An American's View of National Identity and Patriotism in Europe
A significant aspect of American society is our very distinct sense of national identity and open patriotism. As a culture, we tend towear this patriotism on our sleeves –sometimes quite literally– and in the case of my home state of Texas, we combine our national pride with a very strong sense of state pride. There are some in the American media who claim that Europeans consider American patriotism to be quaint and naïve at best, or dangerous and radical at worst. With this in mind, I took the opportunity during each stop on my Marshall Memorial Fellowship trip to ask Europeans about how they view themselves.
Did they feel the same love of country and state that I do? The answers I have received so far have been fascinating and, to my surprise, have varied significantly from country to country. Belgians shared with me that they normally identify themselves as "Belgian" only when they are outside of Belgium or talking to a foreigner. Within their country, they tend to identify themselves more frequently as Flemish or Walloon based on their regional or linguistic identity. I didn't sense that being "Belgian" was a particularly strong feeling or an important part of society. For understandable reasons, Germans have a troubling relationship with patriotism and national identity. The ghosts of National Socialism still haunt the German psyche, and my German hosts told me that they were taught throughout their school days to feel guilty about German aggression, violence, and destruction during the first half of the twentieth century. I can only imagine how difficult it must be to have a sense of patriotism and pride in national identity when that sense of guilt is so deeply ingrained. My conversations with my German hosts taught me two interesting things.
First, one host told me that, rather than being proud of being German, he takes significant pride in some of the characteristics of German culture that he thinks represent who he and other Germans really are, such as organization, timeliness, order and structure, thoroughness, and attention to detail. Second, soldiers from the German Bundeswehr clearly have a very strong sense of patriotism and pride in their commitment to their country, in their service, and even in some German and Prussian military traditions. They explained that their feelings of German identity are distinct from the rest of German society, and that a sense of national identity, history, and tradition is necessary for the espirit de corps that is so essential to the charge of any soldier. Interestingly, the sense of patriotism and national identity appeared to me to be different in Eastern Europe. Our hosts in Romania told us that they were proud to be Romanian. Notwithstanding recent political scandals and the legacy of communism, they are proud of the history of their country and their region, and they are very optimistic about their country's future. The Czechs had some of the most interesting answers to my questions about national identity and patriotism.
The Czech Republic is still a relatively new country with a very limited history of independence and separate national identity. Following 400 years of rule by the Hapsburgs and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Czechoslovakia became independent in 1918. The country was only just beginning to understand itself as an independent nation when German tanks rolled into Prague in 1939. Four decades of communism and Soviet domination that followed the war weighed heavily on the Czechs’ view of themselves and their country. The Czechs' sense of national identity still struggles with these ghosts of the past. I was surprised to find that the Czechs are also wrestling with the role that Germans and German culture played in their history. For centuries, the elite in the region spoke German and were Catholic, and German kings and nobles were responsible for many of the architectural and religious treasures that still decorate Prague.
When the Germans were expelled after World War II, they took much of their religion and socio-economic influence with them, leaving behind both a vacuum in Czech culture and a lasting impression on Czech history. In my view, these varied attitudes toward patriotism and national identity have highlighted some basic differences between Americans and Europeans and between Europeans of different countries. While my observations are far from scientific or methodical, and while many Europeans could certainly disagree with some or all of them, I think they have helped me to understand why Americans and Europeans sometimes don't appear to be speaking on the same frequency when it comes to matters of national identity.
Scott Schwind, a Partner at Jones Day law firm in Houston, TX, is a 2012 American Marshall Memorial Fellow.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.