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A New Nationalism in Europe

ISSUE:  Summer 1944

The great obstacle which every attempt at effective supernational organization faces is its incompatibility with national sovereignty. To wield authority, an international association must have powers superior to the sovereign rights of its member states; in case of conflict, the latter’s interests have to yield to the needs of the larger community. Yet as long as a state retains its full sovereignty, it need not acknowledge the superiority of these needs—national sovereignty implies international self-determination.

In view of the psychological complexity of the problem, indications of an approaching solution in Europe deserve attention. They may point the way to possible future developments in international relations.


When Hitler launched his Blitzkrieg campaigns in 1939-40, he based his strategy on the knowledge that the idea of national self-determination had lost much of its one-time appeal. “Rather Hitler than Blum!” he was convinced, was more than the outcry of momentary exasperation of some French industrialists. To him it reflected the basic attitude of important sections of the French nation which placed their special economic interests above the interests of their country. In proclaiming their preference for France’s traditional enemy over the Frenchman who enjoyed the confidence of the majority of their countrymen, these men admitted their readiness to barter away the sovereignty of their nation. Rather than accede to the well-justified demands of their co-nationals, they prepared to put themselves under the protecting wings of the Third Reich.

How fully he could rely on them, Hitler learned during the Spanish Civil War. The very men who had consistently been opposed, in the interest of France’s security, to any reconciliation with the Weimar Republic, who had accused the Socialists of betraying their country when the latter voiced some timid objections against the occupation of the Ruhr in 1923, refused to see any danger to France’s position in the emergence of a Nazi-supported totalitarian regime in Spain. They could not possibly have been unaware of the fact that France was being encircled by Powers openly antagonistic to her. Common sense must have told them that the country’s interests demanded the unreserved support of Spain’s republican government. But to pursue such a policy would have meant to support those leftist elements in which France’s ruling classes saw their deadliest enemies. Instead of co-operating with them for the sake of the nation, they preferred to play into Hitler’s hands by refusing all help to the Spanish Republic.

France was not the only country in which class interests prevailed over national needs. British conservatives likewise were horrified at the idea of seeing the Madrid Government emerge victorious from the Civil War. They were just as much opposed to a strengthening of Britain’s leftist forces. In consequence, many a protagonist of the Empire preferred to overlook the threat to Gibraltar and the Mediterranean lifeline—the inevitable result of Spain’s transformation into a Fascist Power. Unlike their French counterparts, however, these men rallied to their nation in its hour of supreme danger.

The Balkans offered a picture not dissimilar to that of France. Here, too, important groups were ready, for political or economic reasons, to take their respective countries into the Reich. While popular opposition to their conspiracy proved too strong in Yugoslavia to prevent armed resistance, Rumania and Bulgaria could be absorbed easily with their help. The fall of Greece was speeded by similar intrigues. Many Metaxists who had fought fiercely against the Italians refused to fight against the Germans whom they admired.

Many groups thus questioned the validity of national as distinct from social and economic interests in the nineteen-thirties. Pride in national honor and prestige was at a low ebb. Significantly, the so-called “nationalist” parties were most vociferous in their demand for peace at any price. Yet doubts were voiced not only by the Right, but by the Left as well. Tired of the unceasing turmoil into which his country had been plunged by constant political and economic difficulties, many a common man longed for stability and security as Hitler seemed to offer them. “The ordinary common people were ripe for unification into one political system in the summer of 1939 as they have not been ripe for unity since the days of Charlemagne,” Joseph Harsch, the Berlin correspondent of the Christian Science Monitor, noted at that time. “The desire for a merging of nationalisms into a European union which would remove the specter of war from their daily lives and give them peace was greater than it has probably been at any moment since the breakup of the Roman Empire.” Fear of Communism and disgust with slow-moving parliamentary regimes combined in a widespread demand for fundamental changes. Nazism, which apparently had coped with both Bolshevism and unemployment, seemed to be able to provide the answer to these two most haunting problems. To many, then, salvation seemed possible only from without, and they set out to fight their own governments and political institutions. Others, while not active Nazi supporters, were ready to give Hitler a chance.

Yet Hitler failed to unify Europe, although this task seemed accomplished before he even set out to solve it. He failed because he refused to provide those who were willing to acknowledge his leadership with the social and economic security for which they were longing. Instead, he sought to terrorize them into slavish subservience. Far from giving them economic security, he even deprived them of their two sole remaining rights—to life and liberty.

