You are here

The surprising history of nationalist internationalism

The far right is less parochial than we think - and that's dangerous.

The European Parliament recently opened in Strasbourg, France with the debut of a new alliance among Europe's leading far-right nationalist groups.

THE European Parliament opened in Strasbourg, France, this week to chaos. Outside, Catalan separatists protested the decision to bar their elected representatives from the chamber; inside, members of Britain's Brexit Party turned their backs while the rest of the Parliament stood at attention for the union's anthem, Beethoven's Ode to Joy. The disorder upstaged what was perhaps the most significant event of the day: the debut of a new alliance among Europe's leading far-right nationalist groups. There, in the chamber, sat members of the populist far right, from Marine Le Pen's National Rally, from France, to Matteo Salvini's Northern League, from Italy. Their cooperation is worrying enough. But it also raises a question: Why are nationalists so eager to embrace an ethos of international cooperation?

For some in Europe, this alliance is mostly a pragmatic decision - undermining the European Union from within is not an easy task, and there is strength in numbers. "We will not give up our identity; I think that unites us all," said Jörg Meuthen, a member of the European Parliament from the Alternative for Germany party. The alliance's collective aims are: "no to further harmonisation, no to the undermining of the nation state". But the cooperation goes beyond the specific goal of taking down Brussels, and beyond Europe. The group is supported by none other than Steve Bannon, the self-proclaimed éminence grise of the global far right. Nationalist leaders pop up at rallies around the world to support their local ideological cousins. Let us remember the appearance of Mr Salvini at a Trump rally in Philadelphia in 2016.

Among today's far right, there are few words dirtier than "internationalism". It connotes everything that contemporary nationalists despise, above all the idea that our most pressing problems need to be resolved by working across borders. But internationalism, a concept that, after all, implicitly presumes the existence of the nation, and extreme nationalism are not necessarily incompatible.

Evoking the spirit of an international far-right fraternity, nationalist groups around the world are building alliances and operating more and more in transnational institutions. United in their nationalism, hostility to minorities, and scorn for multiculturalism and pluralism, they advocate global cooperation among supposedly homogeneous, organically grown, closed national communities - call it "reactionary cosmopolitanism". It is a form of internationalism that has a long history, yet remains less studied than the conventional socialist and liberal variants.

In fact, international alliances of nationalist movements are as old as these movements themselves. "It is not difficult to find a universal cosmopolitan intent and an engagement with internationalism layered through all manner of 19th century political texts, including those most famous for promoting nationalism," noted the historian Glenda Sluga.

Some of the most important 19th century nationalists were in fact cosmopolitans, who considered the national order to be universal and sought to carry their fights across borders. The most famous among them was the revolutionary Giuseppe Mazzini, who spearheaded the movement for the unification of Italy and fought in other national struggles across Europe. Promoting an international association of nations, his People's International League stood for "the rights of nationality" and a "cordial understanding between the peoples of all countries". Even as nationalists radicalised, beginning at the turn of the 20th century, growing more and more chauvinistic, anti-liberal and authoritarian, they did not give up their internationalist ambitions. Following the October Revolution in Russia, nationalists, ranging from centrist conservatives to far-right extremists, united against the perceived left-wing threat. Many fought within their countries, but most considered their battles as part of a global struggle.

One of the key thinkers of this right-wing international was Nicholas Murray Butler, the conservative president of Columbia University. In his 1918 tract A World in Ferment, he drew a distinction between "colloidal" - ie, cosmopolitan - and "crystalline" internationalism.

Butler dismissed colloidal internationalism as the "hopelessly impractical" desire by liberals and the left for "a worldwide community without national ties or national ambitions". In contrast, crystalline internationalism was based on "nationalistic and patriotic sentiments and aims", which are "elements in a larger human undertaking of which each nation should be an independent and integral part". One of the early organisations to emerge in this vein was the Geneva International, founded in 1924, with sections in 18 countries as far away as Australia. Devoted to "defending the principles of order, family, property and nationality" around the world, its cosmopolitan networks included figures such as Spain's Francisco Franco and France's Philippe Pétain - and it reached out to Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler.

