The perverted nationalism that kills

July 20, 1996|By DANIEL BERGER

THE BEST ANALYSIS of the crisis and criminality in the former Yugoslavia that I have read was buried in a biography of ''Tom Paine: A Political Life,'' by the British political scholar John Keane, published last year.

He was ostensibly describing Paine's responses in the 1790s to different nations' revolutions, when this passage occurs: ''Paine nevertheless failed to see that the struggle for national self-determination constantly risks seduction by power-hungry nationalism. Like other ideologies, nationalism is a power-grabbing, potentially dominating form of life that feeds upon a pre-existing sense of nationhood but in so doing disfigures it into a bizarre parody of itself.

''Nationalism is a pathological form of national identity. It has a fanatical core that destroys the heterogeneity of a nation by squeezing it into the Nation.

''Nationalism requires its adherents to believe in themselves and to believe that they are members of a superior community of believers known as the Nation.

''Nationalism tends to crash into the world, crushing or throttling everything that crosses its path, defending or claiming territory, always thinking of land as power and its native inhabitants as a clenched fist.

''Nationalists are driven by the feeling that all nations are caught up in an animal struggle for survival and that only the fittest survive.

''Nationalism revels in macho glory and fills the national memory with stories of noble ancestors, heroism and bravery in defeat.

''It feels itself invincible, tracks down enemies, despises foreigners, waves the flag, and, if necessary, eagerly bloodies its hands on its enemies.''

Mr. Keane goes on to say that, ''Paine was certainly not a nationalist in this sense -- quite the opposite, for he always argued against 'the passions and prejudices of Nations.' ''

In other words, Srebrenica (among many atrocities) was not Paine's fault, though only a wild overstatement of his influence might have suggested it was.

If the shoe fits

The passage purportedly inspired by the 18th-century revolutionary Tom Paine has more to do with current problems that must have been on the author's mind. Mr. Keane, who teaches at the University of Westminster and has taught in Dubrovnik, this year produced a book called ''Reflections on Violence.''

I think this passage deserves wide attention for reasons having nothing to do with Paine, which is why I have brought it up. Rarely has there been so succinct a summary of the Nazi and Fascist and Japanese imperialist ideologies that tore the world apart from the 1920s to 1940s.

In a world of the U.N., a Covenant on Genocide, the World Wide Web and frequent-flyer miles, such perverted nationalism is obsolete. The shock of Yugoslavia is that it is alive and as dangerous as ever, however harmful to the peoples it pretends to defend.

Mr. Keane's language describes the Ustashe nationalism that ruled Croatia in the 1940s and extended Hitler's genocide of Jews and Gypsies into a half-genocide, half-forced-conversion of Orthodox Serbs into Catholic Croats. It is the nationalism Franjo Tudjman revived for the new Croatia.

And this passage describes the nationalism that was whipped up by Serb intellectuals and hi-jacked by the Communist Slobodan Milosevic, who showed no signs of believing any of it until communism was dead and he needed a new rationale for personal power.

Such is the nationalism we feared in Russia from the clown Zhirinovsky or as appropriated cynically by a Zyuganov, a Lebed or a desperate Yeltsin.

How many people must die for this nationalism so that Milosevic can monopolize power in Serbia? They are still digging up bodies at Srebrenica to find out.

Daniel Berger writes editorials for The Sun.

Pub Date: 7/20/96

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