Sunday, November 18, 2007

The Threat of Nationalist Chauvinism

In many countries the dominant image of nationalism is one of aggression and militarism, quite the opposite of a principled belief in national self-determination. The aggressive face of nationalism became apparent in the late nineteenth century as European powers indulged in a "scramble for Africa" in the name of national glory and their "place in the sun". The imperialism of the late nineteenth century differed from earlier periods of colonial expansion in that it was supported by a climate of popular nationalism: national prestige was increasingly linked to the possession of an empire and each colonial victory was greeted by demonstrations of public approval.

In Britain, a new word, jingoism, was coined to describe this mood of public enthusiasm for aggressive nationalism or imperial expansion. In the early twentieth century, the growing rivalry of European powers divided the continent into two armed camps, the Triple Entente, comprising Britain, France, and Russia, and the Triple Alliance, containing Germany, Austria, and Italy. When world war eventually broke out in August 1914, after a prolonged arms race and a succession of international crises, it provoked public rejoicing in all major cities of Europe. Aggressive and expansionist nationalism reached its high point in the inter-war period when the authoritarian or fascist regimes of Japan, Italy and Germany embarked upon policies of imperial expansion and world domination eventually leading to war in 1939.

What distinguished this form of nationalism from earlier liberal nationalism was its chauvinism, a belief in superiority or dominance, a term derived from the name of Nicolas Chauvin, a French soldier who had been fanatically devoted to Napoleon. Nations were not thought to be equal in their right to national self-determination. Rather, some nations were thought to possess characteristics or qualities which made them superior to others. Such ideas were clearly evident in European and American imperialism, which was justified by an ideology of racial and cultural superiority. In nineteenth century Europe, it was widely believed that the 'white' peoples of Europe and America were intellectually and morally superior to the 'black', 'brown', 'yellow', and 'Indian' peoples of Africa, Asia, and the colonies.

Indeed, Europeans portrayed imperialism as a moral duty; colonial peoples were the "white man's burden". Imperialism supposedly brought the benefits of civilization and in particular Christianity to the less fortunate and less sophisticated peoples of the world.

More particular forms of national chauvinism have developed in Russia and Germany. In Russia, this took the form of pan-Slavism, sometimes called Slavophile nationalism, particularly strong in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The Russians are Slavs, enjoying linguistic and cultural links with other Slav peples in Eastern and South-Eastern Europe. Pan-Slavism reflects the goal of Slavic unity, which the Russians believed to be their historic mission. In the years before 1914, such ideas brought Russia into deepening conflict with Austro-Hungary for control over the Balkans. The chauvinistic character of pan-Slavism was derived from the belief that the Russians were the natural leaders of the Slavic people, and that Slavs were culturally and spiritually superior to the peoples of Central or Western Europe. It was anti-Western and anti-liberal.

Germany's nationalist chauvinism was born out of the experience of defeat in the Napoleonic Wars. Writers like Fichte and Jahn reacted strongly against France and the ideals of its Revolution, emphasizing instead the uniqueness of German culture and its language, and the racial purity of its people. After unification in 1871, German nationalism developed a pronounced chauvinistic character with the emergence of pressure groups like the pan-German League and the Navy League, which campaigned for closer ties with German-speaking Austria, and for a German Empire, her "place under the sun".

(to be continued... on the American Empire and the nature of nationalist chauvinism)

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