IT IS a common theme among the pessimists that the world has relapsed since the armistice into a temper of nationalism which renders illusory the hopes and dreams of internationalism so widely entertained during the war. These two movements or moods, nationalism and internationalism, are regarded as opposing and mutually exclusive, and the very evident ascendancy of the former is too often unquestioningly accepted as involving, if not the final defeat, at least the indefinite postponement of the latter. If this were really so the outlook for mankind would be black indeed, for nationalism, not only in Europe and America but throughout the world, is clearly a rising power. But the belief that nationalism and internationalism are incompatibles, although superficially plausible, is based upon ignorance of men and nations and a complete misunderstanding of the two movements themselves. As this belief is widespread and is acting as a serious hindrance to the advance of a real understanding between nations, it may be worth while to subject it to the test of a brief analysis.

Let us look first at the complaint brought by the disillusioned idealists and anti-nationalists against the post-war world. What is the general indictment that lurks behind the manifold grumbling about the Balkanization of Europe, the unreasonableness of France, the commercialism of Britain, the impenitence of Germany, the self-assertion of the Little Entente states and of the British Dominions, and the recrudescence of isolationism and Monroeism in the United States? We are often told, when these topics are mentioned, that the world has relapsed from the principles and standards of internationalism into a state of blind and unreflecting nationalism. But, when we look at the facts, this explanation is obviously insufficient. If nationalism were really rampant in East-Central Europe how could the Little Entente between Czechoslovakia, Rumania, and Jugoslavia ever have come into existence or been maintained for three years? How indeed could these three states and their Polish neighbor, all of them inhabited by a variety of peoples, have succeeded in preserving their identity at all? Or how, if nationalism were the world's ruling passion, could the British Commonwealth, with its manifold variety of peoples, have been held together? How could France have maintained the unity of her empire, or even of her newly-integrated home country? How could bilingual Belgium and trilingual Switzerland have survived? How, finally, could the United States have avoided serious conflicts with the unassimilated nationalisms of millions of her recent arrivals? Clearly, even if we grant that nationalism has been one of the forces at work, it has not been the most powerful and determining factor. What we really find, when we examine the counts of the indictment against the post-war world more closely, is that the policies complained of are quite as marked in the case of states consisting of several nations acting in cooperation as in those consisting of but a single nation. The real trouble in fact is not nationalism, in any of the many forms which that movement is capable of assuming, but something which may be described by the less romantic and more comprehensive designation of selfishness. In other words, the indictment should be drawn not against nations but against states; not against statesmen acting as the spokesmen of nationalities and the interpreters of nationalism but against statesmen acting as the instruments of sovereign states, great or small, uni-national or multi-national; not against Mr. Lloyd George as a Welshman, M. Briand as a Breton, President Masaryk as a Slovak, M. Venizelos as a Cretan, but against the policies of the British Empire, the French and Czechoslovak Republics and the Kingdom of Greece.

Some such relapse into selfish policies was almost inevitable after the strain of war and of war-time cooperation. We are not concerned here with its details or degrees—with the question whether it would have been possible, by wiser and more farsighted statesmanship, to have prevented the pendulum from swinging back so far. What is important for our present purpose is to note that the existing political troubles of the world arise, not from the passions of nations but from the policies of states, and that it is with the adjustment of these policies, not with the sublimation of national passions, that constructive political work in the field of foreign affairs is concerned. Internationalism, in the political sense in which the word is customarily used, is in fact concerned with promoting the coöperation of states, not with controlling or even canalizing the undue self-expression of nations. It is unfortunate that this vital truth should be concealed by the vagaries of our political terminology. The League of Nations is, of course, a misnomer. It is a League of States, and it will be subject to perpetual misunderstanding if it is thought of as anything else. If its membership is extended to Ireland and not to Scotland, to Haiti and not to the Afro-American nation, it is because Ireland and Haiti have a distinct political status which Scotland and the negroes of the American continent cannot claim.

The work of internationalism, then—or, as it would be more properly called, the work of inter-state organization—is concerned with the mutual relations of sovereign bodies, however composed, and has nothing directly to do with the relations of nations.

