The “nation-state” system is widely believed to have begun in 1648, after the Thirty Years War ended the Holy Roman Empire and created mankind’s belief in the centrality of being part of something, “nation” (Peace of Westphalia). Henceforth, the division of the world’s political existence has derived from two separate but equal conceptual designs. The first is geographic (territory) and the other is legal (sovereignty).
Empires to Nations
The “Westphalian” system still defines the political globe, although it is comparatively “recent” in the longer run. Prior to 1648, the vast majority of political systems comprised “imperial” designs, “empires,” that stretched across regional land boundaries or, more recently, maritime “colonial” regimes tied together by navies.
The largest land empire was the Mongol regime begun by Genghis Kahn in the thirteenth century, which stretched from Mongolia and China, through India and Persia to eastern Europe. The largest maritime empire was British and governed about one-fifth of the world in the late nineteenth century.
Today, all the empires have vanished, while almost 200 “nation-states,” most of them former imperial subjects, exist more-or-less united by their differences.
These differences comprise the meaning of the word “nation.” The underlying meaning of the “nation-state” term collects both words and joins one people to one political association. Whether the association is democratic, tyrannical, authoritarian, or other makes little difference. They are “one” by definition and define each other by that criteria.
The Communist Soviet Union fought World War II as “nationalist” Russia and both Imperial and Fascist Germany fought both world wars united by their common heritage as “volk.” This is characteristic and shared universally, whether by Ecuador, Indonesia, or Latvia.
“Nationalism,” therefore, has become the most important sociological definition in modern history. Hans Kohn, the great historian of nationalism, has characterized the idea as the only one that humanity “will die for.” This implies that the same concept lies behind all the major secular, religious, or political movements, whether communist, fascist, democratic, or theocratic. Communist can mean Russian or Chinese, Fascism can be Italian or German, Democratic can be American or British, Jewish can be Israel, and Muslim can be Iraq or Iran.
“Colors” often define nationality. Communists were “red,” Nazi’s were “brownshirts,” the SS wore “black,” today’s America is either “red” or “blue,” the Chinese were “yellow,” Indians were “red” also. There are people “of color” by any variation: American nationalists are “white,” as is some form of “supremacy.” Irish-Catholics are “green,” as opposed to the “orange” or Protestant.
Even the services wear distinctive colors. Navies are attractive shades of “blue” and “bright white;” armies are drab, “khaki,” “field grey.”
The proper definition of nationalism, at its base level, is “a sense of national consciousness … and placing primary emphasis on promotion of its culture and interests.” Within itself, nationalism represents unity; among others, it represents division. Synonyms of the term may represent both forms, including patriotism, sectionalism, and jingoism. Like the term “human nature,” nationalism can be held responsible for all phases of behavior, from war and violence to stability and peace.
Professor Kohn, in his many books on the subject, recognized all aspects of the phenomenon. In The Idea of Nationalism (1944), he distinguished between a European, or German, brand that rested its authority on ethnic, geographic, or racial definitions. Thus, we have concepts such as “Motherland,” “Fatherland,” and other manifestations of aggressive or hostile peoples who were housed next to one another with tight borderlands and armed against each by armed cultures. These nations, he wrote, found their “justification in the natural fact of a community, held together not by the will of its members nor by any obligation of contract, but by traditional ties of kinship and status” (p. 331).
By contrast, English and American nationalism was bound by conceptual definitions of law and social contract and organized around theological and political definitions based upon human liberty. Thus, he wrote, “America became the vanguard of mankind, full of a proud and blissful faith in its mission. This faith of the American people in itself and its mission made it a nation” (p. 308).
The English/American brand of nationalism was tied to their geopolitical separation from continental boundaries that provided for capitalist economies, maritime dominance, and the growth at home of democracy and political liberty.
Although Hans Kohn is long gone (d. 1971), he would undoubtedly revise his original definition of how the American “experiment” has survived the test of time. Instead of a country that had suffered the attacks of both Fascist and Communist ideological and nationalist challenges, while managing to survive both economic depression and political turmoil, he would find a citizenry in a condition of self-doubt and profound confusion.
The unity that survived Pearl Harbor, Adolf Hitler, Stalin, Khrushchev, Mao, and a Cold War for global survival now suffers through partisan divisions, historic revision, and an indifference to world order that promise to undermine the very fabric of what was once “a city upon a hill.”
There is still nationalism in America, but it is on the defensive against a “post-modern” cultural attack that dominates opinion circles. From the academy, media, theater, “millennials,” and parts of the political class, the symbolic nationalism of today’s America would be fictitious: Simon Legree (from Uncle Tom’s Cabin).
“Blame-game” dominates most conversations, the media, and even sports. Talk shows are largely political, comedy has become dark, and award ceremonies are judged by their advocacies. There is little left of any concept that can come close to the idea “nation,” and instead we see a set of divisive “isms,” illegal immigrants and “sanctuary” cities, divisions defined by colors, and historic symbols removed from public view.
If there is anything left of a “people,” it is well-hidden.
Kohn recognized this phenomenon in other cultures in his history lessons many years ago. As such: “we do not know ourselves any longer, we are estranged from one another. Our spirit has departed from us” (p. 374).
Rather than a nation, we have become a “collection of sociologies.” “Me” (too), “Black” (lives), “White” (supremacy), “Color” (people), “Gender” (alphabet).
A true smorgasbord of homo sapiens, each obsessed with self.