Courtesy Reuters

The Wrath of Ages: Nationalism's Primordial Roots

In This Review

Liberal Nationalism

By Vael Tamir
Princeton University Press, 1993
194 pp. $24.95

The Wrath of Nations: Civilization and the Fury of Nationalism

By William Pfaff
Simon & Schuster, 1993
244 pp. $22.00

These two books are significant additions to the rather meager corpus of books on nationalism. Like other books in this category, they raise more questions than they answer. Both, but especially The Wrath of Nations, abound in the sort of propositions that university examiners like to put between quotation marks and follow with the minatory instruction, "Discuss." Many are well worth discussing, and I propose to discuss them here, beginning with some of Pfaff's.

William Pfaff is a well-known and respected commentator on international affairs. The Wrath of Nations is far-ranging in space and time, abounding in miscellaneous information, briskly written, always stimulating, sometimes shrewd and penetrating, sometimes brashly didactic, and sometimes sweeping in its generalizations. This combination will attract many readers to the book.

Near the opening of his book, Pfaff sweeps aside the idea that nationalism is "a primordial historical phenomenon" and goes on to put forward his own view: "Nationalism is a phenomenon of the European nineteenth century. It is a political consequence of the literary-intellectual movement called Romanticism, a Central European reaction to the universalizing, and therefore disorienting, ideas of the eighteenth century French Enlightenment."


This is very mixed up. Even in its narrowest sense-as an intellectual position-nationalism antedates the nineteenth century. It is a product of the late French Enlightenment, although it came to include "a Central European reaction . . . to the French Enlightenment." At the very outset of the French Revolution the Abbé Sieyès, an archetypal figure of the late French Enlightenment, gives us in his seminal 1789 manifesto, What is the Third Estate? the basic doctrine of nationalist absolutism: "The nation exists before all, it is the origin of everything. Its will is always legal, it is the law itself." The worst excesses of nationalism, from the Revolutionary Terror to the Third Reich, are encapsulated in those two coldly dogmatic sentences in which the protagonist of the French Revolution establishes the fateful and explosive conjunction between the emotional force of nationalism and

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