The Spectre of Nationalism: on European Illusions

Nationalism is one of the most important factors in explaining the outbreak of the First World War, together with imperialism, the arms race, old enmities, megalomania and the particular dynamics of military mobilisation. According to historian Christopher Clark, the events leading up to the catastrophic war that saw the bloodbaths of the Somme, Verdun and Caporetto began in 1903 with the assassination of King Alexander I of Serbia. The underground nationalist organisation that was responsible, known as the Black Hand, was also behind the attack of 28 June 1914 on the King’s intended successor Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria carried out by the Bosnian Serb nationalist Gavrilo Princip.

Austria-Hungary promptly attacked Serbia after obtaining an assurance from Germany that they would work together in the event of a military conflict. Russia then came to the assistance of its ‘blood brother’, France supported its Tsarist ally and was itself aided by its own ally Great Britain. Clark therefore sees France, Great Britain, Austria-Hungary and Russia as equally responsible, along with the Germany of Kaiser Wilhelm II, for the outbreak of the First World War. He describes these joint protagonists in the origins of the war as “sleepwalkers”, because they lacked a vision extending beyond national interests and had little or no conception of the appalling events they were about to unleash on the peoples of Europe. Many political leaders hoped that the war would soon be over. The British, for example, believed they would be “home by Christmas”. The war lasted for four years and cost the lives of over eight million soldiers, in addition to an incredible toll on the civilian population.


Despite the significant differences between the Europe of 1914 and that of 2014, there are two striking parallels. The first is that the continent, just as it was a century ago, is divided. The current divisions in Europe are the result of socioeconomic inequality and of uneven distribution of political control, for example in the relationship between Germany and Greece. Where two groups of allies stood opposed in 1914, it is now the rich and the poor countries that are in opposite camps. However, the divisions are no less important. Confidence in the European Union is at an all-time low in the countries of the south, and not much higher in those of the north.

The second parallel lies in that fact that, now as then, the majority of Europe’s political leaders are sleepwalkers. Compared with the generation of Helmut Schmidt, Helmut Kohl and François Mitterand, the generation of Angela Merkel, François Hollande and Mark Rutte lacks any vision of where Europe should be heading politically. Apart from a savings and austerity policy, combined with policies of national interest, they have little else to offer. As a result, the gap between rich and poor Member States grows ever wider, and the gulf between rich and poor population groups, that cuts straight across the different countries, is rendered invisible. Because today’s sleepwalkers have no idea how to end the divisions in Europe, and are indeed contributing to them, they are playing into the hands of political parties whose nationalism puts the European project at risk.

However, the sleepwalker metaphor has its limitations. It focuses on the lack of vision for the future and risk analysis on the part of individual politicians. What the metaphor hides, however, is the fact that many politicians in 1914 opted very deliberately for supposed national interests, just like Merkel and those around her in 2014. Moreover, the simple fact that both cases involve a ‘generation of politicians’, all said to be sleepwalkers, suggests that more general factors are also at play.

To get to grasps with the spectre of nationalism, we would therefore like to highlight two interrelated illusions that plague Europe. First, the illusion that the current, neoliberal dimensions of capitalism are compatible with democratic principles. Second, the illusion that a ‘cultural’ (national) identity can define neoliberal policies, and that such an identity is therefore a precondition for social policy.

Capitalism and democracy

For a sound understanding of the crisis facing the European Union, we need to consider the irresolvable tension between capitalism and democracy. In the 1950s, Hannah Arendt claimed that the nationalist and imperialist rivalries that had led to the two World Wars and totalitarianism were closely bound up with capitalism. After all, the extension of power to other parts of the world served the accumulation of capital. The imperialism that developed in the late nineteenth century evolved in the interplay between globally expanding capitalism and the power politics of individual nation states.

Decolonisation put an end to imperialism or, at all events, as nuanced by political philosopher James Tully, to its formal variety. The advent of the modern welfare state and the human rights movement (around 1950 to 1975) then brought with them a degree of relative democratisation within European societies that imposed limits on capitalist expansionism.

However, the gradual dismantling of the welfare state due to the neoliberalisation of capitalism, especially from the late 1970s onwards, partly offset that process of democratisation. Adopting the term used by Colin Crouch, many people now refer to ‘post-democracy’. By this, Crouch means that neoliberal policy and beliefs have allowed economic elites, supported by political ones, to disregard the wishes of the population and to call the political shots.

As a result of neoliberal policy, opportunities for steering capitalism in the right direction in a democratic way have steadily declined. Democracy means that citizens are able to exert an influence on decisions that have a major impact on the quality of their lives. However, neoliberalisation implies that political and economical elites can take decisions over which the ordinary citizen has little or no influence. The neoliberal transformation of a ‘state-embedded market’ into a ‘market-embedded state’ has contributed to national governments having less and less steering power and politicians being unable to fulfil their pledges.

