Sunday, December 13, 2009

A Brief History of Nationalism in a Western Context











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If you are like many war-weary Americans these days, you may be struggling with the opposing notions of supporting our troops fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan while not backing the actual cause behind the wars.  As good citizens, there is often a little voice inside us, a visceral response in our gut, that tells us that our country is inherently good, working on behalf of good, and that we would never attack another nation unless they were evil.  We elect leaders to represent us when making decisions about war, and more or less, our faith in these public officials makes going to war a little more tolerable for Americans.  We hope that elected officials would never lead our troops into battle hastily or under false pretenses.  Now that we know our government was wrong--or lied ties us, how ever you want to look at it--we at once want to withdraw all of our troops from those regions.  But because we love our country, we still want to win the war.  What is it that nudges our sensibilities, that plays upon our conscience, creating the paradox of wanting to succeed at a war that we know was wrong to begin with?
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Well, quite simply, it’s our love for country.  It’s nationalism, which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as “advocacy of or support for the interests of one's own nation, esp. to the exclusion or detriment of the interests of other nations.” And the term differs from patriotism, “as nationalism now usually refers to a specific ideology and patriotism usually refers to a general sentiment”; they were once used interchangeably but nationalism has developed its own unique nuances.  Today, nationalism is a feeling, almost innate and cathartic within a person’s soul.
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It wasn’t until the late eighteenth century that soldiers began to fight wars for nationalistic pride in the sense that the modern West understands it today.  Before that, most wars in Western Europe were religious-based, or feudalist squabbles within or between royal families.  Subjects to the absolute despots of early-seventeenth-century Europe weren’t likely to serve in an army on behalf of their king or queen.  Even conscription wouldn’t work when half the of the warriors would abandon the cause: people of a kingdom lived in squalor and went hungry, yet paid outrages tariffs to their majesty.  Instead, the Absolutists had to hire mercenaries; most likely bands of men whose homelands were far from the kingdom they fought for.


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Middle Age Era Europeans did fight for religious beliefs, especially in the preceding few hundred years before the Protestant Reformation in 1517.   The Holy Roman Empire had numerous citizens of varying kingdoms sacrificing their lives for the sake of Christianity--but that’s piety.  However, these wars were destructive enough to reshape Europe, ironically becoming a precursor to modern nationalism.

