Nationalism: A Warning From History


The recent vote in favour of the UK leaving the EU is in many ways a victory for nationalism. Since the referendum the police have recorded nationally over 3,000 incidents of racist and xenophobic hate crimes against immigrants and their families, an increase of 57%. History is littered with conflicts and wars between nations, each filled with patriots and nationalists all convinced of their own nation’s superiority, purity and destiny. Perhaps the most horrific eras to demonstrate this are the eras of the two world wars that marred the first half of the 20th century.

The First World War

The First World War is often known for the colossal waste of Human life it represents. The total number of dead, both military and civilian, in World War I, is estimated at 17 million. Few families on either side were spared tragedy; they called them the ‘lost generation’. My family’s tragedy was the loss of my great-grandfather William Bramham who died at the Battle of the Somme barely older than I am now leaving behind three young sons, all under ten years old. What makes the tragedy of the First World War all the worse is that it was a war started largely thanks to the conflicting imperialist and nationalist ambitions among the elites of different nations, particularly Britain, France and Germany.

These elites, spurred by their own greed and desire for glory and power, rallied their countryman around them through the myths of nationalism. Young men from across the British Empire were manipulated into signing away their lives for king and country, told that it was a ‘war for civilization’, a war to defend their glorious homeland from a terrible enemy who was, ideologically, little different from their own rulers. The German people too were fed similar lies, egged on by the myth of a ‘place in the sun’, of a glorious future for the German Empire that would eclipse the hegemony of its hated rival.

The Allies or Triple Entente won the war however it was a pyrrhic victory, Britain had exhausted its military strength and the continent was in chaos. The Russian and German Revolutions and the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires washed away the old certainties of political power in Eastern and Central Europe. Many of us will have learned in school that the Treaty of Versailles (1919) was immensely one-sided. In keeping with the nationalistic rhetoric of the British who had demonized the Germans as inhuman monsters with a lust for power, Versailles placed all the blame for the conflict on the Germans and inflicted humiliating conditions upon them that the British would never have accepted for themselves.

Nationalist Resurgence

Unfortunately nationalism was not yet finished and emerged in new and more terrifying forms over the course of the 1920s and 1930s. This new form can be seen first in the Fascist movement in Italy which brought the dictator Benito Mussolini to power in 1922 and it is marked by a fanatical loyalty to the state as the perfect embodiment of the nation, an obsession with military power and glory, and total control over the lives of citizens by the state. In fascist regimes state, nation and the people become one, there is no separation between the private and the public, everything in society from its newspapers to its children are marshalled in service to the nation as embodied in the state and its leader.

Although beginning in Italy, this new form of nationalism would spread and by the outbreak of World War II in 1939 had engulfed much of the continent including Portugal, Spain, Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria, not to mention the countries outside Europe that had fallen under its spell such as China and Japan. It is in Germany that we find the most infamous example of this new nationalism as well as the catalyst for the carnage of World War II.

The Road to the Second World War

Many have argued that it was the Treaty of Versailles that started the inexorable path to the far greater evil of World War II. However this is only half true, it is true that for the Germans (nationalist or otherwise) the Treaty of Versailles was a colossal outrage and so long as it stood it would always serve as a lightning rod for nationalist and patriotic anger and indignation. However Germany did recover and for much of the 1920s Germany experienced a cultural and economic renaissance. Berlin was at the heart of the Roaring Twenties and there were few cities anywhere in the world at that time that had such a liberal and surprisingly modern outlook.

Indeed if you had asked someone in the 1920s where a regime like that of the Nazis could have come from it would have seemed absurd to look to progressive sophisticated Germany. The story of 1920s Germany’s degeneration into the abomination of Nazism provides a stark warning to those of us who think that it could never happen in modern Britain because we’re too liberal and advanced now. Sure urban areas like London are but like Berlin in the 1920s, as the map of Brexit has shown us, the wider country is far more right wing and inward looking than we realise.

