On nationalism

The suggestion under discussion is broadly this: that Germany suffers chiefly from an overdose and debauch of national feeling, and that therefore Nationalism, which has thus destroyed our enemies, must be watched with a wary eye even in our friends and in ourselves, as if it were a highly dubious explosive. Mr Wells, who has explained this view in many places of late, must not be regarded as one of the dull extremists on the other side. He says he agrees with Home Rule; and I cannot suppose him such a lunatic as not to agree with the national reconstruction of Poland, for upon that essential hang all our hopes of the just peace of Europe or (which is much the same thing) of the adequate restraint of Germany. But the point is not whether he admits that Poland and Ireland have been allowed too little national independence. The point is that he thinks that Germany has been allowed too much national independence. He thinks her nationalism is her narrowness. It is this view that I think false in logic, false in history, and highly perilous in practical politics.

It is false in logic, because Nationalism is a generalisation, as is the nature of any “ism.” An Individualist, if there ever was such an animal, does not think that he is the only person who can be an individual. A Collectivist does not think that his cows and acres ought to be collected by an official, and everyone else’s left as they are. Nor does a Royalist mean a madman who thinks he is the King of England; nor a Pantheist the other kind of madman who thinks he is all the God there is. All such positions imply an appeal to a general rule; and the Nationalist is only a Nationalist if he appeals to a general rule of Nationalism. Nations, like marriages, or like properties, are a class of things accorded a certain recognition by the conscience of our civilisation. One of them cannot logically plead its own rights without pleading the rights of the class. And to say that a nation which disregards frontiers and annexes or destroys neighbours is suffering from an excess of Nationalism is intrinsically nonsensical. We might as well say that a man who runs away with his neighbour’s wife is suffering from an excess of reverence for the institution of marriage. We might as consistently maintain that a man who runs away with his neighbour’s watch is too arrogant and implacable a protector of the rights of property. Mr Wells suggests, in an article in the Daily Chronicle, that the German disposition to ram sauerkraut down everybody’s throat with a bayonet is an extravagance of national feeling. But it is not; it is a deficiency of national feeling — if only in the matter of wasting sauerkraut on people who do not appreciate it. What is the matter with the Germans is not that they think German culture is German culture —  a platitude after their own hearts which they might have peacefully enjoyed to the end of the world. It is that they think German culture is culture — that it is the highest product of evolution, and is on a higher platform above an ignorant world. In other words, they think something culture which is only custom.

And as it is false in theory, it is certainly false in fact. In history the Germans have been the least national of all Europeans. The typical nations, first France, then England, Spain, Scotland, Poland, etc. arose like islands in a sea of barbarism for which Germany was rather a loose allusion than a name. The word Allemagne is said to be derived from what practically means Anybody. If civilised men gave the race any title, it was not so much a definition as an expression of ignorance. We find Germans spoken of in this fashion long after France or England had become nations in the sense in which they are nations now. Often Germans were talked of as if they were German measles — merely one of the perils of life, merely something that happened. And so they were; and they have happened again.

— Illustrated London News, 7 October 1916.

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Published in: on February 21, 2018 at 12:04 pm  Comments (4)  

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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. (Typo: “he things that” -> “thinks”.)

    • Thanks for catching that! Corrected.

  2. Found another one! “a platitude after their own hearts with they might have peacefully enjoyed” -> “which”.

    • Thank you. I need you as a proofreader!


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