Nationalism on the frontiers

The following is a quotation from Christopher Hitchens’ memoir Hitch-22 (though he made a similar observation in a 1984 book about Cyprus):

I have often noticed that nationalism is at its strongest at the periphery. Hitler was Austrian, Bonaparte Corsican. In postwar Greece and Turkey the two most prominent ultra-right nationalists had both been born in Cyprus. The most extreme Irish Republicans are in Belfast and Derry (and Boston and New York). Sun Yat Sen, father of Chinese nationalism, was from Hong Kong. The Serbian extremists Milošević and Karadžić were from Montenegro and their most incendiary Croat counterparts in the Ustashe tended to hail from the frontier lands of Western Herzegovina.

I have always suspected him to be right about this, though the evidence offered here is purely circumstantial (and, to be fair to Hitchens, presented as such). A similar, if not synonymous phenomenon exists within many diasporas, where conservative nationalism often asserts itself as a minority reaction against the dominant culture. What accounts for this writ-large is far from clear to me since it’s so evidently counterintuitive. Shouldn’t nationalist fervour be strongest, by definition, at the metropole? Does being peripheral somehow engender a more rugged and aggressive atavism? nationalism-carving-up-the-earth Hitchens, an expat Brit who in the final years of his life became a full-blown American nationalist of the most dogmatic and intransigent kind is, I suppose, further proof of the very phenomenon he once observed so acutely; the residual British imperial mentality inherited from his father (a naval commander) transmuted into Jeffersonianism down the barrel of a gun. With the decline and dissolution of their once global empire, many British conservatives have eagerly accepted their role as junior partners in an American-led Atlanticism. Hitchens, not exactly a traditional “conservative” but most definitely on the right throughout his final decade, proved a keener and more evangelical American nationalist than most Americans on the same wing of politics. Nationalism, it would seem, is indeed strongest at the periphery.


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