Ethnic Nationalism and the End of History

One of the ideas which has, perhaps more than any other, led to war and suffering in the modern age, is the idea that countries should have clear ethnic/national identities which define their borders. This is something that we in the the US, which has been heavily defined by immigration and thus lacks a distinct ethnic national identity, but it is something which comes into stark relief when we look at conflicts in other parts of the world.

Of these, the one that gets the most press is, of course, the conflict over the Holy Land, where different factions insist that the same ground should belong to either a Jewish State or a Palestinian State. This leads to strife because obviously if the state in a given area is specifically intended to belong to one ethnic or cultural group, then members of other groups must either leave or see themselves as living in someone else’s country.

This would work very well if various ethnic groups had spontaneously generated from the soil of different regions, but this is not the case. (After all, if you trace it back far enough, we’re all Africans.) Recorded history is one long story of migrations, conquests and assimilations. And so in most cases where two different ethnic or cultural groups claim the same territory, they are both right, they are just pointing to different periods in history. This is true not only when we look into the past, but also, unless we assume an end to history, as we look into the future.

Thus, for instance, those who oppose the state of Israel often point out that Jews were a minority in the Holy Land prior to 1948, as if the question of the ethnic make-up of the region at that particular moment in history should settle the question of who controls the land in perpetuity. But, of course, the history of nearly any region is the history various cultural and ethnic groups moving in, gaining dominance, and fading in their turn. England, for instance, was invaded by Romans, by the Angles, Jutes and Saxons, by the Danes, by the Normans. Greece and Asia Minor have a long history of back-and-forth stretching back into mythology with the Trojan War, and ending with the mutual expulsion by modern Greece and Turkey of each other’s ethnic groups in the ’20s — ending at least 2800 years of Aegean polyglot history with the stroke of a modern border-drawing pen.

This idea that countries should be dominated by a single ethnic or cultural group resulted in a number of mass expulsions during the 20th century, of which the flight of Palestinians from Israel during the ’48 was is certainly not the largest. The partition of India and Pakistan resulted in the displacement of over 12 million people, and estimates for the death toll range from range from “only” several hundred thousand up to a million. After World War II, East Prussia completely ceased to exist, ending it’s 800 year history. A total of 12 million ethnic Germans were deported from other countries into Germany after World War II, some from areas in which they had lived for up to a millennium, in order to assure that the new Europe would be ethnically homogeneous enough to avoid future wars, with roughly half a million dying in the process. The history of the Balkans in the 20th century is practically one long history of attempts at ethnic cleansing based on this concept of ethnic and cultural nationalism.

The mildly depressing thing is that these actions are generally considered successful when massive dislocations achieve their objective of ethnically and culturally united countries (as with the largest dislocations, those in Europe and between India and Pakistan) and only remain well recognized tragedies when the region remains unstable, as with the Holy Land and the Balkans.

So long as this idea that each cultural and ethnic group deserves its own country, and that that country must be on a particular piece of ancestral ground remains dominant, we can continue to expect wars and dislocations to result from it. It is an idea which is at odds with history. Attempts by international organizations to broker these disputes in a sense only give them more legitimacy, with many international organizations now endorsing two incompatible ideas: That on the one hand groups with “national identities” deserve to have their own countries and to do so on their ancestral lands, and that on the other hand that people have a human right to immigrate where they want.

This is not to say that conflict could be avoided by dropping this idea of nationalism. Conflicts have always resulted as cultural and ethnic groups have expanded their territory or migrated, and people who find themselves pushed out of or out numbered in areas in which their ancestors have lived for generations have always resented it and sought to reverse the process. But the idea that people have an absolute right to expect expansions and migrations not to take place, and that international organizations will step in to stop such events for occurring or reverse them, does nothing but grant further length and strength to that natural conflict.

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  1. And of course the only way an international organization, the farcial UN for example, can do this is if it has member states willing to supply the military muscle to accomplish it. Prior to 1945 of course the West colonized most of the planet. This is now regarded as a cardinal sin. Israel is treated at the UN as one of the western colonizers, whereas it is as much a successor state of the Ottoman Empire as the Arab states which confront it. The truly hilarious aspect of this affair is that the same people who are hot for a Palestinian state in one breath, are often the same folks who talk ceaselessly about open borders, so long as it is third world immigrants, legal and otherwise, flooding into a Western country. Beneath the surface of all this, I discern no general principle, but merely fairly nasty ethnic politics and strife dressed up in new names.

  2. I don’t see the conflict between national self-determination and a right to migration. National self-determination doesn’t have to involve expulsion and it shouldn’t. But really what’s wrong with South Sudan seceding? In fact, I think we need more of it.

  3. If what a groups with national self determination wants is a state which “belongs” to their particular ethnic/cultural group, then naturally they will be afraid of large numbers of other people moving in, since then the immigrants might self determine and make “their” state.

