John David's Reviews > Confronting the Nation: Jewish and Western Nationalism

Confronting the Nation by George L. Mosse
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Jun 28, 12

bookshelves: favorites, history-of-ideas, modern-history, politics
Read in June, 2012

One of the best books that I read and reviewed last year was George L. Mosse’s “Fallen Soldiers: Reshaping the Memory of the World War” (1990) which discusses what he calls the cult of the fallen soldier, the emergent European nationalisms of the nineteenth century, and the impacts these factors had on the cultural experience of war. This book, written three years later, continues his discussion of the different kinds of nationalism in Europe, with a slight focus on Zionism in the last third of the book. While there are continuous concerns that are picked up and examined throughout, this reads more like twelve related essays instead of having a tightly unified thesis.

The first two essays, “National Anthems: The Nation Militant” and “National Representation in the 1930s in Europe and the United States,” discuss the ways in which nationalism chose its political accoutrements, its national anthems, ideological art, its flags; Mosse says that these collectively comprise a “political liturgy.” According to Mosse, “Both Italian fascism and the national socialism with their own flags, anthem, rites, and ceremonies created a civic religion which co-opted nationalist traditions. Here the civil religion of nationalism found expression through the rites and ceremonies of the fascist movements” (p. 58). He is deeply concerned with how these helped constitute a politics of self-representation and re-invention, and how it enabled the nation as the expression of a general will. He asks penetrating questions into why the European nationalisms that are so recognizable turned out to look so different from American nationalism, which Mosse identifies as embodied in the image of “the free-roaming, self-reliant young man,” “the quintessential symbol of the new nation. Cowboy heroes fighting nature and the Indians were young, virile, courageous, but not disciplined. Images of unspoilt nature were joined to individual courage and daring” (p. 38).

Mosse historically locates many of the precedents of fascism and nationalism in the French Revolution, which he says is one of the first instances in which there was a “concept of the general will, of the people worshipping themselves” (p. 74). The tie that links all of these phenomena is the nationalization and mobilization of the masses. “The creation of a political liturgy based upon the aesthetic of politics was a consequence of the belief in the artificial construct of ‘the people’ they had to be mobilized, shaped, and disciplined, and the way in which this was done was influenced – if not directly determined – by the French Revolution. The Revolution signaled the break between the old politics of dynasty and privilege, and the new democratic politics supposedly based on the will of the people” (p. 75). While most nationalisms harkened back to a volkish past ensconced in an immutable mythology of national or racial purity, Mosse’s essay “The Political Culture of Futurism” looks at how this artistic and literary movement embraced modernity instead of eschewing it. “This nationalism, then, was not weighted down by volkish ideals. It accepted technology and with it a new speed of time, using the forces unleashed by modernity in order to integrate men and nations. The political culture of futurism was expressed through a political style that sought to propel nationalism into modernity, to give it clarity and form without restraining its dynamic drive” (p. 96).

Another essay, “Bookburning and the Betrayal by the Intellectuals,” considers the May 10, 1933 bookburnings that occurred in dozens of German university towns, and asks the question “How did it come to this? Why did the middle-class intellectuals or ‘Bildungsburger’ burn their own books?” “The bookburnings must be understood as a fire of purification, of awakening, as analogies to the generation of 1914 made clear again and again. Successful mass movements cannot be inspired by negative symbols. The bookburnings were to represent a positive symbolic action within the bounds of the Third Reich” (p. 111). For Mosse, the betrayal of the intellectuals resulted from a “turning inward, the ideal of rebirth, of purification, the craving for eternal values, for being at one with the people, the primary importance of respectability, [and] the exclusion and isolation of the outsider” (p. 112).

The last five essays consider the ways in which Jews dealt with European nationalism after the Napoleonic emancipation, and especially the way Jews tried to carve a middle path between what Mosse calls “Bildung and respectability.” Bildung, at least as Humboldt put it in the early nineteenth century, was a philosophical and educational cultivation of the self sustained through cultural maturation, while respectability was almost a foregone conclusion for those Jews who wanted to be assimilated into the European mainstream and middle classes. These two pursuits might not seem necessarily contradictory, but with the rise of bourgeois values, Mosse seems to argue that they grew to be increasing at odds with one another. Even though Jewish culture had much more in common with liberalism (the pursuit of parliamentary government, for example), Mosse looks at how Jews conscripted some of the same ideas such as physical strength, purity, and nobility of spirit into their own nationalist ideas. For Herzl and Buber, for instance, “the civic religion of nationalism was not a call to battle but an educational process for the individual Jew who must recapture his dignity a human being” (p. 125). The last two essays look at the nationalist approaches of two important Zionist thinkers - Max Nordau and Gershom Scholem.

The only problem with this book, if one can call it that, is that this was only twelve essays, whereas Mosse could have easily written twelve books – and I would have read each one with relish. Each chapter is really just the barest tip of an iceberg into the scholarship, but together they serve as a grand introduction to nationalism as a set of ideas in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and how Jews reacted to, adopted, and used those nationalist ideals in various approaches to Zionist thought.
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