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Nationalism in Europe - Disambiguation: from romanticism to revulsion to revolt

Nationalism’s seductive power still today, lies in its ability to offer a primal narrative of unity and identity as well as an operative sense place.

VISTA JOURNAL AUTOR 22/Christel_Lamere_Ngnambi 12 DE JUNIO DE 2024 11:50 h
Residents of Strasbourg (France) cast their vote at a polling station. / Photo: [link] European Parliament[/link], Flickr CC.

Introduction




An attachment to national identity is a relatively new concept in history, emerging just a few generations ago.



Some argue it is diminishing, leading to numerous societal challenges. Others see an opposite sign in this renewed concern about the supposed loss of national feeling, namely that of a revival of nationalist fervour almost everywhere in Europe, albeit in novel forms.



Across Europe, debates on national identity are intensifying. In France, a 2009 state-sponsored national identity debate initiated by President Nicolas Sarkozy sparked significant media and intellectual scrutiny.



The UK, under David Cameron, formed a commission in 2014 to define “British values”. In 2017, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, in a re-election campaign, stirred controversy by challenging citizens to “act normal or leave”, implying a threat to national identity.



These ongoing crises and debates underscore a profound, global re-evaluation of what constitutes national identity and, in connection to that, the pertinence—or indeed the danger—of re-embracing nationalism in Europe, and elsewhere in the world.



In this article, I will explore the evolution and multifaceted nature of nationalism in Europe, examining its historical roots, current resurgence, and the existential and spiritual implications for contemporary society.-



 



Lost in translation



In the study of politics, one of the most complicated and arguably difficult things when discussing nationalism is defining precisely what we are talking about.



Nationalism is a polysemous and, as we know, highly controversial term, not least because it is often used as a rhetorical weapon in the form of an accusation. It is a label most people don’t like to wear.



Worse even, that label is dirtier in some countries, and even in some cultural areas within the same country, than in others. And that’s where part of our problem lies.



Since this issue of Vista is discussing nationalism in Europe, we should first of all, seize the very useful pan-European opportunity to realise that our understandings of nationalism are themselves shaped by the history of our languages.



The term “nationalism” is fraught with ambiguity, particularly when comparing several languages.



Since the earliest use of the word ‘nationalist’ which originated in Britain in the early 18th century, its meaning evolved with moral considerations and polemical nuances.



It first emerged in French in the late 18th century, primarily denoting the excesses of Jacobin patriotism.



Its usage then gained traction in continental Europe from the 19th century onwards via French and took on a triple meaning, which I will unpack below. In a similar way to the French language, German and Italian retained multifaceted interpretations, diverging from the more stable English usage (Girardet, 2024).



[destacate] Since the earliest use of the word ‘nationalist’ which originated in Britain in the early 18th century, its meaning evolved with moral considerations and polemical nuances [/destacate] Appreciating the brilliance, the admirable qualities, and the glory of one’s country, feeling connected to the national character, recognising oneself as part of a national community, and desiring its prosperity and dignity are generally seen as uncontroversial politically.


In this context, which has also been the dominant interpretation in English until the early 20th century, nationalism has been understood simply as a political extension of patriotism—a concept more cultural in nature.



If pushed, that kind of national attachment can go beyond mere patriotism, suggesting that a citizen’s political consciousness must manifest through love, trust, devotion, and loyalty to their country’s language, folklore, customs, values, history, and state.



It implies that being truly a citizen involves a gut-level faith in the nation.



 



Three faces of nationalism



Over the centuries, faith in the nation has taken on various forms that, for simplicity’s sake, can be reduced to three faces, which broadly correspond to three centuries of politics in Europe.



These faces are to be understood as ideal types in the sense of Max Weber (i.e., abstract typical categories), which are distinguishable from one another but can, in the real world, blend and vary in intensity.



These versions of nationalism are more likely to coexist within a country and potentially to overlap.



But before proceeding, a word must be said about the circumstances that led to the emergence of nationalism, namely the birth of the nation-state, mainly in the 19th century. 



The nation-state, as an institutional construct, sprang from a confluence of revolutionary ideals and Romantic fervour.



In the age of Enlightenment’s decline which fostered an attachment to universalistic values, emotional allegiances to the nation—which some have named ‘the nationalist revivals or awakenings’ (Eisenberg, 2003)—began to supplant the divine right of kings.



The concept of sovereignty shifted fundamentally: the people, rather than the monarch, became the embodiment of the nation.



This transformation marked the evolution of states into entities that not only managed territory but also aspired to express the collective will and cultural ethos of their populations.



Borders were drawn more deliberately, not merely as pragmatic divisions but as delineations of national identity and communal belonging.




The first face of nationalism is therefore at the same time the one that gave rise to the states of which you and I are citizens: a ‘cultural’ nationalism charged with high romanticism and even chauvinism, often representing the aspirations of oppressed peoples, within an imperial or multinational framework, for independence.



As we know, this is still the aspiration of movements that continue to be active today in various European countries (Catalonia, Flanders, Corsica, Scotland, Transylvania, etc).



