Nationalism Between Europe and The Middle East – By Sam Farah

Nationalism Between Europe and The Middle East
By Sam Farah
For Syria Comment – June 9, 2017

Steven Bannon, the man behind the nationalist policy in the Trump administration, is quoted as saying, “I think strong countries and strong nationalist movements in countries make strong neighbors. And that is really the building blocks that built Western Europe and the United States, and I think it’s what can see us forward”.

It is true that Nationalism was born in Europe, and is the foundation of the new modern state. However, what Bannon’s remarks miss is the fact that strong nationalist movements in Europe helped lead to the outbreak of World War I and World War II. It has also contributed to a great deal of strife and death in the Middle East.

Before the late 18th century there were no real nation states. Neither passports nor borders as we know them existed. People had ethnic and cultural identities, but these did not really define the political entities in which they lived. In 1800, almost nobody in France thought of themselves as French. At the time of the French Revolution in 1789, half its residents did not speak French.

Nationalism did not develop among the general population, it was a construct first developed among the intellectual elites of Europe. Johann Gottfried Herder, a German philosopher who believed that language determined national thought and culture, first coined the term “nationalism”. Nationalists expected patriots to then learn their nation’s language and raise their children speaking that language as part of a general program to establish a unique national identity. Poets and philosophers created folk epics and fairy tales, these epic legends and constructed narratives created imagined communities that gave rise to a sense of delusional, inflated self-worth. English Nationalists argued that England is the kingdom that, of all the kingdoms in the world, is the most like the kingdom of Jesus Christ. And the French believed that France had a special mission as representative of the most advanced form of western culture.

The idea that the boundaries of a nation should, as much as possible, coincide with only one culture, and the belief that a people who share a common language, history, and culture should constitute an independent nation set the stage for decades of war and border disputes on the European continent. The history of Alsace Lorraine is a microcosm of the turbulent years of nationalism in Europe and the rivalry between French and German nationalism. The area was a watershed for invading French and German armies and mutual annexation. The Germans pursued a Germanification policy in the Alsace that prohibited its residents from speaking French in public. A person could be fined even for something as innocent as saying, “bonjour”. Street signs, once displayed in French, were replaced with German signage. When the French annexed the Alsace, up to 100,000 Germans were expelled and German language Alsatian newspapers were suppressed.

The zeal of nationalism in Europe and the need to define an identity for these nations states culminated with the Nuremberg law. It added a racial element to the concept of nationalism, and ultimately contributed to the rise of Nazi Germany and the outbreak of World War II.

By the end of the 19th century, as the sun was setting on the Ottoman Empire, Zionists, who were primarily European Jews, worked to create a homeland for the Jewish people in Palestine. Young Turks, eager to modernize their state, and young Arabs intellectuals primarily from the Levant who also wanted to emulate the modernity of Europe embarked on a nation building quest of their own, all with irreconcilable claims and overlapping aspirational maps. This was the framework that set the stage for the endless conflicts in the Middle East that continue to plague the region. Today Kurdish nationalists are trying to establish their own nation state from parts of Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria. Their ambitions have added another layer of complexity to an already intractable situation.

The trauma of the great depression, the threat of communist revolution, the rise of fascism and the ravage of World War II, made Europe search for an alternative to nationalism.

The search for a new framework for Europe was led by Jean Monnet and Robert Schuman. They worked to enmesh the economies and societies of Western Europe with one another. These new transnational ties were expected to create a permanent peace between France and Germany. The road to building this new post nationalist space that culminated in the creation of the European Union, was arduous. Many European politicians resisted the notion of ceding sovereignty to a supra nationalist entity. The project, however, achieved is intended objective, and Europe has enjoyed the longest period of peace in its modern history. In the mid 1970s, just 22% of Germans thought they had more in common with other Germans of different social class then with Frenchmen of the same class (Haas 1997). And Alsace is now a multi-lingual region, its inhabitants shop and work in both France and Germany. In the words of Angela Merkel, “The Europe that suffered from German hubris was transformed into a ring of friends organized around NATO and the E.U.”

The European post-nationalist experiment was not without its flaws. It seeded too many controls to Brussels. Like most hierarchical systems it became top-heavy, and incapable of responding to change. In addition, there were structural flaws in the way the Euro was established adding layers of popular resentment against the European project.

While Europe is grappling with reforms of its current framework and fending off rising nationalism, the Middle East is still in the thrall of its failed nationalist experiment, increasingly chaotic, with rising religious extremism and terrorism.

Moving Forward

How should the people of Europe and the Middle East organize themselves to achieve peace, stability and economic growth? Today, questions of identity, complexity and polity are the subject of research and a new field of study by complexity theorists, social scientists and historians. They believe that to have a peaceful world it may not be necessary to abolish the nation state as it remains the most effective body to write and enforce the rules, just to deemphasize it. What we need, they argue, are multicultural states with overlapping authorities, divided sovereignty, fuzzy borders, and the distribution of power to local communities.


