany of protectorates, in effect. None of the South Slavic nationalities had ever enjoyed much in the way of clear, unqualified sovereignty.
Among themselves, they disagreed on where the lines separating their respective territories ought to be drawn. Even the linguistic and cultural distinctions among their national identities tended to be subtle. They were often disputable. On the whole, mutual intelligibility among their languages was (and remains) high. In 1850, eight South Slav linguists and men of letters met to hammer out the Vienna Literary Agreement, which laid the groundwork for a shared formal language for Serbs and Croats and articulated a few rules of grammar and orthography for the region’s different dialects. Taken together, Serbian and Croatian are still considered by many to be a single language, Serbo-Croatian, that can be written in either of two alphabets, Cyrillic (Serb) and Latin (Croat), although some Croats insist on the uniqueness of their mother tongue and bristle at the suggestion that they have any affinity to the Serbs.
Nikola Tesla was born in Croatia to parents who identified their ethnicity as Serbian, being Eastern Orthodox. (Most Croats are Catholic.) Tesla described his nationality with tact, nodding to both his Serbian and his Croatian heritage, skating over the peninsula’s jumbled history, which was disfigured by a narcissism of small, in some cases practically infinitesimal differences. By the early 20th century, the South Slavs had compiled long lists of historical grievances, against one another as well as against regional great powers.
Yugoslavia as the world had known it ceased to exist in 1992, when constituent nationalities began to secede and declare their independence, forming sovereign nation-states. Border disputes between Croatia and Serbia led to ethnic-cleansing campaigns by both sides. Each claimed some of the other’s land and endeavored to purge the other’s people from it. Meanwhile, Macedonians, Montenegrins, Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims), and Kosovar Albanians also took up arms. Those who didn’t were caught in the crossfire. The wars raged for a decade and ravaged much of the Balkans. About 0.6 percent of the population of the former Yugoslavia were killed, and about 17 percent were displaced. The rump of Yugoslavia that remained called itself “Yugoslavia” but in fact was only Serbia plus a Serb-allied (or Serb-dominated) Montenegro and Kosovo. The name and the fiction of “Yugoslavia” was abandoned for good in 2003. Montenegro pried itself loose from Serbia in 2006. Kosovars still struggle to do likewise. Meanwhile, separatist sentiment is strong in the Republic of Srpska, a constituent of Bosnia and Herzegovina, where Bosniaks and Bosnian Croats constitute a majority; in Srpska, 83 percent of residents are Serbs.
“Europe has gone 73 years without a war,” the Washington Post tweeted last summer, betraying a blind spot in too many contemporary discussions of nationalism’s appeal. The demons of nationalism’s dark side didn’t die with the Second World War. They only went into remission for a season.
In historical context, the atrocities of the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s appear as a resumption of the hostilities that erupted across the Balkans in the 1940s and that came to a halt only at the defeat of the Axis powers. Germany invaded Yugoslavia in 1941 and carved out a nominally independent state for the Croats, whose nationalist literature was dotted with the theory that they were Germanic by blood. The Nazis accepted it; their official disdain for Slavs would have complicated their support for what they considered a necessary ally in the region. The Ustaše, a Croat-nationalist movement with ties to Mussolini’s Fascists, assumed leadership of the puppet state (it answered to both Germany and, until 1943, Italy) and proceeded to kill one sixth of the resident Serbs, 90 percent of the Jews, and nearly all of the Roma. The bloodlust of the Chetniks, a Serbian-nationalist movement, came close to rivaling that of the Ustaše. The Ustaše’s German and Italian overseers expressed concern about the savagery of Croat soldiers who mutilated their victims’ bodies.
Too Evocative, Too Various in Its Connotations
We could multiply examples of bad nationalism all day and into the night. To increase our sample size, let’s lay them alongside examples of nationalism that are uplifting. For the latter, see Lowry, Hazony, and others. My purpose in revisiting the Balkans is not to argue that singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” or adopting certain trade or immigration policies would end in death camps and ethnic cleansing. I only mean to illustrate the rhetorical cost of stamping the name “nationalism” on the policies, political philosophies, or worldviews that we pitch to the general public. The word has historical associations. Some are attractive, as has been been eloquently laid out in some detail here at NR, but others are repugnant. If I have a political vision that I want to persuade my readers of, I complicate my work if I call it “nationalism.”
If you wanted to try to rehabilitate the word, you could endorse “nationalism” in the headline and then explain in the fine print that the special sense in which you use it excludes the Ustaše et al., but I don’t think the attempt would be prudent or likely to bear much fruit. The word’s various connotations are at this point dyed deep into its fabric, and more readers would take in the display type at the top of the page or on the cover of the book than scrutinize the nuances of your argument. They would be liable to assume that you have ignored, minimized, or even attempted to smuggle in a revisionist history of the most infamous enormities that have been perpetrated in the name of nationalism in modern Europe and elsewhere.
This rhetorical issue, that the word “nationalism” is fraught with some menacing associations, is an offshoot of the fundamental problem that the range of the word’s meaning is broad. For some people, “nationalism” means “promoting the interests of the state that I’m a citizen of.” For others, it means “celebration of my people, with whom I share blood, land, language, an emotional bond.” For yet others, the word’s definition consists of various combinations of the components of those two concepts, civic nationalism and ethno-nationalism.
Imagine three neighbors who share a profound love for their people, their language, their religion, their history, and their culture — that is, for one another. Each orders his related identities and corresponding loyalties into a hierarchy different from those of the other two. One is happy enough to be a Venetian, but make no mistake: The flag he salutes will always be Il Tricolore. Another, curating in his heart the memory of the Most Serene Republic of Venice, is his country’s fond son, but his city’s first. The third neighbor, a separatist for whom Venice’s incorporation into Italy was always an error crying out for correction, prays to Saint Anthony of Padua for the future independent state of Padania. Each considers himself a nationalist and counts the other two as fellow countrymen whose love of their homeland, though it may be sincere, is, alas, disordered. Is any of them wrong?
The word “nationalism” is too evocative, and its connotations too various, for it to function as shorthand for political ideas that need to be unambiguous.