From this it would appear that internationalism and nationalism, so far from being conflicting forces, do not impinge upon one another at all, and that the current impression to the contrary is completely unfounded. Nevertheless there is no smoke without fire and it will probably be felt that the above summary analysis does less than justice to the common view. Theoretically and in principle, it will be said, the two movements dwell on separate planes and ought not to conflict. But in point of fact they frequently do. Both in Europe and America there is a large admixture of what cannot be described otherwise than as nationalist sentiment in the conduct of affairs of state. To explain why this is so and to understand its significance we must subject the whole movement of nationalism to closer scrutiny.

It is difficult for a European to discuss this subject with Americans, not merely because of the differences in current nomenclature which have already been mentioned but because the whole course and direction of national sentiment has been different on the two sides of the Atlantic. The nations of the American continent, north and south, are not only far younger than the nations of Europe, but they have also come into existence by a wholly different historical process. Nevertheless the resultant sentiment of nationalism is of much the same character in America as in Europe, and the likeness will undoubtedly become more marked as the accidents of origin are smoothed out by the normal processes of development and the life of the two continents tends more and more to beat with a similar pulse and rhythm. The nationalism of America, or at any rate of the United States of America, to use a phrase of Mr. Van Wyck Brooks, is coming of age. The difference between fifteen and twenty-five in the life of an individual is akin to the difference between one century and three or four in the life of a nation. When the youth of fifteen has come to forty and the man of twenty-five has touched fifty, the common element in their experience becomes much more apparent. The same will be true of the inner experience of the nations of Europe and America as the generations go on.

What is nationalism? It is a movement or manifestation of the sentiment of nationality. It is often employed in a derogatory sense to denote a violent, intolerant and even aggressive manifestation; but it may equally well be employed of manifestations of a more equable temper. It will, however, conduce to clearness in the discussion to set aside the term nationalism and to deal rather with "nationality" and "nation" than with their manifestations in "nationalist" movements of various types. "Nationality," then, is the group-consciousness of which nationalism is one of the outward expressions; and a nation is a body of people bound together by the particular form of group-consciousness described as "nationality" or "the sense of nationality."

What is this particular form of group-consciousness which constitutes nationality? What is it that distinguishes a nation or body of people held together by a sentiment of nationality from other human groups and corporate bodies? It is easier to say what a nation is not than to define satisfactorily what it is. As we have seen, it is not a state or political body. The English nation is something different from the British Commonwealth and (though this is not so commonly recognized) the American nation is something different from the American Commonwealth. English nationality does not necessarily imply British citizenship, nor did Henry James cease to be an American when he surrendered his American citizenship during the war. Again, a nation is not a church or religious body. Turkish nationality is something different from Mohammedanism and Jewish nationality is something different from Judaism. It is true that practically all Turks are Moslems and that many, if not most, of those who share the sentiment of Jewish group-consciousness share also in the Jewish religious belief and observances; but the distinction between church and nation, though frequently denied by Jews, as the distinction between commonwealth and nation is denied by Americans, is nevertheless undeniable.

Again, a nation is not a territorial unit. There are probably more Irishmen outside Ireland, more Norwegians outside Norway, more Jews outside Palestine, perhaps also more Scotsmen, Slovaks and Letts outside Scotland, Slovakia and Latvia than in the compact area of territory with which their national sentiments are related.

Again, a nation is not a race. None of the existing nations, not even those who, like the Jews, have laid most stress on purity of stock, correspond to the racial divisions and subdivisions of the anthropologists. The attempts made at repeated intervals by anti-Semitic writers such as Houston Stewart Chamberlain in Germany and less doctrinaire and more frankly abusive writers in America, to enlist racial prejudice in the cause of nationalist intolerance spring from pure obscurantism.

Finally, a nation is not a linguistic unit. The English-speaking peoples, whether under the Union Jack or not, are, with one exception, not English; neither are the German-speaking Swiss and Austrians German, nor the French-speaking Swiss and Belgians and Canadians French. Conversely, cases occur in which national sentiment exists not only, as in English-speaking North America and Australasia, without a national medium of expression, but without any common medium of expression at all. Among Welshmen, for instance, there is a large mass who know no Welsh and a very considerable body who know no English, and the same phenomenon can be found on a smaller scale in Ireland. Thus these two bodies of Welshmen and Irishmen, each of them participating consciously and deliberately in the deep-lying sentiment of their nationality, have no means of communicating with one another in speech—an example which is striking not so much for the light it throws on the vicissitudes of Welsh and Irish history as for the revelation it affords of the inadequacy of words as a means for the expression of thought. Another example of the same kind is the survival of the Jewish national consciousness in spite of the varieties of Jewish speech. A heroic effort is now indeed being made to revivify Hebrew and make it the current speech of the Jewish homeland in Palestine. This experiment, like the parallel experiment in Ireland, may possibly succeed; but it is possible that such success may be accompanied by a narrowing and stiffening of the national soul. On the other hand it may fail; but its failure, whilst in some ways regrettable, would certainly not entail the disintegration of the Jewish national personality, which has survived far deeper disappointments during its long and chequered career. The fact is that we are only at the beginning of the study of the interrelations between language and personality, whether individual or national. Students of phonetics, of music, and of psychology have yet to join hands in investigating the sub-conscious region whence proceed the infinite variations of pitch and intonation, of idiom, metaphor and symbolism, of gesture and phonation which, to the student of modes of human expression, are like a warm covering of flesh and blood over the bare skeleton of a mere vocabulary.