The beginning of the descent into Nazism was the stock market crash of October 1929 which triggered the Great Depression. The economic catastrophe created by the Great Depression hit Germany particularly hard. Germany’s post-war economic recovery had been driven by loans from US banks and when they withdrew these loans following the stock market crash the unemployment and hyperinflation it generated could not be halted through traditional economic management. In four unstable and transformative years Germany went through four different chancellors whilst extremes of right and left fought each other for control of the country. As traditional political elites lurched towards the right to stave off the spectre of Communism, a new political party emerged from relative obscurity to dominate the German parliament.

This party was of course the Nazis, or National Socialist German Workers Party (Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei or NSDAP) whose success can be attributed to a multitude of different factors that combined into a perfect storm.

One strategy the Nazis and many other nationalist politicians have used to their advantage is populism. Populism is a strategy in politics where a politician appeals to the ‘ordinary’ people of the country and encourages them to attribute their suffering to the actions of some kind of elite or external group that oppresses them. In the case the Nazis they attributed the German people’s suffering to foreign powers, communists and Jewish financial interests however other populists have scapegoated a wide variety of groups though foreigners are particularly popular scapegoats especially for nationalists. We can see populist politicians in modern times, from the ramblings of Donald Trump and his desire to get Americans to take back their country from immigrants and Washington liberals to Nigel Farage and his bogeymen of the immigrant hordes taking British jobs and the EU bureaucrats telling Britain what to do.

Playing on these fears the Nazis did well electorally and by November 1932 (the last election before Hitler became Chancellor) they had 33.1% of the vote making them the largest single party in the Reichstag, though because other parties refused to form coalitions with them it meant that the government was, for the time being, held by other parties.

They were helped in doing so well electorally by the fact that opposition to their activities was so ineffective. The main opposition to the Nazis came from the Communist Party of Germany (Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands or KPD) and the Social Democratic Party of Germany (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands or SPD). The SPD were the elder of the two and had played an important role in 1920s German politics as part of coalition governments however it was the KPD that was the larger party at the time as it had surged ahead in polls during the period of the Great Depression.

Unfortunately the KPD refused to work with the SPD, regarding them as part of the bourgeoisie and thus their ideological enemies. As such no left wing coalition could be formed in the Reichstag to block the Nazis. Throughout the history of left wing political movements we can see them marred by sectarianism and a refusal to compromise for the greater good. In Germany it was to prove fatal as it left them wide open to a right wing takeover. We can see a similar division in the left wing opposition in modern Britain with the inability of the Labour Party to rally behind a single leader and the refusal of both the moderate left and the further left to work together. Whilst the outcome of this dispute remains unclear it is clear that a divided opposition cannot oppose anything.

The culmination of the Nazis campaign finally came on the 30th January 1933 when German President Paul von Hindenburg, himself of the traditional German right, was convinced by other elites to grant the position of Chancellor to the Nazis leader Adolf Hitler who would preside over a right wing coalition government with a minority Nazi cabinet. Barely a month later on 27th February 1933 a fire, usually attributed to Nazi agents, broke out in the Reichstag building destroying it. Using it as proof of the Jewish-Marxist conspiracy against Germany, Hitler passed a decree to protect the German state by suppressing Anti-Nazi publications and allowing the imprisonment of anyone deemed a threat to the Nazi government. Over the coming months more decrees were passed that further eroded German democracy and transformed it into a one-party totalitarian state. By the beginning of 1934, barely a year since Hitler became Chancellor, most of the organs of the republican German government that had existed since 1919 had been dismantled or absorbed into the new Third Reich and in August 1934, following President Hindenburg’s death, he abolished the presidency and merged it with the Chancellorship to create a new office, that of Fuhrer.

The Second World War and Conclusions

In the 12 years that followed the Nazis and other nationalists around the world, such as the Fascists in Italy or the Francoists in Spain, would tear the world apart and leave Europe in ruins. Whilst I have focused on the Nazis here due to their infamy make no mistake there were nationalists and fascists in almost every nation, the Allies included. Whilst they failed to take over their respective nations, let’s us not forget the German-American Bund in the USA or the Black Shirts or National Front in the UK. Even the mainstream governments of the US and UK were not without nationalist goals. None of the Allies got involved in fighting the Nazis or the Japanese until they became clear threats to their national superiority and there were plenty of people even as late as 1937 offering praise to Hitler or Mussolini as great champions of their nations. Winston Churchill himself in an article in the Evening Standard in 1937 said he admired Hitler’s achievement for his nation even if he disagreed with his way of doing it.

