Notes on Nationalism
"Notes on Nationalism" is an essay completed in May 1945 by George Orwell and published in the first issue of the British "Magazine of Philosophy, Psychology, and Aesthetics" Polemic, in October 1945.
In this essay, Orwell discusses the notion of nationalism, and argues that it causes people to disregard common sense and become more ignorant towards factuality. Orwell shows his concern for the social state of Europe, and in a broader sense, the entire world, due to an increasing amount of influence of nationalistic sentiment occurring throughout a large number of countries.
The essay was soon translated into French and Dutch, Italian and Finnish (where the word nationalism was represented by chauvinisme). The article was abridged in translated versions, omitting details of particular relevance to British readers. A short introduction, based on material supplied by Orwell, preceded the translated abridgements.
Written during the final stages of World War II, at a time when Europe had only just witnessed the destructive effects of politically aligned movements, Orwell's essay uses Nazism as an example of how nationalism can not only cause havoc between groups of people, but instigate the ignorance within such groups, and compares this with other forms of nationalistic ideologies to generate an overall argument questioning the function of nationalism.
Nationalism is the name Orwell gives to the propensity of "identifying oneself with a single nation or other unit, placing it beyond good and evil and recognising no other duty than that of advancing its interests." The occurrence of nationalism is visible throughout history, and is prevalent even in today's world. Nationalism is not only defined as alignment to a political entity; it can also encompass a religion, race, ideology or any other abstract idea. Examples of such forms of nationalism given by Orwell include Communism, political Catholicism, Zionism, Anti-Semitism, Trotskyism and Pacifism. Orwell additionally argues that his definition of "nationalism" is not at all the same as what he and most people mean by "patriotism". "Patriotism is of its nature defensive… Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power." Orwell explains that he uses the expression "nationalism" for lack of a better alternative to label the concept he describes in his essay.
Orwell argues that nationalism largely influences the thoughts and actions of people, even in everyday tasks such as decision-making and reasoning. The example provided in his essay follows that, upon asked the question "Out of the three major Allies, which contributed most to the fall of Nazism?", people aligned with the United States, Britain and Soviet Union would consider their country first, before attempting to search for supportive arguments.
One of the themes Orwell discusses is that of the effects of nationalistic sentiment on human way of thinking. Nationalism causes dishonesty within people, as every nationalist, having chosen one side, persuades himself that his side is the strongest, regardless of the facts provided against his faction. From this sense of superiority, people then argue and defend for the faction which they have aligned with; the slightest slur or criticism from another faction causes them to retort or even act violently, since they realise they are serving a larger entity which provides them with this sense of security, and thus have the obligation to defend it.
Additionally, they may also become ignorant to the point of self-deception, as Orwell describes, "The nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them. For quite six years the English admirers of Hitler contrived not to learn of the existence of Dachau and Buchenwald. And those who are loudest in denouncing the German concentration camps are often quite unaware, or only very dimly aware, that there are also concentration camps in Russia. Huge events like the Ukraine famine of 1933, involving the deaths of millions of people, have actually escaped the attention of the majority of English russophiles."
Such people become susceptible to bias, only acknowledging information which they judge themselves as true, where emotions hinder in addressing facts. One believes in what they approve in their own minds as true to the point that they themselves deem it as an absolute truth, or as Orwell puts it, "More probably they feel that their own version was what happened in the sight of God, and that one is justified in rearranging the records accordingly."
Further, Orwell criticises the silliness and dishonesty of intellectuals who become more nationalistic on behalf, not of their native country, but for some other, of which they have no real knowledge. Orwell argues that much of the romanticism written about leaders such as Stalin, for example, describing their might, power and integrity, was written by intellectuals. Intellectuals are influenced by a certain public opinion, "that is, the section of public opinion of which he as an intellectual is aware" – where he is surrounded by scepticism and disaffection, and that would look askance at a very deep attachment to his own country. Yet, Orwell argues, "He still feels the need for a Fatherland, and it is natural to look for one somewhere abroad. Having found it, he can wallow unrestrainedly in exactly those emotions from which he believes that he has emancipated himself."
Also in his essay, Orwell provides three characteristics which describe those who follow nationalistic sentiment; these are obsession, instability, and indifference to reality.
Obsession refers to the manner in which nationalists passionately tender to their faction. Orwell writes that "As nearly as possible, no nationalist ever thinks, talks, or writes about anything except the superiority of his own power unit. It is difficult if not impossible for any nationalist to conceal his allegiance... he will generally claim superiority for it (if the chosen unit of allegiance is a country) not only in military power and political virtue, but in art, literature, sport, structure of the language, the physical beauty of the inhabitants, and perhaps even in climate, scenery and cooking. He will show great sensitiveness about such things as the correct display of flags, relative size of headlines and the order in which different countries are named." In the context of stating that "Some nationalists are not far from schizophrenia, living quite happily amid dreams of power and conquest which have no connexion with the physical world", he argues further that uncertainty over 'the calamities that are constantly being reported—"What were the rights and wrongs of the Warsaw rising of 1944? Is it true about the German gas ovens in Poland?", -makes it "easier to cling to lunatic beliefs". "Since nothing is ever quite proved or disproved, the most unmistakeable fact can be impudently denied". "The nationalist is often somewhat uninterested in what happens in the real world."
Regarding instability, Orwell reasons that nationalism can become ironical in various ways. Many of the leaders revered by nationalist factions are outright foreigners, who do not even belong to the country they have glorified, or, more often, are "from peripheral areas where nationality is doubtful." For instance, Stalin was an ethnic Georgian, and Adolf Hitler an Austrian national, yet both have been idolised in Russia and Germany respectively.
Finally, Indifference to reality refers to "the power of not seeing resemblances between similar sets of facts", a feature of all nationalists according to Orwell. He describes how, in his view, nationalistic behaviour clouds people from perceiving facts of the real world. The use of torture, hostages, forced labour, mass deportations, imprisonment without trial, forgery, assassination, the bombing of civilians, all prove to be irrelevant towards the notion of "good or bad", where there is no outrage from within the public as the atrocities are committed by "our side". Some nationalists even go into the trouble of defending such actions, searching for arguments to support his case.
Orwell provides the example of the Liberal News Chronicle publishing images of Russians hanged by the Germans, to depict the shocking barbarity of the Germans, and then a few years later publish with warm approval almost exactly similar photographs of Germans hanged by the Russians. Another similar instance occurs where another newspaper published with seeming approval photographs of near-naked women who collaborated with the Nazis being baited by a mob in Paris. These photos strongly resembled the Nazi images of Jews being baited by the Berlin mob in the years prior to the war.
- La Trahison Des Clercs a 1927 book by Julien Benda, which deals with many of the same themes as Notes on Nationalism.
- I Belong to the Left, p. 155.
- Orwell, George, "Notes on Nationalism", 1945, Paragraph 3
- Orwell, George, "Notes on Nationalism", 1945, Paragraph 2
- Orwell, George, "Notes on Nationalism", 1945, Paragraph 5.
- Orwell, George, "Notes on Nationalism", 1945, Paragraph 13.
- Orwell, George, "Notes on Nationalism", 1945, Paragraph 14.
- Orwell, George, "Notes on Nationalism", 1945, Paragraph 11.
- Orwell, George, "Notes on Nationalism", 1945, Paragraph 9.
- Orwell, George, "Notes on Nationalism", 1945, Paragraph 15
- George Orwell: Notes on Nationalism – Original essay. Public domain in Australia and the Russian Federation.