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Friedrich Meinecke believed the First World War should “finally elevate [Germany] to the status of a world people [Weltvolke]” (© Hans Henschke/ullstein bild via Getty Images)


Theresa May is celebrated neither for her statesmanship nor for oratory, but she has uttered three unforgettable sentences. “Brexit means Brexit,” may be a tautology, but it is also her battle cry — her equivalent of Margaret Thatcher’s “the lady is not for turning”. “No deal is better than a bad deal,” Mrs May’s second mantra, goes further — perhaps even further than she means to go. But it too is unambiguous: if the European Union refuses to make reasonable terms, Britain will leave anyway, without obligations. Finally, and most controversially, there is her remark about citizenship: “But, if you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what citizenship means.” Sir Vince Cable, now leader of the Liberal Democrats, accused Mrs May of echoing Hitler: “I thought that particular phrase was quite evil. It could’ve been taken out of Mein Kampf. I think that’s where it comes from, doesn’t it? ‘Rootless cosmopolitans’.”

Well, no: “rootless cosmopolitans” is not a coinage of Hitler’s, but was a phrase used by Stalin during his final years of persecution, culminating in the “Doctors’ Plot”. But it certainly was a euphemism for Jews and deeply anti-Semitic in intent. That, presumably, is why Theresa May did not use it. However, many Britons did feel hurt by her implied rebuke to anyone who felt themselves to be “citizens of the world” — for example, those whose primary allegiance was to “Europe”, or who disdained vulgar expressions of patriotism such as the Last Night of the Proms. The very fact that the Prime Minister said it so soon after the EU referendum suggested to some that support for Brexit had become a kind of loyalty test. Subsequent events have proved such fears to be groundless, but the normally subterranean tension between patriotism and cosmopolitanism has been brought to the surface by the vote for Brexit. It is the exercise of democracy that has given this tension a new significance in the British context, but of course it manifests itself throughout the West. The dialectic between the universal and the particular is never really resolved in politics, but we have become so used to the predominance of global institutions and the emasculation of the nation state, that a sudden reassertion of national sovereignty and identity is perceived by many as a reversal of what has come to resemble a natural order of things. Some might think it bizarre that a British prime minister should be compared to Hitler for questioning the primacy of international allegiances over national ones. But such is the disrepute into which the idiom of nationalism has fallen, at least among liberals. It is questionable whether we are wise to let the pendulum swing so far in the global, as opposed to the national, direction. That it has done so, however, goes some way to explain the populist backlash against the cosmopolitan elites across the Western world.

I want to examine the relationships between cosmopolitanism, patriotism and democracy in three countries: Germany, Israel and Britain. The histories and outcomes vary, but the problem is essentially the same. In 1907 was clearly posed, perhaps for the first time, by the German historian Friedrich Meinecke, in his Weltbürgertum und Nationalstaat (“Cosmopolitanism and the national state”). Meinecke traced the intellectual history of the emergence of German nationalism in the early 19th century, showing how the cosmopolitan humanism of Kant, Goethe and the other philosophers, writers and leaders of the Napoleonic era was transformed into the “national liberalism” of 1848 and ultimately the blood and iron of Bismarck. Meinecke saw no necessary contradiction: the unified Germany of 1871 was merely the imperial synthesis arising from the cosmopolitan thesis and nationalist antithesis. But in a later edition of Meinecke’s treatise, published during the First World War, he takes the dialectic one step further. The war, for him, is a necessary stage in the transformation of the Germans into a nation state powerful enough to take on the global empires of France, Russia and Britain. “The double ideal of cosmopolitanism and national state, which has illuminated the German nation since its rise to new historical life, will take new forms through this war, which should finally elevate us to the status of a world people [Weltvolke].”
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Lawrence James
September 2nd, 2018
12:09 PM
For the whole of the 19th and much of the 20th centuries, the British parliament debated the affairs of the colonies. There was a big and fascinating debate on the Amritsar affair and parliamentary questions on such lesser matters as to whether or not district officers in Somaliland could pass death sentences. The conduct of empire was always the business of Parliament and this gave moral validity to the imperial state. This was true of France and Germany, where imperial policy was regularly discussed. In many instances, the interests of native populations were better cared for in countries that are no longer colonies but nation states.

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