    This is, for instance, why Palestinians don’t want Jewish settlements in the West Bank, and why hard core Zionists don’t want any Muslims in Israel.

  4. The struggle against the authority of ethnic and national identities is – as is modernism in general – a struggle against human nature. And modernism has slaughtered far greater numbers of human beings than tribalism.

  5. The struggle against the authority of ethnic and national identities is – as is modernism in general – a struggle against human nature. And modernism has slaughtered far greater numbers of human beings than tribalism.

    The idea that each ethnic/culture group deserves its own country via national self determination is itself a very modern concept. After all, the whole of the Holy Land used to be ruled quite successfully by the Turks.

    In a sense, I wonder if democracy creates the situation for this kind of problem. After all, if you’re all ruled by the Turkish autocracy, it doesn’t really matter if your neighbor is a Jew or a Palestinian or a Copt or an Egyptian. But if you all vote and that determines how the country is ruled, then suddenly you want the country to mostly be composed of people like you.

    The way out of that, arguably, is having a national sense which is based on something other than ethnic identity. The US, for instance, has this to a large extent. But I’m not clear this is something one can just summon up because it seems like it would be a good idea.

  6. Maybe open migration is asking for too much but we can support the right to self-determination without supporting expulsion.

    Agreed, I guess, so long as we’re realistic about the fact that self-determination usually results in expulsion, whether we support it or not.

    For instance, with Sudan splitting, I was listening to a BBC interview the other day with people of South Sudan elasticities are getting ready to leave Northern Sudan, and fearing reprisals now that they’re “foreigners”. I would imagine the same is happening in the South as well. Though it’s not like Sudan has been a beacon of peace lately anyway…

  7. The idea that each ethnic/culture group deserves its own country via national self determination is itself a very modern concept.

    Substitute “will form” for “deserves”, and “community” for “country via national self-determination”, and you have the human condition.

    I agree that nationalism is relatively new: a product of Protestant Divine-right theology as much as anything else.

    But the attempt to abolish authoritative ethnic and cultural communities through nationalization (and now globalization), to force-fit all of humanity into a uniform (while called “diverse”) modernist schema of formal political equality (often though not always with democracy as a the instantiation of this principle), is quite peculiar to modernity.

    Furthermore, since it goes against human nature it cannot but ultimately fail; though it can do (and does) lots of killing in the meantime.

  8. Belloc quoted Cardinal Manning that all wars are, at bottom, religious.

    Belloc also noted the anomaly of the League of Nations [“Masonic rubbish”], which did not allow for representation of one of the largest groups on the planet: the Muslims.

    He also pointed out that nationalism was taking the place of religion.

  9. As much as we on the right sometimes deride the primacy of “diversity and tolerance” among American values, there is a core nugget of this which we would do well to export to the rest of the world.

    Like, “yes, it is possible to have a stable state composed of people who differ widely in religious practice or non-practice, ethnic makeup, and political opinions, and yet do not take machetes to each other on a regular basis. You should try it sometime.”

  10. “I agree that nationalism is relatively new: a product of Protestant Divine-right theology as much as anything else.”

    Actually it isn’t. During the Hundred Years War, the English used to say that Jesus was English and the Pope was French due to the Babylonian Captivity of the Church with the series of French Popes at Avignon. Nationalism is old as the city-states of Sumer.

    “Belloc also noted the anomaly of the League of Nations [“Masonic rubbish”], which did not allow for representation of one of the largest groups on the planet: the Muslims.”

    Belloc never tired of making an ass out of himself in regard to the Masonic bogey-man. In regard to Islam he was prescient enough back in the Thirties in his book on the Crusades to predict that Islam would awake and be a deadly threat to the West.

  11. “Belloc never tired of making an ass out of himself in regard to the Masonic bogey-man”.

    Insert after Belloc “and the popes” and correct the numbers.

    Belloc’s most prescient study of Islam comes in his THE GREAT HERESIES.

    In his THE BATTLEGROUND, he predicted that Syria [Palestine] would continue to be a battleground. He also asked after the British guarantee of Palestine whether England would continue to guarantee that declaration. It certainly did not continue with Poland.

    The “ass” seems to have foreseen the current state of the world and the growing dominance of Islam.

  12. You are correct Austin that more than a few popes saw masons under every bed also. The Brits tended to be more attuned to potential threats from Islam since they ruled so many muslims. Churchill made similar observations about Islam. This is from his The River War( 1899), his history of Kitchener’s Sudan campaign in which he participated:

    “How dreadful are the curses which Mohammedanism lays on its votaries! Besides the fanatical frenzy, which is as dangerous in a man as hydrophobia in a dog, there is this fearful fatalistic apathy.

    The effects are apparent in many countries. Improvident habits, slovenly systems of agriculture, sluggish methods of commerce, and insecurity of property exist wherever the followers of the Prophet rule or live.

