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History teaches us to be wary of the new nationalism

  • Author: Steve Haycox
    | Opinion
  • Updated: July 14, 2016
  • Published July 14, 2016

This summer is the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme, the bloodiest battle in all of World War I, which war is being commemorated over the four centennial years. In 1916 in northern France, British and French troops undertook a massive offensive designed to push German troops back out of French territory. On July 1, the first day of the battle, the British lost 18,800 men, the greatest death toll in any battle in all British history.

The battle lasted all summer, and in the end, the offensive failed. When the first snow fell, the Allies had gained almost no ground, and the combatants settled in for another winter of trench agony. For at the same time, Germany had been unable to advance, the beginning of Germany's ultimate defeat.

Historians writing after the Great War lamented the loss of innocence it brought, the loss of confidence shared by most in the educated classes in 1914 that war was an exercise in virility and manliness, a morality ennobled by defense of national honor and status. A combination of new technologies, including tanks, poison gas, and improved machine guns, together with military leadership that had to learn how to utilize them, which took much time, led to hopeless stalemate, and to persistent, agonizing killing and maiming. Most post-war scholarship condemned the war and those who allowed it to eventuate. Analysts also called for a trans-nationalist foreign policies that would focus on stability and peace rather than national one-upmanship. Nationalism, many wrote, leads to futile war and unconscionable destruction.

The advent of World War II, a direct consequence of the Great War and the treaties that followed, briefly overshadowed the first war among historical analysts, bur not for long. World War I was, the great German-American historian Fritz Stern wrote, "the first calamity of the 20th century, the one from which all other calamities sprang." These included the destruction of empires, the creation of fictitious new nation-states, Soviet communism, the rise of Hitler, the Holocaust, and the turmoil in the Middle East today. Nationalism was used to justify most of the horror brought by the war.

As a result of Germany's defeat in both World Wars, and because of the nuclear horror associated with the Cold War, belligerent jingoism has gotten a bad name. In 2012 the European Union earned the Nobel Peace Prize for its symbolism as a champion of European peace since 1945. Except for the war following the collapse of Yugoslavia, national violence has been mostly contained on the continent. That is what is most disturbing about the neo-nationalism championed by the rise of far right groups in France, England and Germany, among others in Europe, and the bellicose blandishments of Donald Trump in this country. The slim majority supporting Britain's exit from the EU is a manifestation of the breadth and depth of the phenomenon.

None of the far right apologists are calling for war. What they want is less control by international organizations and the policies, particularly trade policies, they enforce. That the various free trade agreements since the end of World War II have increased national and individual wealth virtually everywhere is insufficient for them. Their cause is national sovereignty, making their country great again. The costs of what they espouse aren't seriously investigated, it seems, not until it's too late, as with Brexit.

The best antidote to neo-nationalism is to address the real concerns of those who've been disadvantaged by the gross income inequality global trade, deregulation and relaxation of tax obligations has produced. Reinstitution of meaningful taxes on wealth, enforceable monitoring of securities and investment marketing, and more aggressive and comprehensive job re-training will go a long way toward alleviating the legitimate grievances of those being left behind.

In 2000, then-Gov. Tony Knowles invited New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman to give one of the Millennium Lectures here. Friedman had just published "The Lexus and the Olive Tree." In his talk he championed the benefits of global peace and free trade. But, he said, those who benefit most have a deep obligation to attend to those who benefit least.

That's the answer for those who see no alternative to Donald Trump and his ilk.

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