Nationalism: The Good, the Bad, and the Deadly #essaycontest2016

Elisheva Hoffman

Manhattan High School for Girls

Nationalism-The Good, the Bad and the Deadly

If we define nationalism as it is the Merriam Webster dictionary which is, “loyalty and devotion to a nation; especially:  a sense of national consciousness exalting one nation above all others and placing primary emphasis on promotion of its culture and interests as opposed to those of other nations or supranational groups”, then the question of whether nationalism is an asset or hindrance in today’s world depends on  the underlying values of the country in question.  That is, if the values and ethical premises of the country in question are ones that lead to a more prosperous and peaceful world then, under those circumstances, nationalism is a good thing. If, however, the values and ethical premises of the country in question lead to a less prosperous and more war ridden world, then nationalism is not just a hindrance but can be the source of the death of millions.

There are significant historical examples of both. Unfortunately, there are many more historical example of the bad effects of nationalism, which might lead one to conclude that nationalism is irredeemable.  Within the 20th century alone, nationalism was responsible for the death of millions. Thus, for example, the rabid nationalism of the Japanese led to a series of  in conflicts or sub conflicts as shown in both Costello in The Pacific War and in Hart, A History of the Second World War. Intense Japanese nationalism led the Japanese to treat other Asiatic peoples as less than human, a point made extensively in Craig Nelson’s new book Pearl Harbor: From Infamy to Greatness. In the name of a greater Japan, the Japanese annexed Manchuria and converted it into a vassal state. The Japanese referred to Chinese in disparaging ways and, in war, treated them brutally. Japan attacked China in 1937 in a war which presaged the brutality of the Axis powers before and during the Second World War. An example of that brutality occurred in Nanking, the capital of China at the time. When Japan successfully conquered that city in 1937 during the Second Sino-Japanese War, Japanese soldiers were given free rein in their conduct towards the Chinese citizenry. While there is significant historical debate as to how widespread the murder and rape was, the estimated range of those murdered range from 40,000 to 400,000 as discussed both by Nelson and in Wikipedia’s article on the Nanking Massacre. As elaborated upon by Nelson there are horrific examples of Chinese family members being forced to rape their own families for the lurid pleasure of the soldiers and of women from the ages 8 to 80 being raped or having their bodies torn apart for the “fun” of the soldiers (Nelson, supra.)  Japanese leaders were convicted of war crimes with respect to what was allowed (or, according to some, encouraged) to occur. The attack by Japan on China may have been motivated by Japan’s desire for natural resources but the treatment of the Chinese in such a cruel manner was caused by the extreme nationalism of the Japanese.  

Extreme nationalism was a driving engine behind the slaughter of millions by the Nazis.  Hitler preached the view that Germans were a pure Aryan race. He encouraged them to believe that Germany was defeated in World War I only because of subversive elements that infected Germany such as Jews and Communists. The killing of Jews, Communists, the disabled, and the challenged was all done in the name of purifying German blood. Further, Hitler and the Germans believed that they needed living space . They believed that they were entitled to more land and resources and that the people of Eastern Europe were inferior and were, at best, a slave people to the Germans. German military officers believed that Nazi conduct was “an acceptable price to pay” for Germany becoming a world power.

While it is beyond dispute that the Second World War was caused by the nationalism of the Axis powers, one could also argue that the First World War was caused by nationalism. The slogans and posters of the period show each side portraying the other side as monsters (such as the “Murderous Huns”). The declaration of War in Russia was “captured on film that showed [Tzar] Nicholas bowing before several hundred thousand loyal subjects who had massed to sing G-d save the Tsar” (Orlosky, Russia in War and Revolution 1914-1921 in Freeze, Russia, A History). It is is hard to believe that million would have marched off voluntarily to a stalemated war if patriotic fervor were not involved. Even the patriotic songs of the era such as the “Yanks are Coming” show the effects of nationalism. Further, the defeat of Russia in World War One led to the rise of Communism which itself has been responsible for millions of deaths .           

Of course, we do not have to look to the last century to see the pernicious effects of nationalism. In our own world, ISIS defines itself as a state. It sees itself as a state which has global designs. In the name of its ideology it enslaves women, and murders those who disagree with its ideology, both in the Middle East and elsewhere. Time after time ISIS takes “credit” for acts of terror.  

Yet, nationalism has had extraordinarily positive effects as well. After World War Two, both the German and Japanese, rebuilt their economies and became peaceful economic powerhouses.. In fact, the economic prosperity and freedom that were on display in West Germany was one of the causes of the collapse of East Germany and the reunification of the two parts of Germany.

Perhaps the apotheosis of nationalism at its best, is the United States. With all its obvious flaws, the United States has given the world and its own citizens so much. Americans define themselves as a free people, as an example to the world, as the shining city on the hill that Ronald Reagan and John F. Kennedy saw in their paraphrase of  John Winthrop. The United States has shown the world the virtues of freedoms, both political and otherwise.The American colonists established colonies where, in many instances, religious and political freedom was respected. Merely by way of example, Jews, who had been chased from country to country have largely been able to love to practice their religion freely in America.  Similarly, Quakers too found a home here.The Declaration of Independence was a seminal document in setting forth a basis for freedom while the Constitution provided a framework for governance

Waves of immigration of Chinese, Irish, Jews, Hispanics and numerous others give credence to the idea that America is a place of opportunity and freedom. In fact, the present political fights over immigration are evidence that the United States still is a haven for those seeking refuge.

This does not stem from political and religious freedom alone. America takes justifiable pride in her economic accomplishments. As demonstrated exhaustively by economists who are anthologized in Rand’s Capitalism:  The Unknown Ideal the free market has led to the great improvement in the lives of the common person.  

It must be conceded that American patriotism has not always been kind or fair. Indians, African-Americans and other minorities have often been treated badly by being enslaved, killed or discriminated against. Yet, without justifying that treatment, certain Indians tribes were often cruel to each other or others, the Africans were sold by their own leaders, and minorities still did better here than elsewhere. That said, patriotism certainly was not uniformly a great thing even here. The failures of patriotism in America though were failures to adhere to American ideals.    

Thus, our brief historical review shows that if the values of a country are good then patriotism is an asset. To the extent the values are evil, patriotism will be a hindrance to all good things.  



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Comment by Peter Obafemi Lawal on January 13, 2017 at 4:08pm

Perhaps, Enlightened Nationalism that respects the inalienable rights and freedom of our diversity across the world is best to the Isolated Nationalism that is selfish and brutish!

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