Among the various accounts of the First World War that appeared following the 1918 armistice, a little-known post-mortem by a Belgian lieutenant carries a striking assertion. “I was always as disgusted by the misuse of patriotism for the promotion of militarism and imperialism as I was by the prostitution of religious feeling to the purposes of worldly domination,” it begins. “I was convinced that there should be the same difference between patriotism and the State as there is—or ought to be—between religion and the State.”
After four years of hellish war, the author’s hatred of militaristic patriotism is easy enough to understand. For soldiers on both sides of the conflict, the bombastic jingoism of the recruitment drives quickly soured amid the realities of trench warfare, to the point where many soldiers “openly wished death on the fatherland,” as a panicked German communication reported in 1918. Rather, what is so arresting—certainly, what made me stop and think—is the plea that we regard patriotism as being as dangerous to the functioning of state and the freedom of its citizens as we do religion.
At first this suggestion might sound confused if not bizarre. An unpatriotic state? It is practically an oxymoron. In 2016, for instance, Zambian President Edgar Lungu insisted that patriotism was “cardinal for the survival of our nation.” The previous year, national pride was declared an “article of faith” by India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. Russia’s Tsar-President Vladimir Putin struck a similar tone when, in 2015, he decreed it the “sacred duty” of all Russians “to be faithful to the great values of patriotism.” Even in countries less prone to rhetorical histrionics than Russia, national pride is so woven into the language and ceremony of the state that it would seem impossible to separate them.