On Sunday 11 November 2018, President Macron of France gave a powerful speech at L’Arc de Triomphe in Paris. Before him were gathered leaders of the allied powers, including Presidents Trump and Putin. The UK was represented by David Lidington as First Secretary of State. There was no member of the Royal Family present. The Cenotaph ceremony in Whitehall is a bigger focus in the British mind.
Those gathered in Paris heard Macron launch a stinging attack on nationalism:
Let us remember: do not deprive anything of what was purity, ideal, superior principles in the patriotism of our elders. This vision of France as a generous nation, of France as a project, of France carrying universal values, was in those dark hours exactly the opposite of the selfishness of a people who look only at their interests. For patriotism is the exact opposite of nationalism: nationalism is treason. By saying “our interests first and what do the others matter!” we erase from a nation what is most precious, what makes it live, what brings it to be great, which is the most important: its moral values.
These words were obviously intended to hit out at both President Trump’s ‘America First’ policy, and at the manoeuvres of the Putin regime. But we need to define nationalism carefully. Nationalism is not ‘the opposite of patriotism.’ Patriotism is an essential part of our cultural identity and, as Macron explained, is to be lived according to moral values (but which ones?) Nationalism is the perversion of patriotism, because it takes love of one’s own nation one step further by idolising our nation and fearing all others. It does not take much to make that step, because the human condition is sinful, arrogant and inherently proud, and if that is true at the personal level, it is magnified at the national level. Patriotism easily descends into nationalism, a danger we must always be aware of.
But here is Macron’s bigger mistake, even to the point of subtly re-writing history. The First World War was not caused by nationalism, so much as imperialism. True, it was a Serb nationalist who lit the touch-paper by assassinating Crown Prince Franz Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo. But the explosion this caused came about because Europe was in the grip of huge rival empires, so powerful that some of them were clubbed together in security pacts to stand against the threat of the others. Britain, France and Russia were tied together by treaty, and Russia felt a close affinity to Serbia as another Slavic nation so they went to her defence. Germany stood with Austria-Hungary against Russia, and so Britain and France came into the war. It was a clash of imperial powers. At the heart of the imperial mindset is hubris, expressed so well in the French word Superieur. We know better, and because of that we have the right to rule other nations and extend our empire. The honour of the empire must not be threatened, and war is justifiable if the empire’s repute is in some way impugned. The primary issue that caused the slaughter of millions in the First World War was imperialism, not nationalism.
At the end of the war, President Wilson of America outlined his fourteen points that would form the basis of the post-war settlement. Being convinced of the right to national self-determination, he had no desire to perpetuate any empire, but the British and French governments steadfastly stood by theirs, while watching the German/Prussian, Austro-Hungarian, Russian and Ottoman empires crumble, waiting to grab the spoils of war to extend their dominions, particularly into the Middle East as well as Africa. At the same time, several European nations used Wilson’s speech to justify their own claims to self-determination, and countries such as Czechoslovakia, Poland, the Baltic States and Finland claimed their freedom through the peace settlement. Empires had been vanquished, and in their place came bitter nationalisms that led to the Second World War.
President Macron praised ‘the United Nations, a guarantor of a spirit of cooperation to defend the common goods of a world whose destiny is indissolubly linked and which has learned the lessons of the painful failures of the League of Nations and of the Treaty from Versailles.’ I agree with these words. But his enthusiasm for ‘the European Union, a union freely agreed, never seen in history, and delivering us from our civil wars’ is more worrying. He is a true believer in the EU, but does not realise that his vision is an imperial one. The European project must not be challenged. Those who want to leave are presumed to have hostile intent by doing so, and must not be allowed to do so easily. He spoke of the danger that others want to ‘ruin this hope by their fascination for withdrawal, violence and domination [which] would be an error that future generations would rightly take on historical responsibility.’ [Forgive google translate here please!]
But that is precisely where he is wrong. Withdrawal from the EU does not mean a resort to violence and domination. The seeds of domination are already sown in the ever closer union that the EU elite insist upon, that brings down governments and overrides the will of the people in order to preserve the wider EU ‘project.’ Such imperialism is the very thing that will cause nations to feel the EU’s oppression, and make them want to tear away from the EU. Suppress that desire for independence, and you could end up in another European war.
There is a deeper problem still. In the final part of his speech he spoke of the dead, standing as he was in front of the French tomb of the unknown warrior. He said ‘That on the tombs where they rest, flourish the certainty that a better world is possible if we want it, if we decide it, if we build it, if we demand it with all our soul.’ Expressed in those words is the modern secular mindset, that there is no God, and that we can build our own destiny if only we have the will. Surely, in reflecting on what two world wars have done in Europe, this hubris is utterly misplaced.
We should rather be looking for a different road, neither the imperial road that leads to war and domination (and eventually defeat) nor the road of nationalism that idolises our country and hates all others. Rather, we should be following a road where our national life is lived out under God, where we confess our national sins and personal hatreds, where in war we love our enemies and do good to those who hate us, and where we know that we do not have anything as a nation that we have not received from the hand of a good and gracious God. It is my hope and prayer that as we reflect on the war that killed so many, our desire will not be just to rail against nationalism but also against empire, and to follow a third way, the biblical road of nationhood lived out in humility under the sovereignty of God.