Comments (7)

Roland said:

The nationalist myth-makings of the past are tedious enough, without having to add globalist myth-making today. Farah’s piece reveals both the complacency and the ignorance that have unfortunately become characteristic of today’s pro-globalists.

Farah commits several blatant errors of fact in this piece. For example, he makes an absurd claim that nationalism was only important from the late 18th cent. Does Farah know anything of European history or culture?

Nationalism in Europe was already a distinct development during the Renaissance and early modern times. For example, in Machiavelli’s “Prince” (16th cent.), the final chapter is devoted to the problem of the liberation and unification of Italy.

Anyone who has ever read Shakespeare or Milton, will have no difficulty finding strongly expressed English nationalist sentiment in the 17th cent. Farah, you should read the play “King Henry the Fifth,” or better still, read Milton’s “Second Defense of the People of England.”

In France, conscious and explicit French nationalism dates at least from the time of Joan of Arc, and was well established by the time of the Sun King. The Revolution and the “levee en masse” could never have happened, unless there was already a widely and deeply felt national identity existing at that time in France.

Farah apparently doesn’t understand such things as language dialects or regional identity. It is true that in early modern France or England most people didn’t speak the metropolitan dialect. For that matter, many people in China who don’t speak Mandarin, nevertheless have a highly developed sense of Chinese national identity. In all three of those countries, provincial identities continue to overlap national identity. Those things are not exclusive.

This brings me back to the problem of the ignorance and complacency of today’s globalists. Today’s globalist is as insultingly disdainful of national heritages, as the worst of the nationalist centralizers ever were of regional identities within their nations.

For all of the globalists’ talk of “diversity,” they are never willing to actually accomodate meaningful differences between peoples.

Farah accuses nationalism as being the cause of the Great War. But one might just as easily say that the globalization caused the Great War, since much of the power-political rivalry arose in competition for control of world markets.

Farah claims that the EU preserves peace. Farah has his chronology all wrong. Farah confuses effect with cause. The EU never made or preserved any peace. Quite the contrary: the EU is the result of a long period of peace–a peace which was made by the national governments of Europe.

Farah claims that efforts to build nation-states in the Middle East have caused the troubles there. But by far the biggest problems in the Middle East today have been caused by the destruction of the national state in Iraq. The invaders were Tony Blair and GW Bush–both pronounced globalists.

Today’s globalism does not mean peace. Nobody makes more extreme demands on the world and on humanity than the ambitious globalist.

Today’s globalist is heedless, blinkered, presumptuous and bigoted. That is why today’s globalism needs to be driven back a few steps. One might say that a “correction is needed in the political marketplace.”

June 9th, 2017, 7:44 pm


Sam Farah said:

Dear Roland.

I am not a globalist in the slightest. As you can see in my last paragraph I do advocate the distribution of power to local communities.

If you insist on labeling me, I would be a regionalist.

Yes, you are correct English Nationalism is a bit older than the rest of European nationalism. But your other assertions about Joan of Arc and Italian nationalism are stretching the definition of identity and nationalism. Many regions in Italy today still do not consider themselves Italian.

This article deals with issues of identity, complexity and polity. Where should boarders be drawn? Are Catalans Spanish? Are Alsatians French, or Germans? Where should England’ new hard boarder be in relation to Norther Ireland? … And Should the Kurds, Assyrians, Chaldean…. people all get their nation state? Where would the border of these nations states be, and what would happen to the other ethnic groups within these boarders?


June 10th, 2017, 11:34 am


Sam Farah said:

Please excuse the misspelling of border in the above response

June 10th, 2017, 2:12 pm


Jasmine said:

Globalism has always existed as a theory because of basic human need of exchanging goods and commerce,but the speed of communications in the modern age has contributed to spreading the distorted ideologies,which derived from man made religions which led to a new form so called globalism.
Zionism is a form of globalism,ISIS is another as well.
How can we save the world by going back to Tribalism?
We will start another cycle of declaring a muticultural society,democratic values till our existence will get threatened again.
The European community is another form of colonisation,the big powerfull countries are bailing out the weak ones and in return their industries is flourishing and they are exporters,the weak are importers of goods and so called democracy of the advanced nations,meanwhile the poorer will suffer from inflation for over a decade for the sake of belonging to Europe.
UK is breaking the cycle now and is going back to restore its identity without being dominated by Europe,and only this happened because of the threat of Syrian refugees.
So we are back now to tribalism.
Globalism and nationalism can both be used and abused and can both cause wars,it is all about greed and power,we are still living in a forest but with an internet.

