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Holm-Detlev Köhler

​Nationalism, today's world's great misfortune

Professor of Sociology at the University of Oviedo

"We have known since the eighteenth century, thanks to the Enlightenment and the subsequent commitment of critical historians, that all national histories and patriotic creeds are based on myths (...), since these myths, handled unscrupulously as an offensive weapon to proscribe reason and falsify history, they can favour and cohere the affirmation of insurmountable "differential facts", aggressive quality identities and, in the end, irrational glorifications of one's own and systematic denigrations of what is foreign. " (Juan Goytisolo).


Nationalism as a mass political phenomenon is something quite recent. Before the First World War, only about twenty European and American Countries had anything like a national conscience. Nineteenth century nationalists regarded national unification as the overcoming of separatisms and 'balkanization' over ethnic, cultural and linguistic differences. Only at the end of the 19th century did essentialist ideas of ethnic-cultural nations emerge as expressions of ancient collective subjects in search of their self-realization in the form of nation-states. Any serious analysis not only reveals these constructions as myths and invented artefacts, but also denies the possibility of the coincidence between an ethnically and culturally homogeneous nation with a given territory. 

Neither has the ethnic cleansing of nationalist governments been able to eliminate the plurinationality of any particular territory.

It was not the nations that created their own Countries, rather the modern Countries with their monopolies of centralized power that through military, educational, cultural policies, and particularly using considerable repression, fostered a process of national construction among their multicultural, multi-ethnic and multi-linguistic populations. The imposition of a single official culture and the invention of a common enemy, that of a constant foreign threat, created nations. Modern nations are the result of state repression of non-official cultures and wars against external enemies.

The ideological dimension of the construction of nations brings national history, the invention of a collective memory, of traditions and experiences lived by generations, of heroic legends, of promised lands, of historical rights, of an imaginary subject that walks through the history of humanity fighting for its integrity as a national body. Contrary to nationalist ideologies, neither language nor culture nor common history was at the root of a nation, rather a State that introduced and imposed a national language, culture and history through its new monopoly of central violence by destroying existing cultures and falsifying the real story and inventing a national fiction. Countries became nation-states creating symbols, flags, hymns, museums, parties, sports, and so on, thus nationalizing the multitudes of peoples existing in their territories.


The romantic notion of a cultural nation of the late nineteenth century served as a hinge for the perversion of nationalism from an emancipatory and revolutionary ideology to the ideological base of twentieth-century totalitarianism. 

The French Revolution established the political nation as the voluntary uniting of equal the general public in rights and united by unconditional respect for universal human and civil rights. 

Equality and individual freedom united all the inhabitants above and beyond their ethnic, religious, linguistic and cultural differences. It was around the change from the nineteenth to the twentieth century when nationalism adopted its current exclusionary, racist, anti-Semitic, irrational and totalitarian character. It became transformed from a unifying force into a dividing and secessionist force.

In 1898, the founder of the Action Française Charles Maurras proclaimed "You are nothing, your people are everything" expressing clearly this reactionary turn of nationalism, according to which is not the citizen who is free, but rather the national body that monopolizes the rights of decision and governance (national self-determination). The definitive defeat of proletarian internationalism on the eve of the First World War that turned all proletarians and bourgeoisie into soldiers of nations opened the way to the genocides and crimes against humanity of the 20th century, all committed in the name of the nation. 

Hitler and Stalin turned socialism into national-socialism and national-Bolshevism with all its terrible consequences.

The imposition of national languages is a good example of violence in national homogenization. Not even 10% of the total population of France spoke French or could understand the revolutionary declarations at the end of the 18th century, and the first Italian parliament of Torino 1860 spoke French because not even 3% of the Italy of the Risorgimento spoke the Tuscany dialect, which subsequently became Italian. The iron discipline of the barracks and schools would take generations to kill the popular languages and impose a single dialect as a national language, a process that lasted in all cases until the twentieth century, thus doing what Antonio de Nebrija (1492) had already tried with their first Castilian grammar: to make language a weapon of the empire.


With the victory of the principle of "national self-determination", proclaimed by the US president. Woodrow Wilson at the end of World War I and the collapse of utopias and internationalist movements, political legitimacy passed definitively from democratic universalist principles to the nation. The idea of identity between cultural, ethnic and linguistic borders with state borders has served since then as a mobiliser of warlike confrontations throughout the world. National unity functions as a civil religion above any other social or political objective. 

A person becomes a citizen not by a human right, individual and civil, but by being part of the national body.

The development of mono-ethnic, mono-linguistic and mono-cultural populations can only be achieved by four types of policy: forced assimilation through state coercion, mass expulsion of large populations (ethnic cleansing), genocide, or policies of "apartheid"; those that convert all those who are not part of the dominant group into foreigners or second class the general public. The formation of nations was an unparalleled destructive process of cultures, languages and popular traditions.

In today's world, there are more than a thousand ethnic groups and more than 6,000 languages are spoken. If the formation of national units were the solution, reducing this number to the establishment of an international system of nation-states would be a quite bloody and Darwinian solution, something like a Yugoslavia of the 90s, permanent. The continuous attempt to order the world according to this principle can only lead to an eternal bloody struggle.

There is no case in which a large community has a national history, a considerable antiquity, a historical continuity or ethnic homogeneity. In these circumstances, the nation is an invention as absurd as it is of great historical transcendence because of our inability to learn from our own history. 

Nationalism had emerged in the late nineteenth century to become the most powerful belief system of the twentieth century. 

Its strength lies in its simplicity, it is an empty box of content that can be filled with any ideology to form a national-Catholicism, a national-socialism or a national-Bolshevism to elevate the people in question to something higher when confronted with enemies from outside.

This flexibility and simplicity makes nationalism so strong in our times of little religious faith and the failure of other 'isms' of greater ideological content such as liberalism, socialism, anarchism, fascism or communism. All these ideologies proved at some point the alliance with nationalism to finally be absorbed or defeated by it. "No ideology has been able to compete with nationalism in its macabre power to turn men into assassins, both in times of peace and war" (Andrés de Blas Guerrero). Being a nationalist does not require any intellectual effort and this is the secret of its success. Nationalism provides the easiest and cheapest collective identity, you do not have to think about something in common, rather only something that separates you from others. In a globalised and fluid world (Zygmunt Bauman) of fragmentation of biographies and cultures, nationalism provides a seemingly solid identity.


George Orwell (1945) defined a nationalist as someone who thinks only in terms of competitive prestige, whose thinking always revolves around victories and defeats, triumphs and humiliations. Nationalism is the thirst for power mitigated with self-deception. After the terrible experience of the Second World War, the European intellectuals and democrats considered the overcoming of nationalism in its political and cultural forms the most urgent and priority task of humanity, a task that still has not been completed today.

"Today, the idea of the nation-state is the great misfortune of Europe and of all the continents". While this idea represents today the omnipotent destructive force in the world, we could begin by analyzing and overcoming it from its roots. (Karl Jaspers: Freedom and reunification: on the tasks of German politics, Munich 1960, p.53).



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