Magazine, Vol. 2: Nationalism
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Nationalism and Philosophy


Straßenlaterne, 2017 © Hiro Matsuoka

Each nation is entitled to its own flourishing in the garden of mankind, and nations can overlap and fertilise each other”


Interview with Dr Edward Kanterian, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Kent

Philosophy and nationalism have a complex relationship. Over the last two and a half centuries, philosophical notions of belonging, human nature, and historical progression have given birth to tamed, reinforced, and undermined nationalistic tendencies, both rebutting and providing ideological support for nationalists in Europe and beyond. What can philosophy teach us today about the power and danger of nationalism?

Dr. Kanterian – First of all, I want to get clear on these elusive concepts: nation and nationalism. What is a nation? What is nationalism? How are the two related, and how can we try and understand these phenomena as philosophers? 

Indeed, these are elusive notions. I think we would be better off beginning with theories of nationalism rather than theories of the nation, even if the former concept in some sense depends on the latter. This is because the notion of nationalism seems less vague and context-dependent than the notion of the nation. For nationalism itself, I think the best method is to adopt, for the sake of argument, a working definition. The one offered by Ernest Gellner in Nations and Nationalism is a good starting point because it has gained some currency. According to this definition, nationalism involves the insistence on ‘the right of self-determination of a people’, a definition which entails the idea of a people’s entitlement to a state, whereby the idea of the state implies having own territorial borders and full political sovereignty. On this view, political identity and ethnic or cultural identities correspond one to one, so that there exists a nation-state for each people. This means that the political borders and demarcations, which are in some important sense ‘imaginary’ – which are part of the realm of ideas, such as rights, liberties or civic duties – coincide with cultural or ethnic borders. This working definition obviously raises many questions about the nature of the state, and of the notion of ‘a people’.

But before we engage in these questions, philosophical problems arise. The crux of the issue is this: The definition just provided seems to entail the exclusion of something else. Now the exclusion of something entails the existence of something which could in principle be shared. Imagine that you propound your vision of an ethnic nation-state and I propound the vision of mine. If I live on Mars and you on earth, we’d have nothing to do with each other and no serious problems would even arise – definitions of nations in the relevant sense only really apply when there is something at stake, something to fight over, something that can be disputed, and this is paradigmatically territory. When we have a definition of the nation that works like this, we are landed with a more specific nationalism: ‘exclusionary’ nationalism, which we might contrast with a more ‘inclusionary’ nationalism.

What are the central doctrines of ‘exclusionary’ nationalism? And what do you consider its primary philosophical weaknesses?

The real issue with this exclusionary nationalism is that it makes claims about the necessary connection between the nation and the territory, but it also implies that there is something at issue which we could, in principle, share. There is something to which we both could have claim and access, it is just that each party claims to have exclusive access, or rightful access, to it, the paradigmatic case being territory. The claims of the exclusionary nationalist can only involve a ‘historically acquired right’, say to a territory, and it seems that these can only stand on equal ground – no pun intended – with another historically acquired right to the same thing. I might justify my position by saying ‘because I lived here longer than you’ or something similar. But in principle, there is nothing about the territory, land or the landscape itself, no natural properties of the place, from which you could read off ‘this belongs to my nation rather than yours’. This implies a contingency in the relation between the territory and the nation, for implicit in me telling you that ‘you don’t belong here, you have no right to it’ is the idea that ‘you could have been there, you could have had a right to it, but I was there first’. And that we could both have been there makes a strange implicit reference to the universal fact of the accessibility of the territory as such to others, ultimately to mankind as a whole. All this undermines the nationalist tendency to identify a territory as necessarily belonging to a people. If the people had settled elsewhere, exactly the same argument would have applied: ‘You would not have had any right to it, since I was there first’. Notice the use of the same indexicals.

So the nationalists work on the assumption that their nation has a necessary and natural connection to the land, a land to which they, therefore, have an absolute right. But what you are claiming is that in fact, this assumption points to the contingency of the connection between nation and land, because in laying claim to the land we see that anyone could have made such a claim, but just happened not to.

