This essay is super long, prepare yourself :)
I've always been a pacifist since I was a teenager and I first got into history. I know pacifism gets a lot of play on this site, at least for a lot of you, but from my more military slanted friends, I'm called immoral and cowardly. I'm perfectly fine to take their slings and arrows. I thought about problems of nationalism recently, thinking about our decades long war in Afghanistan. I currently teach middle school Social Studies and I go very in depth into European history. The kids love learning about Ivan the Terrible and Kaiser Wilhelm, among others, and appreciate the fact that I try to make history real. It's a human story. I actually find Social Studies to be one of the more important classes for my children, even though I teach them Math and Science as well. I want them to be able to engage with history, and to see leaders and the major players as fallible human beings.
We recently started the rise of European nationalism. I never use class as a means to proselytize my views. History is about the search for facts, for judging evidence, for hypothesizing and undergoing rigorous examination. I also do not BS the children. If people in history have bizarre ideas or do stupid things despite being in a position of power, I simply state the facts. These are very astute 12 year olds. For example, they thought the Crusaders should've been a bit clearer on the location of Jerusalem before trying to conquer it, seeing as how they missed it by the distance between the holy land and Constantinople. Anyways, back to European nationalism.
Well, nationalism is something I despise in most of its forms. As a means of expressing individualism I tolerate it. My distaste for it gets me called un-American on forums all the time. Naturally, I don't get choked up at looking at the flag or hearing the Star Spangled Banner. I know those are positive forms of nationalism, but I still think in a way they allow nationalist thought to take root, and simultaneously makes it more difficult to have reason and enlightenment win the public consciousness and I'll discuss why later. I find nationalism to be a form of racism, and in my mind, the rise in European militarism and fascism is directly a result of the fantasy thinking that nationalism perpetrates in populations. I'm patriotic towards humanity, not because I dislike America or some other nonsense, but rather out of my love for humanity and the recognition that everyone deserves equal dignity. Rejecting nationalism allows you to reject any suggestion that one group of people is somehow intrinsically better than another. However that is my opinion and mine alone. The children hear none of it.
This month was Russian history. We went over Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, Napoleon's invasion of Russia, the Crimean War, and ended at Alexander II and the emancipation of the serfs. I wanted to get to Lenin and the October Revolution, but we had a school play to rehearse. The children were seeing the rate at which nationalist sentiment in Europe was heating up decade after decade up until World War I. They also saw the casualty listings. 700,000 Russians died during the Crimean War. Napoleon went back to France with only 20,000 some odd men because most of his "Grande Armee" died of disease, starvation, and Russian winter. The kids asked me why there were so many wars back and forth between the European countries. They wondered why young French volunteers would cross the continent of Europe to die freezing in Russian winter.
I explained that nationalism and wanting to bring glory to your country were some of the motives. Patriotism was a powerful emotion, I explained. Some people fought for France's honor and to be a part of a great European empire. The monarchs and the emperors fought for power, for greater access to wealth, for resources, out of a sense of duty, for a variety of things. It was up to the historian to gather actual evidence and figure it out. The kids had a ball reading about political intrigue and the European royal families. The class was a blast.
What I never said in class, but always thought when I sat at my desk enjoying some tea, is that the whole thing was quite stupid. Well, stupid if your goal is to enjoy the gift of life. 12 year olds think that building empires is great, but that's because it's a game to them. To soldiers who actually have to carry out the wars, it's all too real. I don't think the young, battle hardened French cadet squatting in a filthy hut in Poland covered in lice and dying of Typhoid thought much of the glory of France. Well, maybe he did. It reminds me of a very depressing movie I watched in German called "Stalingrad," displaying the war time experiences of a group of German soldiers. The end of the movie shows the last man in the platoon dying of hypothermia, cold and abandoned, thinking about his time back at basic training where his head was being filled with the glory of Germany and its right to rule the world. Lot of good his patriotism did then, but he did feel powerful bayoneting an old man while invading Moscow.
Nationalism seems noble on its face. After all, you want your population to be loyal to its fellow man. You want to have pride in your countries past accomplishments. You have all these great, special qualities as a country that no one else has. Your country may do wrong, but it does wrong in the name of right. Civilians may die in your military operation, but your cause is just. Anyone who goes against your country is a traitor, even if they seem well meaning, because of some character flaw deep within them like cowardice. If only the rest of the world shared your values, then humanity would be perfect.
I'm sorry, but this goes against all logic and reason. Nationalism bestowed upon people attributes that weren't empirically there. Sure nationalism was great as a means to express independence for groups that were suppressed by autocratic rule, like many ethnic minorities in the Austro-Hungarian empire. However, nationalism and patriotism inspire feelings that propel people into doing things that are actually beyond their ability and are morally wrong. It's like a religion. A bunch of zealous French youth crossed the continent of Europe to murder Russians on behalf of Napolean; Russians who did nothing to them in the first place except ignore Napoleon's wish that they not trade with England. Were these youth brave? Yes. Did they love their emperor and believe in their country? Sure, some of them did. Is any of that cause to kill someone for their land? Never. However Napoleon marched his army, his head filled with superiority, and his French soldiers and the Russians paid the price. No one is super human.
The reason why I think even benign displays of patriotism are dangerous in a way is because it creates an atmosphere where you cannot question your countrymen or put their bigotry or irrationality on display and dispense with it. You look like the Grinch who stole Christmas. Criticizing your country is like saying you would want to ban apple pie and baseball; there must be something wrong with you. Saying you're against war is saying you're against duty, honor, courage, and self-sacrifice when you know that all of those words can turn evil depending on the situation. It's hard to have an honest discussion about coming down to earth with your fellow countrymen and realizing you're all just human. It would go along way in getting people to rationally think about matters of war and peace, sans the ubermensch thinking and poetry of self sacrifice, and actually accept peace as a viable option that is worthwhile and not hollow.