Mark Malvasi’s recent essay on the rise of nationalism in the nineteenth century was a cogent and thought-provoking appraisal of the dangers of politically orchestrated mob-patriotism. It was not, however, an essay that sought to define nationalism per se, and it is dangerous to presume that nationalism is always synonymous with such mob-patriotism and the latter’s disastrous and tragic consequences. It might be good, therefore, to counter the dangers of such a presumption with a coherent definition of nationalism.
At root, nationalism is a belief in the political sovereignty of nations. Its antonym is internationalism, a belief in the absence or minimizing of the political sovereignty of nations. Beyond this basic and fundamental definition, there are different manifestations of nationalism, as there are different manifestations of internationalism. Worse, and more confusingly, some forms of so-called nationalism are really forms of internationalism in disguise. Thus, for instance, imperialism is always internationalist, even though it often wears a nationalist costume and waves nationalist flags. The British Empire was not a manifestation of nationalism, for all its pomp and circumstance and all its waving of flags; nor was the Soviet Empire, and nor, for that matter, was the Roman Empire.
Some empires are no doubt more benign than others. We might admire the Pax Romana or the Pax Britannica, in the sense that they brought good things such as economic infrastructure to far-flung corners of the Empire, but, good or bad, all such imperialism is not nationalist but internationalist. It is the imposition of the will of one dominant nation or power on smaller nations and lesser powers, the latter of whom become political subjects of the former.
In this sense, it could be argued that the sort of nationalism which Mr. Malvasi criticizes in his essay was not really nationalism at all but was, in fact, a form of imperialism. Nineteenth century “nationalism” was the consequence of the so-called “unification” of nations, which meant the imposition of the will of one powerful part of an embryonic “nation” on the other parts. Thus, the United Kingdom of Britain and Ireland was forged from the imposition of the will of England on its smaller national neighbours, Scotland, Ireland and Wales. The rise of German nationalism was the consequence of Otto von Bismarck’s Prussian imperialism, whereby Prussia forced itself upon the smaller German states and principalities. The foundation of the German Empire, as it became known, was under the rule of the Kaiser, i.e. Caesar or Emperor. In many respects, Hitler’s so-called nationalism was merely the restoration of this German imperialism. In similar fashion, Garibaldi and others established the so-called unification of Italy through the imposition of the will of the major Italian powers over their smaller neighbours. The very fact that he and his allies are known as the “fathers of the fatherland” proves that there was no Italian “fatherland” prior to their establishment of an Italian Empire. The so-called nationalism of Mussolini would not have been possible without the imperialism of the previous century. As for France, it had blossomed into an Empire under Napoleon in the wake of the secular Republic’s imposition of its imperialistic will on dissident regions of France, such as the Vendée.
As the foregoing illustrates, the so-called “nationalism” of the nineteenth century was born of imperialism, a form of internationalism in which small nations were trampled underfoot by their larger neighbours. This political process in which new “nations” were forged by force of arms, subjugating local power to the burgeoning and bludgeoning power of realpolitik, can be seen as the embryonic beginning of the rampant centralization of power which has plagued the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The same spirit that forged a united Germany on the ashes of local governments and cultures is at work in the efforts to forge a united Europe on the ashes of the European Union’s member states, consolidating political power into bigger and bigger government, further and further away from the people which it purports to represent. This process of progressive centralization of power can only be countered by a politics of decentralization.
Genuine nationalism seeks the preservation or restoration of authentic national and regional cultures, and the preservation or restoration of the strong local government necessary to defend them. It is intrinsically anti-imperialist, intrinsically local, intrinsically decentralist in its being and its raison d’être. A genuine nationalist cannot be an imperialist. In this sense, the so-called nationalism of the nineteenth century was nothing of the sort. It was of the same imperial spirit that drives all political and economic empires, including the ultimate empire of globalism which is seeking to forge a new world government on the ashes of the world’s sovereign nations. This globalist imperialism needs to be fought, and the restoration of national sovereignty is the way to fight it. This is the genuine nationalism which all lovers of liberty need to support.
This article has been republished with permission from The Imaginative Conservative.
[Image Credit: U.S. Air Force Photo by Heide Couch]
Joseph Pearce is Senior Contributor at The Imaginative Conservative. A native of England, Mr. Pearce is Director of Book Publishing at the Augustine Institute, editor of the St. Austin Review, editor of Faith & Culture, and series editor of the Ignatius Critical Editions. He is the author of numerous books, which include The Quest for Shakespeare, Tolkien: Man and Myth, The Unmasking of Oscar Wilde, C. S. Lewis and The Catholic Church, Literary Converts, Wisdom and Innocence: A Life of G.K. Chesterton, Solzhenitsyn: A Soul in Exile and Old Thunder: A Life of Hilaire Belloc.