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Nationalism and Federalism in Europe Today

Jun 11, 1991, Lecture at the Goethe Institut, 11 June 1991
One could almost believe, looking at certain explosions of nationalist feeling, particularly in Eastern and South-Eastern Europe, that now the Second World War is over and done with, the First World War can begin again.
One also wonders, in view of the upsurge of nationalist, ethnic and even racist emotions in many other corners of Europe - a tendency which is undoubtedly on the increase - whether European civil wars, i.e. wars between the peoples of Europe, are again becoming a possibility, and whether nationalism can really be dismissed as an outdated legacy of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Nationalist and/or ethnic movements and conflicts are increasing - not only in Eastern Europe

Anyone who in recent decades has underestimated the potential explosive force of ethno-nationalist elements, and regarded them as outdated, can now only look on in puzzlement and talk of irrational behaviour.
Those, however, who kept a closer watch could have recognized earlier what many Eastern Europeans today hold against the Western Europeans, when they say (as was said to me at the Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly in Prague in 1990) that for the West, nationalism may perhaps automatically be viewed in a negative light, but this is not true for the East, where freedom has only just been won from a kind of imposed and superficial internationalism, and time is needed in which an appropriate and freely-chosen form of identity can be developed. And after the very sudden demise of an ideology which determined the form of the state and also somehow - necessarily - of society, it is plain that above all, religion and national feelings, spiritual belief and belief in the Fatherland have survived underground and now - probably temporarily, but nonetheless vigorously - are forming a new basis of self-awareness on which a new communal identity will be founded.
There is sometimes something very artificial about this - the newly-designed Croat parade uniforms, the Tsarist Russian flags and even some would-be monarchs emerging from oblivion, but to the people and peoples concerned, the sense of a national or ethnic identity seem to mean much more than, for example, a belief in progress, the brotherhood of nations, or social justice. Whether this will be followed by a reverence for science, technology and money, as practised in the West, or by something different and better, it is too early to say and will partly depend on how the ethno-nationalist awakening is handled.
This, moreover, occurs not only in the areas of Eastern Europe which were formerly under Communist occupation, but in various forms in Western countries. Evidence is provided by the various self-determination movements, which flourish in the West as a reaction to centralization, imposed modernization, oppression and the eradication of diversity, and by widespread xenophobia, which can end up in racism and violence.
It should however be made clear that there is a very broad and varied spectrum of ethno-nationalist trends and movements which cannot all be measured by the same yardstick and must be viewed and approached individually. Central and Eastern Europe have in fact retained, as have some more (geographically or socio-economically) peripheral regions, a much greater diversity and thereby perhaps a greater potential for tension than have the bastions of industry, technology, mass communications and highly-organized and thoroughly-managed modernity. Tension however must not be viewed in a purely negative light, the word also covers vitality and authenticity.
The potential for contagious, explosive force, originating and creative forces: destructive and constructive aspects

