A Half Century after World War Ii, Nationalism Retains Explosive Force

By Edwin Yoder Copyright Washington Post Writers Group | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), May 8, 1995 | Go to article overview

A Half Century after World War Ii, Nationalism Retains Explosive Force


Edwin Yoder Copyright Washington Post Writers Group, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


"He had one illusion - France; and one disillusion - mankind, including Frenchmen." - John Maynard Keynes describing Georges Clemenceau, World War I premier of France.

Unlike the war in the Pacific, which was to end four months later with the first atomic bombs, Hitler's war, as many Europeans still call it, came quietly to an end on a mild May day 50 years ago.

I was in the sixth grade and I still recall the commotion in the hallway outside our classroom when extra editions of the local afternoon paper were brought around. That evening I sat by our console radio listening to a celebratory pageant written by Norman Corwin. That was the way "the war," as my generation has always called it without needing to say which war, came to an end.

Hitler's war, half a century later, still has much to tell us about the furies that plague us. For as the historian John Lukacs has observed, the truly dynamic and indelible force driving 20th-century history has not been communism or Nazism or any other such evanescent ideology. It has been nationalism, the same romantic nationalism John Maynard Keynes glimpsed in Georges Clemenceau, whose illusion was France.

It has been with us at least since the French Revolution, and it provided the enmities that underlay, if they did not exactly cause, the two great European civil wars which we know as World Wars I and II - the inept conclusion of the first of which became the seedbed of the second.

We believe we know that story now - how the victorious Allies of the World War I imposed on the defeated Germans the harsh Versailles Treaty, with its "war guilt" clause (in which Germany was compelled to accept sole responsibility for starting a war it did not start unassisted); with such geographic anomalies as the Polish Corridor, bisecting historic Germany and providing Adolf Hitler his greatest issue; and not least with a reparations bill that Germany could not pay.

And this settlement, as Keynes and others predicted it would, provided a context for a national resentment that Hitler, the mustachioed messiah from the Austrian borderlands, could transform into the evil of Nazism - the ultimate brand of nationalism.

Orthodox opinion was shocked and indignant a quarter century ago when the Oxford diplomatic historian, A. …

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