Returning from the summer break, I would have preferred writing about music AND politics, but these last months have subjected all of us to lots of politics, leaving little time for music. There can be no mistake that the world has become a more unstable place over the last months, but unlike the years leading to the cataclysm of the First World War, we see little artistic “angst” being expressed. Musicians have yet to resort to futuristic ideas of atonality and painters have not returned to abstract Expressionism. Television and cinema pump out the usual escapist pap consisting of nostalgia on one hand and crash-bang-who-dunnit-action on the other. There is not a sense in the air of an impending apocalypse. If there was, I feel certain we would be hearing and seeing it in our artistic output. Perhaps these days, even our creativity is so controlled by monopolies that we only hear and see what google, Apple and Facebook permit. In contrast, however, we’ve heard and read lots of warnings about today’s political and social environment being dangerously close to Europe on the brink of fascism in the 1930s. Of all the historic similarities and parallels being mentioned by commentators today, one aspect has been overlooked: Pan-Nationalism.
Yes fascism grew out of nationalism and developed into a uniquely right wing corporatist state. Communism, however, was equally corporatist and totalitarian in its 1930s manifestation. As Viktor Klemperer mentions in his diaries, in the 1930s, there was very little to differentiate them. Russian and Slavic nationalism played an important role in Communist Europe so that riding these statist monstrosities from the 20th century was a view of pan-nationalism that has been overlooked by commentators making comparisons with today.
Allow me briefly to offer a summery of what I mean by outlining a potted history of Europe’s pan-German history: German speaking communities were until 1945, spread across Europe and concentrated in the middle of the continent in what, until 1871 was a network of mini- and micro-states. Long before Darwin presented theories that German pan-nationalists later extrapolated into ideas of a “master-race”, there was a cultural nostalgia for a community of honest, hard-working and well-educated people who shared a common language, thanks to which they could share values and thoughts. It was a harmless, gentle community of “Dichter und Denker” or “poets and philosophers” with protestant “Christian” values seen as “German” rather than being recognised in any way as universal. It was very different from aggressive French nationalism, which had only got away with causing maximum European disruption by being a unified nation-state. It was something the German speaking people of Europe were incapable of pulling off in any meaningful way. Though it was obvious that the German speaking core of central Europe might one day be unified, it was impossible to see how this might be reconciled with the far-flung German communities in Romania, Poland, Bohemia, Moravia, the Ukraine and in deepest Russia.
A revolution in 1848 failed to provide a satisfactory solution and it wasn’t until Bismarck kicked Austria out of the Federation of German States in 1866, and then with the Franco-Prussian war, consolidating his hold on the German mini-states that in 1871, modern Germany finally became a reality. The fact that this “unified” Germany resembled today’s EU more than any sort of federated state is neither here nor there. They still had to bring in a common currency and common army. In the meantime, each former micro-state kept its king, bishop or elector and a degree of autonomy that the French would never have tolerated.
And this is where an interesting historic parallel emerges. When Great Britain finally accepted that it had lost the American colonies, it would be more than a century before it acknowledged that its own bread was now buttered on the side of keeping close to their American cousins who were stronger and wealthier. Until 1866, the Austrian Emperor was the nominal head of the German Federation. Franz Joseph was quicker to recognise reality and saw that the unified country to the north was already wealthier and stronger. He wanted to remain friends, regardless of any political costs. He recognised the frustrations of Austria’s German speakers, now in a minority within the Habsburg Empire. He believed that Austria’s German identity lay in its Catholicism, something Bismarck despised. It didn’t stop German speaking Austrians from looking at what they perceived as the greener grass on the other side of the Bavarian border. Not only were German speaking Austro-Hungarians consolidated in the regions southeast of Germany, they were also scattered across the Austro-Hungarian North and South Slavic regions along with pockets in today’s Romania. These detached from the Motherland German-speakers felt left out. They were the Falkland islanders, the Guyanese, the Tasmanians, and the South Africans of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The excluded German speakers who lived in the regions immediately south of Prussia’s new Germany resented living in a nationless-state called the “Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary” in which their language, despite being the language of government and administration, was not the dominate first language of fellow citizens. They didn’t like having to rock along with people they considered “foreigners”. Are you starting to see where I’m heading with this?
To further illustrate: Austria’s Georg von Schönerer in the late 19th century was barking pan-German propaganda in much the way that Nigel Farage and Liam Fox speak of the “Anglosphere”. At various points when pan-German ambitions erupted, Austrians were quickly reminded of their differences. Many Austrian Protestants from the Alpine regions are today descendants of pan-Germans from the late 19th century who decided that being German meant becoming Protestant. At the time, Catholic identity defeated von Schönerer’s pan-German ambitions. Protestantism was too much hard work. Austrian Catholicism was infinitely less demanding than dour Protestantism. Austrians preferred living comfortably on bribes, cheating on spouses and confessing everything once a week. How could this not be preferable to what Lutherans and Calvinist were offering?
But Catholicism was not the only thing that distinguished Austrians. Kaiser Franz Joseph and the dominant Liberal Party had decided what made Austrians different was their Universalism. Thus a new constitution accepted Protestants, Jews and Muslims along with Slavs, Italians and Hungarians. To call yourself “Austrian” in 1900 was the same as calling yourself “European” in 2000. Austria wasn’t a German speaking country; it was a multi-lingual, multi-cultural confection with German its language of governance. It needed to establish its multi-ethnic identity as its principal identity. Jews felt happy and proud to be included in such a landscape and contributed enormously to what they saw as “Austrian” Universalist culture. One needs only to be familiar with Joseph Roth’s Radetzky March, Hofmannthal’s Jedermann, Berg’s Wozzeck, Musil’s Man Without Qualities to understand that Austria’s culture was both more conservative and inclusive than its high-achieving, mono-cultural neighbour to the north.
