Patriotism Before A Fall

Patriotism Poster

“The people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the peacemakers for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger.  It works the same in any country.”

— Hermann Goering, before being sentenced to death at Nuremberg.

When you’re thinking about patriotism, Nazi Germany is both a blessing and a curse. A blessing, because it raises so many questions to do with nationhood and patriotism. A curse, because it poses those questions in a  particularly sharp, even perverse, light. For Nazi Germany was an extreme example of the way a nation can go horribly wrong. (Not that other extreme  examples — Mao’s China, Pol Pot’s Cambodia, Stalin’s Soviet Union, Amin’s  Uganda — went any less horribly wrong).

Yet on both counts, Nazi Germany continues to fascinate. Perhaps for this reason above all: how did an apparently worthwhile aim — Hitler took office promising to restore German pride ruined by the first War — turn into the dance of death and destruction Hitler both unleashed on other countries and brought to his own? How did an apparently democratic process  — Hitler came to power via the vote — produce such a twisted negation of everything we cherish about democracy and nationhood?

Does the answer, the perversion, lie in Hitler? In his party? In their ideology and tactics? Or does it lie in that worthwhile aim itself?

All of the above, I suspect. But in this article, I want to concentrate on just one, on that apparently patriotic goal: pride in your country.

Nothing wrong with pride. Would that we might all feel it, in ourselves, for our friends and fellow human beings, for the communities we live in. I feel thrilled, and proud, when the person dearest to me in the world wins a gold medal for her performance in a course. When someone from my college devises something so simple and innovative that within hours,
thousands and soon millions people the world over are using it. Leander Paes brings home a bronze medal from Atlanta and I feel proud: a man from my country, playing a game I play and adore, has achieved something only a handful of people around the world have.

Aside: why shouldn’t all human achievement — whether Indian or Venezuelan — touch me? After all, all human depravity — from Rwanda to Auschwitz — nauseates me. Why feel pride solely in Indian achievement? End of aside.

But look at pride in some other ways.

The other day, I passed one of those interminable shopping extravaganzas at Bandra’s Reclamation Grounds (in northwestern Mumbai). Signs everywhere proclaim that this is the “Pride of India: a complete consumer exhibition!” Immediately outside the big tent filled with the “Pride of India” — televisions, washing machines and such like, I suppose — you will find large stones and uncleared rubble, heaps of garbage in which dogs and kids rummage for food, abandoned  water pipes that house whole families, streams of snarled traffic negotiating a road being relaid. And rising above it all, clouds of dust that give me a hacking cough. Let me assure you: for this corner of the city, this is no more than the usual. It’s been like this for years.

What is the “Pride of India” supposed to mean here? That my country can produce washing machines just as slick as other countries do? That the stones and lunching-on-garbage-kids don’t really exist in my country? That, as pithy correspondents often suggest to me, I should not “focus on the  -ves of India but on the +ves”?

Am I supposed to turn off the sorrow the scene outside induces in me, the frustration that these two Indias live side-by-side and we think that’s OK?  Must I feel only the wonder that comes of looking at sleek electronic items? Is that India’s pride?

No, that’s just pretence. Pretence does not amount to pride.

Yet there are times when I am indeed filled with awe, respect and pride at things that happen in India. Like the Bilgaon micro-hydel project I wrote about. Like doctors I know who take ordinary health care to perennially overlooked Indians. Like the work of Sanjoy Ghose, who  lived the battle against injustice, corruption and official neglect, and then died for it.

When I see such Indians strive to better others’ lives, and the bettering happens as I watch, that makes my Indian spirit soar in ways that all the consumer gadgets in the world, or missiles rolling down Rajpath on January 26, simply cannot. I don’t much care if that makes me less of a patriot in someone’s eyes: it’s how I feel. Others are welcome to find their pride and patriotism elsewhere.

And because it’s how I feel, I look for and celebrate those efforts in my India. To me, one Sanjoy Ghose turns this into a better country for Indians than all the missiles on Rajpath. People like him honour my country with their work. That’s the only way pride in India makes any sense to me.

In a way, it’s right there that Hitler perverted an idea, a nation. His restored German pride rested on quite different foundations. He chose hatred and terror, murder and pillage. Build a war machine; attack your neighbours and reduce them to rubble; identify, demonize and slaughter millions, most being fellow citizens; make out that an accident of race and birth is cause for patriotism and pride: these were classic ingredients not of a new German glory, but of what happened to Nazi Germany instead.

Destruction, defeat and disgrace.

My feeling is, foundations like those will inevitably produce destruction, defeat and disgrace. In fact, my feeling is that the search for pride and glory itself warps easily into destruction: because hatred and war are  easier than building a country. The Goering brand of patriots — always the  loudest kind — know that better than anyone.

But the lesson here is broader than just a perversion of patriotism. It is in how cynical and shallow was the Nazi leaders’ own belief in the patriotism they demanded from their citizens. Goering’s words at Nuremberg speak of just that. He knew the immense value of calls to patriotism when you want to rally a people, silence questions and affirm your grip on power. “It works the same in any country,” he observed — at once an insight remarkable for its clarity and a comment on how little the rhetoric about German glory and pride really meant to him.

Yet looking back, what else could anyone have expected? When you put a country in the hands of a collection of criminals and murderers, you get what criminals and murderers are skilled at: destruction. Of course they won’t describe it that way. Of course they will wrap it, as Hitler and Stalin did, in patriotism. Nevertheless, it remains destruction.

Yes, Nazi Germany is an extreme example. But then you don’t find lighthouses where the seashore’s pebbles start turning to rocks: no, they flash their warnings from spots that are an extreme threat to passing ships.

So with Hitler’s regime. It warns us about the dangers of too readily accepting talk of glory and patriotism. It serves as a reminder of the absolute minimum we can do about such talk: be sceptical. It is the lesson that it’s best to be extremely suspicious of those who denounce others as  traitors, who claim patriotism for themselves. Such claims are too often cover for undermining their country, one way or another.

To me, it also is a reminder to treasure what really makes my country, or  any other: ordinary people doing extraordinary things. Not just during Kargil, but every day. Not just on our borders, but throughout this land.  Not because they claim patriotism — they never do — but because they live  it.

You can send your replies directly to me at dilipd@rediff.co.in.

Dilip D’Souza

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