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Before the nation-state system of world countries existed as it does today, there was nearly three hundred years of war that fractured Europe.  The 100 Years War (1337-1453) tore France in half as two factions fought over the thrown;  the Eighty Years War (1568-1684), which was fought between the Dutch and Spanish, started off as a territory dispute but escalated, gaining fervor with the Reformation; and the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), perhaps the most violent, was fought between Protestants of Northern Europe and the Holy Roman Empire. By the middle of the seventeenth century, Europe was reeling, the Holy Roman Empire broken, and people from all lands began to seek a way to coexist.
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Ratification of the Peace of Westphalia of 1648
 in Münster by Gerard Terborch (1617-1681)
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The answer came in 1648 when three treaties were established to end all holy wars in Europe. The agreements have become known as the Peace of Westphalia, named after the town in Germany where the treaties were signed.  But more than just ending the wars, the accords created the framework for today’s nation-states.  In Westphalia, the idea of sovereignty took precedence on the world stage for the first time, monarchs maintaining the right to rule over their own people as they chose, each kingdom respecting the borders of their neighbors.
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Nationalism still didn’t appear with the creation of nations.  Most immediately, absolute monarchies began to strengthen.  And though despots freed themselves of religious and political apprehension from the outside world, subjects to the throne were still repressed. They were not likely candidates to fight wars for the monarchs they detested. Not that this time yielded any great amount of war.  Keith Shimko says in his book International Relations that the major issues then were “territorial, economic and commercial, [and] questions of dynastic succession.”  There were few “ideological” conflicts, but rather, many family disputes and broken business contracts.
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The Execution of Louis XVI
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It wasn’t until after the American and French Revolutions that citizens began to fight for nationalistic pride.  In 1783 the United States separated themselves from Britain's system of divine absolutism. The French Republic overthrew the French monarchy after their “Reign of Terror,” hunting down and brutally murdering nobility, severing all royal ties to God in 1799.    Each nation eventually chose a leader who represented the people, not one who claimed divine right over a kingdom.  The result was a “popular sense of identification with [a] nation” that has enabled a “psychological change” in how war was viewed.  Governments were able to ask more from their citizens, and “people from all levels of society were more willing to make sacrifices on behalf [of their country].”  Even in modern times, such as during World War I and World War II, citizens world-wide flocked to their country’s armed forces to fight for what they felt in their heart was right.
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After the limited amount of wars during the Age of Absolutism, the world’s ability to wage war is on a scale that has never been seen before.  And technology aside, nationalism has changed the way wars are thought about, prepared for, and inevitably fought.  But at what cost does this new human quality thrive?  The battlefields of the Napoleonic Wars (1802-1815) held 500 thousand soldiers--“five times the amount of a very large battle in the pre-revolutionary era”--all for their newly established people’s dictator.  In Germany it lead to holocaust.  And it still leads to genocide today such as in Rwanda and Darfur.
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In the last one hundred years, the world has witnessed battles that ended in 500 thousand causalities.  “At the Battle of Verdun, over 400 thousand men were killed or wounded... [and] Britain lost 20 thousand men in the first day of the Battle of Somme” in the first world war.  Millions dead after world War II.  Hundreds of thousands from our ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
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After September 11, 2001, a spirit of nationalism was riveted, empowered by a need for justice, Osama Bin Laden a bone fide target.  But once the meaning of that war became politicized and propagandized under false pretenses--which delving into would be too much of a digression here--many of us began to lose faith in the cause.  Not that we stopped supporting the troops, or our country or president necessarily, but we certainly began to disagree with the reasons we were at war--which was no longer to avenge the attacks.
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If the United States was to engage in total war (where all of a nation’s resources are utilized to sustain war), I wonder if we would be able to muster the nationalistic pride to provide the manpower for success?  If 9/11 was an indicator, we may.  Even if recruitment is down after the initial surge of patriotic recruits, our government swears in 300 thousand new service men and women each year.  And this number has seen a slight increase due to the economy.  But if things were to go bad, in a country that has become so ethnically diverse, where it may be hard to dehumanize races or religions as a whole when they are our neighbors and friends, can we actually pull off a grand-scale ground war in another country? in our own? What would a battle with 500 thousand American casualties do to our ability to sustain?  Our total enlisted in all branches is 2.2 million, but what would a half-million person loss do to morale for the entire country?  I suspect that would be too large of a hit indeed.  What if we lost 500 thousand people in a nuclear attack in the US, would that garner enough pride to allow the US government engage in total war? We can’t even fiscally sustain the wars we are in now.
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But the world is getting smaller these days isn’t it? Our governments are growing interdependent.  China and the United States have practically created a symbiotic financial relationship between billion dollar loans and China’s reliance on American spending power.  Europe as a whole has banded together in the closest thing to a world government since the establishment of the United Nations, creating a trend where people of those aligned nations are beginning to find a new sense of pride by identifying themselves as being “European.” Aren’t we all too close, too important to each other to engage in another world war?
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Perhaps we take for granted that nationalism as we know it is new, and that the world order is in constant flux, capable of drastic change in short spans of time.  There are already indications that the world is trending towards a larger scope of tolerance, maybe even acceptance, as a reaction to the intolerance and alienation that have caused recent international turbulences.  Even the federal government is reaching out, establishing relations with our sworn communist enemies in Cuba and China.   As more and more of us begin to accept globalization and interdependence (even if we don’t exactly embrace it), will the imaginary lines that were created in Westphalia in 1648 that divided people into arbitrary nations one day be erased?  It is already conceivable for many Americans to consider all ethnicities and creeds as equal to the next, hindering the xenophobe factor in war-rage.  Not to mention, large wars will financially break a country even if they can find the men to man the guns.  Maybe one day nationalism will become a thing of the past along with honor of a family’s name, chivalry, and other things that have been historically worth dying for.
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