Elie Wiesel, Auschwitz survivor and author, died a few days ago. Most young Americans will know his account of deportation, separation from his family, and liberation in 1944, Night. One night four years ago I had the opportunity to dine with Wiesel and some other students, who, between their verbal eructations of self-import, occasionally allowed the old sage to voice a few words.
The question was raised by one as to whether or not Germany was a ticking time bomb before the Second World War, if years of Catholicism, beer, wet weather, and military history amounted to a countdown to Hitler's death camps. Wiesel countered that "Germany—really Austria—did give us Hitler, but it also gave us Schiller, Goethe, and Beethoven. As much as Hitler took life, they gave it." And how the students were enchanted at such an aphorism! The tiramisu was terrible.
This quick one liner harped on Germany and the rest of Europe's on-going existential crisis. European politicians have effectively asked their constituencies de facto to disavow their own histories and cultures since the end of the Second World War and instead to embrace a spirit of cooperation, putting aside one's differences. Endless platitudes alluding to our "common humanity" fill U.N. documents and modern Christian writings. When did our "common humanity" ever avert a war? There has not been a major direct war since 1945 for fear of mutual nuclear destruction between America and Russia, not because of peace conferences. More poignantly, medieval Europe generally avoided open wars, with some exceptions, because the common religion of those people was both their primary value and their greatest commonality. But common humanity? The common bipedal creatures who convert air into carbon dioxide?
After the 19th century revolutions throughout Europe the State replaced the Church as the focus of Man's devotion. Nationalism, far from polarizing people, was a forced attempt to build consensus where religion failed after 1517 rent the veil of Christendom. Its spectacular failure in the twentieth century (although let us not forget that Communist China and Red Russia killed many times more people than Hitler ever did) did return people to religion. Instead it only reinvigorated the monster that has bothered leaders since the democratic disease replaced culture two centuries ago: people are different. The glue of Christianity is gone and unlikely to return in the near future. However, post-Christian pretensions of unity have not.
Nationalism is not in and of itself harmful. One need not not believe in the immaculate conception of the Declaration of Independence to be patriotic. One can be proud of one's heritage and country without shame, even with its sins. Modern leaders would better spend their time leaving people alone rather than inadvertently starting world wars by forcing them to be alike. If they really want to build consensus they should start making pray together to the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost rather than by feigned councils that lead men to military posts.
Happy octave day.