There is in any case a great danger that ethno-nationalist tendencies will spread, and the continuing knock-on effect of demands for self-determination and nationhood, or at least autonomy and self-government, clearly show that all over Europe questions of nationality or ethnicity have by no means been settled or rendered sterile and can still give rise to much cogitation (and perhaps also violent confrontation) in the coming years and perhaps decades.
The potential for explosion and the ability of nationalist, ethnic, racist or religious movements to carry broad sections of society with them, are far stronger than the divisions caused by social boundaries. It is common knowledge that highly dangerous tensions, with international and even military consequences, can grow out of ethno-nationalist trends which in themselves are not always sterile or damaging; the tragic events in Yugoslavia provide sufficient examples, and the processes taking place outside Europe could follow a much bloodier course than those in Europe. We have probably not yet nearly reached the peak of these upsurges, which could, for example, be marked if aggressive (or even intentionally defensive) nationalism were allied with possession of nuclear weapons.
Ethnic and nationalist upheavals cannot be interpreted simply as energy particles set free during the process of breakdown of previously large-scale structures in the universe, although of course such breakdowns do cause enormous rifts - think only of the Ottoman Empire or Austria-Hungary... We can hardly expect that the often very arbitrarily instituted forms and boundaries of states will in the long term remain as we now know them, not only in Europe but particularly in Africa and possibly, in the not too distant future, also in Asia and Latin America.
There are also many creative and constructive aspects to ethno-nationalist movements, for example the increased value attached to linguistic and cultural characteristics, traditions and specific ways of life, without regard to their economic or political ‘status’. There are today about 170 sovereign states, but certainly more than 5000 languages; compulsory reduction to a single form of ‘development’ (that of the modern industrial society) and a single form of economy (the money and profit-oriented economy dominated by the world market), enforced by economic, political or even military means, understandably provokes resistance. It can almost be viewed as a challenge, to preserve and defend - at a tangent to ‘progress’ - economies, cultures, social systems and ways of living which go against the main stream and are vigorous enough to maintain and develop their ‘uneconomic’ and to some extent disturbing existence, despite the amount of energy this requires.
It is precisely this inseparable mixture of constructive and destructive aspects in ethno-nationalist strivings, which makes any assessment or reliable prognosis so difficult. Today Balts, Caucasians, South Tyroleans, Basques, Armenians, Kurds and Lapps are defending their various ethnic or nationalist interests, but their particular objectives and the reactions to them are very different and fragmented. Not all ethnic or linguistic groups, peoples or tribes are aiming to achieve their own nation states, but there is always an intention to achieve the greatest possible autonomy.
For some observers of such processes - which can lead to the division of states, or to the creation n of new states - they are intrinsically positive and hopeful, as a kind of embodiment of the ‘small is beautiful’ principle and a healthy reaction against centralism, bureaucracy and foreign domination. Others, however, see a dangerous resurgence of the nation state lurking in the shadows, bringing with it an army and possibly a war. In this situation old problems such as traditional enmities, unresolved border problems, ingrained oppression and discrimination, historical injustices, etc. can be allied with new tensions: more recent expulsions for example, or excessive immigration, the emergence of new opinions and forms of consciousness (from regionalism to xenophobia), and all this in a mixture of social and ethnic tensions which can actually pose a threat to security and can give rise to the temptation to call in a world policeman (if possible a ‘good’ one) rather than endure these kinds of conflicts.

Return to the nation state?

While in certain parts of Europe there is a feeling of nostalgia for earlier multinational regimes - particularly for Austria-Hungary, but also for the medieval idea of empire (and conceivably there may in a few decades be nostalgia for the Soviet Union or Yugoslavia), and Western Europe is flying the banner of supranational integration, federal, multinational confederations such as the Soviet Union or Yugoslavia (and this could also soon apply to Czechoslovakia) have proved unwilling to support federalism as such after the collapse of the state ideology and its related power structure, and have not wished to preserve or remodel it. This is not only true for Eastern Europe: Belgium and Canada, for example, are not as settled as one might think in their cohesion and in their positive acceptance of multinational federation or confederation. And in parts of the world where, for various reasons, states and borders have until now been unquestioned and the trend seemed more towards unifying the continent (as in Africa, Asia and Latin America), it is now by no means certain that nationalist or ethnic tensions will not in future break up the existing states and borders.
Must we then once again come to accept that peoples (and possibly ethnic groups) will consider the formation of a nation state, or incorporation into a nation state, or splitting into nation states as the best, or only possible, way to fulfil their aspirations, and will avidly pursue this goal? Must the idea of groupings which unite people across ethnic or national boundaries be abandoned as a progressive illusion or sterile idealist artefact, and must the goal be the nation state with its borders defined as clearly as possible? Are not the slowness of the process of Western European integration and its inherent contradictions themselves a clear admission that notions of that sort are best left alone?

Towards the right of nations to self-determination: the nation state as an unsatisfactory answer

