Russell and Duenes

The rational, er, national animals

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I dipped into a book on Churchill and Hitler last weekend and came across this passage on “nationalism.” I think it is relevant to my earlier contention that nationalism is more significant, and likely has a more godly purpose, than western Christians often assume. John Lukacs writes,

“It is senseless to consider ideas as if they were independent of human beings. This is true about every one of the forces and movements of history, which ultimately are the results of ideas rather than of material elements, since the latter are but the outcomes of ideas. The incarnations of the main historical factors are now, as they have been for several centuries, the nations of the world. This was not always so in the past, and it will not always be so in the future. The modern nation – as distinct from the state – is a relatively recent development. Marx and Lenin and much of the democratic social science notwithstanding, the great wars and struggles of the twentieth century were, and still are, those of the nations rather than the classes of the world…The principal force of the twentieth century is nationalism. It has been the fatal, or near fatal, error of Communism as well as Democracy to ignore that until it is – almost – too late. The greatest and most powerful apostle of modern nationalism was Adolf Hitler. But he, too, was not alone. He was a superlative – I am employing this word not in its commendatory sense – incarnation of a historical movement that, at least for twenty or twenty-five years, in novel forms seemed to overrun the world…We know, and we often forget, that eventually it took the combined forces of the, in many ways unusual and short-lived, alliance of Britain, the United States and Soviet Russia to defeat Germany. None of them – not even the alliance of any two of them, not even the tremendous material weight of the British and the American empires – could accomplish that. This was not merely the result of the fighting qualities, the organization and the discipline of the German armed forces, though it had much to do with that. It had much, perhaps even more, to do with the fact that the idea Hitler incarnated and represented was a very powerful one. This is why it is not only historically wrong but dangerous to see Hitler and Hitlerism as no more than a strange parenthesis in the history of the twentieth century, the transitory rise and fall of a madman.” {Emphasis mine} (John Lukacs, “The Duel: The Eighty-Day Struggle Between Churchill and Hitler,” [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990], 10-11.)
But this is to cast nationalism in an entirely bad light, as it almost always is when it is associated with Nazi Germany. The upshot is we get people who think that singing “God Bless America” at a baseball game is some kind of “crazy nationalism,” as one person put it to me. Westerners and not least among them, Christians, associate nationalism with its more radical forms, and thus miss the forest for the trees. My contention is that this thing that Hitler embodied – which he did in a profoundly evil manner – and the thing that the German people got swept up in, still retains something of God’s purpose for the nations when understood biblically. Something about ethno-national identity touches a deep part of us that transcends rational thought. It is a powerful impulse within humankind. Perhaps in its positive forms and expressions, it is something implanted by God. I’m still pondering it and asking questions. For example, was it a good thing that some deep emotion was set off within me when I heard the National Anthem during my month-long stay in Kazakhstan back in 1995? Or was this an entirely evil nationalistic impulse that must be killed off with “the old man?” I don’t know for sure, but I believe that Trinity College professor, Walker Connor, puts his hand on something important in his chapter, Man is a RNational Animal. He says, “It is, then, the character of appeals made through and to the senses, not through and to reason, which permit us some knowledge of the subconscious convictions that people tend to harbor concerning their nation. The near universality with which certain images and phrases appear – blood, family, brothers, sisters, mother, forefathers, ancestors, home – and the proven success of such invocations in eliciting massive, popular responses tell us much about the nature of national identity” (Ethnonationalism [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994], 205).

Written by Michael Duenes

March 18, 2010 at 4:21 am

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