Rethinking Nationalism

At the root of Europe’s malaise is a philosophical paradox over what it means to be human.

On a summer afternoon in 1991 soon after the collapse of the Soviet Union, political philosopher Isaiah Berlin met with editor Nathan Gardels in a cafe by the harbor in Portofino, Italy. There, over several hours, Berlin mused about the nationalism that was again defining political life in Central and Eastern Europe. Civil war had already broken out in Yugoslavia and, Gardels noted, “the new world order built from the rubble of the Berlin Wall has already gone the way of the Tower of Babel.” What had been seen as a transition to shared western values had already devolved into ethnic rage.

None of this surprised Berlin. “Nationalism is not resurgent; it never died,” he told Gerdels. “Neither did racism. They are the most powerful movements in the world today.” We are forced to agree. In the wake of the 2015 refugee crisis, nationalist fervor has only increased, fueling the rise of populist parties across Europe – from Austria’s FPÖ and Germany’s AfD, to Marine Le Pen’s Front nationale in France, or Gert Wilders Parti j voor de Vrijheid in the Netherlands, and the Brexit vote for Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union. To the dismay of European leaders committed to the passport free Schengen zone and the free movement of goods and people across the EU, the refugees have triggered resistance to the openness, trust and cooperation at the heart of the ideal of “ever greater Union.”

Had Isaiah Berlin witnessed any of this, it would only have confirmed his understanding: That shared culture – what he called the “Volksgeist”, the soul of the people – matters even more than economics: After the fall of communism, the deeper mission of the CEE countries was “to recover their submerged pasts,” pushed into the background by Soviet imperial power. To readers of Metropole’s Empire to Republic series, this will be increasingly familiar in the conversations going on in each of the 10 successor states of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, as they revisit their history, and begin to tell a clearer national story, refreshed and re-understood after a quarter century of independence.

At the heart, it’s about the importance of belonging, Berlin said, about being part of a group – what he called “non-aggressive nationalism” – with shared customs and way of life out of which a sense of identity is born, and that is fundamental to being human.

“Deprived of this,” Berlin said, “people feel cut off, lonely, diminished, unhappy… To be human means to be able to feel at home somewhere, with your own kind.” Belonging is specific, idiosyncratic, full of color; alienation is repetitive, universalist, and gray.

But wait, I hear you protest! What about the Enlightenment? What about universal truths, what about liberty or justice, what about fairness and human rights? For a liberal, Berlin’s thesis of Volksgeist does indeed present a dilemma.

To the values of the Enlightenment, the answer must be, “Yes, but not only.”

We have, we all have, a need for connection, for a world of things that matter to us, without which justice, for example, has little meaning. And getting a grasp of this paradox – this seeming contradiction – between the “Universalist” values of justice and human rights, and the “Volksgeist” values of culture and belonging, is essential to understanding, and if we’re lucky, healing the rifts in European society today.

The 1954 Geneva Accords were made when the barbaries of WWII were still fresh; closing borders to refugees of war and persecution was understood as unworthy of a civilized society. In 2015, committed to those standards, European leaders, and many citizens as well, welcomed the flood of migrants. But the numbers were too big, too fast. In some neighborhoods, the sense of belonging was being lost.

The backlash was only a matter of time.

“Mass immigration undermines the ability of a collection of individuals to be a people,” wrote Oxford professor Tom Simpson following the Brexit vote. Over time, through the concern between generations and cooperation between families and neighbors, communities develop cultures. But it requires continuity . Because to be a culture, by definition, assumes that most people are not strangers.

“Without a culture, people living together are merely a collection of alienated individuals, living an impoverished life,” Simpson wrote.

To flourish you must belong.

Dardis McNamee
Dardis McNamee is the Editor in Chief of Metropole. She has written for The New York Times, Conde Nast Traveler (NYC), the Wall Street Journal Europe and Die Zeit in Vienna, as well as having been a speechwriter to two U.S. ambassadors to Austria. She was awarded the 2007 Kemper Award for Excellence in Teaching (Media & Communications).

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