Mises and Nationalism

Nationalism is a potent force in the modern world, and it is not surprising that some libertarians have been attracted to it. Indeed, in some circles the slogan “Blood and Soil” has come into to use to denote a people’s attachment to the land. It should be noted that although this slogan was used by the Nazis, especially by Walter Darré, it did not originate with them but was common among German nationalists such as Oswald Spengler. It would be wrong, then, to think that libertarians who use it today are signaling a covert admiration for the Third Reich and its führer. That being said, the attitude it expresses was decidedly not that of Ludwig von Mises.

Mises makes this clear in his discussion of German nationalism in Omnipotent Government. He points out that who counted as “German” to nationalists was determined by linguistic and cultural affinities, not by race. People who were descended from many different ethnic groups were found within Germany and considered by the nationalists to be members of the nation. To reiterate, these people were not tolerated minorities but fully German:

It is a serious error of English and French books and newspapers to refer to these conflicts [about nationality] as racial. There is no conflict of races in Europe. No distinct bodily features which an anthropologist could establish with the aid of the scientific methods of anatomy separate the people belonging to different groups. If you presented one of them to an anthropologist he would not be able to decide by biological methods whether he was a German, Czech, Pole, or Hungarian. Neither have the people belonging to any one of these groups a common descent. The right bank of the Elbe River, the whole of northeastern Germany, eight hundred years ago was inhabited only by Slavs and Baltic tribes. It became German-speaking in the course of the processes which the German historians call the colonization of the East. Germans from the west and south migrated into this area; but in the main its present population is descended from the indigenous Slavs and Baltic peoples who, under the influence of church and school, adopted the German language. Prussian chauvinists, of course, assert that the native Slavs and Balts were exterminated and that the whole population today is descended from German colonists. There is not the slightest evidence for this doctrine. The Prussian historians invented it in order to justify in the eyes of German nationalists Prussia’s claim to hegemony in Germany. But even they have never dared to deny that the Slav ancestry of the autochthonous princely dynasties (of Pomerania, Silesia, and Mecklenburg) and of most of the aristocratic families is beyond doubt. . . .

It must be emphasized again and again that racism and considerations of racial purity and solidarity play no role in these European struggles of linguistic groups. It is true that the nationalists often resort to “race” and “common descent” as catchwords. But that is mere propaganda without any practical effect on policies and political actions. On the contrary, the nationalists consciously and purposely reject racism and racial characteristics of individuals when dealing with political problems and activities. The German racists have provided us with an image of the prototype of the noble German or Aryan hero and with a biologically exact description of his bodily features. Every German is familiar with this archetype and most of them are convinced that this portrait is correct. But no German nationalist has ever ventured to use this pattern to draw the distinction between Germans and non-Germans. The criterion of Germanism is found not in a likeness to this standard but in the German tongue. Breaking up the German-speaking group according to racial characteristics would result in eliminating at least 80 per cent of the German people from the ranks of the Germans. Neither Hitler nor Goebbels nor most of the other champions of German nationalism fit the Aryan prototype of the racial myth.

In taking this attitude, Mises agreed with the view of his friend and colleague the great sociologist and historian Max Weber. (I am indebted to Markus Gabriel, whose book Moral Progress in Dark Times I reviewed in last week’s column, for calling attention to Weber’s views about nationalism.) Gabriel says:

In his central work (Economy and Society), Max Weber offers an impressive analysis of the “ethnic group relations”, which, already before the First and Second World Wars, showed that “race, ethnicity”, “people”, and “nation” are socially effective, despite being “unsuitable for a rigorous analysis”. Weber points out that these collective terms are an expression of a merely “presumed” commonality. According to Weber, the “belief in common ethnicity”. . . . comes about primarily through “the political community, no matter how artificially organized”.

Like Mises, Weber did not view ethnic nationalism as altogether bad. In his view, it was based on the correct perception that group membership is valuable, but it blurred this perception by adopting false views. According to Gabriel, Weber

recognizes that the organization of those who rely on myths and legends about people, nation, blood community, and so forth, is actually based on rational principles, but that they reinterpret these by offering weak explanations for their own group membership that are simply poor because they rest on numerous false assumptions. While identity politics as a whole is reprehensible, its rational element consists in the fact that it attempts to justify group membership as a value. The error lies in basing this value on non-existent identities.

Mises added to Weber’s account that group membership is especially important under the conditions of interventionism in the free market. Because the economic regulations of an interventionist government are written in the language of the dominant linguistic group, it is a great advantage to be a native speaker of that language.

It is clear also that Murray Rothbard did not think much of the slogan “Blood and Soil.” Speculating about why Ayn Rand supported Israel in what he deemed an uncritical fashion, he said the explanation, “given her professed individualism, . . . surely could not be (one hopes) the Zionist call to blood, race, and soil.”

The balanced view of nationalism held by Mises and Rothbard contrasts sharply with the sloganeering that is unfortunately prevalent in some circles.