William Pfaff’s The Wrath of Nations: Civilization and the Furies of Nationalism is an original and unsettling examination of world civilization on the brink of the twenty-first century. Pfaff, a prizewinning journalist and the author of four previous books on international relations, rejects the comforts of the progressive interpretation of history, which understands humanity as moving upward through time toward ever more sophisticated, and presumably ever more virtuous, ways of organizing society. Not for Pfaff the antiseptic world of Star Trek’s spaceship Enterorise, which posits a future human society that has successfully eradicated all economic, racial, and sexual inequality. Pfaff might concede the technological wizardry of the imagined Star Trek universe. He acknowledges that, in the West at least, there has been marked material progress—but he emphatically spurns the notion that human beings are improving along with their dishwashers and vacuum cleaners. Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin, Pfaff argues, stand as compelling refutations of any theory of human perfection. Indeed, progressive historians must strain to ignore the moral implications of Nazism and Stalinism in order to maintain their cheering thesis. This relegates Hitler and Stalin, those giants of monstrosity, to the status of unfortunate and idiosyncratic footnotes to the irresistible march of progress. Pfaff sees such figures as far more central to the human story. He believes in human evil as well as human good. He believes in human decline as well as human progress.
Pfaff professes a view of history marked by a highly cultivated pessimism, what he terms a tragic pessimism. He demands that history be recognized as directionless, with people moving sometimes forward, sometimes backward in their degree of civilization. At times things get better; other times things get worse. Pfaff contends, for example, that the arts and architecture of Renaissance Italy are arguably superior to anything being offered in contemporary New York or London. He goes so far as to suggest that the social life and organization of Renaissance Florence or Siena in many ways were more “progressive” than those of the great modern metropolises. Dubious about human perfectionism and contemptuous about any modern complacency, Pfaff revels in the report of a French ethnologist who studied Himalayan villagers believed by many to be practicing customs akin to those of stone-age humans. The ethnologist discovered that these people were essentially similar to modern city dwellers in the ways that they understood themselves and the world. Pfaff finds this constancy in human moral character consoling. It assures him that whatever their external particulars, humans have remained the same animal through the ages.
Pfaff’s mordant critique of history and the contrary nature of humankind serves as the epistemological foundation for his trenchant assessment of the modern world’s attachment to nationalism. His treatment of nationalism is dryly ironic. In Pfaff’s urbane presentation the historical record dissolves into a welter of confused intentions and misdirected acts, with people’s dreams and achievements as ephemeral as the shadows on the wall of Plato’s cave. Substantiality in this human farrago comes only from the eternally consistent needs of the human character. Here the comedy ends for Pfaff, and tragedy begins. For beneath the waving flags, bands, and slogans, as well as the rivers of blood spilled in the name of king, country, and people, lie the hopes of millions of ordinary men and women, struggling to eke out a meaningful existence for themselves and their families. Ever conscious of the perpetual paradox of human endeavor, its magnificent ends and often grisly means, Pfaff becomes the chronicler of humankind’s folly, pilot to a ship of fools whom he knows will not listen.
Nationalism admirably illustrates Pfaff’s philosophy. Most people assume that humans have always organized themselves on national lines. Such is not the case. Pfaff notes that though nationalism is rooted in the most elemental human relationships, to a bit of land, to family, to religion, it is actually a quite recent development. Through most of time, men and women have been governed as members of tribes, or as subjects of empires and dynastic monarchies oblivious to the imperatives of some abstract “nation.” The first true nations emerged only in the late Middle Ages, as England and France began to evolve a national consciousness during the rigors of the Hundred Years’ War. The United States emerged in the late eighteenth century as an experiment in Enlightenment principles. The real blossoming of nationalism came, however, in the nineteenth century, when, as part of the Romantic reaction to the rampaging armies and ideals of the French Revolution and Napoleon Bonaparte, Central European writers and artists began to exalt the “authentic” and “natural.” This led to an interest in history and the language and customs of ordinary people, which in turn led to calls for the political recognition of the “nation.” So it was that the nineteenth century saw the birth of such powerful nation-states as Germany and Italy in Europe and Japan in Asia. Numbers of smaller national states also arrived, such as Belgium and Greece in Europe and a host...