The Second World War that broke out in 1939 was infinitely more destructive than the first and reached almost every corner of the globe. It is estimated that as many as 75 million people died over the course of the war 1939-1945. Between 11 and 17 million of these were lost in the Holocaust. Having spent years dehumanizing and excluding groups deemed enemies to the German nation, the Nazis executed their final solution with the war as a cover and initiated the largest act of industrial mass murder in Human history. Among the groups deemed sub-human by the Nazis were Jews, non-whites, the disabled and mentally ill, homosexual and bisexual men, Slavic peoples (Poles, Czechs, Serbs, Russians etc), Romani peoples (colloquially known as ‘gypsies’), Freemasons, people on the political left wing, other political opponents and any who would not swear allegiance to Hitler (all deemed traitors).

In the aftermath of all this death and destruction, the political leaders of Europe came together and decided that the kind of carnage unleashed by nationalism in the two world wars could not be allowed to happen again. They vowed to create a new Europe, one built not on petty nationalisms but on cooperation, common Humanity and the best political ideals of European civilization; liberty, equality, democracy and the rule of law. From this came the organizations that would ultimately evolve into the European Union we know today. The European Union is a child of the two world wars, a child raised on tales of the horrors unleashed by unchecked nationalism and has worked for over 50 years to keep peace in Europe.

Brexit echoes many of the mistakes of the early 20th century. The growing hostility towards ethnic minorities and foreign immigrants mirrors how many felt about the Jews in the 1920s and 30s. The rhetoric of the Brexit Campaign to ‘take back our country’ is all too disturbingly familiar to a student of history and it echoes with the voice of Adolf Hitler. The desire to make our country ‘great’  again expressed by many Leave voters is much the same as that felt by the Germans in the Post-Depression period. Whilst not on the same level as the Great Depression, Britain’s economic woes over the past half-decade have generated new levels of poverty and left millions vulnerable and looking for someone to blame and someone to lead them, again much like Germany 1929-1933. What worries me now is not a World War III, we are a long way from that, but instead a gradual almost imperceptible shift towards nationalism that will leave our country on a very slippery path towards a dark future as we look to eliminate the groups we blame for our problems. Whatever you voted for, Remain or Leave, do not forget the lessons of the 20th century, we are one Europe, we are one Human race.

One thought on “Nationalism: A Warning From History

  1. I agree with most of this, the nationalism we have seen in the 20th Century should be be a warning to us all and we live in very worrying times now.
    The Brexit referendum wasn’t really about the EU, it was for many people more about things like stopping or actually reversing immigration, breaking ties with other countries, making this country ‘great again’ etc. In a way it’s as if the question was “Do you want Britain to be a racist country?” It’s shocking that there were enough racist people to win that vote.
    That racist attacks have increased dramatically after the Brexit vote is no surprise; the vote and allowing this referendum to happen has legitimised the racist point of view. They – racists – now feel embolded to go further and do more now.
    I think you’re right to talk about the Nazi period of Germany for a lot of your article. While there is an idea (is it Godwin’s law?) about the Nazis being mentioned too readily in an argument/discussion, what we are talking about here is nationalism/racism. The Nazis showed very clearly and are the best example of what happens when the racist far right gain power. It’s a warning for what would happen if BNP/Ukip were ever to gain power here.
    I think Britain has made a terrible mistake over the last few years giving legitimacy to people like Nick Griffin and Nigel Farage. Racism/excessive nationalism should never be treated as a reasonable view to hold, people like this should never be allowed to sit next to ‘normal’ politicians on TV shows etc.
    In the 1930s Britain had a very similar situation with Oswald Moseley’s British Union of Fascists gaining huge support. The government simply stopped their movement. Disbanded it. No debate. They were deemed too dangerous to be allowed to continue. That’s what we should done with the BNP/Ukip.

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