Scourge of the 21st century

As anthrax hysteria spreads across North America, a more vicious plague poses a very real threat to mankind. Born following the Peace of Westphalia, the concept of nationalism is among the most destructive forces in society today.

Nationalism has more often than not proven divisive and violent, especially in recent history. Factional violence, political assassinations and ethnic cleansings are on the rise as a result of self-determination–the belief that every self-appointed "distinct" group has the unassailable right to a piece of land to call their own. This idea is at the heart of nationalism and continues to manifest itself in the 21st century.

Examples of the barbarous precursors to nationalism are the repressive and ethnocentric dynasties of what is now known as China. While artistically and technologically advanced, the ruling dynasties–particularly the Manchu Dynasty–elevated their culture and their ethnicity by degrading and belittling all other groups in the process. While nationalism was non-existent at the time of the Manchu Dynasty, the underlying notions of ethnic, cultural and regional superiority form its modern day foundation.

In the 20th century, nationalist ideology displayed its potential for damage. After losing out in the Treaty of Versailles following the First World War, Germany was burdened under the weight of reparations and a host of other externally-imposed and enforced conditions. As a result, the capacity of the German military and economy were severely hindered, leading to unemployment and massive inflation–ideal conditions for revolution.

What followed is no secret. The rise to power of fascist dictator Adolf Hitler was both a product of German nationalist pride and the rest of Europe fearing the capabilities of the German state.

The economic misfortune of many Germans coupled with the ability of foreigners and those with external contacts to acquire wealth led to a societal desire for blame. When Hitler began celebrating the glory of Aryan peoples and the German state while denigrating immigrants and minorities, the citizens empathized and believed. As a people who felt slighted by the rest of Europe and threatened by foreigners–primarily Jews–residing within their borders, they were quick to ascribe to the National Socialist Party’s explanation of their condition. The answer presented by Hitler was simple: we need more land for our superior Aryan civilization to flourish and eliminate the influence of wealthy foreigners who control our economy and monopolize our wealth.

The Second World War, more specifically the Holocaust, is among the greatest human tragedies of modern history. It is also an example of nationalism taken to its chilling extreme. Some argue it was racism and nothing more, but that is a dangerously simple viewpoint. By elevating Aryan culture, indeed German culture, Hitler demeaned all other cultures. By saying Aryans were superior, he told German people that all others are less valuable, less worthy, less important.

This is true face of nationalism–the notion that we are better than you, that we are better than everyone else, and that if you aren’t with us, you must be against us.

That’s not to say that there have never been any significant accomplishments as a result of nationalism. The fall of the Soviet Union relied heavily on people rallying around the one thing they shared–their nationality. Poland, a country that has had it’s share of troubles over the years, is a brilliant example of this.

Initially a Polish labour movement in the shipyards, Solidarity moved into the political arena and exploited nationalist ideology and methodology to gain widespread popular support and, ultimately, an independent Polish state.

Regardless, the fact that something as arbitrary and synthetic as nationality, ancestry or religious affiliation can legitimize hatred, repression or warfare is horrifying. Americans and Afghans, Catholics and Protestants differ solely in matters of geography, belief or skin tone. None are superior, none are inferior. Nationalism refutes that fact–it develops a hierarchy where one simply doesn’t exist. It promotes arrogance, dominance and assimilation.

In short, nationalism is racism. It is just as indiscriminate and it is just as destructive.

Lawrence Bailey can be reached at