Europe refused to be united on these terms. Frenchmen, Belgians, Czechs, Poles, Greeks were not willing to resign themselves to the status of “lesser breeds” in the Nazi New Order. When it became clear that this was the role assigned to them by the Master Race, they revolted. Where there had been willingness to surrender national independence to the Nazis only a few months earlier, new national movements arose for the one purpose of breaking the chains of Hitler’s rule. Groups and classes which had fought each other bitterly for years pulled together; Right and Left began once more to co-operate. In the common task of fighting the Nazi overlords, Conservatives and Communists became trusted allies. Hitler’s game of playing one group against another failed; wherever he tried to destroy national cohesion, it developed all the stronger. National consciousness became again a strong political force.


But it is a new nationalism, very different from that of prewar years, which is stirring occupied Europe from Paris to Prague and from Oslo to Athens. It is no longer the separatist element setting up nation against nation which proved the foremost obstacle to all international understanding after Versailles. Just as Hitler helped disintegrating nations, by his rule of terror, find their way back to national unity, he taught his victims to see old national antagonisms and rivalries in a new and different light. Compared to the complete loss of liberty, such conflicts have lost much of their one-time importance.

Strong as national feelings have grown again since the Nazi occupation, they are no longer opposed to unification and international collaboration. Europe’s underground press, the best available barometer of political trends on the Continent, is, with few exceptions, agreed on this point.

“The doctrine of France, France alone,” writes the French undergound magazine, Cahiers de Liberation, “is one of the most uncivilized that man has ever invented. No country can stand aloof, withdrawn in itself, dedicated only to its power and its means. . . . It is necessary to have an international structure. . . . The prime aim of such a structure is still the abolishing of wars, of which the essential condition is the limitation of national sovereignties.” Of other clandestine publications, the Dutch paper Het Parool and Norway’s Svart paa Hvitt have repeatedly voiced similar sentiments. And a recently published program of Belgium’s underground Socialist Party likewise recognizes that Belgium, conscious of her international obligations, must admit “certain limitations on her sovereignty.”

How far the small countries appear prepared to go in the surrender of their independence was revealed a few months ago. Last December the Belgian Minister of Information was reported to have declared, in an address at Belfast, that Belgium was ready to abandon her sovereignty and become a member of the British Commonwealth of Nations. The report was immediately denied by Belgian authorities in London as going far beyond what M. Delfosse had suggested. A few days hater, News from Belgium, a weekly bulletin published by the Belgian Information Center in New York, approvingly quoted what he did say: “After this war we intend to maintain the good relations we have always had with Britain. Our interests link us in the same way as our hearts. It is necessary that a big Power should take a step to insure peace in Europe. No one could do it better than the British Commonwealth which has succeeded till now in gaining the friendship of every people living under the shadow of its flag. It can become a leader of nations, especially in Western Europe. We ask but one thing: to be free in our interior regime and to earn our living properly and honestly. We are sure Britain is able to understand us and to give us the fair guaranty we need for our social reconstruction and for the happiness of our people.” Needless to say, what is conceded here clearly implies the surrender of Belgium’s national sovereignty.

Neither was this the view of an isolated extremist. Only shortly afterwards the Belgian Prime Minister, Hubert Pier-lot, expressed his agreement with these remarks: “From the tactical point of view it has become impossible to ensure the defense by land and especially in the air of countries so narrow as Belgium, unless their military bases are withdrawn well behind their territory in the direction from which I help is expected. I am certain that I am expressing the feelings of my compatriots in the occupied country in saying that Belgium will accept in this connection all duties compatible with the extent of her capacity. . . .” The full significance of these declarations can only be appreciated if it is realized that no Government-in-Exile would make such authoritative statements unless convinced that they reflected the views of the homeland.

That such an international outlook prevails in the occupied countries is not inconsistent with the revival of national movements. The re-emergence of these movements has frequently been misinterpreted as the resurgence of a narrow chauvinism averse to all international understanding. But in identifying this new nationalism with parochial narrowness, many observers failed to realize that the new national idea has nothing in common with the nationalism of prewar years. Then nationalism did indeed present itself as an aggressive reactionary force; it typified an attitude which a liberal believing in international collaboration was anxious to disavow. Being national-minded no longer meant being nation-minded. Germany’s Deutschnationale Volkspartei, the Nationalists of France, Spain, or Poland represented anything but the entire nation. In fact, when Hitler formed his Government of National Concentration in January, 1933, he gave it this name just because it represented not the entire nation, but only selected, “national” groups. The same implication attached to Marshal Petain’s Revolution Nationale in 1940.

