Let us pity poor nationalism. All the calamities of the twentieth century have been blamed on it. In fact, an attempt to explain the twentieth century’s social catastrophes without attributing them to the decline of empires and the totalitarian “modernization” of the world, but, instead, attributing them to nationalism is at the very least unfair, and perhaps even foolish. The two world wars were not started by nationalism, but by collapsing empires, and the new regimes stepping into their place, which sought to occupy the former power positions and realize the same totalitarian projects, regimes guided by global Communist and racist Nazi ideologies.
Moreover, empires have collapsed thanks to nationalism. It was due to the disintegration of the Russian Empire that Poland, Finland, and the Baltic states became independent – Finland at that stage was also considered a Baltic state. The British Empire was seriously shaken by the battles for Irish liberation, while the Mahatma Gandhi movement had a no less gentle impact. The last nail in the coffin of the French Empire was the war in Algiers.
This raises the simple question — where should our sympathies lie? With the nations who have liberated themselves from empires (sometimes these empires were quite liberal, such as the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but empires nonetheless) or with the fallen empires? Whose side are we on – the side of imperialism or freedom? The burden of white man or the emancipation of former colonies? Those secretly believing in the post-imperialist factor of a mission that instills a civilized way of life or the legitimacy of new nations in the world?
The belief that great powers stabilize the world and thus should not be dismantled, is truly absurd. This logic led to the outbreak of both world wars and is most likely to ignite another, if there is no timely reaction to declarations that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century. In fact, this statement by Vladimir Putin, the long-term or perhaps simply recurrent president of Russia, is different to the expression of post-imperialism syndrome in Western Europe – unlike Western politicians, Russia’s president did not even try to disguise his thoughts in his manner of speaking and thinking.
What is being discussed is not a political facade, which needs to serve as a reminder of power formerly held, but now lost, but the restoration of the Soviet Union and former empires’ borders. The world may well be better off if Russia would only apply Western postimperialism, especially the British version that allowed the English, with their trademark political humor and ability to laugh at their former pretences and grandeur, to say farewell to their imperial past.
When the tragedy of the former Yugoslavia is mentioned, and nationalism is offered as an explanation, it is hard to dismiss the thought that a helplessly superficial perspective of the problem is being taken. The Balkans were a time bomb set on delay immediately after the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It is obvious that after World War II this fragmented country was superficially brought together as a federation by Tito, thereby only preserving the Pandora’s box which was bound to fly open sooner or later.
Not nationalism but the delayed domino effect of the collapse of empires created massacres in places where the West could have and should have intervened in time but failed to do so. There is no bloodier a period in international politics than the first and last phases of an imperial cycle – it is their formation and collapse that starts long-term killing and destruction; yet in their periods of stability, they can undertake their “civilizing mission” in the colonies and maintain a power-balance-based period of relative political stability.
In this respect, are there not uncanny similarities between the massacres in Yugoslavia and Rwanda? In both cases, one group was favored at the cost of the other, which naturally sowed the seeds of their mutual deadly hate: Belgian bureaucrats and administrators chose the Tutsis, not the Hutus, to work in the police force or as minor clerks. In both cases, the passivity of the West and mere waiting to see how this set-up would end was in itself a crime. And in both cases, the empires finally collapsed and in their former colonies an artificial code of ethnic and political relations was introduced.
After these events, and in light of the increasing aggression in Russian politics, only cynics or fools can say that the nationalism of small and weak nations is the greatest threat to Europe and the world. The real threat is the delayed collapse of old empires and the resulting formation of new hegemonic derivatives. I do not wish to make allusions, but it may well be that the real and most terrible effects of the disintegration of the Soviet Union will only be felt in the possibly not-too-distant future.
Here we find ourselves in the world of modernity and ambivalence. Everything depends on social and political context. Like marriage, nationalism can easily become a tool of oppression or emancipation, traditionalism or reform, subjugation or liberation. Like the search for an identity, nationalism and patriotism come as a promise of self-comprehension and self-fulfilment in the world of ambivalence and ambiguity.
Yet if we end up as conservative nationalists fighting liberal patriots, or vice versa, we will not find a way out of this predicament.