If a nation is neither a state nor a church nor a race nor a geographical or linguistic unit, what is it? No definition is satisfactory in a matter which goes so deep or has such widespread ramifications, but the following, put forward by the present writer some years ago, may at least serve as a working basis: a nation is a body of people united by a corporate sentiment of peculiar intensity, intimacy and dignity, related to a definite home-country.

National sentiment is intense: men feel towards their nation as towards something which plays a large part in their life and inner experience. How intense this feeling is can be tested by the joy which every normally constituted man feels when, after sojourning in a strange atmosphere, he is once more brought into contact with his nationality, whether it be in a gathering in a strange country or on his return to his territorial base. The Englishman who feels a catch in his throat when he sees the white cliffs of Dover after an absence in distant lands (whether under the Union Jack or not) and the American who raises his hat to salute the Statue of Liberty as he steams into New York harbor, are both giving expression, not to their sense of patriotism or state obligation, but to their sense of nationality.

National sentiment is intimate: whether it be mainly compounded of influences of heredity (as in Europe) or of environment, as in the older Americans, or whether it be something newly acquired and deliberately cherished, as among the new arrivals, it is something that goes deep down into the very recesses of the being. Europeans are accustomed to believe that nationality is something so intimate that it cannot be acquired; nationality to them is akin to the family; it is the element of heredity which is paramount. Americans on the other hand are accustomed to the idea of an acquired nationality, but perhaps do not always sufficiently realize how intimate such an acquirement may be. The nationality of a European and the nationality of a recent American may perhaps be compared to a man's relation to his parents and his relation to his wife. Both sentiments are intimate; both can legitimately be compared, in the sphere of personal relations, to the sense of nationality in the wider sphere of corporate relations. But the one is hereditary, the other is elective. The European and the older American are born into their nation; the recent American has chosen his nationality and attached himself to it as to a wife. And, as parentage and marriage both go to make up a complete personality, so nationality, even among members of the older nations, will not be complete without an element of election and deliberation, or, to use a more appropriate term which the war brought home to so many, re-dedication.

A disabled war veteran in Berlin, 1923
A disabled war veteran in Berlin, 1923
Wikimedia Commons

National sentiment is dignified: it is on a larger and grander scale than a man's feeling towards a country or a parish, a club or a group of professional or other intimates, however warm such a feeling may be. No outsider can judge at what point a group attachment related to a definite territory reaches the degree of dignity entitling it to be described as national. Is Malta the home of a nation or is it a mere municipal port of call? Is Newfoundland the home of a nation or a mere elderly colony? Was Virginia ever a nation? Was the Old South ever a nation? Every student of these problems of sentiment must make these nice valuations for himself. In general we can only say that a nation is a nation, however small its territory, when its members feel it to be one and bear themselves accordingly. "It is not walls but men that make a city," said the Greek orator long ago; and it is not space and population but a sense of great things experienced in the past and greater lying before in the future, if we may thus deepen the implication of a phrase of Renan's, which constitutes the soul and consciousness of a nation.

Every nation has a home. The sentiment of nationality cannot gather simply round an idea or a memory or a programme or about some function or status, such as a priesthood or an aristocracy or a Legion of Janissaries. That does not mean that membership in a nation, participation in its common life and consciousness, necessarily involves residence within a fixed area, or contact with it by visits or economic ties. Consciousness can overleap the barriers and ignore the qualifications fixed by political authority for the world of statehood. No period of residence for naturalization is required to relate an Emmet born in New York to Ireland, or Theodor Herzl the Viennese journalist to Palestine, or to defer the acceptance by America of the wholehearted offering of mind and spirit made by so many of those lately landed on her shores. But without the element of environment, the actual physical territory and what man has made of it, to form the framework and receptacle, as it were, of the national ideal, the sentiment of nationality would lose the warmth and concreteness which constitute so large a part of its appeal and would disappear into the clouds which have swallowed up so many unattached idealisms in the past.