This form of nationalism was infused with a romantic idealisation of culture, language, and history, which, in many cases, provided the impetus for demanding political autonomy.



[destacate] The nation-state, as an institutional construct, sprang from a confluence of revolutionary ideals and Romantic fervour[/destacate] Since the 19th century, such nationalist movements have sought to preserve their distinctive identities against perceived domination by and/or incompatibility with other state entities, drawing on historical grievances and a powerful sense of communal distinctiveness to fuel their causes.




‘Cultural’ nationalism carries with it an intrinsic dynamic of polarisation, a fertile ground for international conflict. The 20th century in particular has had a profound impact on our understanding of nationalism in that sense.



While the 19th century was marked by national revolutions and the rise of romantic nationalism alongside the formation of nation-states, the 20th century was defined by wars and mass destruction waged in the name of national glory, as well as by civil war, dictatorships, ethnic cleansing, and eugenics justified through nationalist ideologies.



This second face can be called ‘destructive’ nationalism, which brings together, notably and among others, variants of right-wing or extreme-right political ideologies emphasising national values and interests while justifying forms of violence.



This reality has meant that still today, nationalism provokes significant revulsion in Europe. It is the primary way nationalism is understood in many languages and cultures.



The scars of European cities from World War II, memorials like Yad Vashem and Holocaust museums, and the sombre marks of Albanian, Greek, Italian, Portuguese, Romanian, Spanish, Turkish, and Yugoslav dictatorships on millions of families, reflect this dark legacy—not counting the destructive contribution of nationalism in other regions of the world.



These historical influences shape our current, often ambiguous, and emotionally charged attitudes towards welcoming foreigners, free movement across borders, or our governments’ sentiments towards the state of Israel, for example.



Nationalism remains at the heart of significant upheavals and vital debates in our era, continuously influencing and being influenced by the global socio-political landscape.



The 21st century has seen the rise of “anti-globalist” rhetoric, which positions itself against what it perceives as the encroachment of a global empire imposing universal policies on health, trade, education, or climate.



This discourse also manifests itself in fierce scepticism towards structures like the European Union.



That form of ‘revolt’ nationalism is perhaps better called sovereignism, which is not only a political but also an existential safeguard reaction to the perceived all-powerful rule of the globalised market, laissez-faire, elitist politics, and private interests—and to a certain extent, the perception that Islam is gaining too unbridled an influence in our nations. Sovereignism can be left- and right-wing, often represented in more radical parties.



It is based on the compelling idea that the nation is the appropriate decision-making and emotional level for people to engage in politics again and regain power. In that sense, contemporary ‘revolt’ nationalism shares features with both democracy and populism, as all these movements contain a central reference to the sovereign rule of the people (Ngnambi, 2019, p. 68; Abts & Rummens, 2007, p. 424).



 



A weak yet powerful ideology



In the 2019 collective book Is God a Populist?, German theologian Jürgen Moltmann delves into how religion, nationalism, and populism often intersect, using religious symbols to rally support.



Moltmann argues that these movements capitalise on public fears and desires for identity and security, fostering exclusionary behaviours. His critique focuses on the misuse of religious language to bolster nationalist and populist causes, cautioning against confusing political agendas with divine mandates.



He emphasises the need for a critical perspective on these relationships and advocates for a politics that is more inclusive and empathetic.



In the same book, I also explore these questions. Beyond the obvious overlap between populism and nationalism mentioned by Moltmann, I demonstrate that populism, just like nationalism, constitutes more a narrative than a robust ideology.



As such, they are what specialists call ‘thin’ or ‘weak’ ideologies or ‘narrow worldviews’, which need extra content in order to mobilise politically (Mudde, 2004; Mudde & Kaltwasser, 2012).



They find that necessary ‘extra soul’ in history, culture, and religion in order to spark hope, anger, and a shared sentimentality. Often, they lean on interpretations of Christianity—religion is a catalyst of national identity—, much like vines on a trellis, using spiritual references to bolster legitimacy and deepen traditional bonds.



This approach does not just support the narrative; it enriches it (Wirth et al., 2016; Ngnambi, 2019).




As our colleague Joel Halldorf noted in his chapter, despite its conceptual simplicity, nationalism powerfully taps into deep human longings for community, belonging, and identity—needs that neither individualism nor large, impersonal states can fully satisfy.



It operates on an emotional and existential level, where national history, culture, and Christian symbolism evoke a sense of home, continuity, and power.



However, it is questionable how a political party or movement can adequately respond to the complexities of human needs, especially those of an existential nature.




Over the past decade, there have been efforts to rehabilitate nationalism in simple terms as merely a policy to reaffirm the importance of the nation.



This is particularly visible in the political communications of the growing national-conservative movement on both sides of the Atlantic.



As the logic of this political communications strategy goes, decent people can only support that form of attachment to their nation, and therefore support the policies that go with it.



[destacate] Nationalism powerfully taps into deep human longings for community, belonging, and identity—needs that neither individualism nor large, impersonal states can fully satisfy [/destacate] The emergence of a rebellious nationalism is really one of the main recent developments of contemporary politics in Europe, alongside concerns for climate policy or rising geopolitical and strategy challenges.



