BBC4’s new imported historical epic ‘1864’ reminds me a little of Tony Richardson’s criminally-underrated 1968 movie, ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’. Although in ‘1864’ the nation under the spotlight is Denmark, the parallels are potent. A country encouraged to believe its people are God’s chosen few, even if the majority are governed by a nobility minority whose role is to whip-up jingoistic fervour that will swell the ranks of the army as they prepare to launch into a suicidal war with Prussia. In the case of the Light Brigade, the enemy was Russia, but that’s academic. What this superlative Danish drama really highlights the way in which a romantic notion of a nation can motivate the masses to embrace death as glory.
As the male population have traditionally provided the cannon-fodder, it’s interesting how a maternal figure is often evoked when urging the necessity of duty. One thinks of ‘Mother Russia’, the Virgin Mary or even our very own Britannia. Reminds me of how the Krays wouldn’t think twice of subjecting their enemies to sadistic punishments, yet were still good boys to their ‘ma’. There must be something inherent in the male psyche that makes anything permissible if mother is the motivation. Sometimes an actual living person rather than a symbolic one can be painted in such a light, as Queen Victoria and Elizabeth I were; but the image that waved the boys into battle was as far removed from the actual women as Britannia herself.
Nation-states are not alone in myth-making and summoning-up an ideal of what its people are fighting for, however. The IRA cannily tapped into a seductive concept of Ireland as a permanently subjugated land of the free that would flourish as soon as its oppressors were hounded off the emerald isle, and various other more contemporary terrorist organisations present their followers with a similarly simplistic vision of purity that an enemy is sullying. This persuasive method predates the advertising industry by several centuries, but utilises the same psychological techniques to galvanise people into contemplating self-sacrifice for a good that is portrayed as undoubtedly greater. Even non-paramilitary political groups are guilty, as the ‘Yes’ camp and the SNP demonstrated in the Scottish Independence Referendum; and one only has to see a couple of US Presidential campaign ads to count the seconds before the expected appearance of the stars & stripes, the Statue of Liberty or the Lincoln Memorial.
When John Lennon sang ‘Imagine there’s no countries’, the slick and easy-on-the-ears arrangement of a song that has been endlessly misinterpreted since Lennon’s death tends to soften the radical concept behind the lyrics that has echoes throughout post-Enlightenment history. Samuel Johnson famously said ‘Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel’, whereas the twentieth century German-American philosopher Erich Fromm expanded the theory when he said ‘Nationalism is our form of incest, is our idolatry, is our insanity. Patriotism is its cult.’ I personally would distinguish between patriotism and jingoism; I think it’s possible to love aspects of one’s country whilst simultaneously despising others – and at least here, the latter can be comprehensively dealt with in the time-honoured British tradition of mischievous mockery and savage satire.
A perfectly natural emotion that can be conjured-up by a landscape, a speech, a piece of music or a poem, patriotism can be essentially harmless. The strains of ‘Jerusalem’ or ‘I Vow to Thee My Country’, along with Elizabeth I’s Tilbury speech or some of Churchill’s more celebrated ones, undoubtedly stir something deep and indescribable in many that can be manifested as patriotism, but it doesn’t necessarily go any further than a shiver or a swelling stemming from the gut and working its way upwards until eventually expunged via the tear-ducts. Patriotism only becomes dubious and dangerous nationalism when one is wilfully blind to the faults of one’s country and one begins to see it solely in terms of opposition to another, engineering an illogical sense of superiority to other pieces of land that is ripe for the propagandists and those with a vested interest in war. In its purest sense, patriotism renders people vulnerable to such cynical stimuli and can be an invaluable weapon in convincing them there is a cause worth dying for.
In theory, the great Empires successfully suppressed nationalism and gathered different nationalities under one benevolent umbrella, whether the Holy Roman Empire in the centre of Europe or the British Empire beyond Europe. In practice, there was an ever-present separatist agenda bubbling beneath the surface throughout, handed down the generations from a time when the country in question was once ‘free’ and enjoying a Golden Age that ended the moment it was absorbed into a confederation of nations ruled over by a foreign Emperor. Of the four great Empires intact when the First World War erupted – the British, the Russian, the Ottoman and the Austro-Hungarian – only the British survived and yet even that only lived for perhaps a further half-century. The post-war European ‘Totalitarian Empires’ had a far shorter lifespan, but their abrupt collapse in the early 1990s gave birth to nationalist (and in some cases sectarian) bloodshed that was deemed a necessary evil on the road to supposedly preferable independence. Nationalism can bring out all the worst human characteristics and utterly obliterate the best.
I confess that ‘the Schleswig-Holstein Question’ was not one I was over-familiar with before beginning to watch ‘1864’, but knowing that Prussia was en route to becoming the most fearsome military machine in central Europe at the time, I’ve a strong feeling it’ll all end in tears for Denmark. Britain’s entry into the Crimean War just a decade earlier was motivated by the same deluded arrogance, one that overlooked the fact that the country hadn’t been involved in a major conflict for a generation and was led by aristocratic officers who collected army commissions like MPs collect directorships today. But they all acquired their cannon-fodder because they played the recruitment game with far greater skill than they directed events on the battlefield.
Outside of the Balkans and Ukraine, Europe has enjoyed its longest sustained period of peace in centuries since 1945, but enforced enmities between borders survive to the present day, albeit in different forms. The ongoing debate on the EU and the sovereignty of its member states is merely its latest manifestation. Despite what John Lennon said, it’s hard to imagine there’s no countries because country is like family; you can hate it with a passion, yet the bastard always has a claim on a part of you. And ours is bigger than yours, Kraut, Frog, Wop, Dago…