We have defined nationality. Let us now observe it in operation in various parts of the world.

It is often said that the nineteenth century witnessed the dawn of nationality in Europe. Of some parts of Europe this may be true, but of Western and Central Europe, to which this judgment is usually applied, it is certainly untrue. Englishmen were already Englishmen in the days of Chaucer and Langland, and the France of Froissart and Villon was already France. So too Dante's Italy, though still only lisping Italian, was Italy and, in spite of the unhappy vicissitudes and backwardness of German political history, the men for whom Luther translated the Bible were already Germans. The history of the rise of the different European nationalities, from Ireland in the west to the various Slav and Baltic peoples in the east, would form a fascinating study, intertwined as it is with the influence of orthodoxy and heresy—where would Bohemia be without its Hussites or Slovakia without its Lutherans?—of music and folk-song, of backward-looking romanticism and forward-looking idealism, of intellectual leadership, from the universities and elsewhere, in history and philology (as in Fichte's amazing panegyric on the German language), in literature, geography and archaeology. But, until the French Revolution, this history is, broadly speaking, non-political. Government being still almost everywhere regarded, according to the feudal tradition, as the concern of a special class, the people, in whom the national consciousness was alive or in process of formation, did not concern itself with what are now-a-days loosely described as "national" problems and policies. The territorial lords of Europe, kings and electors and grand-dukes and bishops and petty barons, fought and plotted and intrigued, extended their frontiers hither and thither by conquest, marriage and barter and turned the balance of power this way and that, without enlisting in their causes (which would hardly bear too close a scrutiny), the deep lying passions and sentiments which were growing up in the hearts of the populations from whom they drew tribute. It was in England and Holland that nationality was first enlisted in the political field, but it was the great outburst of the French Revolution which mingled and muddied the two streams and brought about a confusion of thought and a perplexity in action from which the world, on both sides of the Atlantic and of the Pacific, has not yet recovered.

When President Wilson, picking up a phrase from the great mischief-maker Lenin, flung the slogan of "self-determination" into the world's arena he was using a word capable of many interpretations. But the majority of mankind, under the influence of vague nineteenth-century shibboleths, understood him to be associating himself with the doctrine that every nation has a right to be a sovereign state. "It is in general a necessary condition of free institutions," said John Stuart Mill, "that the boundaries of governments should coincide in the main with those of nationalities." What Mill thus cautiously stated as a maxim of convenience (how in all sincerity could an inhabitant of the United Kingdom of England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland put it any higher?) had long since been elevated by more ardent liberals into a gospel of indefeasible right. The necessary result of such a doctrine, as Lenin foresaw and desired, was disintegration—the break-up of that bourgeois nationalist society which he so detested.

A survey of the workings of political nationalism and of the theory of self-determination is instructive. A gospel that claims to be of universal validity and application can only show results in a limited region of Europe and Western Asia. It has helped to break up the Austro-Hungarian Empire but it has left trinational Switzerland untouched; it has disintegrated Russia—if indeed, for most Russians, there ever was, in the deepest sense, a Russia—but it has not brought independence either to Armenia or the Ukraine. It has torn Southern Ireland from Westminster but has left Scotland, Wales and Ulster where they were. It has taken German-speaking Alsace from the German Empire and restored it to France; it has rescued the Germanic peasants of Flanders from their invading kinsmen and reunited them with their French-speaking fellow-citizens. It has destroyed the dream of an Illyrian Republic and brought a joint Serbo-Croatian-Slovenian Kingdom into existence. Finally, having demolished three autocratic empires, it has left the indescribably heterogeneous and multi-national dominion of Britain standing upright amid the débris of imperialisms. In other words, national sentiment, whilst proving an invaluable ally for a movement of resistance against the abuses of misgovernment, as in Austria-Hungary, or against the pin-pricks of misunderstanding, as in Ireland, is unable by its own unaided efforts to make the political map conform more nearly to its pattern design.