It is one of the most defining features of parties commonly called ‘hard right’ and became one of the main issues at stake in the 2024 European elections, for example.



National conservatism, which emphasises national sovereignty, cultural preservation, and strict immigration control, is expected to significantly influence the 2024 European Parliament elections and, further, the direction of European policy.



The parties representing this movement which tend to be populist and radical had for many months been projected to gain substantial votes and seats, potentially forming a majority coalition with some Christian democrats and conservatives.



That, in turn, would shift EU policies to the right and inflect foreign and environmental policies (Cunningham et al., 2024).



It is worth questioning these ambitions however and asking whether contemporary nationalism, including one of its rising political forms, national conservatism, is trying to bite off more than it can chew?



 



Another Saviour?



In the ongoing discussions surrounding nationalism which I have addressed in part in this article, the notion persists that a clear national identity will provide a solution to many of our current challenges.



By defining our national identity and promoting our nation’s interests above all, we will gain a deeper understanding of who we are and how to live. The nation can, somehow, save us.



Nationalism cannot be simplified to a political platform, however. The political phenomenon is more of a symbol, a revealer.



Contemporary revolt nationalism shows that, behind the politics, viral YouTube videos, and newspaper stories, there exists a profound existential, partly spiritual trend with enormous implications for Christian mission.



Oversimplifying nationalism risks obscuring its existential dimension, depriving us of the tools for accurate diagnosis and intervention with the light of the Gospel.



This raises a crucial question, expressed perhaps in simplistic terms, but one that demands thoughtful consideration: is nationalism pursuing the wrong saviour?



[destacate] Contemporary revolt nationalism shows that, behind the politics, viral YouTube videos, and newspaper stories, there exists a profound existential, partly spiritual trend with enormous implications for Christian mission [/destacate] The moral flaws in our society and the inadequacies of our ultramodern worldview, tinged with a materialistic and secular consensus, are part of a malaise in our secular age that many have already been able to analyse.



European societies are experiencing a major crisis of meaning, characterised by the advanced erosion, even collapse, of the narratives and metanarratives that provide meaning and structure to our existence.



This collapse leaves individuals with no anchor or home in a dislocated context, a crisis that demands our immediate attention and reflection.




Since the 19th century, nationalism has sought to provide identity and belonging by equating the nation with something approaching a kind of saviour.



Nationalism’s seductive power still today, lies in its ability to offer a primal narrative of unity and identity as well as an operative sense place, effectively responding to the existential dislocation many people feel in Europe.



Nevertheless, this response can be a double-edged sword, acting as both remedy and poison. While it offers a sense of belonging, it also radicalises by masking the fact that identities are complex and plural and can dangerously deepen societal divides.



It also obscures the fact that our primary identity is not ultimately defined by where we were born but by a God who has preceded us.



This resurgence of rebellious nationalism highlights a profound spiritual situation that demands critical engagement and reflection from all, particularly within Christian mission, to address the deeper issues of identity and belonging in our fragmented world.



Christel Ngnambi, CEO of ImagoDei



Vista is an online journal offering research-based information about mission in Europe. Founded in 2010, each themed edition covers a variety of perspectives on crucial issues for mission.



Download the latest edition or read individual articles here. This article first appeared in the June 2024 edition of Vista Journal.



 



Bibliography



Abts, Koen, and Stefan Rummens, 2007. “Populism versus Democracy.” Political Studies, 55(2), pp. 405-424.



Cunningham, Kevin, Simon Hix, Susi Dennison and Imogen Learmonth, 23 January 2024. “A sharp right turn: A forecast for the 2024 European Parliament elections.” European Council for Foreign Relations, online policy brief: https://ecfr.eu/publication/a-sharp-right-turn-a-forecast-for-the-2024-european-parliament-elections



Eisenberg, Avigail, 2003. The Politics of Belonging: Nationalism, Liberalism, and Pluralism. Columbia University Press.



Girardet, Raoul, 2024. “Nationalisme”. Encyclopædia Universalis. (Available online)



Kerr, Susan (ed.) et al., 2019. Is God a Populist? Christianity, Populism and the Future of Europe. Oslo: Frekk Forlag.



Moltmann, Jürgen. “Christianity, humanity and the new nationalism”, pp. 22-30.



Ngnambi, Christel L., 2019. “Is populism really a threat to democracy?”, pp. 47-69. —, “Populists, Christians and Christianity: A bird’s eye view”, pp. 70-92.



Mudde, C., 2004. “The populist zeitgeist”. Government and Opposition, 39(4), 542–563. doi:10.1111/j.1477-7053.2004.00135.x



Mudde, C., & Kaltwasser, Rovira C. (eds.), 2012. Populism in Europe and the Americas: Threat or corrective for democracy? New York, N.Y.: Cambridge University Press.



Wirth, Werner, et al., 2016. “The appeal of populist ideas, strategies and styles: A theoretical model and research design for analyzing populist political communication.” Working Paper No. 88, National Center of Competence in Research (NCCR) Democracy, University of Zurich, Zurich.



 



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