Indeed. Now, the nationalist won’t claim that his nation cannot exist unless it occupies this territory in toto, for we encounter cases in which a nation has to share its territory – in the nationalist’s eyes its fully justified, rightful national territory – with another nation, and no nationalist would say that this invalidates its claims to the land or that his nation has ceased to exist. Perhaps they might say that the nation does not exist ‘fully’, but it is still obviously alive. Think of cases of exile, displacement and deportation, when a nation is forced to leave its ancestral lands altogether. Still, this doesn’t mean that the nation does not exist, although perhaps it means that the nation cannot fully flourish or develop. This again pays tribute to the contingency in the relation between the nation and the land because they come apart in such cases.

The nationalist, in claiming a necessary connection between the nation and the territory, in fact, demonstrates the contingency of this connection. Why the mismatch?

Well, this whole analysis involves taking an external point of view on the nationalist, for this is certainly not how the nationalist himself understands his position. We might do well here to distinguish between the ‘internal point of view’, of one subscribing to the nationalist story, and an ‘external point of view’ in which we view the phenomena of nationalism ‘from the outside’ as it were – looking at how this idea of the nation accords with much more general facts about human political and cultural existence on this planet. Often the exclusionary nationalist doesn’t care about that – he doesn’t wish to talk about much except about his nation, his rights and his victimisation, he doesn’t care about how his story fits into a more general picture. But that is only to say that he does not understand himself.

Are there non-exclusionary nationalisms? Do nationalisms not always require an ‘other’ who is not of the nation, or perhaps an ‘other’ who is part of the nation in some sense but not in another – I’m thinking of the enemies ‘internal’ to the state – to define itself against?

I take there to be two very interesting points here. The first is to say that the exclusionary nationalist needs that thing which he rejects. Imagine a world in which all nations are united – I am told that some Serbians claim that wherever some Serb dies, this becomes Serbian land – so let’s say for example that the whole world has become Serbian. Once the entire globe is united in this way, nationalism might cease to be a concern or even make sense. In actual fact, such an ideal situation will never arise. The need to define ourselves against something else will arise anew.

Perhaps a self-definition of ourselves as ‘earthlings’ as against the Martians?

Yes, that sort of thing, although a less fantastical example might also be given by a narrative about the ‘shadows of the past’. We can imagine hearing, once the whole world has become Serbian, that ‘unless we continue along this path of being good Serbians, and drill it into our national-global consciousness, there might be voices arising to challenge us – the voice of the Croatian, the Bosnian, and Hungarian ‘within us’. Then there is the imperative to make sure that these voices do not arise in us and to look out for enemies inside the national-global group.

What does this requirement for the other in the internal dialectic of the exclusionary nationalist prove?

Perhaps that his position is unstable. He needs the other to assert himself, but in doing so, in claiming the dignity and sovereignty of his nation, he is bound to admit the reality of other nations. And that entails that it is possible to accord to other nations this status of dignity and glory he wishes to claim for his own nation. The exclusionary nationalist must oppose himself to something, that is for sure, but to what? Not to stones, not to oranges or apes, not even to slaves or subhumans. He must oppose himself to someone who is on the same level as him in the relevant respects. It is doubtful, of course, that the nationalist is aware of this dialectic, and this is constitutive of the partly mythical character of his enterprise.

Right, this seems like the nationalist therefore works on the tacit assumption that whoever he opposes is roughly equal in dignity and sovereignty, whilst then usually going on to deny this in the course of his argument.

Yes, and we might ask whether this is actually an irrational attitude rather than simply one we disagree with. For if he is buying into an attitude which is at odds with his practise then this seems a good reason for attributing irrationality to him. But of course, we need to investigate whether and to what extent other positions are more rational. In any case, to return to your previous question, I think there is certainly a distinction that can be drawn between exclusionary and non-exclusionary nationalisms. Exclusionary nationalism implies the rejection of coexistence with regards to something which is sharable in principle. For exclusionary nationalism, the paradigm case of the ‘something sharable in principle’ here has always been territory, but more recently we have seen exclusionary nationalistic ideas applied to other aspects as well, such as national culture and identity. You have these ‘identitarians’ popping up across Europe and the US, including Les Identitaires in France and the Identitäre Bewegung in Germany, and those who marched with their torches in Charlottesville. There is something intriguing here, because whilst these are exclusionary nationalists – indeed they seem almost a paradigm case of this – they also have more of a global perspective, or, at the very least, propound a nationalism that extends to the whole European continent.

