First posted July 14, 2012
The word ‘nationalism’ itself dates from the early nineteenth century and marked the increasing use of national identity in order to make political claims. So to argue that national identity is pre-political is itself a political statement.
It is becoming chic among some of Europe’s young elites to call for a return to nationalism. This is the case not only with the current crop of xenophobic populists muddying our political waters from west to east, but also of a growing cadre of flashy academics and pundits. In some European countries, of course, nationalism never truly went out of fashion. But here in the Netherlands explicit nationalism has since the war been something considered embarrassingly distasteful in polite company, rather like an ideological fart: an indiscrete confession of hidden fascist longings. It is all the more striking then – rather like a canary in a coal mine – when young Dutch neoconservatives seeking to make a name for themselves begin to make chirping noises on behalf of nationalism. The fact that one of Britain’s sharper conservative philosophers has subsequently added his own encouraging grunts to the performance, in a maladroit attempt at fatherly support, only makes it worse.
So last month, the legal philosopher Thierry Baudet, a growing presence in the Dutch media, published an opinion piece in our premier quality daily in which he argued that ‘nationalism does not lead to war,’ but that rather it is ‘the European project [that] will lead to war.’ In a march through modern European history, at once heavy-footed and superficial, Baudet argues that all the important wars for the last two centuries were caused by people and countries that crossed national boundaries in order to unite Europe in some fashion: Napoleon, Mussolini, Hitler, Austro-Hungary, the German empire and the Soviet Union. Then, in an attempt to make some concrete link between these and the European Union, Baudet describes one of its founders, Robert Schuman, as a Vichy collaborator who, among other things, had encouraged closer collaboration between Hitler and Mussolini.
Baudet here seeks to suggest that the founding fathers of the European Union were sympathetic to fascist totalitarianism. Unfortunately, Baudet utterly neglects to mention that during the war Schuman was arrested for resistance and protest against the Nazis, only narrowly avoided being sent to Dachau, then escaped and joined the French resistance. Though Baudet likes to describe himself as a historian, this highly selective presentation of the past makes him more akin to a writer of fiction.
Nor is he much better at the analytic level: our history simply fails to sustain the simplistic opposition between nationalism and imperialism that Baudet would like there to be. If we look at western history and its modern empires – the Dutch, the French, the British, the American – then we see that nationalism has been used as often as not to enable and support imperialism as it has been used to criticize it. On the European continent, this tension was there from the moment the French Revolution was launched in the name of universal ideals that the revolutionaries would subsequently seek to ‘give’ with force to other European nations and peoples. Indeed, the entanglement between nationalism and imperialism is one of the most complex and fascinating aspects of modern history. All this Baudet ignores and distorts, which requires him to erase so much history that little if any is left at all. For a man who calls himself conservative, that’s a problem.
What is even more striking is that this should be published not in some obscure college rag or internet site, but in one of the most important newspapers for the Dutch cultural and political elite. Not only that, but Baudet’s article was soon taken up by the European news collator Presseurop.com – “the best of the European press” – which featured the article prominently… Read more: