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Nationalism and Universalism in Italian and European History Nationalism and Universalism in Italian and European History
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2013-02-01 09:52:49
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The theme of nationalism which Ovi’s contributors have been asked to address, has consumed rivers of ink. It is a veritable challenge to even attempt to condense it in a few hundred words but, for whatever their worth, here are a few synthesizing thoughts. They have appeared in greater detail in two books I have published lately. One appeared in Ovi’s bookshop as an e-book titled Europe beyond the Euro, and the other is titled Europa: an Idea and a Journey. The interested reader may wish to peruse them for a more thorough treatment of this thorny issue.

Let me begin with a sharp distinction between nationalism interpreted as patriotism, as loyalty to one’s country and respectful of the patriotism of others for their country, and blind destructive nationalism, characterized by an overzealous almost fanatical regard for one’s country alleged superiority and a misguided dishonorable disregard for others’ countries often considered inferior and resulting in innumerable wars. Even a cursory look at European history will confirm this statement.

When nationalism is positive and constructive it calls the individual to self-sacrifice, puts loyalty  high on its scale of values, it is proud of the national language, the native soil, the history and culture of the nation and the right of self-governance and determination. This is patriotism in tandem with nationalism. When nationalism is negative however it becomes exaggerated and blind to the fault of one’s nation; it turns into a destructive force leading to attempts by one nation to dominate other nations. Perhaps the best example of this kind of xenophobic destructive nationalism bent only on mere military glory and prowess is Nazi Germany, a nationalism gone crazy. More than patriotism we ought to call this kind of negative nationalism chauvinism and xenophobia. It declares “my country right or wrong.” To use a metaphor, if my mother happens to be a drunk, the best way to help her is to first acknowledge the truth that she is a drunk and then try to help her, while continuing to love her even as a drunk. The chauvinist instead proclaims “my mother, drunk or sober.” This is an important distinction often overlooked by those historians and scholars who collapse the word patriotism into nationalism.

A common language is very important but does not necessarily result in instant nationalism. In Italy, the modern European nation I am most familiar with, there was a common literary language in place since the 13th century, as exemplified in Dante’s Divine Comedy, Petrarch’s Canzoniere and Boccaccio’s Decamerone. Politically, however, we need to wait six more centuries (1860) for Italian national unification to become a reality. I shall return to this theme of nationalism vis a vis universalism further down in the essay.

To better discern the above mentioned distinction we need to go back to ancient Greece where there was indeed a common language and culture and yet they were not able by themselves to overcome centrifugal political forces and unify the city states into one country. There was however patriotism best exhibited by Leonidas’ small force of 300 Spartans confronting the invading oriental Persian “barbarians” at Thermopylae in 480 B.C. Those Spartans were sacrificing themselves for a common Greek culture, a culture spread for a short while all the way to India by Alexander the Great. So, paradoxically, the universalism of an empire succeeded where nationalism as we know it failed. In the Roman Empire too we see an empire with Latin as a lingua franca, as a unifying principle beyond military might. That empire lasted a bit longer, some two thousand years if we include the Byzantine empire which is a continuation of the Roman empire.

When we come to the Middle Ages, after the fall of the Roman Empire, another intriguing thing  happens. National languages (French, English, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, German) begin to sprout but it is the Catholic Church and Latin and more broadly speaking Christianity which continues to supply the unifying cultural factor to the whole continent of Europe. Without understanding that simple historical fact one searches in vain for the roots of European cultural identity. This is indeed something that seems to be either ignored or forgotten by the present day Europeans in search of unity beyond nationalism and sometimes finding it in inanities such as soccer games and common banks and currency, thus ending up with the cart before the horse. When Italian unification was achieved Dazeglio said “now that we have done Italy we need to make the Italians.” Similarly we now have some Europeans proclaiming that “now that we have a European Union we need to find the sources of European identity.” There would be no need to reinvent such a wheel if the Italian historical example had been better grasped and pondered.

For nationalism to arrive on the stage in Europe we need to wait for the Protestant Reformation which shatters the unity provided by Latin and the Catholic Church. And so a more narrow nationalism follows the universal experiences of the Empire, the Renaissance, the Catholic Church. The word Catholic, after all, literally means universal. So we have well formed nation states, Spain, England, Portugal, France, fighting each other incessantly either in Europe or all over the globe as they build their imperialistic empires in America, Africa and Asia. Nationalism becomes the fashion and the politically correct way to go. This despite the fact that the elite aristocracy of Europe (in Russia for example) preferred to speak French rather than their native languages. That was a form of effete cultural showmanship and not allegiance to France.