This transformation has also meant that Europeanisation and globalisation have now become largely the project of those same economic and political elites. In Southern Europe, citizens find their opportunities to exert an influence over economic policy concerning them by approaching their own governments are limited. They feel under the guardianship of the European Union. This is why citizens of Athens, Lisbon and Madrid took to the streets en masse to protest against the neoliberal diktats imposed by Brussels. Greece, Portugal and Spain have over 50% youth unemployment, and fewer than 10% of the population in those countries have confidence in their governments. The proportion of citizens there who believe their country is heading in the wrong direction is over 70%. On average, that view is shared by 56% of Europeans (SCP, 2013).

Social justice undermined

These figures show that Europe is struggling with not just an economic crisis, but also a political one. According to Wolfgang Streeck, Director of the Max Planck Institut für Gesellschaftsforschung in Cologne, both crises can be traced back to neoliberal policy. He identifies four different stages starting from the late 1970s: the fight against inflation, deregulation in favour of the financial markets in particular, the rise in both public and private debt, and public spending cutbacks. Neoliberalism had the effect of upsetting the hard-won balance between capitalism and democracy that was established in the time of the European welfare state.

This also implied that distribution according to market principles made social justice more difficult. In simplified terms, distribution according to market principles means that the value the market attributes to a individual’s services (expressed in income) determines how goods are distributed. Conversely, social justice is based on (human) rights accorded to individuals irrespective of the services they provide, and on collective representations of reciprocity, fairness and honesty. Based on ideas about social justice, negative aspects of the market are corrected or compensated for by means of political interventions. However, neoliberalism undermines social justice because it narrows the scope for serious political intervention by reducing taxes and dismantling welfare state arrangements.

Figures clearly show that the gulf between rich and poor has expanded worldwide with the advent of neoliberalism. According to a recent Oxfam report, the 85 richest people on Earth own as much as the 3.5 billion poorest. This extreme socioeconomic inequality is mirrored by the imbalance in citizens’ political participation. However, the central problem is perhaps not so much a difference in participation: the essence is that the economic elites are able to influence politics directly, going far beyond traditional forms of participation. As a result, democracy becomes largely a façade because ordinary citizens consistently arrive too late to exert an influence.

Because the majority of politicians still cherish the illusion that the neoliberal form of capitalism is compatible with democracy, no serious political alternatives are put forward. However, as Streeck rightly states: “Neoliberalism is incompatible with a democratic state, provided democracy is understood to mean a form of government which, on behalf of its citizens, intervenes with public power in the distribution of economic goods as created thanks to market forces.”

The question then becomes whether, and how, we can save social and political justice or make them possible once again. Here, left-wing politicians and intellectuals sometimes appear to opt for a return to the nation state, relying on an historical analysis which suggests that social security and public spheres were possible because they were preceded by prior processes of nation state formation and cultural homogenisation. They are thereby exchanging the first illusion, the idea that capitalism and democracy are readily compatible, for the second illusion that hinders European thinkers and politicians, namely the idea that democracy and social security are dependent on solidarity within the nation state. This is the illusion that drives the left into the arms of nationalism.

National sovereignty

Just as on the eve of the First World War, Europe is plagued by nationalism. And although nationalism is still founded on national stereotypes, for example setting ‘German industriousness’ against ‘Greek profligacy’ (running contrary to sound economic analysis), the villain is first and foremost an international institution: the European Union, or ‘Brussels’, and the loss of national sovereignty.

After the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008, nationalism received an additional boost. All over Europe, political parties giving voice to an alleged threat to their country’s cultural identity are blossoming. They include Vlaams Belang in Belgium, Alternative für Deutschland in Germany, Perussuomalaiset in Finland, the Front National in France, the UK Independence Party in Great Britain, Jobbik in Hungary, the TT Partij in Lithuania, the PVV in the Netherlands, the FPÖ in Austria, the Solidarna Polska Partij in Poland and the Sverigedemokraterna in Sweden. The paradox is that the nationalist parties in Europe are organising internationally with a view to the forthcoming European Parliament elections. For example, in November 2013 Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders expressed an intention to work together, and contacts also exist with the FPÖ and the Italian Lega Nord.

In a time of rising poverty and drastic public spending cuts in nearly every country of Europe, these parties are capitalising on citizens’ fear of (further) socioeconomic slippage. The villain is not only Brussels: that role is shared by cultural minorities who are accused of taking advantage of social legislation and of failing to adopt national values. This view is expressed mainly in political campaigns directed against migrant workers from Eastern Europe, but it is also reflected in a hardened attitude to irregular migrants. In addition, the nationalist parties are partly responsible for the rise of antisemitism and islamophobia, and systematic discrimination against Roma.

