Nationalism alone is neither a guaranteed nor a sustainable means to bolster conservative thought. This was the core thesis of historian, best-selling author, and political commentator Prof. Dr. David Engels during a presentation on “Freedom and Nation,” in Vienna on January 20th given at a conference on “Religion and Nation” organized by Renovatio Institut, Burschenschaft Albia, and The European Conservative.
Engels pointed out that many conservatives, perceiving that the Left attacks the ideas of freedom and nation with equal strength, draw the false conclusion that only the nation state can secure true freedom. “However,” argued Engels, “as a glance at history shows, this is an erroneous belief, albeit an understandable and sympathetic one, as it misunderstands two parallel phenomena of decline as a cause and effect relationship.”
Engels presented an alternative reading:
The essence of my position, the slow death of the nation-state in favour of the empire of civilisation, is as much a typical symptom of a cultural end time as the decline of civic freedom in favour of authoritarian structures.
In the broader context, the ‘virtue’ of nationalism has been hailed by some, and, especially in Europe, the struggle for freedom and sovereignty can be seen as a confrontation between David, in the form of a nation state, standing up to a supra-national Goliath, in the form of the European Union. A glance at EU policies may corroborate this vision, but, suggested Engels, a closer look reveals a more profound problem:
As a conservative in the 21st century, putting the concept of Europe or even the Occident before the nation state, especially in the face of a totally discredited European Union, may seem curious or even like choosing the losing side of the battle.
While defending the individual European nation’s sovereignty against the EU is of vital importance, mere opposition cannot be “the ultimate goal.”
I am of the opinion that the path to a conservative Europe cannot lie in first dissolving the European institutions and only then starting to rebuild them at the national level. But rather the other way round, by first building up a critical mass for a European change of consciousness and becoming a starting point for using the EU.
He supported this thesis with the rebuttal of two erroneous assumptions: that the EU is intrinsically opposed to conservative values and that a return to the nation will inevitably result in a more tradition bound society.
While the EU seems to give precedence to policies that are anti-national, especially regarding Eastern European countries and conservative politicians, an end to the EU would not necessarily resolve the problem. “On the contrary,” argued Engels, “even without the EU everything would continue as before, and it is enough to look at states like Switzerland, Norway, or even Iceland and the post-Brexit United Kingdom to see that even nation state autonomy does not protect against cancel culture, gender mainstreaming, critical race theory, and other wokeisms.”
Likewise, a return to the nation state does not necessarily have to be the “precondition for the resurrection of conservatism,” but actually, “the opposite must be the case.”
“For it is impossible to have even a single large state, like France, Germany, or Italy leave the EU on its own, without having to reckon with far greater problems as can be observed in the case of Brexit. While an exit for smaller states like Hungary, for example, would bring strong repression but little concrete change, as the economic as well as normative dependence on EU rules would make such an exit effectively pointless,” Engels said.
What would inevitably happen, argued Engels, is that the state in question would need to look for new protectors such as Russia, China, or Saudi Arabia.
Engels also dismissed empty nostalgia for the nation state as being a crucially European feature that ranges over several millennia:
It must be borne in mind, however, that the emergence of increasingly homogeneous nation states is a relatively recent development that has been dearly purchased by sacrificing a wide variety of regional and local identities, such as dialects.
Furthermore, the nation state is suffering from an internal identity crisis:
The Americanisation of Europe, not only in cultural but also in linguistic terms, as much as one may regret it, has in fact created all the foundations for being able to use a common vernacular language once again, which revives many of the preconditions that existed in the Middle Ages through the predominance of Latin.
The fight for the future will not be a war between Germany and France, or France and Spain, but between the ‘somewheres’ and the ‘anywheres,’ conservatives and liberals, present in all societies. Victory will be achieved by those who successfully ally themselves with like-minded people regardless of national origin, to stand together for conservative values. Only that will be a “politically promising and historically seminal solution.”
Engels invited the audience to “free themselves” from the belief that the “nation state offers the answer to all our existential and identity problems” and proposed a “pan-European conservative front.”
“What we need is a new conservative and culturally patriotic European project, which I call Hesperialism and have described it in several books such as, Renovatio Europa and the relatively recent, Europa als Jana.”
Engels closed his presentation by saying:
Freedom, however, also means the recognition that future European cooperation only makes sense on the basis of a positive recourse to the concept of the Christian West and the desire to shape a future European federation or confederation according to the example of that political entity which has long been synonymous with the real political heart of the West, namely the Sacrum Imperium.