Napoleon provides the illusion of a unification of Europe but what he provided was really French imperialism with a national foundation. In America a common English does not prevent the colonists from declaring independence from its European colonizing nation and proclaiming their own independent country. Later on, the French and American revolutions advance the idea, popularized by Rousseau’s “Social Contract” and flourishing in the 19th and 20th century, that all the classes within countries comprised the nation. The people have become the nation.

In the 19th century, to men like Mazzini, Garibaldi, Verdi (see his opera Nabucco), nationalism was an ideal worth striving for and even dying for. In mid 19th century both Italy and Germany become unified countries politically, but culturally they both possessed a viable and vibrant culture centuries before. The number of sovereign nations in Europe reached 24 in 1924.

There is no doubt that nationalism played a major role in World War I. Those were the chickens coming home to roost given that the Congress of Vienna of 1815, after the demise of Napoleon, paid little attention to nationalistic aspirations in its division of European territories. Nationalism was certainly in the mind of Woodrow Wilson when he declared at the Treaty of Versailles the principle of self-determination. What you ultimately had there were for multi-national empires limited by the boundaries of their predominant nationality: Austria-Hungary, the German Empire, the Ottoman empire and the Russian empire. Certain historic states simply disappeared from the map while  Czechoslovakia, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania appeared suddenly and out of nowhere on the map of Europe.

After World War II nationalism spreads to Arab countries, India, the Far East, Africa below the Sahara, on the dovetail of European imperialism. As the UN exemplifies the world is now made up of hundred of nations despite the predictions of nationalism’s disappearance after the second World War. Nationalism in fact goes viral  and produces after World War I tyrants such as Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, Franco and Salazar, Mao, Castro, Amin; they all considered themselves super-patriots. The schizophrenia on the part of Mussolini is almost comical. On one hand he fancied himself a Roman Emperor out to restore the ancient glory of the Romans and establish Italian hegemony in the Mediterranean; on the other hand he was, monkey-like, imitating all the worst features of a narrow negative kind of European nationalism, colonialism and all, as evidenced in the most powerful European nations. Had he remembered the true glory of the Roman Empire and the Italian Renaissance and the Catholic Church he would have known that the core of that glory was not narrow nationalism but universality. Those were all universal movements to which Italy had become accustomed, thus rendering rabid nationalism a straight jacket of sort.

The question thus arises: has this gift of nationalism on the part of Europe to the rest of the world been a positive or negative one? Hard to answer such a question in the light of what we have just explored above. What remains paradoxical in all this is that Europe now claims to have abandoned nationalism forever for a sort of unifying federalism called the EU. Some no longer speak of the European Union but of the United States of Europe where nations govern themselves internally but contribute to a unified political goal and a common cultural identity and in the ideal spirit of solidarity and brotherhood, equality and liberty. But is this a reality as we speak? What about the rabid regionalism of an Umberto Bossi out to declare independence from Italy. Is that universalism or parochialism of the worst kind?

Were not egalitè, fraternitè, libertè also the ideals of the French revolution? When things were going well economically, this seemed indeed to be the case in the EU. Now that hard financial times are upon us in the West as a whole, words like solidarity seem to have suddenly disappeared from the vocabulary. What one ears is the cold utilitarian language of the bureaucrat, the banker and the venture capitalist devoid of humanistic criteria, euphemistically characterizing his capitalistic activity, based on social Darwinism, as entrepreneurship, abysmally ignorant of the genuine heritage of European civilization. Which leads one to suspect that once again, just as with Italian unification, the cart has been put before the horse and the European cultural identity remains elusive at best.  Indeed, we live in a Brave New World. 


    
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Leah Sellers2013-02-02 07:06:07
Nicely done, Brother Emanuel !
Internationally, We Humans are all tranformatively interchangeable parts being dizzyingly swirled around within a multiverse of personal and communal universes.
We are still Evolving, but can Observe, Analyze and Theorize about Our Evolution ever more closely and in Real time because of the Magic Machine called the Computer.
Our myriad of Conversatons and Sharings are Educating, Changing and Guiding us toward a far more Enlightened and Progressive future.
Tribalism continues to exist in vestiges within our Nationalism. Our various forms of Nationalism are just Magnified Expressions and Echoes of "more of the same".
Our next growth spurt and mutation within and from Nationalism is just one of many of the next excitng Chapters of the History of Humankind to come.


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