The newly arising national movements in Europe disclaim all connection with this perversion of the national idea. Who studies the underground press or statements of underground leaders will look in vain for any proud insistence on their being called nationalists. “We are patriots,” an editorial in Resistance, the secret organ of a French rightist movement, stated last December, “but let there be no mistake about it, our patriotism could be in no way akin to the hateful and stupid nationalism which some Frenchmen professed before the war. . . . We want to establish unity in France, by creating a National Community.” Nationalism, in fact, today smacks so much of pro-Nazi collaboration in France that the term “nationalist,” in the words of one observer, “is now almost synonymous with traitor.”

Europe’s new emphasis on national values is a return rather to the early nationalism as it emerged out of the turmoil of the French Revolution. The Revolution gave birth to political nationalism in the conviction that true democracy could be realized only within the framework of the nation state. Political nationalism, in its original form, was a democratic movement, and as a liberating force it spread, against conservative opposition, through Europe.

When, however, conservatives and bourgeoisie entered an alliance against the rising working class under the impact of the upheavals of 1848, nationalism was narrowed down into an essentially reactionary force, monopolized by vested interests which found it a handy weapon with which to consolidate their position. This conversion of the national idea greatly impeded the growth of national unity. It had a deep and lasting effect on labor’s attitude towards national questions. Even when the workers acquired a limited stake in the political and economic fabric of the State, they remained traditionally suspicious of “national” interests and opposed to nationalist adventures.

Far into the nineteen-thirties labor adhered to its policy of pacifism and international collaboration. Its ingrained faith in these principles could not be shattered easily. “We wish to co-operate with all nations of the world, whatever may be their internal policy,” France’s leading Socialist, Leon Blum, declared as lute as May, 1936, a few weeks after Hitler’s reoccupation of the Rhineland, and for some time both French and British labor favored, in the interest of peace, nonintervention in the Spanish Civil War.

They finally changed their position when their traditional policy of conciliation and antimilitarism proved clearly suicidal. It was they who first came out for rearmament and resistance against the totalitarian Powers, while the “Nationalists” showed themselves unwilling to consider their country’s needs. In line with this new policy, Leon Blum made an attempt, early in 1938, to restore national unity by forming a “national” government. It was to represent the entire nation with the exception of the Fascists, “who have excluded themselves from the national community by conspiring against the republican institutions and by becoming agents of foreign Powers.” Yet the plan failed. The Rightist parties considered the Left a more dangerous foe than Hitler and refused to co-operate.

As it was, the regeneration of the old national idea came too late to re-create national unity where it had been undermined seriously. It could not stand up against the demoralization and disintegration which swept Europe under the impact of the German onslaught. But it emerged anew in the occupied countries under the rule of Nazi overlords who knew no distinctions of class and social standing. Sharing a common fate as Hitler’s victims, Right and Left realized that their interests did not clash as irreconcilably as they had thought. In order to survive, they knew they had to join forces. Farmers and workers, lawyers and teachers, clergy and artists, Protestants and Catholics, northerners and southerners took up together the fight against the common enemy. “The magnificent gift that the movements of resistance have given to France,” noted Combat, the de Gaullist underground organ in North Africa, before the Allied invasion in 1942, “is the willingness of representatives of all social classes and the old parties to band together. From our crisis will go forth not a class revolution, but a revolution in which workers, peasants, technicians, and intellectuals will have their place and their part. . . .” Those who stand outside this community are the pro-Nazi collaborators, particularly representatives of business and industry. A recent report from France aptly characterized this situation by describing the struggle between employers and workmen as “no longer social, but national.”


Whether this newly gained national unity will outlive the present war, it is of course impossible to predict. Born out of the struggle against a common foe, it can endure only if it is founded on stronger ties than the mere desire of defeating a mutual enemy. Ultimately, the stability of any national community depends on a fundamental agreement on social beliefs and objectives. When such common beliefs no longer exist, national bonds break down in times of strain. This crisis has reached its climax in Yugoslavia and Greece, where even the terror of the invader has not been able to bridge social cleavages.

