With the Balkan situation so volatile, and public opinion so divided on issues relating to identity and self-determination, the word “nationalism” is getting a bad press.
The movement towards independence in the 19th century in the Scandinavian countries, Ireland and the Balkans, was fueled by cultural nationalism which attempted to define people in terms other than politics. You emphasized your difference from the powerful neighbor who had been suppressing you, maybe for centuries. And the difference was not an attitude to politics but your language, or religion, or your attitude to life and the land you lived on.
Finland “invented” its epic poem, “The Kalevala,” which inspired Sibelius and, eventually, the whole independence movement. In Norway a playwright and a musician spearheaded the restitution of the Norwegian language which had been overcome by Danish. These cultural initiatives created populist movements which could then take on a political dimension and lead to wars of independence.
And, generally speaking, public opinion in the wider world respected this difference and applauded – maybe even came in on the side of the underdog.
This is the point at which it becomes dangerous, because, when independence has been achieved, it is necessary to contain populism within a civilized society, at peace with itself and its neighbors. The principal danger to this pacific society is irredentism, the ambition to expand the national borders to areas which were not included in the original deal. And culture becomes a weapon of populism once more, discovering areas of identity beyond the grasp of sovereignty but within its hopes and dreams. That, to give only one example, is Kosovo today.
It is when nationalism is confused with populism in this latter kind of outreach that borders, like tempers, become frayed.
In the last century, the Balkan wars of 1912-13, the First World War, the attempted extermination of the Armenians, the Anatolian catastrophe, the Second World War and the Serb-Bosnian wars of the 1990s were fueled not only by territorial ambition but, more significantly, by issues of identity.
One of the nonsenses of WWI propaganda was that the war was for the defense of the smaller nations – “Brave little Belgium,” “Plucky little Poland.” No great power ever defended a smaller one unless it also brought territorial, economic and military advantages to itself.
When Francois Mitterrand declared in 1995 that “nationalism is war,” he failed to point out that there are “just” wars and “unjust” wars.
Most people outside Germany and Austria felt in 1939 that war was justified if it would put a stop to Nazism.
Most people outside the former Yugoslavia felt in the 1990s that the conflicts between Serbs, Bosnians, Croats and Slovenians were a cruel and brutal injustice on all sides.
To defend your culture, language or religion is as vital as the defense of family and household. Fragility and vulnerability are dangerous qualities of life. Defense of property or dignity is a necessary privilege. Pushing one’s claims with aggression and rapacity towards one’s neighbor is an abuse of that privilege.
The difference between passive possession, enjoyment and celebration of one’s identity, and militant assertion of that identity is very great, but the dividing line is very thin. It’s the tightrope where hysteria and rage take the place of pragmatism and civility.
One reason for the low status of “nationalism” and “sovereignty” today is the inescapable fact of geopolitics: In the end, you will not win unless you are a superpower. And the superpowers today are a spoiled child in the White House and a KGB boss in the Kremlin, with unidentified Chinese characters coming up on the outside track. Compared to these “falaina” (whales), Hungary’s Viktor Orban, Poland’s Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the Czech Republic’s Milos Zeman and Romania’s Liviu Dragnea are mere “gavros” (anchovies) – which I suppose is why they try so hard to push their boundaries and justify their influence.
The Macedonian situation has made nationalists and pragmatists on both sides of the border vulnerable to the excesses of populism, thereby debasing the cultural values which they are using as missiles.
I was verbally assaulted recently by a self-styled “Greek nationalist” who said I should be thrown out of Greece for even suggesting that there is a Macedonian language. He waved the old cliche “Macedonia is Greek” – a cliche that needs to be rewritten in the light of common sense and the Prespes agreement.
Macedonia is certainly Greek – a whole region of the country, bordering the Republic of North Macedonia. That new republic may not like its new name, and it will probably stop using it, keeping “Macedonia” as a “backstop” position. But at the end of the day, it is a Greek sun that sets over Thessaloniki and Vergina, and that is still something to write home about.
Richard Pine was voted “Critic of the Year” in the 2018 Irish Journalism Awards. He lives and works in Corfu, and is the author of “Greece Through Irish Eyes.”