ellen mcbee

She's always up to something…

Ethnic Nationalism

on March 20, 2016

Today I was up ridiculously early for reasons I can’t remember. I must be getting old.

I was going to check my e-mail, which I still haven’t done, because my computer was still open to the article I was reading about the Ohrdruf camp, which was a concentration camp dedicated to forced labor and a satellite camp of Buchenwald. It was also the first camp liberated by American soldiers. A tour by Bradley, Eisenhower and Patton was arranged. Eisenhower immediately saw the significance; he felt strongly that the camps should be thoroughly documented so that later people couldn’t say that it had all been propaganda and that the camps had not existed. He insisted on seeing all of the facility.

Patton, meanwhile, didn’t see parts of the camp because of his own reactions. And it has been widely rumored ever since that he threw up within half an hour of arriving at the camp.

Anyway, that’s a well-known story. But as I was reading it over, I got to thinking about the nature of antisemitism, so I did a search. Specifically, I want to know why there is antisemitism. And do people really believe in it, or is it a convenient political tool? Because one of the books I’m reading right now is called Hitler’s Willing Executioners, and it’s about ordinary German people who were ingrained with antisemitism, which had been part of western culture for a long time.

Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised by the results of the search. There isn’t really consensus on why antisemitism exists; it might be easier to ask why there is racism, or xenophobia, or why people are anti-Catholic. But I found a link near one of the articles I read that led me to the idea of ethic nationalism. Which I had heard of before, but when I read that article I also found ethnic nationalism compared to civic nationalism.

I’d never thought about the distinction before. Ethnic nationalism means that you think of a nation, not as a political entity, but as an expression of the ethnic group that forms it. So, if you’re Irish, you would think of a nation encompassing people who speak Gaelic, are Roman Catholic, live in Ireland, listen to folk tales, sing folk music, etc. Eventually you think of your nation as people who look like you, talk like you, see the world the same way, and live in the same place. But it also means that your ethnic group is unambiguously identifiable. You are who you were born to be.

And then, there’s civic nationalism, which is not based at all on where you were born or what kind of people you came from. The nation’s power comes from the active participation of citizens. It’s straight from the Enlightenment tradition, with ideals of personal freedom, equality, tolerance, and individual rights. Citizenship is based partly on being born in the particular nation, but you can also become a citizenship by observing the laws and receiving particular privileges in return. You are who you choose to be.

And writing this now, I’m not sure you can have both of these things in the same country. On the one hand you have all these “Nativists,” which is completely ludicrous in America anyway, who think real Americans are of white European descent and Protestants. On the other you have people like me–bring in the immigrants because it makes us all better and stronger. Real Americans vote. Real Americans care about everyone having as many individual rights as they can. Real Americans don’t care what you look like, and so on.

Maybe that’s eventually the root of the culture wars, and why we’re all interested in World War II 70 years later. It’s a question that plays out every day, right here in America.


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