Since its emergence in the 19th century nationalism has been one of the most powerful ideologies in the world. It is an ideology based on sentiment rather than reason. It is an ideology that captures people’s imagination because it creates the illusion of unity and solidarity against a common external enemy.
Nationalists believe that the world is made up of nations with a common language, culture and destiny that occupy a certain territory. The theory goes that if a nation creates its own state and becomes independent, it will have a bright future, it will gain freedom and prosperity.
The map of Europe has been redrawn many times over the past two hundred years. The break-up of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, of Yugoslavia, the unification of Italy and Germany, the separation of the Czech and Slovakian people are just some of the most notable cases of ‘nation-building’.
There have also been population shifts whenever a majority group decided that a ‘minority’ shouldn’t be part of a certain state because it was ‘different’. One early and tragic example of this was the 1923 population exchange between Greece and Turkey, when about two million people were expelled from their homeland because of their linguistic and religious background.
Europe seems unable to break away from nationalism, from intolerance, resentment and strife. The communities of the continent, instead of working together, continue to view each other with suspicion, sometimes with hatred.
We have to make clear: nationalism has destroyed Europe in the past and it will continue to do so in the future. Nationalism is not a solution.
First of all, nationalism is an irrational ideology that appeals to people’s emotions. Nationalists do not believe in reasonable discussion aimed at solving problems. They believe in ‘scapegoatism’. Somebody who is different from us is always responsible for our problems, and we must hate them and separate ourselves from them, then all will be well.
Nationalism is based on a principle that is contradictory: the nation. It is a concept that no one can define coherently. There are countries as small as San Marino, with a population of Italian-speaking people of just 30,000 inhabitants. In theory, every small community that ‘feels’ different from its neighbours could be classified as a nation.
Is the future of Europe going to be like its past? Are we going to see the creation of smaller and smaller states because different communities simply cannot cope to live together? Are intolerance and hatred the only way the people of Europe can deal with neighbours and immigrants?
Brexit and the Catalonian independence referendum seem to suggest so.
Many communities of Europe spend time and energy hating others and redrawing borders, hoping to achieve freedom and prosperity. Demagogues foment division and resentment. Nothing has changed. History repeats itself.
In his first inaugural address (March 4, 1861) US president Abraham Lincoln explained why he would not allow the South to split from the United States.
“[T]he central idea of secession is the essence of anarchy,” Lincoln said. “A majority held in restraint by constitutional checks and limitations, and always changing easily with deliberate changes of popular opinions and sentiments, is the only true sovereign of a free people. Whoever rejects it does of necessity fly to anarchy or to despotism. Unanimity is impossible.”
Lincoln believed that a democratic government could function only if the citizens enjoyed equal rights and duties. He understood that secession is dangerous because it leads to anarchy. No sovereign state can exist if at any moment a part of it can secede.
Lincoln fought a bloody civil war to preserve the Union. The rise of the United States and the ‘American Century’ wouldn’t have been possible if his principles had not triumphed.
We see in Europe a tendency towards solving social, economic and political issues not by debate, but by separation and intolerance. It seems that this multicultural continent is unable to find a balance between diversity and cohesion. The failure to do so has already cost us dearly in the past. We must prevent that from happening again.
The European peoples should reject nationalism and instead focus on political, economic and social issues. We should stop fighting against each other and work together to improve our lives. We should talk about creating jobs, empowering trade unions, raising wages, improving the welfare state; there are many issues that have to be discussed and that could positively impact our lives. Nationalist sentiment might for a short time help us vent our anger and frustration. But it will not solve our problems. It will make them worse.
We cannot tell people how to feel or act. Our warning will probably not be heard. Common sense dictates that urging people to calm down, to discuss, compromise and find reasonable solutions to create a better life for everyone should be a suggestion the vast majority would agree on. But that is often not the case. There are times in history when people, frustrated and angry, prefer resentment and bitterness over co-operation and practical solutions. We have seen it before. We are living it again in our age.
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