Fully aware of the social implications of national unity, most countries are now laying plans to strengthen these bonds further after the war. Even as socially progressive nations as Norway and the Netherlands are envisaging far-reaching reforms. But of all Western countries, France, whose national disintegration had progressed tragically far in 1940, is preparing the most complete “social and moral revolution.” The French are deeply convinced of the need for a radical reorganization of France’s social and economic structure. French leaders inside and outside France have identified themselves with this mission sacree. The underground press is devoting special publications to its discussion, while the Algiers Committee of National Liberation in co-operation with resistance groups in metropolitan France is planning the measures to be taken. As a task designed to strengthen the national community, however, it can be performed only by Frenchmen. Outside interference can merely serve to delay, if not altogether endanger, the process of national consolidation. Hence France’s insistence on settling these problems by herself and in her own way so that, as Combat put it, “the revolution which we support will be a revolution of all Frenchmen for all Frenchmen.” The deep significance which Frenchmen attach to this self-purification explains their passionate opposition to all suggestions of outside interference in their coming “revolution.”

This nationalism, which sees its foremost task in the recreation of a stable national community based on social and political equality, is not incompatible with international cooperation. Democratic in its objectives, it must favor such understanding. It is not at all inconsistent, therefore, if Combat proclaims itself an advocate of supernational collaboration in the verv editorial in which it demands full in-dependence for France in purely domestic matters. The paper is careful to emphasize that the new nationalism which it represents should not be confused with nationalist isolationism, let alone aggressiveness. “History teaches us that there is a trend toward the constant enlargement of frontiers. The United States of Europe—a step toward world unity—will soon be a living reality for which we fight. In place of a Europe disunited and enslaved by a Germany drunk with power, we shall form with other peoples a united Europe.” The protagonists of the new national idea know that their ultimate goals of peace and security can be realized only in co-operation with other nations.

Not surprisingly therefore, the need for international organization after the war is being discussed at length by a substantial part of the underground press. One publication even bears the programmatic name of Liberer et Fcderer. These discussions are guided by the realization that no country can any longer afford to pursue its individualist prewar policies if it wants to survive. Hitler conquered each one of them by keeping it separated from potential allies; had they been united, they might have prevented his making himself the master of the Continent.

Particularly the countries of Western Europe, from which we have the most reliable information, will not allow this to happen again. They know now that they can no longer maintain an existence of absolute independence, with modern warfare demanding resources in men and materials which none of them possesses. Continued isolation, moreover, will sooner or later expose them to the kind of assault which they experienced in 1940. No policy of neutrality, be it ever so conscientious, as they have learned, can save them from such a fate. They have come to understand that if they want to escape the fate of being mere pawns in the chess game of power politics, they must look for their defense beyond their borders. “In this war,” a clandestine Dutch paper recently expressed the general feeling, “we have seen the small nations trampled down one after another. That is why Churchill and The Times want solid blocs of small nations existing freely beside the ‘Big Four.’ In this community of nations there will be no more neutrality and no more individual national policy, but the small nations will not be mere tools in the hands of their bigger neighbors.” Liberation, a French underground publication, put it even more bluntly: “We are determined to guarantee by force a stable victory for peaceful nations. Men everywhere . . . will set themselves against the past with its unsatisfactory solution of problems, and will base upon a foundation of restriction of national sovereignty, federation of nations, possession in common of the world’s natural resources . . . a peace of free men.”


Certain significant trends are noticeable in these demands for international collaboration. The most significant is that Europe is not at all sure that a worldwide organization will be an immediate possibility after this war. The above-quoted editorial of the French publication Combat cautiously speaks out in favor of the United States of Europe as a first step towards world unity, but does not go any farther. Het Parool, a Dutch paper, is more outspoken and denies that any world organization can be created in the near future; mankind, it feels, is not yet ready for such a step. “The League of Nations was too ambitious. President Wilson (in 1918) aimed to create a worldwide organization . . . while the first condition, a world outlook on the part of the broad masses, was almost entirely nonexistent. The cohesion of the national communities was underestimated and instead of proceeding in stages towards larger state communities, the roof was built before the foundations.” This same thought was expressed in an editorial of the French Cahiers de Liberation: “Since it does not seem possible that the problem of the limitation of national sovereignties can be solved in its entirety on a world scale at the first attempt, it must of necessity be worked out by stages and a little at a time.”

