Don't Fear Emerging Nationalism They Can't Have Democracy Without It


August 12, 1991|By GEORGE F. WILL

WASHINGTON — Washington. - When in 1840 France moved Napoleon's remains from St. Helena to the Invalides, the Duke of Wellington said he didn't ''care a twopenny damn'' what was done with his old enemy. Europe has suffered much since then, and is wiser, or at least more wary.

So there is uneasiness because, on Aug. 17, Germany will move to Berlin the remains of Frederick the Great. They have been in southern Germany since removed from the path of the Red Army in 1945.

Frederick is considered the founder of German militarism, which is considered inextricably entwined with German nationalism, which is considered embryonic Nazism. Both Germany and nationalism are too important to be so misunderstood.

Nazism was Hitler's creation and died with him. His first political act was to immigrate from Austria to Germany in 1913; his second was to join the tiny Nazi party in 1919; his third was violence against the German state the Munich putsch attempt of 1923. He held no office before he became chancellor.

In that office, ever attentive to civic liturgy, he subordinated national symbols to party symbols such as the swastika, national anthems to party anthems such as the Horst Wessel song, and national festivals to party festivals.

Hitler was never really chief of state. He was Fuhrer, personal leader, head of a party composed of a dust of disaffected Germans, into which he breathed life. He despised state structures as inhibitions on his discretion. On Nov. 27, 1941, when Germany's offensive had stalled before Moscow but before a Red Army counterattack, Hitler said: ''If one day the German nation is not sufficiently strong or sufficiently ready for sacrifice to stake its own blood for its existence, then let it perish and be annihilated by some stronger power . . . In that case I shall shed no tears for the German nation.''

In his slender, profound volume, ''The Meaning of Hitler,'' Sebastian Haffner noted that in 1918, Gen. Erich Ludendorff, dictator but a nationalist, curtailed Germany's suffering by seeking an armistice before there was a single foreign soldier on German soil. In contrast, Hitler, on Aug. 22, 1944, prepared for national immolation by arresting 5,000 former civic leaders.

In April 1945, Hitler ordered the destruction of everything that could sustain German life -- bridges, water systems, etc. He treated Germany in 1944-5 much as he had treated Poland in 1939-44.

His most formidable European opponents were Churchill and De Gaulle, fierce nationalists who understood the radical evil of his rejection of the nation-state as a moral agency, a frame for the fulfillment of citizens through self-government. Just as Karl Marx read nations out of history, replacing them with classes, Hitler saw nations as subordinate to races: ''All events in world history are merely the manifestation of the self-preservation drive of the races.''

Suspicion of nationalism, deriving from a misinterpretation of modern history, is weakening U.S. foreign policy. Two premises of that policy are incompatible. One is that the spread of democracy spreads peace and so should be encouraged. The second is that nationalism is usually unpleasant in motive, dangerous in effect and inimical to democracy, and so should be discouraged.

Part of Marxism's charm for intellectuals (aside from the ''vanguard'' role as mankind's tutors that it assigned to intellectuals) was its disparagement of nations: Workers have no fatherland. Liberal intellectuals, preferring cosmopolitanism to patriotism and unfettered reason to national traditions in shaping the lives of societies, regard nationalism as a pre-modern atavism.

But in the modern age, democracy presupposes nationalism. Nationalism is a sense of shared destiny based on a common history and civic culture within a particular territory. It involves wholesome pride in ancestral traditions and local particularities.

As Noel Malcolm writes, democracy is rule by the people and nationalism is a precondition for the formation of a people. It is, he says, contemptible for diplomats from independent nations to lecture captive peoples in the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia about the undesirability of national independence.

Democracy became possible when distinct peoples acquired national rather than religious or dynastic loyalties. Democracy can prosper in the old Soviet sphere only when nationalisms, long suppressed by anti-national ideologies, flourish.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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