The attack on the nation-state

Several years ago Dutch politician Thierry Baudet wrote a book called ‘’The attack on the nation-state’’. It is a well-written book that clearly outlines how the nation-states of Europe are under attack and are slowly being destroyed. The problem is that European politicians don’t deny this. In fact, they actively cheer for the destruction of the nation-state. They claim nation-states are outdated and brought us so much misery over the last century, they attribute both world wars to the existence of nation-states.

In light of this, let’s take a moment to review where nation-states come from, what they are and if they are really such a bad thing to have.

What is a nation-state?

Merriam-Webster defines the nation-state as follows ‘’form of political organization under which a relatively homogeneous people inhabits a sovereign state; especially: a state containing one as opposed to several nationalities’’. Put differently, it is a territory with a homogeneous culture and it is sovereign in this territory. Sovereignty implies freedom from external control (again from the dictionary).
We have the example of Turkey. It is inhabited by Turks that share a common history, a language, a culture and a religion. Additionally, Turkey is sovereign and its leader Erdogan is the person that determines what happens in Turkey. Turkey is thus a nation-state. Well, almost, as the Kurds also live in Turkey. Of course that leads to conflict.

Before Europe had nation-states, it had the feudal system. Bluntly put the feudal system meant lords were constantly battling and scheming to control the land. There were many small independent states, and there were greater unions such as the Holy Roman Empire. What determined the borders of these states? Basically the borders extended as far as the might of the ruler. War, marriages and inheritances determined which land was united under the same ruler. Hence the Habsburg Empire ended up controlling the Netherlands, Spain, colonies in the Americas and more random parts of Europe. The one thing uniting the lands was their ruler, who had used war and marriages to obtain the lands.

What about empires?

Now I mention empires, and empires have existed all throughout history. An empire is similar to the feudal system but the greater version of it. The ruler conquers the lands and all the people submit to the ruler. There are those that claim histories empires are the first multi-cultural societies, and in a sense it is true that many empires allowed different cultures to exist in them. To be fair, they did not have much of a choice after conquering their opponents, unless they would have killed or expelled them all, in which case they would have conquered a wasteland. Hence, these rulers allowed people with other religions and cultures to live in their territory, so they could take their tax money and become more powerful. Nonetheless people were for the most part isolated in their provinces, and their provinces were rather homogeneous and left to handle their own business.

Empires are never democracies

Note that such empires were never a democracy. The conquerors ruled and the losers had to submit. Many empires fall apart as soon as the mighty ruler dies, the empires were held together by force, not by a desire of people to unite under one banner. Revolts and rebellions are frequent in empires and they tend to dramatically collapse. That is not to say empires have not had benefits, without a doubt the Roman Empire created wealth by allowing free trade across the Mediterranean. Yet, that didn’t mean there was a right to secession from the empire.

People want to live together in a nation-state

A nation-state is rather different. The idea of the nation is that people want to live in the same country together. They see no need for borders between them, or different rulers, because overall they share a history, language, culture and ideology that allows them to agree on the big questions. A democracy is never possible in an empire, because all tribes and factions would simply compete and obstruct; there is no sense of unity apart from the right of the strongest. Within a nation, for the above mentioned reasons, a democracy suddenly is possible. Hence, democracy in Europe corresponds with the disappearance of empires and rise of the nation-state. The people became sovereign in their land.

World War 1

Now, let us review the claim that nation states are responsible for World War 1 and 2. World War 1 started with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He was assassinated on a visit to the Bosnian province of the empire, by a man that wanted an independent Bosnia. As the man was a Serb, the Austro-Hungarians used it as an excuse to invade Serbia. The Russian Empire responded to this as they considered Serbia a part of their sphere of influence and the rest, as they say, is history. Austro-Hungary was not a nation-state, it was an empire controlling other nations. Can we then agree that World War 1 was caused by imperialism rather than nationalism? In a world of nation-states, Bosnia would have simply been an independent country, it was the oppression of the country that led to war.

World War 2

In World War 2 the situation is somewhat different. The democratic nation-state of Germany declares war, after having moved from a democracy to a dictatorship. The excuse it uses is to unite all Germans into one nation-state, but Germany merely abused the pretense of desiring a homogeneous nation-state in order to create an empire. Hitler made it clear he wanted to re-create the German empire by expanding to the east. In a democracy this type of conquering does not work as the conquered provinces would quickly outnumber the Germans and elect someone that sets them free. In reality, Hitler transformed the German nation-state into an Empire, and its democracy into a dictatorship.

Can we then blame World War 2 on nation-states? Hitler made it clear his intention was not a nation-state as soon as he invaded all of Czechia. He did not grant the right to have a nation-state to the Czechs; and this was before the official start of World War 2. So we can say that before World War 2 started, Germany had transformed into an empire. Hence, it was a desire for empire that led to World War 2.

Nation-states are peaceful democracies

A nation-state can be a successful democracy, an empire can never be. A nation-state is more peaceful as there is less reason for friction. A homogeneous people is not inclined to start a civil war over some minor disagreement. Of course wars still happen, but as Ian Morris points out in his book ‘’War! What is it good for?’’ we are really living in the most peaceful time in history. Never before have so few died from violent causes. We owe this safety for a large part to the existence of nation-states and the generally accepted idea that a people have a right to be sovereign in their territory.