|German revolutionaries (Wikimedia Commons)|
Nationalism in its modern form was born in 1848, the Year of Revolutions, and it was a very different animal from what it was to become. It was about liberalism, not economic liberalism, but liberty, equality, and fraternity. The setting-up of nation states was seen as an alternative to the old, feudal states; they were to be just, have democratic constitutions, and royal and aristocratic dominance would be abolished.
German nationalism was born at a time when young, idealistic people were mobilised to fight against Napoleon, with the promise of a constitutional state. This last was important, because Napoleon, though a warmongering imperialist, did introduce constitutions and rights in the German states that he conquered, and these were attractive to intelligent, reform-hungry bourgeois people. In 1848, the revolutionaries were angry because the reforms had not been implemented by the victors of Waterloo. Metternich, Castlereagh, Wellington, were pretty ruthless reactionaries and they clamped down on the middle and lower classes. The same ideas spread to Slav peoples who felt their own languages and cultures were being suppressed by Russian and Austrian overlords.
But there's a serious problem with nationalism; first that it tags itself all too easily to ethnicity, or what is perceived as being the 'natural' ethnic population of any given place. You don't see neighbours any longer, just 'that German' or 'that Fleming' or 'that Serb', 'that Croat', who lives down your street and who, you can too easily end up thinking, should be packed off to a 'home' they've never lived in, because they don't belong in your newly-formed nation. Secondly, it too easily morphs into a belief that your nation is not only superior to other nations, and has more rights, but also that it must not be questioned, for fear of being unpatriotic.
When my grandfather was arraigned by the Nazis in 1933, he was accused of 'lack of national feeling,' and when that happened to him and countless others, the metamorphosis from liberal, democratic nationalism to something hideous and criminal was complete. My grandfather did love his country; loved it enough to want justice and a decent standard of living for its workers (he was a Social Democrat), but he didn't trust the Nazis to deliver that. They didn't, of course. Twelve years of Nazi rule left Germany in a far worse state than it was in after the Wall Street crash, when Hitler's popularity began to rise.
|photo: Imperial War Museum|
Fast-forward to the present, especially the past few weeks, when 'I want my country back' has become the cry of people who've been taught, by a press propaganda campaign that Hitler might envy, that incomers and refugees are the root of all their problems. I'm not saying that the problems aren't real (though I'd find other people responsible for housing shortages, health service queues, and low wages), nor am I without sympathy for anyone who finds their neighbourhood has changed completely with the arrival of people they can't chat to. In some cases, however, UKIP is really strong in areas where the immigrant population consists of the local Chinese takeaway proprietors. Nigel Farage's poster, depicting a queue of refugees (who were not coming to Britain, incidentally); untrue stories, lapped up, about of millions of Turks heading here; people convinced that the proportion of migrants in their town is 80% when it is actually 10% or less; all these are manifestations of a nationalism which too easily fastens on foreigners and different races for someone to fear and blame.
Nationalism peddles the idea of a homogeneous, ethnically white Britain where everyone speaks the same language. Leaving aside the fact that I find some regional accents difficult to understand, and that there are actual language differences in different parts of the country: (going for a dander, dog-daisies, bargeing a bucketful, anyone know what these things are?), Britain (even England with the cross of the Syrian St George on its flag) has never been homogeneous. Brythons, Celts, Saxons (who confusingly came from Denmark along with the Angles and the Jutes), Normans (also of Viking origin), are our mixed ancestry, along with Africans from Elizabethan times onwards,Jews, Huguenots, Chinese, Indians, because we went and took over their country, are all a part of the mix, along with smaller inputs derived from intermarriage (like me). I don't claim this as a comprehensive list.
Nationalism ignores this reality. Nationalism demands that we put our own country first, in defiance of humanity and international cooperation; that we refrain from facing unpleasant facts about our country's abusive and exploitative actions and glorify them instead, so we can be 'proud of our heritage.'
|Do these really trump everything?|
But if your loved child committed a murder, or a rape, is it right to glorify those crimes because you love them and want to be proud of them? Is it right to feel you must even encourage them to commit crimes, because otherwise you'd be disloyal? My generation in Germany, post-war, decided that the best way of loving their country was to face up to the horrors of the past, and try to make sure it never happened again. It caused intergenerational conflict; the older generation felt personally attacked and condemned (my mother did when I tried to understand what had happened), but it had to be done, and Germany nowadays attracts respect for that openness.
Actually, the world has been interconnected for thousands of years. Mediterranean peoples sailed to Britain to get tin to make bronze. The west has been trading with China, along the silk road, since Roman times or earlier. International cooperation has been far more important than wars. Even the Norse settlers were far more likely to be traders who came peaceably than Viking raiders who massacred the locals. But then, war makes a better drama than peace, and so it's easy to downplay the fact that the benefits of cooperation will keep the peace for years and years, pushing the idea that peace is only obtained at gunpoint.
Today is a day that will, as Marie-Louise Jensen pointed out last week, make history, and what history it makes is yet to be seen. But if we listen to the siren call of nationalism and believe that we can cut ourselves off from the opportunities the European Union offers, and become 'Great Britain' again, I fear we are fooling ourselves. If leaving the EU leads to economic decline, then the forces of right-wing nationalism are likely to exploit the anger of the poor and mushroom up, as they did in Germany in the early 30s. That led to the complete inversion of all the values I personally treasure; humanity, compassion, openness. Last Thursday, a young woman who had lived her life in the service of those values was murdered by a man who shouted 'Britain first!' and referred to her as a traitor. The BNP are the only party who are contesting her seat: they are determined to profit by the murder. Putin, Le Pen, and other reactionaries are desperate for Brexit; it's just what they want.
I believe that extreme nationalism, with its filthy twin, murderous racism, are like opportunistic viruses, lurking within the body politic. Economic weakness, like bodily weakness, give them the chance to proliferate and thrive, taking over healthy cells.
I love my country; it's my home, though I am not a nationalist. Without glossing over its faults, or the limitations of its democratic system, I value it hugely and want it to remain a mainly decent place to live. I want to see it participating within the EU to tackle the enormous challenges that face us in the twenty-first century, seeking, as Jo Cox did, to spread humanity and justice among the peoples of the earth.