More recently the underground press has displayed the same reserve towards the idea of a United Europe. Only two years ago most clandestine publications advocated the creation of the United States of Europe after the war, but now hardly any paper still believes in such a possibility. A number of reasons account for this change of attitude. In the first place, all hope of integrating Germany into a European community in the not-too-distant future has been abandoned for good. Such hopes were still entertained in Western Europe in 1941-42, but except for a few dissenting voices they no longer figure in postwar plans. Rather, it is believed today that a United Europe could but serve as a new springboard to future German aggressors; the seventy million Germans would have no difficulty in assuming eventually the leadership in such a continental confederation in order to abuse it for purposes of their own. Undoubtedly Russia’s determined stand against any European federation which might one day turn against the Soviet Union has likewise influenced the attitude of the European countries. More important, Europe is a unit neither economically nor socially. The differences in social conditions and living standards between Western and Southeastern Europe are such as to preclude any similarity of cultural or economic outlook. Such a similarity of interests, however, is considered the prerequisite of as close a supernational collaboration as many of Europe’s small countries can envisage today. Finally—and this, although for obvious reasons rarely expressed in so many words, is a vital point—these small nations feel that a federation of limited regional extent would afford them a better chance of making their wishes known than either a continental or a worldwide organization.

It would be erroneous, however, to interpret this insistence on regional arrangements as opposition to the creation of a world federation as the highest authority in future international relations. As a matter of fact, many an advocate of regional associations considers such groupings only as the preliminary, and indispensable, step towards the establishment of a world organization, in which the various regional bodies would eventually be united. But, in the words of Het Parool, “world organization cannot be created at one blow. Therefore, there should be an intermediate stage . . . and humanity gradually accustomed to the idea of supernational organization.”

The discussion of regional federations has been most widespread in Western Europe. France, in her underground press as well as through General de Gaulle, has made it clear that she would welcome a “sort of grouping of Western Europe from the Channel and the Rhine to the Mediterranean.” (In order to show, however, that such a regional “grouping” cannot be the ultimate goal of international integration, de Gaulle has formally disavowed the notice of France’s withdrawal from the League of Nations, which Admiral Darlan had sent to Geneva in April, 1941.) While General de Gaulle has so far spoken only of economic collaboration in Western Europe, publications in occupied France also advocate military agreements. Neither France proper nor Algiers, however, favors the inclusion of Britain in such a bloc. Norway and the Low Countries, on the other hand, want to see Britain included in this association. Going even beyond these proposals, some leaders, Norwegians especially among them, suggest the conclusion of a regional agreement among all the countries bordering on the North Atlantic, including the United States. Britain, knowing that she can no longer return to her insular detachment after this war, has indicated, most clearly by way of a recent speech of Field Marshal Smuts, that she may not be averse to a regional agreement with France and the Low Countries. As for the United States, those who advocate the creation of an Atlantic bloc with her are rather doubtful that she will be willing to accept such a commitment.

One of the first concrete results of these discussions is the proposed creation of a customs union of the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg. It follows a financial agreement between the three countries which paved the way to closer economic collaboration. The Governments concerned took great pains to make certain that such an economic union met with the approval of their countrymen. According to a report of the New York Times, the conclusion of the pact was held up for months until this was ascertained. Provisions have been made for the eventual inclusion of France, should she decide to join the union.

Similar trends towards regional organization can be discerned in Eastern Europe. Dr. Josip Smodlaka, Foreign Minister in Marshal Tito’s Government, recently stated that it was one of the aims of the Yugoslav Partisans to establish, after the war, a Balkan federation which would inelude Bulgaria, Albania, and possibly Greece, in addition to Yugoslavia. Hubert Ripka, a member of the Czechoslovak Government-in-Exile, has suggested a similar agreement for the non-German sections of Central Europe—a proposal which, according to Arvid Fredborg’s report in “Behind the Steel Wall,” corresponds with the wishes of the peoples concerned. These eastern confederations could, of course, come into being only with the approval and support of Russia. That they are being discussed now by Governments which are known to be in close touch with Moscow may indicate that the Soviet Union has dropped her opposition to projects of this kind.

No one, of course, can foresee whether this spirit of international rapprochement will outlast the war. Yet it may be hoped that it will. Many vested interests which once stood in the way of such understanding and supported the intolerant nationalism of prewar years have disappeared. It is this fact in particular which encourages the hope that the desire for collaboration beyond national boundaries will not die down once the Nazis have been overthrown.


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