What Ukraine has taught Europe about the need for nationalism

The European Union must now understand that the nation-state is not only necessary; it's the historical bearer of freedom.

Demonstrators carry signs and flags during a protest in Tel Aviv against the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Feb. 26, 2022. Photo by Tomer Neuberg/Flash90.
Demonstrators carry signs and flags during a protest in Tel Aviv against the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Feb. 26, 2022. Photo by Tomer Neuberg/Flash90.
Fiamma Nirenstein
Fiamma Nirenstein was a member of the Italian Parliament (2008-13), where she served as vice president of the Committee on Foreign Affairs in the Chamber of Deputies.

Europe’s new thinking on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war against the nationalist and democratic Ukrainian resistance could be promising if it signals that the West is finally about to descend from the sense of pacifist supremacy that has characterized it since the end of World War II.

Already, however, all the boasting by E.U. leaders about the newfound unity and meaning that will change a post-Putin world resembles the froth of classical European rhetoric. It’s a powerful choir that may not only silence all the uncomfortable truths revealed by the conflict but deplete its energy to plan for the future.

Witnessing, as I do, the Ukraine war from Israel, a country perpetually at war—and one, like any democracy, which abhors war—is instructive. Having Hamas and Hezbollah missiles rain down on the country’s civilian population; living in a place where at least 2,000 people were killed during the years of the Second Intifada; inhabiting a nation that has been attacked from all sides for the last 80 years—nevertheless induces first and foremost optimism.

Indeed, small nations tied to their history, culture and origins possess extraordinary strength of resistance. Ukraine, therefore, is capable of winning this war despite the torment that it’s undergoing.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, whom Ruth Wisse has called a kind of post litteram Isaac Babel, a Jew and a Cossack, can succeed in the way of the late Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir or other Jewish-Ukrainian leaders, among them Zev Jabotinsky. And Zelensky is well aware of this from his family history.

The Jews of Ukraine are survivors who owe their survival solely to themselves. Today, too, the Ukrainian people, like the Jews, will receive no substantial help; no “cavalry” will be coming. Loneliness is a lesson that the prime minister of Ukraine certainly learned as a Jew and is now teaching to his people.

Herein lies the first post-world war global lesson: Putin was shocked by the resistance he met because he had told himself lies and drawn a non-existent geopolitical reality in which Ukrainians were Russians. But Ukrainians aren’t Russians, as we are now seeing clearly. And they have always been searching for their identity in the West, for better or for worse, precisely in order to escape Russia.

Now European culture, for which nationalism had been muddied by the Nazi-fascist past, must understand that the nation-state is not only necessary; it’s the historical bearer of freedom. Indeed, the evils mistakenly attributed to nationalism are actually those of imperialism.

The E.U. has to recognize that human beings are born free and fight for the freedom of their national collective through their heroes, traditions and institutions. It needs to rehabilitate the word “nation,” and with it develop a different relationship with the State of Israel.

But this is for tomorrow. In the meantime, to preserve its internal cohesion, the E.U. must step back from its globalist absolutism and grasp that there are differences and contrasts in Europe. Moreover, it must mercilessly reject “cancel culture” in all its stupidity. The heroes and monuments of the past have shown their power, after all.

And here’s more for productive conservative thought. During the current war, men remained to fight, as they have always done over the course of millennia, while mothers and grandmothers have taken children by the hand to safety. It’s a magnificent revival of a de-ideologized feminism that will consider women’s primary task during both war and peace as key to safeguarding freedom.

Liberalism, nationalism, freedom, democracy and tradition must go hand in hand. Europe must separate itself from some of its postmodern dreams, parlance, rhetoric and Socialist origins, and reduce its universalism.

Even war, the most abhorred concept, has to be finally reconsidered. Pacifist smoke signals don’t prevent or stop it. It is Putin who must be stopped.

Germany doubled its defense budget within a single day, an instructive somersault. Here in Israel, the country wouldn’t survive a day if it didn’t know how to fight, win wars and cultivate valor. It takes a lot of moral strength to risk one’s children’s lives.

The E.U. has completely forgotten this principle, but now needs to remember it. If Israelis, whether religious or secular, on the left or the right, didn’t know how to rise above their own hard principles and stick together in need, we wouldn’t have survived and flourished. Blessed is the country that has its heroes; not the one that doesn’t need them.

Finally, as the late Middle East historian Bernard Lewis explained to me, the Turks didn’t realize that the recoil of the cannons made their beautiful warships sink.

We must move the cannons of democracy to prevent our vessels of freedom from sinking like the Ottoman Empire.

Journalist Fiamma Nirenstein was a member of the Italian Parliament (2008-13), where she served as vice president of the Committee on Foreign Affairs in the Chamber of Deputies. She served in the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, and established and chaired the Committee for the Inquiry Into Anti-Semitism. A founding member of the international Friends of Israel Initiative, she has written 13 books, including “Israel Is Us” (2009). Currently, she is a fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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