What defines these movements?

Well, for one thing, these movements seem to collaborate across borders. They see external enemies; first, Islam and Islamism, which they don’t distinguish, secondly what some of them call ‘imperialism’ – which basically refers to American cultural dominance, developments that, in their eyes, are erasing native cultures. On the economic front, they seem in one respect close to the radical left, at least insofar as they are opposed to ‘globalism’, to centralised entities such as the EU. And like the radical left, which can slide towards anarchism, they claim to aim for direct democracy. But unlike the radical left, they are not opposed to private property, and they seem to believe in some sort of free trade, as long as it is ‘anti-global’ – although I’m not sure how worked out these economic programs are. The other thing they emphasise, in contradistinction to the left, is what they perceive as the core of European identity, namely Christianity and traditional Christian values, which they contrast with the values of the ‘arrivals’, the Muslim immigrants, but also of more liberal, ‘rational’, free-thinking and alternative life-styles. As to whether identitarians are supremacists, like the fascists and Nazis, on the face of it identitarians don’t proclaim the inferiority of other races, but just the necessity of the separation of peoples, cultures, religions, races. Of course, even if they are not explicitly racist in their ideology, this often still translates into racism or at least segregation in practice. Many of their adherents do have such views and it is very easy for these positions to slide. The issue of exclusionary nationalism sliding into fascism is a serious problem. After all, why should cultures or races remain or be separated? Presumably, because one is better than the other. Or is one to think that each is good in itself, but it’s the mixture which is bad? The one reasonable argument one can invoke for the asymmetry between different cultures is precisely the one identitarians cannot invoke; the claim that the values of freedom and democracy, of the dignity of the individual, of rule and order have indeed been developed in the West. It is clear why identitarians cannot invoke this argument – it is universal, ‘globalist’, referring to mankind as such, and it would commit them to the opposite of exclusionary politics. Strictly speaking, they cannot even invoke Christianity, which is not a tribalist, nativist religion, but professes charity towards the other, almost to the point of self-denial. Christian identity politics seems a contradiction in terms to me.

I wonder what the nationalist is trying to do by claiming a necessary connection between the nation and the land. Is it supposed to invoke some kind of right? To what court of appeal?

Well, to return to the more theoretical points, there is this fascinating inner dialectic going on, of which the nationalist is not aware. As philosophers, we are required to do the homework for the nationalist; to provide an external perspective on the phenomena in addition to the internal one. The nationalist, when he lays claim to a certain territory, invokes the right of self-rule.


“The quasi-legal ‘This belongs to me’ is followed by martial ‘Here is my battle axe’, not vice versa”


But the concept of the rights of a nation is parasitic on, or at the very least grounded in, the more basic understanding of rights, namely the rights of the individual. The invocation of the right to self-determination is not done in a vacuum. If you are the only people on the planet, it is entirely vacuous to invoke a right to the land. Any talk of national self-determination implies that there is a thing which all can in principle lay claim to. And that assumes that there is or there needs to be some external authority to whom we go to settle the clash of rights.

But surely in most cases, at least historically, the convinced nationalist doesn’t rely on a judge or on justice, but on force. Regardless of the verdict of some judge, he who wins the battle controls the land.

