Ethnic nationalism

German refugees fleeing the Russians, 1945 (picture Deutsches Bundesarchiv)

An article in the latest issue of the ever-excellent “Foreign Affairs” suggests that, rather than the European Union representing the defeat of nationalism (as is the conventional way the EU is thought about), it actually represents its triumph. (“Us and Them – The Enduring Power of Ethnic Nationalism”, by Jerry Z Muller, Professor of History at the Catholic University of America.)

You can read the article here, or you can rely on my summary. Essentially, the argument is that the idea of Europe being divided up into countries in each of which almost everybody speaks the same language has become a commonplace – nobody really thinks about it any more – but actually it is quite novel in European (and world) history. For most of history, people have lived in multiethnic empires, so why the change?

Jerry Muller argues that ethnic nationalism is a powerful force because it enables states to become more effective economic and military units, drawing as they can on a common sense of identity. As a result, the multinational empires that dominated world politics have been replaced by nation states: think about the end of the first world war as an example of this.

More striking still, he describes the aftermath of the second world war in the same terms. There was not the same creation of new states as had happened 25 years previously, but there were huge movements of population instead. Millions of Germans, Poles and others moved from their ancestral homes to new locations in the countries named Germany, Poland and so on. The effect was the same: a further step in the division of Europe into states, each of which was ethnically homogeneous. A proximate cause of the second world war was disputes over the status of ethnic minorities, particularly German minorities, all over eastern Europe: at the end of the war, those minorities were removed to Germany.

Once that process was complete, the previous cause of friction between states was removed and peace settled across the continent. The European Union, by this argument, became possible because of the success of ethnic nationalism, rather than being responsible for its defeat.

The experience of the former Yugoslavia, where ethnic nationalism had been suppressed in the name of an invented Yugoslav nationalism, bears this out. The fighting in the 1990s was only settled by the creation of new ethnic states, and the problem of Kosovo will be solved in the same way.

What should a federalist, devoutly an anti-nationalist, make of this argument? Where do we begin?

I think there are two criticisms to make of this argument. First, one cannot speak of the upheavals in Europe during the 20th century that led to the creation of the new ethnic states as though they were merely an impersonal force of nature. No, they were ghastly and bloody wars that could and should have been avoided. Millions of people lost their lives in the wars and the chaos that followed them. This is a continual criticism that federalists make of nationalists: even if the nationalist dream were possible, the cost of creating it is unacceptably high.

The second criticism is that the nationalist dream is not even possible. The peaceful reunification of East and West Germany in 1990 does not represent the victory of German nationalism, but rather its defeat. For a real German nationalism would not have been content with a simple merger of those two predecessor states but would have tried to reclaim territories in Poland, Russia, and elsewhere. But the Germans did not try.

Similarly, Hungary would have raised the question of Transylvania again, lost to Romania in the Trianon treaty of 1920. But the Hungarians did not. Polish and Romanian ethnic nationalism might have succeeded, but German and Hungarian ethnic nationalism has failed.

This is the central point: different nationalisms are fundamentally opposed to each other. To say that, in Europe today, ethnic nationalism has triumphed can only ever be half true.

It is a fact that Europe is today largely divided into countries, in each of which almost everybody speaks the same language, but that is not what has brought peace. What has brought peace is the realisation that national egoism brings war, and that alternative means of resolving disputes are therefore needed instead. In the modern Europe, these things are simply not worth fighting over any more.

Think about the situation of Kosovo. Imagine, in 20 years time, when the people who live in that territory have become citizens of the European Union: how will they be represented in the EU institutions? If Kosovo is independent, there will be Kosovo ministers sitting in the Council of Ministers: were Kosovo to remain part of Serbia, its representatives would instead sit in the Committee of the Regions. Is that difference – between seats in the Council and seats in the Committee – really worth shedding blood for? It is not nationalism that is bringing peace to Europe but federalism.

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