Historic mistake

Against the background of the spectre of nationalism, philosopher and Erasmus prize-winner Jürgen Habermas rightly states that the idea that nationalism no longer poses a significant risk is historically naive. This is precisely why he argues for greater commitment to Europe. In addition, nationalism creates illusions and blinds us to the fact that social issues are at stake in which the interests run along population group and class lines, and cut across national boundaries. “The left-wing European parties are busy repeating the historical mistake they made in 1914. Once again they are bowing down for fear of the middle groups in society, which are receptive to right-wing populism”. The parties of the left are doing this partly for electoral reasons, hoping to regain the trust of the angry and frightened sector of the electorate by adopting some of the language of nationalism, albeit cautiously and in a ‘civilised’ way.

However, it is not only electoral politics that are driving left-wing parties towards nationalism, but also a common substantive analysis of contemporary problems. We have already mentioned the idea, often heard on the left, that national homogeneity is the basis for social policy and that this is precisely why it fails to take off at European level (in the Netherlands we hear this from the labour and socialist parties, the PvdA and the SP). However, national solidarity did not precede governmental commitment but was created by it: for example, by education policy and the introduction of (minimum forms of) social security. [See also the interview with Veit Bader in this issue].

According to Habermas, left-wing parties should adopt a much more critical stance on the suggestion of national solidarity, and not create false fronts on the basis of national boundaries. They should “start to see it as their duty to distinguish winners and losers of the crisis approach according to social groupings that bear a greater or lesser burden irrespective of their nationality”. Note that Habermas confines his analysis to solidarity within the EU, which has its own exclusionary effect in an age of Lampedusa and Frontex.

Habermas rightly states that the nation, as it is often now imagined by nationalists and Eurosceptics, but even by pro-European politicians, was not the basis for institutional solidarity (social security). However, he does not translate this adequately to a different vision of Europe because he concentrates to such an extent on the political and deliberative sides of Europe. Following on from Habermas, left-wing parties should therefore focus their efforts more on the introduction of basic social security provision at European level.

Left-wing politicians should clarify the actual relevance and benefits of European politics for people from different social groups, and make it clear that national solidarity (and sovereignty), believed by right-wing (and centrist) parties to be a precondition for social policy, conceal the actual power imbalances and interests. It should

also be emphasised that virtually all major problems are international in nature and cannot be resolved within national frameworks.

The left could also present a much more positive image of Europe and stress that good things are happening in Brussels in terms of participation by interest groups, sometimes more so than in national contexts (Bader, 2010). It could also remind us that it was primarily national governments which delegated power to companies and banks, and that although we cannot regain that power automatically we can try to do so through cooperation at European level.


The First World War showed that the nationalist construction of a collective identity is often not sustained for long. For example, in 1917 the Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany (USPD) opposed the authorisation of further credits to continue the war, whereas the Social Democrats had made war possible in 1914 by giving their consent. Like the internationally minded socialists Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg who came before them, they saw in 1917 that the soldiers firing on each other in the trenches on the basis of nationalist delusions often had the same socioeconomic interests. As in 1914, many European citizens now share interests that can only be served by international social policy. However, they are prevented by nationalism from realising this and from following it up politically.

Politicians lack ideas about how to make Europe more democratic, or how to tackle nationalism. There is therefore an urgent need for a debate about the tensions between capitalism and democracy, and about the meaninglessness of nationalism and xenophobia.

In this year’s commemorations of the First World War, it is therefore important to remember the destructive effect of nationalism and to emphasise that a democratic, social and cosmopolitan Europe is a necessary condition for the continued existence of a Europe which will be able to commemorate not only illusions and acts of violence as part of its history, but also the hope of and commitment to a world that is less unjust.



Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, San Diego, New York and London 1973 [1951].
Veit Bader, ‘Complex Legitimacy in Compound Polities: The EU as example’, in:
Representation, 2010, no. 46: 3, pp. 261-279.
Christopher Clark, The Sleepwalkers. How Europe went to war in 1914, London 2012.
Colin Crouch, Post-Democracy, Cambridge 2004.
Michael Hartmann, Soziale Ungleichheit – Kein Thema für die Eliten? Frankfurt/New York 2013.
Oxfam, Working for the few. Political capture and economic inequality, 2013.
Armin Schäfer and Wolfgang Streeck (eds.), Politics in the Age of Austerity, Cambridge 2013.
SCP, De sociale staat van Nederland 2013, The Hague 2013.
David Stevenson, 1914-1918: The History of the First World War, London 2012.
Wolfgang Streeck, Gekaufte Zeit. Die vertagte Krise des demokratischen Kapitalismus, Berlin 2013.


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