Indeed, but this only really works in the state of nature, which is itself a mythical construct. Very soon afterwards, one party – usually the defeated party – realises that this is not the way to go. Even the victorious party will have incurred lots of victims, sacrificed men and resources, and they will sooner or later realise that they need to adjudicate these conflicts by bringing the conflict to some external legislator. As Kant aptly observed: ‘after devastations, revolutions, and even complete exhaustion, nature brings the states to that which reason could have told them at the beginning and with far less sad experience, to wit, to step from the lawless condition of savages into a league of nations’. Often the invocation of such an external legislator, in the first instance not without theological aspects, is implicit, visible from the way one insists on one’s claims. The quasi-legal ‘This belongs to me’ is followed by martial ‘Here is my battle axe’, not vice versa.

It seems to be a central idea of nationalism that the individual who is part of the nation has, in some sense, a moral obligation to the nation at large: To fight for it, work for it and perhaps to glorify it. How do you think that this ‘call of duty’ from the nation compares to other obligations an individual might face?

In the French case, where the relation between the nation and the state seems to be one of identity – as is the relation between the nation and the people, which was once, during the Revolution, distinct – our obligations to the nation are just the standard obligations to the state – pay your taxes, be a good citizen etc. But if we consider the different sizes of social entities we might have obligations towards – a family, a village, a city-state – we realise that the idea that we have a special obligation to the nation is a relatively modern invention. Throughout most of history the obligation would have been to the family, the clan or the tribe, and would be based on interpersonal ties, based around the family unity. Avishai Margalit talks about something similar in The Ethics of Memory. There, he distinguishes between the ‘ethical community’ and the ‘moral community’, where the first is the community defined by personal interrelations and the latter is towards mankind as such. In between, we have this strange creature we call the nation, our obligations to which are parasitic on personal obligations, at least wherever the nation is not understood in a legal sense, as it is in the French case.

You mentioned the hugely influential political thought of Immanuel Kant, and I was wondering whether we could talk a little bit more about some of the philosophers who were important in the ideological development of nationalistic ideas. The names that come to mind – Herder, Hegel and Fichte, were also writing either at the close of the 18th century or in the first decades of the 19th century, at a time when the German lands were politically fragmented and had been humiliated by Napoleon’s armies. Is there a continuous philosophical development of nationalism in this period, and how do we square whatever story we give of the origins of nationalism with the fact that this time and period also saw the first philosophical program for cosmopolitanism, in Kant’s “Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose”?

I don’t know whether cosmopolitanism started with Kant. We have similar ideas in the early Enlightenment, e.g. in Grotius and Pufendorf, and maybe even before. At any rate, Herder is often taken to be the originator of modern nationalism, but opinions are divided on that because, on the one hand, he did indeed come up with this notion of a nation as an organic, natural unit, and he was liable to say things such as ‘every human perfection is national’ and “he [who] has lost his patriotic spirit has lost himself”. But on the other hand, his doctrine is very different from more modern ideas. I suppose one might call it ‘benign nationalism’. Herder believes in two very important things. First of all, that virtually every human being has a drive for belonging, a desire for being part of something greater than himself. He very clearly identifies this desire with a craving for a home and a homeland, and he identifies language as the most important individuating factor between nations, although he also notes the importance of habits, morals, culture as well as broader things such as religion or specific ethics. The second thing is that this greater thing is not something singular, but stands in a concert with other such bigger wholes and they together form humanity at large. So this collection of nations which constitutes humanity, ‘the concert of the nations’ if you will, is of great importance for Herder. He doesn’t have any claim to supremacy here, each of these nations stands in its own right with its full dignity and in fact because each nation is unique, has its own genius, its own language and culture, every nation contributes to the whole – it really is like the different instruments contributing to a symphony.


“One danger with this benign, Herderian form of nationalism is that it might be susceptible to sliding into a less benign, exclusionary form. In such cases, we have to research the conditions under which that can happen.”