    A degraded sensualism deprives this life of its grace and refinement; the next of its dignity and sanctity. The fact that in Mohammedan law every woman must belong to some man as his absolute property, either as a child, a wife, or a concubine, must delay the final extinction of slavery until the faith of Islam has ceased to be a great power among men.

    Individual Moslems may show splendid qualities, but the influence of the religion paralyses the social development of those who follow it.

    No stronger retrograde force exists in the world. Far from being moribund, Mohammedanism is a militant and proselytizing faith. It has already spread throughout Central Africa, raising fearless warriors at every step; and were it not that Christianity is sheltered in the strong arms of science, the science against which it had vainly struggled, the civilization of modern Europe might fall, as fell the civilization of ancient Rome.”

  13. It is a great curiosity that the name of Belloc arouses so much irritation. Possibly because he was accurate in his political assessments.
    “Masons under every bed” echoes the 1940s/50s comment about seeing Communists under every bed. Then the Soviet empire collapsed. Their archives demonstrated that there were, indeed, Communists under many beds.
    More to the point [if one wishes to stick to the point] is Belloc’s assessment of Islam and the reason for its astonishingly rapid spread: simplification.

  14. Not irritation Austin but simple understanding. I’ve read most of what Belloc wrote for publication. At his best he was superb. At his worst he was an early charter member of the tin-foil hat brigade. This was normally elicited when he wrote on three of the great bug-a-boos of his life: Masons, Jews and Capitalism. For a sample of Belloc at his worst I would recommend reading his 1922 book The Jews in which he recommends treating all Jews as a separate nation.

    The tome was certainly not in the league of the anti-Semitism of the Nazis, a movement that Belloc was an early opponent of, but is crack-brained enough on its own terms.

  15. I suppose “it all depends”.

    Many Jews applaud Belloc’s book THE JEWS. His fictitious account of the meeting of a young Jew with Our Lord is a marvelous profession of faith. Of the Jews themselves, he commented “Poor dears, they rejected their Savior”.

    You might give an example of one or two of his “crackpot ideas”.

    You sidestep the matter of his book THE BATTLE. He noted that Palestine [Syria] continues to be a major battlefield as it has been for many centuries [even millennia]. He also gives a fine outline of the military geography of the area.

    I note that Israel was founded as a nation for Jews. And in our own country, Jews tend to congregate together. Indeed they seem to prefer to be noted as different. Intermarriage is a great lament of many thoughtful Jews, with its attendant loss of Jewish identity.

    I am uncertain of the meaning of “the tin-foil hat brigade”.

    But I leave off this pointless discussion. Like the husband of the editor of COMMONWEAL you seem determined to depict Belloc in an unflattering light. I have never understood the rationale behind this aversion to Belloc. He was kindly man, and a good and humorous writer “who never lost a friend except to death”.

  16. Actually Belloc was a self-described curmudgeon, and often earned his nickname of “Old Thunder”. He could be a brilliant conversationalist and a great friend; at other times he could be a pain in the rump to all and sundry. “Tin-foil hat brigade” is a reference to someone who embraces looney-tune ideas, like treating Jews as if they were foreigners in the nations they are citizens of.

    Oh, and your quote in reference to Belloc is from a conversation he had with Hugh Kingsmill and Hesketh Pearson. Here is the full quote:

    “Belloc: It was the Dreyfus case that opened my eyes to the Jew question. I’m not an anti-Semite. I love ’em, poor dears. Get on very well with them. My best secretary was a Jewess. Poor darlings — it must be terrible to be born with the knowledge that you belong to the enemies of the human race.

    Kingsmill: Why do you say the Jews are the enemies of the human race?

    Belloc: The Crucifixion”

  17. A nation or state needs something by which it can define itself. At one time matters of religion, or tribal affiliation (not quite the same as ethnicity, since you can certainly marry into a tribe), or allegiance to a king, and the like could define a nation-state. Physical boundaries, borders, and the like can also be the defining point.

    Ethno-nationalism just happens to be the dominant theme in these definitions over the last hundred years or so, and this has a lot to do with the decline of traditional powers and identities.

    The US alternative was a state based on a common set of ideals, and laws, and a degree of shared culture, history, politics, and morality. As the ties that bind the US grow ever weaker, our culture degrades, our morality becomes ever more varried, our politics becomes less common, and we neglect our common history some other thing will need to take its place. I think much of the partisanship is related to this. As those old ties have faded the affiliation of party is taking up some of the slack. In certain areas a virtual ethno-nationalism is alive in well, in the extreme cases the gangs show this.

    Nations with a clear sense of identity and strong bonds can deal with immigration rather more easily and with far less danger than can a nation with weaker identity. I suspect when a nations identity is weak, or is shifting or being challenged, would be the times that anti-immigration views would be the strongest.

    Ultimately a country has to be held together by some sort of common way of seeing and identifying itself. After all, human society, and in fact all human social contact and communications, is grounded in what we hold in common, not our differences.

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