Nevertheless, there remained in Austria a hard-core, vocal minority that cast itself as the victim to foreign influences. They resented anything they viewed as an advantage granted to non-Germans; they shouted down any concession that wasn’t “national” and many made no secret of the fact that they would have preferred to have carved out the German speaking regions of Austria and placed them under the Hohenzollerns rather than the Habsburgs. They banged on and on about being excluded and disadvantaged and being supremely “wronged” by foreigners who weren’t clever, weren’t upright, weren’t honest etc. These pan-Germans could see nothing wrong with Germany and nothing right with Austria.
During the final quarter of the 19th century, Crown Prince Rudolf saw the danger of pan-German ambitions and felt the multi-identity of Austria would be better served, paradoxically, with closer French relations rather than relations with Bismarck’s Prussian concoction. France post-1871 was international while Germany was inward and in danger of becoming every bit as nationalistic as France under Napoleon. Franz Joseph dismissed Rudolf and his crazy “federal” ambitions and clung to the delicate balance of sticking close to his Prussian “German brothers”, his grasping Hungarian partners-in-rule and the Empire’s agitating Slav majority. Rudolf committed suicide in 1889 though Franz Joseph’s delicate balance managed to hold until the obvious catastrophe of the First World War. In 1918, pan-Germans felt their arguments had been ignored long enough and an act of annexation was passed in the Austrian Parliament in 1919, only to be rejected by the victorious Americans and French. For the German nationalists, Austria was now officially a German speaking country, no longer multi-lingual and multi-cultural; unfortunately for Austria’s German nationalists, it wasn’t allowed to join in a common German destiny with the German neighbour to the north. This is when I compare Austria’s instant loss of Empire with Britain’s more gradual diminution. The end results were essentially the same, though Britain could continue in the delusion of being a world power, whereas it was obvious that Austria had been reduced to a European nonentity.
But pan-nationalism endured post 1918 and it would be another twenty years before Austrian pan-Germans saw their dream fulfilled with Austria’s annexation by Hitler’s Germany. It was at this point Austrians and Germans could start to see their national divisions and it wasn’t just Hitler, an Austrian who had now become more German than any Prussian, forcing his hated Viennese to drive on the right-hand side of the road; it was the removal of any- and everything he perceived as non-German, which in Hitler’s world meant Jews, Social Democrats, Communist and indeed, anyone who thought differently or had a darker complexion. Vienna, and as it happened, all of Austria, had an abundance of all of the above. Only then did Austria and Germany realise, to paraphrase George Bernard Shaw, that they were “two countries separated by a common language.”
Leaving the EU on June 24th, 2016, and joining the Anglosphere as Liam Fox, Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson and Theresa May seem intent on doing, resonates with Austria’s March 13th, 1938. It’s not the rise of fascism that’s dangerous; it’s the rise of pan-nationalism. These people did not actually see leaving the EU as “regaining sovereignty”. That was mere propaganda as they knew perfectly well that in today’s world, “sovereignty” is only available to places like North Korea. Leaving the EU meant joining the Anglosphere, which they believe their natural sense of superiority and post-imperial entitlement, will allow them to dominate. They didn’t see themselves standing a chance against the EU’s tradition of post-war Social Democracy. British Tories by contrast are even more gung-ho, free-trading, tax-dodging, open marketers than their American cousins. In their view, a common language is all that’s necessary. Both the British and the Austrians felt their ancient experience of Empire would give them the upper-hand in any union with wealthier, new-fangled, uncultivated country-cousins. Austria, which once produced a Metternich, could offer an Eichmann to German compatriots. The United Kingdom with its experience of the Raj can match by offering the United States the benefits of Boris Johnson, Liam Fox and Nigel Farage.
Nationalism and pan-nationalism are dangerous. Why nationalism always seems to lead to war is a question for political historians, but from Napoleon onwards, war has always followed demented flag-waving. We caught an unpleasant premonition of pan-national solidarity when Tony Blair committed the UK to war in Iraq. The wiser counsel of German and French leaders simply did not register. Today, pan-Anglo-nationalism offers us the spectre of Nigel Farage yanking Tory government strings into UKIP acquiescence and ever closer bonds with America’s Donald Trump. Blair and Bush almost appear harmless innocents by comparison.
It’s not clear to me where and how this dysfunctional relationship began. Post-war Britons as young adults were bedazzled by North American affluence and became obsessed with what they identified as unregulated capitalism, which they perceived as America’s key to wealth. It wasn’t British plumbers, carpenters or factory workers who were travelling to the United States in the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s; it was business people, professionals and university students who saw their equals as far better off than their equivalents in England. It’s no coincidence that it’s this generation of Britons who are the most visibly pro-Anglosphere, while British “millennials” recall only a lifetime of being largely on level parring with their European contemporaries and better off than most of today’s Americans. Their parents still can’t see this and stick to their post-war memories of austerity; to them, it was European Social Democracy that killed off the British Empire.
History doesn’t repeat itself, and the UK is not likely to see itself annexed by the United States such as Austria by Germany in 1938. But make no mistake, it does not require an act of unification, in Henry Kissinger’s warning words about leaving the EU, to make the UK into an American dependency. As Blair demonstrated when he ignored the advice of European leaders but listened instead to George W. Bush: agreement was achieved on the basis of a common language, not a common logic. This is when things start to get dangerous.