I don’t know whether anybody has thought about this, but what about a comparison between Herder and the identitarians here? I mean the semi-globalized identitarians who place great importance on the concept of ‘Europe’. Instead of the ‘old’ nationalist, who defends his own nation, the identitarians see it as if there is a concert of nations in Europe, and Europe is set against Africa or against Asia, also against Islam and America. This is thinking in big geo-political, cultural blocks. But whilst they think that the nations of Europe together form a harmony, they probably don’t think that all nations worldwide together, in these big blocks, contribute a higher harmony. And, frankly speaking, even their vision of the European ‘symphony’ is rather feeble and skewed, merely reactive and combative, pushing for a regressive version of Europe. I am not sure whether a Europe reformed, or deformed, by the identitarians would be a significantly more luminous place than the Europe envisaged by their Islamist opponents. In fact, they have quite a bit in common with the Islamists; they don’t share the same murderous presuppositions as the latter, but they too loath our modern predicament.

To return to the thinking in blocs the identitarians propound – this sounds much more like Huntington’s clash of civilisations than Herder’s ‘concert of nations’.

Indeed, identitarians are in fact quite far from Herder, who was opposed to this spirit of combat and struggle, to the idea of exclusion and, as the next logical step, of conquest. Each nation is entitled to its own flourishing in the garden of mankind, and nations can overlap and fertilise each other. But we must pause for a moment here and ask critically: how stable is even this Herderian position? How safe is it against misappropriations or radicalisations? Being a pessimist, I would say that it isn’t very stable at all, and that it can slide, and has slid into more problematic positions, such as a kind of exclusionary nationalism I mentioned earlier. For somebody can come along and fully agree with Herder that ‘Each nation is entitled to its own flourishing’, but then add that ‘Unlike other nations, my nation is not fully flourishing and that must be, because it contains alien elements. Let’s get rid of them’. So, one danger with this benign, Herderian form of nationalism is that it might be susceptible to sliding into a less benign, exclusionary form. In such cases, we have to research the conditions under which that can happen. This is where Hegel comes in, because it is Hegel who, as Isaiah Berlin points out, realises that in addition to the need for belonging, human beings also have a need for recognition. Whereas in Herder the idea is that I belong to a community and therefore I am safe, which is a somewhat paternalistic form of the relation between the self and the community, in Hegel, this relation becomes more mutual and dynamic, because of the craving for recognition: I want to be recognised by you and you want to be recognised by me. Here, Hegel is bringing in the external point of view concerning how the nationalists, the different nations, in fact deal with one another, and I think that historically there is plausibility to this claim.

Now why do I bring in Hegel here as a possible threat to the Herderian idea? Well, we might ask what happens if the all-important sense for recognition gets violated or is suppressed. If a people are oppressed, and they are not recognised by the concert of the nations, or if they are oppressed by some stronger power, well, then we are in trouble, because then you have an external enemy and, almost by definition, that will lead to a strengthening or enforcing of one’s exclusionary identity politics. This often gives birth to a particularly nasty nationalism. As Berlin says, ‘nationalism in this sense emerges from a wound’. There are many forms this ‘wound’ could take – one is outright oppression, on your own territory; another, very important possibility is when you have a certain territory and that it gets cut up in bits, and you lose territory – that is also perceived as a major wound, a mutilation really.

This seems to ring true historically, and it is certainly a good way of thinking about the development of German nationalist thought during and after the Napoleonic wars. Shortly after the humiliation of these wars, Fichte gave his famous addresses to the German nation, which seems to be an important example of early nationalism. Could you say a bit more about Fichte’s role in this development?

Yes, exactly, we can also point to the French nationalism which developed after the humiliation of the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, when the Germans enter and conquer France, leading to an emergence of a much more radical form of nationalism in France. Or we could recall the humiliation and wound inflicted on Germany after the Treaty of Versailles. There are many other examples we could point to, of the ‘need of recognition’ being violated, and this leading into something much less benign. You are right to point to a third important figure in this trajectory: Fichte. Fichte takes two elements of Kantian moral philosophy as his starting point. The first one is Kant’s defence of the dignity of man and his freedom, crystalised in the central notion of ‘autonomy’. In Kant’s moral philosophy, the battlefield is not political, but is entirely in the human heart if you will, in the human soul; no matter the vicissitudes of history, no matter the resistance and the impediments of the external world, which are always based in contingencies, I may act freely and morally by exercising my will. Whether I become happy or not is up to the world, and I may not really become happy, but I have complete control of my inner dignity, defined by my moral will alone – that’s the first ‘sacred’ thing he believes in. The second sacred thing he believes in is the ethical community of mankind – man cannot realize himself unless he becomes part of this community, which in Kant has utopian and theological aspects.

