Nationalist Internationalism, or Internationalist Nationalism?

By Absalom Sink

(Note, this piece was posted nearly a week late, thus any references to “this week” actually pertain to the week ending on Saturday, September 20)

As David Motadel points out in his New York Times opinion piece from July 3, 2019, there is an apparent paradox at play in the international cooperation between the far-right, ultranationalist parties of Europe. In the EU Parliament, a broad assortment of far-right Eurosceptic nationalist parties—including France’s National Rally, Italy’s Lega Nord, Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland—has coalesced into a more-or-less united bloc. Motadel quickly moves to the obvious question: “Why are nationalists so eager to embrace an ethos of international cooperation?” These are, after all, the people who frame international politics as a zero-sum game, in which a nation only wins through another nation’s loss. Why would a French nationalist ally with a German nationalist?

Of course, as a number of this week’s readings make clear, far-right nationalists have a long of forging international bonds. In his opinion piece, Motadel quotes George Orwell as pointing out in 1937 that “fascism is now an international movement, which means not only that the Fascist nations can combine for purposes of loot, but that they are groping, perhaps only half-consciously as yet, towards a world system.” In particular, arch-nationalists are able to coalesce into international alliances when confronted with a common foe. For Germany and Japan in 1935—with the addition of Italy and Spain in 1937, and a handful of other nations in 1941—the common enemy was the Comintern. For today’s European far-right, the primary adversary is the European Union itself, upon which they project a plethora of grievances, both shared and local: the EU’s supposed ‘softness’ on immigration from the Middle East, the supposed influence of international Jewish finance, fiscal austerity, liberalism, etc.

As Motadel makes clear in another of this week’s readings, “The Global Authoritarian Moment: The Revolt Against Empire,” this particular form of internationalism can make for some strange ideological bedfellows. The piece highlights the Third Reich’s support during World War II of anti-colonial and anti-imperial movements throughout the British and French colonial empires, which presents another strange, apparent paradox: a regime founded on the claimed racial superiority of white Northern Europeans, helping to foment revolutions by colonized populations against other white Northern European states. In reality, the Nazis were drawing on a still-older playbook, reviving a tactic used during WWI of supporting colonial revolts against their colonizers. The Reich’s support for the Indian nationalist Subhas Chandra Bose or the Palestinian Amin Al-Husayni did not spring from ideological alignment—although Al-Husayni was an ardent cheerleader for the Nazis’ antisemitism—but rather from cynical expediency.

Paul Hanebrink’s A Specter Haunting Europe: The Myth of Judeo-Bolshevism highlights a second feature of nationalist internationalism: the need for a central myth. The particular myth on which Hanebrink focuses reveals the internal inconsistency of far-right mythologizing, the incongruous idea that Jews simultaneously control world finance, and are responsible for the Bolshevik system which sought to overthrow financial capitalism. It’s a tension that has never been adequately resolved, and yet the twin conspiracies of Judeo-Bolshevism and a shadowy, world-dominating cabal of Jewish financiers that provided a cornerstone for the Nazi political structure are still held up—contradictions and all—by the Third Reich’s ideological descendants. Far-right groups need an ‘other’ on which to hang their grievances, and the Judeo-Bolshevik myth “offered its users a way to interpret the multiple dislocations caused by economic modernization, democratization, and cultural pluralism”

We see these two factors today in the coalition of Europe’s far right: the “pragmatic” necessity of banding together against a common enemy, and the reliance on myth to create that enemy. These days, it’s less about Judeo-Bolshevism—though that remains a common refrain—and more about alternative myths, like the so-called “great replacement theory.” The song the EU’s Eurosceptic bloc is singing isn’t a new one after all. It’s just a variation on a theme.

Works Cited:

Hanebrink, Paul. A Specter Haunting Europe: The Myth of Judeo-Bolshevism. Boston: Harvard University Press, 2018.

Motadel, David. “The Global Authoritarian Moment: The Revolt Against Empire.” In American Historical Review 124, Issue 3 (July 2019): 843-877.

Motadel, David. “The Far Right Says There’s Nothing Dirtier Than Internationalism – But They Depend on It.” New York Times, July 3, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/03/opinion/the-surprising-history-of-nationalistinternationalism.html

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