There are many who hold this view, particularly those who wish to see self-determination for the people (whatever ‘self-determination’ and ‘people’ may mean) placed unquestionably at the forefront of the new world order as the most important of collective rights. But they are too ready to overlook at least two basic facts: that the ‘peoples’ of the world, and also of Europe, are very rarely distributed in the kind of homogenous settlements which would enable clear boundaries to be drawn, and that the imposition of a system of nation states in the present circumstances can imply a large degree of conflict - at international level as well.
This has something to do with some of the characteristics of states which have not hitherto been questioned, seem inviolate and have become central elements of a nation-state system, but in view of the historical catastrophes they have provoked, should in fact no longer be regarded as legitimate.
‘Every state a nation state’, ‘a state for each nation’ or ‘a nation state for each people’, ‘sovereignty for each (nation) state’ (including the right to an army and wars) ‘non-interference in internal affairs’ as the quintessence of national sovereignty, perhaps even ‘clearly defined borders according to clearly recognizable ethnic criteria’ (as stated in Wilson’s fourteen point plan at the end of the First World War, which was not implemented) - these are the unquestioned certainties which lie behind the current upsurge of self-determination and national/ethnic aspirations and demand to be included in international law as axioms needing no further proof.
And indeed, all those who adopt these criteria for their own - perhaps very solid - nation state, should not be too annoyed if new aspirants arrive on the scene and claim them for themselves: whether the Corsicans against France, the Hungarians against Romania or the Kurds against Turkey. Anyone who wants to drive out the devil of separatism with the Beelzebub of the nation state is not a good exorcist. We have no right to be angry when others copy our mistakes - whether enforced industrialization, the nation state or exaggerated energy consumption.
But these criteria do not provide a very useful perspective - and certainly not a peaceful one - on the right to self-determination, which was hypocritically mentioned in the same breath as the inviolability of boundaries (except by joint agreement) in the famous Helsinki Final Act of 1975.
As experience has shown, it is incredibly difficult - I would say in most cases impossible - to define ‘correct’ or ‘just’ or ‘ethnically acceptable’ boundaries - and then to put them into practice by peaceful means; it can no longer be justified, in the face of serious violations of human rights, or oppression of minorities, or for example serious ecological damage, to regard a state frontier as an impregnable barrier against ‘outside influence’; it is hardly possible, in a world where interdependence is increasing all the time, to maintain forms of sovereignity which have hitherto been subject virtually to private law (‘usque ad sidera, usque ad inferos’ like private property under Roman law). There are many more peoples, ethnic groups, tribes, etc. than it is possible to have nation states in their present shape; practically nowhere is there a people, all of whom actually live in one and only one state, and practically no state can with complete justification be regarded as a mono-ethnic nation state.
The final question: ethnic exclusivity or a policy of living together?

Perhaps therefore it would be better to banish the customary idea of a nation state into the realm of idealistic but unrealistic fantasies and to regard its basic concept as mistaken (and in any case impracticable): namely, that a people (or nation or national group, etc.) must live in an ethnically homogenous and if possible sovereign context or at least be in the majority on their territory, if they are to survive happily and fulfil their potential.
That leads to ethnic exclusivity, which in its extreme forms, unfortunately not that rare, lead to compulsory inclusion or enforced exclusion of the ‘other’ (peoples, groups, languages, cultures, religions, etc.), thus to compulsory assimilation on the one hand - often by use of physical force - or to banishment, emigration or even extermination or genocide on the other, and in any case to conflict and even war with others - this is well known from history and should make us cautious. Those who want a ‘nation of Germans’ (Slovenes, Italians, Romanians, etc.) should not be surprised when those inhabitants who are not Germans (Slovenes, Italians, Romanians, etc.) feel uneasy and begin to defend themselves. And the more nationhood is bound up with the fulfilment of ethnic or nationalist interests, the more dangerous the consequences may be.
A policy of cooperation which favours multi-ethnic coexistence cannot aim primarily at nationhood, but still requires certain institutional measures to safeguard linguistic, ethnic, cultural and religious pluralism, substantial equal rights and above all to grant real recognition of the value of diversity and to promote it.
Those who regard exclusivity as undesirable and a dangerous temptation must then make positive efforts to make plans for a living-together-policy: this must be the main challenge today to which nations and political structures must respond.
”Ethnic exclusivity versus a policy of coexistence” - this is the sixty-four thousand dollar question for nations, constitutions and legal systems - and political movements too. More important than the ethnic or nationalist dimension should be the relationship of the people living together in one territory to that geographical area: the territorial rather than the ethnic dimension.
Ecological, social, economic and other aspects can play a large part, and a federalist concept can be more productive than the nation state system and its caricatures. This is also true because most of the existing so-called nation states are simultaneously too big and too small - too big effectively to ensure democracy and participation; too small to solve effectively problems having a supranational dimension (such as environmental protection or security policy).

Lecture at the Goethe Institut
11 June 1991
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