the return of nationalism – a critical reflection

nationalism is coming back. us against them. let’s do it all over again.

well, technically, i would argue that nationalism has never left. it is a phenomenon of ‘return’ only to those who immersed their head into european politics -not even that: into european idealism- who nowadays identify a rise in nationalism. true, europe has learned in the most brutal way what consequences ‘us against them’ has in its ultimate climax. yet, when have we ever learned from history, oh glorious human race?

in front of the european parliament there is a beautiful museum commemorating these experiences. starting with a basic 101 on european institutions, the museum is built up like a story of progress and human, intellectual and economic development. in a dark corridor with only black and white pictures showing war and poverty and destruction, history is brought to the visitor’s attention in the most gruesome way – pictures speak for themselves. dates and numbers of innocents killed, children suffering and economic potential lost are scattered among quotes of european peace and prosperity. yet, let’s be honest, numbers are too big, too foreign and too distant for our hearts and minds to truly imagine their meaning. and idealism is, well, always too good to be true. it is only the pictures that might still touch our hearts but luckily for the visitor there is light at the end of the tunnel – there is hope, there is progress, there is the european ideal. step by step, it seems to the visitor, one leaves behind the shadows of the past. we go beyond the nation-state; an idea that in itself was never more than a mere construction itself. we create the european economic cooperation, institutions, enlargement. peace. oh glorious development.

it is an irony of life that it is this story of hope and the believe in transcendence of the past cruelty that goes the first step towards digging a grave to the european ideal. this ‘european bubble’ that dares to dream of ‘going beyond’ nationalism, beyond the ‘us versus them’, creates the illusion of superiority. and like from a plastic bubble, sheltered against every evil of the world, when we see nationalistic struggles, religious wars and ethnic cleansing happening, we scoff about the other’s low level of development. they are not educated enough to understand our way! they. and us. and right there, we reinforce a thinking that we pride ourselves to having moved past it. but, after all, we know, they don’t, right?

do we? within our own european bubble, there is still nations waving the flag of woodrow wilson’s 14 points, granting each nation a state to themselves; because yes we might think the idea of ‘us versus them’ outdated, but we forget this to be a thought of luxury to those people who do not find themselves suppressed by a system; let alone a state. scotland, the basques and catalans, south tyrol, the balkans, ukraine, transnistria, bergkarabach, south ossetia, abchasia. and that is not to name the palestinians and kurds, let alone the many nations currently suppressed within a system of state boundaries drawn on an artificial map of this planet in the continents of south america, africa and south east asia.

so, what to make of this situation? recognizing that it is those who do not find themselves surpressed but instead more or less propperly represented and ruled, those who feel a sense of belonging to which ever concept they care to identify with as long as it does not directly challenge the status quo, those who even dare to believe in a european ideal, that worry about the ‘return’ of nationalism, the question demands both empathy and critical reflection.

yes, nationalism leads to violence; at least more often than not. it is the idea of a majority that creates a minority. but that does not mean that we should frown upon what i find to me a most natural component of humanity: the need to belong; the need for identity in community. let’s instead question the idea of the nation-state. homogeneity is a constructed idea that in itself does not exist. or are we talking ‘poor blooded’ again? -with all the nazi jargon coming back in popular refugee discussions in austria, we might as well use the same to highlight the danger in the idea’s successful reawakening.

yet, the nation-state and the idea(l) of the same has been enshrined in international relations since the first world war. another proof that sometimes the most well intended gesture – wilson’s promise of a state to every nation – can have catastrophic consequences. why? a) define “nation”, b) define “state”; if it is unitary states we build -within the borders already on the map to make matters worse- we will not get around a certain form of supression (spain) or forced assimilation (turkey) of those who do not agree with the ruling or identify themselves as a separate nation. how dare you say you are kurdish if you live in turkey? no, you are turkish! how dare you say you have another ethnic background, another language, another culture? assimilate, leave or die! generous options, right? no? you dare to throw bombs at us? us, your state? terrorists! all of you! welcome to the real world. those who think differently, despite claiming the same norms you yourself uphold – the right to a state for every nation and the right to rule ‘yourself’-, they are terrorists, guerilla, separatists, anarchists. pick the label currently in fashion.

now, to draw a long rant to a close, i want to say that i believe one cannot deny the same right to another that one claims for oneself. yes, nationalism has the potential to most destructive consequences. and yes, in europe the idea of ‘returning’ to the idea of nationalism -with the votes for independence rising (scotland, catalonia) and the thoughts of national politics and interests dominating brussels-  is rightfully seen as ‘a step back’; at least if one dares to believe that ‘us against them’ has ever left the european thinking. instead, i believe nationalism not to be the problem; the problem is an international system of institutions, state-clubs like the united nations, as well as norms and believes that upholds the constructed idea(l) of nation-states; of pure, easily definable ‘nations’, clear boundaries of their distribution, and no mixing or trespassing in between. if we quit believing and thinking in terms ‘pureness’, homogeneity, and clearly definable lines we can address separatist struggles, refugee crises and any other ‘us versus them’ scenario. but, regretfully, i realize, that this in itself is a purely idealistic thought…

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