What keeps nationalism alive

"Healthy" nationalism? Anyone who thinks this is possible thinks backward-looking and provincial: Comfortable tightness

By Peter Coulmas

COLOGNE. - The specter of nationalism that has caused so much disaster to Europe has been spreading fear and snails again since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Humiliated Russia seeks to regain her former national and imperial greatness; in Italy it is not only the neo-fascists who remember the times of the Duce and the presumptuous national attitudes; in France the motto goes with the "new right" "La France d'abord" (France first) around.

In reunified Germany, the resurgence of national longings is not surprising. Many Germans, who traditionally settle in the right-wing spectrum of opinion, demand equality. They want to be as normal national as the other peoples. They lament the decades of national "self-humiliation", the constant memory of Auschwitz, the voluntary submission to the philosophy of the Allies, which is, however, a philosophy of democracy, which is often kept secret or only mentioned in passing. The time of "national masochism" and external determination is over once and for all, it is said.

The heralds of "normality" overlook the fact that classical nationalism was an advance at the time of its inception. Many nation states were constituted out of the republican spirit. The longing for self-determination inspired the creators of the new nations. The people appeared as a self-confident subject. Instead of loyally serving subjects, free citizens came together and created the nation as a community of will and no longer as a mere community of origin.

The nationalism, which is rising again today, is a step backwards. Because we live in the age of planetarism, internationality, "globalization". The neo-nationals, however, are looking at best for their native narrowness, but mostly far worse - for the patriotic great power attitude ("restoration of the Bismarck Empire"). They are backward looking, provincial in their disposition.

The new nationalists are disappointed 68ers, left renegades, original rights, GDR nostalgics, eco-fundamentalists. They are not suspected of affirming xenophobia, racism, anti-Semitism or violence, but they do represent a "healthy nationalism" that can trigger such emotions. But there is no such thing as "healthy" nationalism.

The cultural formation of the nations through language and customs is their greatest asset, their creativity. In this respect, love for the nation, for Germans and Germanness is just as legitimate as it is desirable. This way of life can of course only be realized in an open, pluralistic democracy, but not in a self-referring nation-state.

  • Peter Coulmas works for the WDR.