June 10th, 2017, 3:45 pm


Y. Ben-David said:

I don’t accept that it was “nationalism” that caused the two world wars. Hitler was certainly NOT a German nationalist of the Bismarckian sort. Neither was Kaiser Wilhelm II, for that matter. Both wanted to see a “united Europe” under German domination (isn’t that what the EU is today?), and “German” was defined along racial lines for both. Bismarck would have opposed the Anschluss with Austria because he viewed Austrians and Germans as different, even if they spoke the same language, in much the way Canadians and American are different nations with the same language.
The problem with 19th century nationalism that it claimed there were essential, biological differences between different national groups, not just cultural, linguistic and possibly religious ones. People would talk about “the Enlish race”, or the “French race”. Professor Richard Evans discussed this in a lecture and pointed out how Englishmen would say that the French are “inherently lazy or dirty” or whatever. I think people have grown up since them, or at least I hope so.

June 12th, 2017, 1:01 am


Jordi said:

Dear Sam,
You only call nationalism in a negative way, as the movement and ideology from a centralized State that aims to abolish and make disappear its cultural diversity (France, Turkey). This is what you call nation state.
You may also use nationalism in a positive way, and call nationalism the will of all the nations to have its own State, a State that would protect the community (pe. Basque, Kurdistan) from these empires. This is what I call nation state.

June 12th, 2017, 2:56 am


Lemur said:

I wrote this mini disquisition a little while ago entitled ‘The Legitimacy of the Ethnostate’

“The idea that pre-modern localized identities discredit the notion of the ethnonational state, or that calculating elites merely imagined a unified polity into being ex nihlo as an instrument for their designs is a singularly tendentious line of argument. The nation state is the adaption of superordinate identity to large scale political, economic, and social projects made possible by the onset of modernity. It constitutes a symbolic responsive network to the objective criteria of the modern age imposed upon a discrete set of differentiated subsets. ‘France’ means the aggregation of many different types of Frenchmen (Norman, Flemish Bretton, etc) into one unified, homogenized body. Such a political project is capable of competing according to the demands of the irreversible facts of the modern age (e.g., the necessity of mass organization in military matters), while mitigating the alienation from traditional modes of life by sustaining the old identity through institutionalized semiotic means (inter alia, anthems, military service, uniform laws, a promulgation of a national literary tradition). The nation state thus occupies an uncomfortable position between the pre-modern basis from which its raison d’être derives, and the logic of will to power in the international arena. It is a necessary compromise, and a delicate balance. Pushed further away from the traditional basis of identity, the muscular response is an explosive fascism, and the anaemic response the passive nihilism of liberal democracy.

Acting upon European people classified into national category on the basis of objective criteria by Herder; elites most certainly have deployed the full force of propaganda (‘discourse’) at their disposal for various projects which may or may not have been in consonance with the common good. Their intentions are irrelevant. What counts is the object on which they acted. Since pre-modern kin based identities prefiguring modern national identities clearly did exist, Occam’s razor cuts away the hypothesis regional elites manufactured an identity from thin air. Rather, the onset of modernity and the response of elites represent a formal and efficient causal explanation respectively regarding the levelling of pre-modern local identities into national identities. The correspondence here underlines identity is an organic matter. The narrative of identity develops on its own terms, and elites work within that framework.

The voracious appetite of contemporary theorists to favour functionalist and instrumental accounts for ethnic states says more about their desire to construct a narrative (obscure reality through their own discourse) to find the origins of post-modern man in early modern Europe, than the actual historical facts of the case. By contrast, classical methodology with an inbuilt capacity to plot the relationship between the whole and the particular possesses the power to pierce the machinations of conspiring elites, parse the particulars of the case, and determine the grounds of unity. Thus, the question of national origins is bound up in apriori presuppositions, and Plato’s have endured much longer than the ‘communicative rationality’ of Habermas and his ilk.

In closing, it may be prudent to note that national ‘myths’ are not presumptive grounds for deconstruction. A myth is properly a true story. It arises from an aesthetic form connected with something transcendent, containing a substantive message representing the highest ideals of a people. Through the reflexive relationship between medium and message, the narrative has become entangled with a sublime force. Whether it has a basis in empirical fact has no bearing on the reality of an ethnic existence, in fact, quite the opposite: national myths result from shared affect.”

Having read the attached link to the ‘end of nations’ article, one can certainly see why the elites would push such an agenda. Formerly homogeneous countries must be subject to ‘diversity’ because of the imperative of capital. This is what tolerance is all about. $$$$$. The real engine behind anti-nationalism is predatory global capital, which respects no borders. Sure, there’s a lot to be said for localization and subsidiarity, but in many ways the nation state IS the bureaucratic structure which provides that service in the modern world. From time to time, this will lead to wars, but its only in the imagination of liberals that death is the Worst Possible Thing.

July 21st, 2017, 4:21 am


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