For many centuries, the grand legitimizer of hatred in our culture was called Religion. Then, after the great surfeit of the Wars of Religion, the power of religion to legitimize war and persecution began to fade. The more optimistic among the thinkers of the Enlightenment—and even the less optimistic in their more optimistic moments—were inclined to believe that war, persecution, and the spirit of intolerance would fade away along with the authority which had legitimized these things. The Age of Reason would, of its very nature, be an Age of Tolerance.
No need to labor the fact that that didn’t happen. What went wrong?
The main thing that went wrong, I think, is that “the Age of Reason” proved to be a misnomer. The older supernatural God had faded into the distance indeed, but it was not Reason, mostly, that took His place. It was new terrestrial creeds with new Revelations, and exponents who were often as arbitrary, as arrogant, and as fanatical as the worst of the old persecuting priests and monks.
The new terrestrial creeds were presented in various forms. But the most enduring, the most seductive, and the bloodiest by far of all the new terrestrial creeds is Nationalism. The cult of the Nation proved to be the most effective engine for the mobilization of hatred and destruction that the world has ever known.
It is often said that the growth of nationalism is a consequence of the French Revolution. In reality, it would be nearer the truth to say that the French Revolution is a consequence of the growth of nationalism. If you consult the principal textbooks in the English language about the French Revolution, you won’t find much about nationalism there. But if you read the principal documents of the French Revolution itself, you will find these to be saturated in nationalism. The very first political act of the Revolution is the creation of an entirely new body, the National Assembly, merging the old States-General, representing the different orders of society, into a body representative of the nation as a whole. And the Abbé Sieyès, proclaiming the need for this measure, does so in the language of totalitarian nationalism: “The nation exists before all, it is the origin of everything, it is the law itself.”
That was to be the doctrine of the Third Reich regarding the authority of the German Volk. And it is already present, fully formed, in 1789 in France. The nation has become God. In a petition addressed to the Legislative Assembly in 1792, this belief is explicit. “The image of the Patrie,” say the petitioners, “is the sole divinity which it is permitted to worship.” Permitted… The new religion is already just as intolerant as any of the old ones. And the new religion is already calling for blood. The indictment of the king is drawn up in nationalist terms: “dictating laws to the nation,” “designs against national liberty,” “trampling on the national cockade,” “blaspheming against the nation.” Robespierre,…
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