And how does Fichte, the most shadowy and perhaps the most historically compromised of the group, develop Kant’s ethical thought?

Fichte thinks through the contrast between personal and collective morality more radically than Kant, although in the end, he encounters great problems. Concerning ‘personal morality’, Fichte says, for example, that “I am internally totally free”, that “I am my own creation”, and that “I do not accept the law of what nature offers me because I must, I believe it because I will”. So ‘will’ or Wille, that is to say, the act of willing – volition – is what defines me, and that immediately lends itself to the importance of values like dedication, resolution, authenticity and so on. But again, these are vacuous values unless they are put into action. Now what comes next, at least according to Berlin’s analysis of Fichte, which I think is broadly correct, is that you ask yourself: What is this ‘I’? Let’s not forget that Fichte is a metaphysician, and the ‘I’ here is not the empirical ‘I’, but the ‘I’ of the ‘I will’, which is at the end of the day a transcendental or a metaphysical ‘I will’, whatever that means. And so you have immediately a problem that is already present in Descartes, the problem of the identity of the res cogitans, of the fact that the ‘thinking thing’ and the empirical self are not equivalent. The idea of a thinking thing doesn’t seem to define my individuality, to distinguish me from others as a human individual. In real life, it is very easy to identify who ‘the self’ is, and who the other is: I’m the one who is currently speaking, and you are the other! So, you are identified, for example, by your utterance, and I am identified by mine. But this response is not possible for Fichte because we referred to the empirical ‘I’, the human being sitting over there versus the human being sitting over here. The metaphysical ‘I’ is not sitting anywhere, and there cannot be more than one such ‘I’.

How does Fichte solve this problem? It certainly seems like the notion of the transcendental, metaphysical ‘I’ is rather detached from real life, let alone political theories like nationalism.

So Fichte is lead into the position of positing a single supra-individual ‘I will’ which transcends empirical, individual human beings. If we accept this, we are immediately presented with a dichotomy between the single transcendental ‘I’, contrasting with the various individual, empirical ‘selves’. Now, this transcendental ‘I’ already vaguely points to the notion of a collective of individual empirical selves, because, like the collective, it is one and supra-individual. Fichte is forced to transform the transcendental ‘I’, which underpins his notion of a collective, into something more concrete because properly speaking the transcendental ‘I’ has no agential powers. So in order to endow the collective with agential powers, he needs to resort to some sort of analogy or projection. He cannot disperse the agency back onto individual humans, because then there would be no collective-cum-agent, and so, as an intermediary between these two poles of empirical individual selves and the transcendental ‘I’, he projects the agential powers of the collective onto a single human being, a very special one. I don’t want to call him a Führer, but he is certainly a leader – a Zwingherr in the German – who unifies the will of the many whilst retaining the agency unavailable to the metaphysical ‘I’, but also the unity of the latter, and, to some extent also its transcendence, its trans-historicity. Fichte needs to connect the supra-individual ‘I’ back to empirical reality – which lands him with the collective, but as the collective cannot itself have strictly speaking proper volition, he is forced to postulate and demand for a leader who unifies them. This can be seen as lying at the root of a more modern, more disturbing nationalism, especially when Fichte connects these ideas to that of ‘Germanness’. It seems to me that there is a huge leap from the transcendental level to the collective via the postulation of a leader, and another leap from there to notions of Germanness, leaps which are philosophically, let alone politically, very suspect. And Fichte did not stop there. It was part and parcel of his authoritarian views that the whole nation is to be educated, especially children, ‘whose free will is to be entirely destroyed’, so that they are driven by a necessity to develop ‘an unfailing good will’.

