Fervent, wide-spread nationalism can serve as a lightning rod for the most heinous of human atrocities. This is as true in the contemporary political and social spheres as it was in the rise of early 20th century fascism and pre-WWI optimism. In alliance with conservative thought, hard-nosed nationalists glorify blood and sacrifice in the name of country. Those outside the confines of the promoted national cultures, traditions, and values are the other and at historical boiling points of nationalism, they are the enemy.
One of these is described in Lewis Milestone’s 1930 film, All Quiet on the Western Front, where the German youth are called to fight in the name of the Fatherland. Another, Elie Wiesel’s Night depicts an extreme historical result of nationalist retribution towards the other.
At its most basic form, nationalism is an imagined identity. Identity is the product of one’s view of oneself, and nationalists further that view of themselves in regards to their communities and shared values. This form of identity describes an “invisible force” capable of inciting mass patriotism and the mobilization of national resources. Often, this is seen after a large-scale crisis, like the pre-WWI murder of Franz Ferdinand or the pre-Iraq War 9/11 terrorist attacks. Rally ‘Round the Flag events such as these are the fastest culminations of nationalism.
Propaganda, particularly national supremacy propaganda, is a popular means of nationalist cultivation.
Adolf Hitler was shredded by shrapnel as a WWI trench-runner. This experience vastly enhanced his national appeal in a pre-WWII Germany that accepted violence as the norm. Post-WWI, German citizens repurposed failed Christian ideals to fit their racial superiority complex. The Nuremberg Laws and the shanty Jewish ghettos were all ideas sold successfully to the German public because the Jews were displayed as the other, they were the reason for economic debt and WWI loss. They were victims to a new form of right-wing politics that embraced anti-semitism as a means for explaining the devastating post-WWI national landscape.
“The yellow star? Oh well, what of it? You don’t die of it….” (Wiesel 9).
Jewish Bolshevism was the main Nazi target, according to Hitler and his associate, head of the Ministry for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels. Tying the Jews to a longstanding common enemy, the communists of Soviet Russia, Hitler played on German feelings of loss and shame from WWI. Goebbels declared at a Nazi party rally in 1935 that, “Bolshevism is the declaration of war by Jewish-led international subhumans against culture itself.”
The Nazi propaganda machine started by equating Jews to communists, then the Jews to subhumans, then both Jews and communists to subhumans.
The incessant nationalist cries of Paul Baumer’s professor in All Quiet on the Western Front are defensible by their own ignorance. The series of wars fought by the two generations of German men before Paul were short, sweet and victorious. Thusly, the thirst for war and all its spoils is quite appropriate by Paul and his classmates.
“Are your mothers so weak that they cannot send a son to defend the land which gave them birth? And after all, is a little experience such a bad thing for a boy? Is the honor of wearing a uniform something from which we should run?” (All Quiet). This propaganda is necessary to feed to the youth to ensure a strong war effort.
At this time, generals of the German army, as well as the public, figured the war will end and their sons will return home in a matter of months. This nationalistic optimism was shattered by nearly 2.5 million dead soldiers, amassing 52 percent of central power casualties. They dove headfirst into a two-front war on the hinges of a [previously] winning record.
Fast-forward to the next World War, and the same base ideals are less excusable, as Naziism forever muddied the line between nationalism and xenophobia.
The difference is in the goals. German WWI goals included annexation of some French land, creation of their own colonial empire, and economic domination of central Europe.
WWII was relatively similar, but with a keen interest in racial domination. Fascist theory allows for the nation’s unity encapsulated in hate as a superior regime over class divides. Hitler aligned his image of the perfect man with what he thought was closest to God: blonde-haired and blue-eyed. Though not embodying this image himself, Hitler successfully set a nationalist pretense that Jews caused the loss of WWI and the economic crisis that followed. The first of the other were carted off to concentration camps after the Kristallnacht riots, where German mobs attacked Jews while law enforcement peacefully looked on.
“Someone began to recite the Kaddish, the prayer for the dead. I do not know if it has ever happened before, in the long history of the Jews, that people have ever recited the prayer for the dead for themselves.” (Wiesel 38).
Mobilization of resources in the war efforts were facilitated by the promotion of nationalist ideology. In both World War instances, young men of seventeen were coaxed by war’s heroism and pleasures upon returning home. Reality is realized when Paul returns home and confronts his propagandist professor, “You still think it’s all nice and beautiful to die for your country, don’t you?” (All Quiet).
Nationalism only remained relevant in Germany between the wars due to a need for a new public identity. Racial superiority turned out to be a highly mechanized and productive identity. German and American women, alike, worked the factories and engineered the same instruments of war shipped to their husbands on the frontlines. Also in support of the war effort, the wives and daughters of the Fatherland experienced rationing of public goods like groceries and electricity. Fascism could only bend the needs of the people to the will of the state by framing a norm of purpose and submission to the state itself.
At its most peaceful state, nationalism is kept as a secular, shared identity within a nation. In his writings from Hind Swaraj, Mohandas Gandhi defines civilization as a mode of conduct pointing to man his path of duty and an observance of morality necessary to attain mastery over his mind and his passions. “If this definition be correct, then India, as so many writers have shown, has nothing to learn from anybody else, and this is as it should be.” (Gandhi 407). In any capacity, nationalism requires an invent of history, a past where everything was much better before “the other” came along. This is as true in Nazi Germany as it is in Gandhi’s pacifist India. As soon as the shared identity spills across borders, it is more closely related to xenophobia rather than nationalism.
Proud Americans dismissive of Syrian refugees as psychotic Islamic terrorists further the notion of meager differences between overwrought nationalism and plain xenophobia. Popular reasoning for many American governors disallowing refugees into their states – a power they do not possess – are eerily similar to those U.S. citizens against taking in Holocaust victims in the late 1940’s; they are dangerous religious fanatics, they will take away jobs of the American working man, they will not assimilate to American culture.
Regardless of the known phenomenon that it takes a culture two generations to completely assimilate to another, the conservative right in America has portrayed nine million fleeing refugees as the other. Primarily after 9/11, and the Paris attacks as of late, Islam has become synonymous with terrorism in American culture. In order to prove its claim as a bastion of freedom, America must differentiate between a terrorist and a muslim, as well as act on behalf of refugees seeking exactly what it has to offer within its borders.
American citizens do not portray Syrian refugees as the other at all in the same context as Nazi Germany did with their Jewish victims. Hitler unified Germany through hate and was astonishingly successful. The Jews were a scapegoat for Germany’s economic and WWI failures and were persecuted in dehumanizing fashion. In terms of Syrian refugees, Americans are either scared or neglectful more than anything else. Nationalism allows for apathetic indifference for the plights of those beyond one’s borders, as well as mass fear that one of one thousand foreigners may tear away our homogenous cultures and customs. Even so, indifference has led to the violent independence movements in Eastern Europe, as well as the exacerbated death and destruction in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
Americans are missing out on an economic opportunity by way of an extended quota on refugees. The U.N. Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization found, in a 2012 study, that Syria ranked 12th out of 197 surveyed countries for the duration of secondary education, and 8th in primary education completion rate as of 2005.
Nine million Syrians are running through a war-torn wasteland. Within them, some are quasi-religious fanatics seeking to hurt America by any public means possible. Some of the others are doctors, teachers, and skilled laborers. Nationalism is the shared group feeling of significance regarding a geographic region. It is not abated when made available to the other.