Europe's fascist movements between the world wars engaged in various forms of international cooperation, including a series of world congresses. The most important was the Conference of Fascist Parties in Montreux, Switzerland, convened by Mussolini in 1934, which was to forge a transnational coalition in the struggle against socialism and liberal democracy. All of the major fascist regimes held their own international meetings, and invited fellow fascist parties to events inside their countries. At their Nuremberg rallies, the Nazis welcomed like-minded groups from Iraq, Siam (modern-day Thailand) and Bolivia.

The regimes also founded several internationalist organisations to engage with fascist movements around the world. "Fascism is now an international movement, which means not only that the fascist nations can combine for purposes of loot, but that they are groping, perhaps only half-consciously as yet, towards a world system," observed George Orwell in 1937.

Fascist internationalism was nowhere more apparent than during the Spanish Civil War. As socialist radicals flocked to Spain to join the International Brigades, fascist and right-wing nationalists, though fewer in number, swelled the ranks of the nationalists. They included Irish fascists and Romanian Iron Guard militants, not to mention the support that Franco received from the dictators in Berlin, Rome and Lisbon.

This internationalism reached its peak during World War II. The Anti-Comintern Pact, ratified by Tokyo and Berlin in 1936 (and in 1937 by Italy and Spain), was revised in 1941 when the ruling regimes of Croatia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Finland, El Salvador and, as an observer, Turkey, became signatories.

After the war the extreme right - though weakened - continued to organise internationally, convening meetings, founding organisations and starting publications. Even neo-Nazi groups founded international organisations - including the extremist World Union of National Socialists, created in 1962, which operated branches in America, Europe and Asia. In the Cold War, many such alliances were rooted in anti-communism: The infamous World Anti-Communist League, founded around the same time, united the extreme right with more moderate conservatives from across the globe.


Then as now, the advantages of international cooperation are too significant for nationalists to ignore, providing outside material and moral support. Positioning themselves as part of a bigger transnational movement also makes them look more important at home.

Still, such alliances can be fragile and full of frictions. Right-wing nationalist groups frequently clash over small ideological differences. Their members often have little interest in internationalist politics. The right-wing leaders who do engage internationally are often part of their countries' social elites, crossing borders with ease, while their followers often find these cosmopolitan worlds less appealing. In short, the nationalists' parochial views make international cooperation anything but straightforward.

The nationalists of Mazzini's 19th-century international were at odds over issues such as territorial borders, types of government and forms of cooperation. The far right of the interwar and war years, despite all attempts to unite, was riven by rivalries. Take the fallout between Hitler and Franco in 1940 over a dispute regarding Spain's audacious territorial demands in return for supporting Germany during World War II. Similarly, the territorial revisionism of Axis allies in south- eastern Europe proved impossible to overcome.

In the postwar years, the alliances between far-right groups were always tainted by mutual suspicion and selfishness - German and Italian nationalists, for example, frequently clashed at international gatherings over South Tyrol.

Today's extreme right might likewise find the gulf between parochial nationalism and cosmopolitan internationalism too wide to bridge. Consider the European Union's populist parliamentary group, which is divided on many key questions. Driven by nationalist egos, its members disagree on budget-deficit rules and the distribution of refugees.

They also disagree on relations with Russia, which is despised by Eastern European nationalists but admired by many of their Western European counterparts. In the end, with all its inherent contradictions, the new nationalist international might prove less stable than its proponents would like us to believe.

Even so, the danger posed by nationalist internationalism is real. The far right does not always need to form stable alliances, encompassing all areas of politics, to be destructive. Even pragmatic international cooperation on selected points can be enough. They do agree on enough things to do damage: which enemies to confront, which institutions to weaken, which values to assault. We dismiss the internationalisation of right-wing politics at our own peril. NYTIMES

  • The writer is a historian at the London School of Economics and Political Science