Fichte gave his speeches in 1808 and died a few years later, but these speeches were not much taken up and discussed until German unification in 1870, and only became centrally important to German nationalism around the time of the First World War. What sort of developments took place in the 19th century that allowed the ideology of nationalism to become a political reality over so much of Europe?

Well, many of the most important foundations are already in place by the time we get to Fichte. However, the ideology has not yet morphed into practise. I see 1848 as one of the crucial dates for the development of nationalism, both in Western and Eastern Europe. In this period, nationalism could go hand-in-hand with the rhetoric of liberation and self-fulfilment. The oppression many of them resisted was real – they declared that they did not wish to be ruled by the Ottomans, the Austro-Hungarians or whoever, and that they wished to rule themselves. In principle, minorities – even Jews! – were to be accorded rights and citizenship. The next vital development is the formation of political parties. Through this, an ideology is bound to a specific party who becomes the vehicle of the idea.

Now the exclusion applies not only to those who don’t belong to the nation on ethnic or cultural grounds but also to those who don’t belong to the nation on political grounds. We see this very clearly in Fichte’s texts, that those who are not good patriots, who do not truly love the German nation, must also be excluded. This certainly points us towards fascism, who seeks out to eliminate not just external, but also internal enemies, the ‘bad’ Italians, French, Germans.

Now that we have seen how exclusionary nationalism has a tendency to slide into more extreme ideologies like fascism, I’d like to ask about the crimes of nationalism, in particular, the genocides of the 20th century. Is there anything in exclusionary nationalism itself, perhaps in its attitudes towards minorities, which leads to these crimes against humanity? Were these crimes ideologically driven for the most part, or were they contingent on the circumstances?

Well, first of all, we would do well to note that nationalism is not at all limited to Europe, and secondly, that whilst genocide is not at all limited to fascist regimes, it is a possible consequence of nationalism, given the right historical conditions. Concerning the first point, we need only look at the Rwandan genocide, in which the Hutu government massacred hundreds of thousands of Tutsis. This was clearly a crime of exclusionary nationalism, indeed of racism, and a crime against humanity of the highest order. For the second point, we might point to the Armenian genocide, which occurred after the Young Turks took power at the beginning of the First World War. The Young Turks were not fascists, but nevertheless they inflicted a genocide based on ideals of Turkishness, of the purity of the nation-state based on this identity, directed against a minority; in fact, against more than one minority; the Armenians certainly paid the highest toll, but the Greeks and Assyrians suffered greatly at the hands of the Turks during this period as well. So these crimes are limited neither to Europe nor to fascism.

What are the kind of historical conditions that can lead to these crimes, how does this relate to Berlin’s talk of ‘nationalism emerging from a wound’?

I think the picture we sketched, of nationalism as a reactive attitude that can be enflamed by some wound or loss, gives us a good way of understanding this. Nations can turn very violent if they are attacked, or suffer some, possibly perceived, loss, especially if this is perceived as a loss contrasting with the glorious past of the nation, people, empire. A minority caught inside the territory of such a nation, and perceived to be an agent of the external powers that have inflicted the wound to the motherland, is doomed. Manus Midlarsky has analysed this murderous logic in detail. This was the case with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire that preceded the Armenian genocide and in the Rwandan case. And of course, in the case of the Holocaust, Germany had suffered major territorial losses in the First World War and the radical German right perceived the Treaty of Versailles as a humiliation. These things were never forgotten, which laid the ground for a particularly dangerous founding myth of revenge and then to the most terrible form of exclusionary nationalism and racism we have witnessed in the modern age.

So, the conditions for these crimes seem to be that first of all a nation perceives itself as threatened, and secondly that it has suffered some loss, or at least has some narrative of loss in the not too distant past. Thirdly, this nation has within its territory – this might be occupied territory as with Nazi Germany and occupied Eastern Europe – a minority who is perceived as the agent of the external threat. When these elements are all present, there is always the threat that, if events turn in the wrong way, some crime will occur, and this seems to be one of the major problems with nationalism, no matter its benign origins.

Interview: Jonathan Egid



Dr. Edward Kanterian, University of Kent

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