[Viewpoint] The beast called nationalism

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[Viewpoint] The beast called nationalism

Nationalism is a monster. You aren’t always aware of its existence because it is hiding most of the time. But when it emerges, it demonstrates unimaginable power. When it is well controlled, it can be an explosive driving force for productive purposes. If you fail to control it, it can lead to enormous tragedies and sacrifices.

When you look at nationalism in German history, you can see the true nature of this monster. In 1807, German philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte delivered the Addresses to the German Nation, a classic example of how nationalism could become the driving force of a community. After Napoleon of France occupied Berlin, then the capital of Prussia, the Germans fell into despair. According to Fichte, they were like ghosts making meaningless efforts to return to their dead and forsaken bodies.

To console his fellow Germans, he cried for nationalism. “If you rise with determination, you will see the blooming of an era that will promise the most honorable commemoration to the Germans, and you will see that the name of Germany will rise above all nations as the most honorable nation,” he said.

He emphasized the importance of an educational revolution as the means to rise again with determination. That education advocated ending the tradition of individualism because it was the cause of the Germans’ defeat.

At the time, the modern form of a nation and nationalism were just taking root in Europe. After its defeat by France, Germany saw a flaring of German nationalism to unite its people and put them on a path to building a nation. As a result, the German empire was declared at Versailles Palace after the first war won against France after 64 years. Nationalism helped rebuild a nation.

In contrast, Hitler’s Nazism is one of the worst examples of what nationalism can do. Nazism was a form of fascism in which German nationalism and racist policies were combined. To protect the supposedly superior bloodline of the Germans, laws for the protection of German blood and honor were created. The Nazis banned marriages between Jews and the so-called “Aryan” Germans, and all brides and grooms were required to submit documented proof about their bloodlines. The Holocaust was the massive cleaning of the Aryan state’s bloodline. The attempt to control what the Nazis saw as inferior races led to World War II.

Hitler won power through a democratic procedure. What the German people failed to realize was that they had lost the leash of the monster called nationalism. In fact, they let the beast off the leash because they were swept up by nationalistic propaganda.

Because of this tragic history, the West views nationalism with extreme caution. They equate it with chauvinism or jingoism. Because the fears of negative forms of nationalism are widely spread, it was possible for Europe to lower its national borders. At least in 21st century Europe, nationalism based on an individual country seems to have disappeared, at least prior to the fiscal crises of the past few years.

But Northeast Asia is seeing a rise of nationalist sentiment. Why?

Korea, China and Japan are proud of their national identities. In their own territories, the three countries have maintained communities for thousands of years. China believes it was the center of the world. Japan is unique: Until the end of World War II, it believed it was God’s country run by the emperor. Nationalism runs deep and rich in the region.

Second, the three countries are close neighbors, and all three remember the period of imperialism and colonialism, either as an offender or victim. Even a small incident whips up some nationalistic emotion because of hurtful memories. Because border issues are symbols of imperial aggression, they stimulate nationalistic sentiments even further. In China and Korea, nationalism was the ideology of their independence movements, so it is still sacred.

Third, Northeast Asia is facing a transformation period of power. Japan is sinking while China is rising for the first time in more than a century since the Opium Wars. The power shift is taking place rapidly and friction is inevitable. Japan’s despair and China’s parallel pride are great accelerants.

Fourth, all three countries are having power transitions in 2012. President Lee Myung-bak’s unprecedented visit to Dokdo was the final quack of a lame duck. Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda is also facing a political crisis that will determine the fate of his administration, and it is natural for him to react sensitively to criticism that he’s weak in diplomacy.

China is even more sensitive as its leadership changes. Unlike the past, it has become impossible for a Chinese leader to gain and maintain power without public support. The nationalism of Chinese Internet users is boiling over. China has released the heat to the outside world in order to maintain domestic stability.

In this tense situation, the worst possible thing that can happen is for a politician to try to whip up nationalism. President Lee’s surprisingly harsh policy toward Japan, therefore, was a correct but undesirable move. We must be cool-headed to hold tight on the leash of nationalism.

* The author is a senior editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Oh Byung-sang

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