GEORGE BROWNING. Nationalism: the world’s greatest threat

Nov 14, 2018

We owe President Emmanuel Macron a debt of gratitude for yesterday’s speech in Paris. “Patriotism is the exact opposite of nationalism. Nationalism is a betrayal of patriotism,” the French leader said.

“In saying ‘Our interests first, whatever happens to the others,’ you erase the most precious thing a nation can have, that which makes it live, that which causes it to be great and that which is most important: Its moral values.”

 The first world war was not inevitable in the sense that ‘a great evil’ was being confronted. When Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated at Sarajevo on 28 June 1914 the relationship between Serbia and Austria-Hungary became white hot, but initially at least no other country needed to be involved, least of all Britain. Russian sympathies were with Serbia and Germany’s with Austria Hungary. Piece by piece France, Belgium and ultimately Britain were dragged in, simply because their national pride was tied to the alliances they had formed and the rivalries that existed between them.  Lloyd George later remarked that at this time Europe “stumbled and staggered into war”.

The cost of wounded national pride was to be 40 million casualties including 19 million deaths.  The first world war is arguably the greatest disaster ever to befall humanity and the greatest ever failure of human leadership, both political and military. What were they thinking when they led the world into such a dark place?

Following the ‘war to end all wars’, in the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, Germany was humiliated by the confiscation of many of its territories, by being blamed exclusively for the war and by the reparations demanded of it.  Here the seeds of the second world war were sewn, all on the back of arrogant European nationalisms.

After the war there was relief and a desire to put this awful period in the past.  There was probably not enough genuine reflection upon what had brought humanity to this point and what needed to be done to avoid a disaster of this magnitude in the future.

Interestingly such reflection was provided at the 1920 Lambeth Conference of Bishops, meeting from all over the Anglican Communion in London at the invitation of Archbishop Randall Davidson. In August 1920 more than 18 months had elapsed since the end of the war, time for sober reflection nd judgement. As recorded in the resolutions and papers of the conference the bishops asserted that the greatest lesson to be drawn from this calamity was that the real danger facing humanity was self-interest and that as dangerous as individual self-interest might be, national self-interest was far greater.  They went on to conclude that Christians enjoy two citizenships: that of the country to which they belong and that of the whole human family. Further, if citizenship of the former conflicts with the latter then Christians should be under no misapprehension as to their prior responsibility as global citizens under the sovereignty of God.

These reflections deserve urgent prominence today both within the Christian community and within civil society as a whole as we grapple with the phenomenon of rising nationalism throughout the world.  Nationalism is tribalism writ large.  It should therefore be no surprise that one of the common features of nationalistic fervour is racist language and behaviour. This article is not long enough to rehearse all the countries caught up in racist language and action, but they notoriously include Myanmar, Philippines, China, Israel and the US. Sadly, Australia is also on the list.  Nationalism is forged from an exclusivist identity, in seeing oneself as different to others.

Australian nationalistic fervour has had hundreds of millions of dollars poured into its narrative in the last four years.  We are encouraged to see ourselves and our identity forged by war on foreign lands. Why?  60,000 did not return from World War 1.  Hardly a family was untouched.  Many families had to endure the company of men (and women) who were so bruised by their experience that the rest of their lives were robbed of the joy that might otherwise have been theirs.

There are many competing narratives for Australian identity that are not allowed to properly emerge.  Immigration has by any measure had a far greater influence on our identity than war. But more than this the identity of being part of the oldest living culture on the planet, a culture which many of the early white settlers failed to understand and sought to destroy can and should be what makes us so thoroughly unique. The frontier wars that accompanied this struggle find no enduring place in our modern culture of remembrance.  Why is there no place for remembrance of these frontier wars in the Australian War Memorial or on ANZAC Parade?  Presumably this memory does not suit the nationalistic ANZAC myth we have developed about ourselves through war with foreign nations.

President Macron was right to warn that the perilous clouds of nationalism that were at the heart of WW1 seem once more to be gathering, and particularly so in the language of the so called ‘leader of the free world’. Trump’s voice encourages nationalism in various domains throughout the world, quite apart from his own country, including those that by any measure must be called dictatorships.

I have recently been approached by a consortium of civic leaders to join them in a push to have the constitution change to prevent Australia going to war in the future on the whim of the Prime Minister and his/her cabinet.  It will be argued that a decision to take the country into war must be a decision of last resort made only by a joint sitting of the whole parliament.

Nationalism is a cheap and easy clarion call as we have seen by the support those in the far right of our political spectrum can muster. Following the recent Melbourne stabbing the Prime Minister found it easier to go straight to a criticism of Muslims and Muslim leadership than to the disturbed mental health of the perpetrator. In the US many are willing to respond to the racist clarion call; it is dangerously naïve not to recognise the terrible consequences that flow from leaders who would define us in opposition to others.

George Browning was formerly Anglican Bishop of Canberra -Goulburn





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