Turn now to America. What application can be found, either in North or South America, for Mill's doctrine? Here it is not a question of redrawing a political map so as to carve new frontiers to fit old and existing nations. It is a case of fitting nations into existing frontiers, or rather of helping nations to find themselves and be themselves within the fixed framework of an established political society. The malady of Europe has not arisen, as is so often said, from its nationalisms. It has arisen from a simpler cause, from bad government. Europeans have had to wage a long fight, of which the recent war, we may hope and believe, is the last phase, against autocracy and its consequent injustice, not against the denial of "rights" to "nations," but against the denial of justice and liberty to men and women. The malady of America, on the other hand, the growing restlessness and perplexity of which every student of the United States must be conscious, arises not from bad government (Europe has had to suffer more, in these last years, than America from the defects of the American constitutional machine) but from its nationality problem or problems. It sounds paradoxical yet it is substantially true to say that each continent has wrongly diagnosed its malady. The Europeans who have given their lives, from Ireland to Poland and the Ukraine, for the cause of self-determination and an independent national republic have been waging a hopeless battle for an unrealizable ideal. In all three countries, diverse as is their present status, Mill's coincidence of government with nationality is a practical impossibility. What their champions have really been fighting for, if they only knew it, has been conditions of government which would enable them to be themselves—in other words, for the supreme political goods, for Justice and Liberty,—Justice and Liberty for all dwellers in Ireland, for all dwellers in Poland and the Ukraine, irrespective of race, religion or nationality.

Americans, on the other hand, who have been much concerned in recent years over the external problems of their community life, are beginning to look back on their muck-raking campaigns with an uneasy sense that they have not probed the real roots of the national dissatisfaction. It is true that American government and American society leave much to be desired; but surely the real problems of America are national, belong, that is, to the intimate region of mind and spirit which has been spoken of above. Let Europe, from Galway to Lemberg, from Algeciras to Helsingfors, consolidate its newly established democracies, establish firm guarantees of mutual protection among its states, reduce its infantile mortality, introduce labor-saving science into its homes and factories and ameliorate its plumbing. These are the tasks, practical and positive, whether high or humble, for a continent, such as Europe now is, of self-conscious and satisfied nationalism. America's domestic problems are of a different order. They are not so much political and social (the tasks in this region are clearly indicated and not difficult of accomplishment by an energetic and organizing people,) as national in the deepest sense—to work inwards from the influences of environment to the unalterable values of heredity, to discover the quality and substance of the diverse populations that have married themselves to this great continent, and to make the men and women and, still more the children, who have entered into the new national consciousness at home and at ease, in the deepest region of their manifold natures, in the home of their choice.

Once the problems of nationality and the problems of statehood and citizenship have been disentangled, they will easily yield to treatment. It is from their century-old confusion that so much mischief and bloodshed have arisen, whether in the insane German design to base the dominion of the world on the "culture," that is, the intimate expression of a single people, or in the futile and suicidal efforts, now happily discredited, of the straitest sect of "Americanizers." The way is becoming clear, then, both in Europe and America, for a real internationalism, in the truest and purest sense of the word.

For internationalism, properly understood, is not contact between states; nor is it contact between supernationalists and cosmopolitans who have torn themselves loose from affiliation with their nation. It is at home neither round the green table of the diplomatists nor "above the melee" with the minority minds. True internationalism is contact between nations in their highest and best and most distinctive representatives and manifestations. The true contact between the West European national triangle which is so disquieting the world must be a contact, not between trust-magnates or labor-leaders or even statesmen from the three countries, but, so to speak, between Shakespeare, Molière and Goethe. It is the most characteristic figures of a national literature who are also the most international, and it is through them that understanding must come. Our efforts at internationalism have failed hitherto because they have followed the line of least effort. Any fool can book a ticket for a foreign country, just as any fool can learn Esperanto. But contacts so established effect nothing. They tell us no more than that the German or the Frenchman is a human being, a father, a workman and a lover of beer or coffee, which we knew before. It is through a deeper exploration and enjoyment of the infinite treasures of the world's nationalities, by men and women whose vision has been trained and sensibilities refined because they themselves are intimately bound up with a nation of their own, that an enduring network of internationalism will some day be knit and a harmony of understanding established in a world of unassailable diversity.

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  • ALFRED E. ZIMMERN, lecturer in history at Cornell University, former Professor of International Politics, University of Wales, attached to the British Foreign Office, 1918-1919, author of "The Greek Commonwealth" and other works
  • More By Alfred E. Zimmern