On the new ‘nationalism’

George Weigel

Thanks to President Trump’s “America First” rhetoric and the rise of populist-nationalist parties in Europe, there’s a lot of debate about “nationalism” these days. On that subject, as on so many others, it’s worth listening to Pope St. John Paul II, not least because last month marked the 40th anniversary of his epochal Nine Days in Poland in June 1979 — days on which the history of the 20th century pivoted in a more humane direction.

To revisit John Paul II’s homilies and addresses during the Nine Days, and especially his homily in Gniezno on June 3, is to learn important lessons for today about nation, nationalism, and patriotism. Karol Wojtyla was surely a Polish patriot; he had, after all, deliberately celebrated his first three Masses in the St. Leonard’s Crypt of Cracow’s Wawel Cathedral, surrounded by Polish heroes like King Jan III Sobieski and Tadeusz Kosciuszko. At the same time, Wojtyla’s Polish and Cracovian roots, experience, and loyalties led him to an appreciation of the spiritual unity of the Slavic peoples, and indeed of the cultural unity of Europe.

John Paul II was not a “European” in some theoretical sense. As he made clear at Gniezno on June 3, 1979, he had come to a vision of Europe — whole and free, breathing with both its lungs, East and West — through his Cracovian and Polish experience, not despite that experience. Thus his Polish patriotism was not chauvinistic or xenophobic; it was open to those who were “other.” Poland, sometimes betrayed and too often ignored by the West, was, he insisted, woven into the tapestry of Europe. So were many other national experiences and stories. In that sense, it’s not hard to imagine John Paul II being sympathetic to contemporary critiques of the European Union’s tendency to level out national and cultural differences.

Yet in his later musings on history, John Paul raised some important cautions about nationalism; here is what he wrote in his last published book, Memory and Identity:

“…nation and native land, like the family, are permanent realities…[Yet] one thing must be avoided at all costs [–]…an unhealthy nationalism. Of this, the twentieth century has supplied some all too eloquent examples, with disastrous consequences. How can we be delivered from such a danger? I think the right way is through patriotism. Whereas nationalism involves recognizing and pursuing the good of one’s own nation alone, without regard for the rights of others, patriotism….is a love of one’s own native land that accords rights to all other nations equal to those claimed for one’s own. Patriotism, in other words, leads to a properly ordered social love.”

Can we find instances of a national patriotism that reaches out in support of others, for the sake of both national interest and a broad sense of national purpose? Two examples come immediately to mind; they should be pondered by today’s new nationalists, in America, Europe, and elsewhere.

The first involved U.S. recognition of the State of Israel, which declared its independence as of midnight, May 14, 1948. That very same day, President Harry Truman recognized the Jewish state, against the fierce opposition of a lot of the State Department and his own Secretary of State, the great George C. Marshall. Marshall, who believed that recognition of a Jewish state opposed by the Arabs of the Middle East was geopolitical madness, even told Truman that he wouldn’t vote for him later that year if Truman insisted on accepting an Israeli declaration of independence and recognizing the provisional government led by David Ben-Gurion. Yet Truman believed that recognition of Israel was the right thing to do, irrespective of the friction it would cause; so he did it, in an act of statesmanship that far transcended national interest.

The second example also involved Mr. Truman: the creation of NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. On this, its 70th birthday, NATO is history’s most successful defensive alliance. When NATO was first bruited, however, the idea of the United States binding itself to defend European democracies was opposed by many who had gathered under the banner of “America First” in the 1930s and during the 1940 presidential campaign. No one doubts the patriotism of those men and women; but their concept of national interest was too narrow for the times.

A similar myopia should be avoided in 2019. John Paul II’s idea of patriotism might help point a way.

COMING UP: The quiet hours of Leonid Brezhnev

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On first meeting Dr. Andrzej Grajewski, you probably wouldn’t guess that this mild-mannered Polish historian is one of the world’s leading experts on the ecclesiastical Dark Side of the Cold War: the relentless communist assault on the Catholic Church. But he is, and his expertise comes primarily from years of patient combing through the Bad Guys’ secret intelligence service files. Some of those files went up the smokestack in 1989 (or are still locked down in Moscow), but many are now available to scholars. Grajewski’s recent research in that often-sordid underworld raises some interesting questions about the assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II on May 13, 1981.

What do we know with certainty about that affair?

We know that, by the fall of 1979, Yuri Andropov, the highly intelligent, ruthless head of the KGB (the Soviet secret intelligence service) had concluded that John Paul II was a grave threat to the Soviet system, both internally and in the external Soviet empire. And we know that the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party issued a decree on November 13, 1979, authorizing the use of “all available means” to forestall the effects of John Paul’s policy of challenging Soviet human rights violations.

We know that the assassin, Mehmet Ali Agca, was a professional killer who somehow escaped from a Turkish military prison shortly after that 1979 decree was issued and received further training in a Syrian camp run by Soviet bloc intelligence services. We know that, after meeting with a Soviet intelligence officer in Tehran, Agca got into Bulgaria with the help of the Bulgarian security services and lived for two months in a luxury hotel in Sofia. We know that Agca’s finances were handled by a Turk, associated with communist intelligence services, who subsequently died in unexplained circumstances.

What we do not have is documentary evidence that all of this was done on the direct orders of Andropov, or Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, or both. But we do know that, as the Bulgarian spooks would have hesitated to change the brand of soap in their office washrooms without permission from Moscow Center, they certainly wouldn’t have run an operation against John Paul II on their own.

And now we know something else, thanks to an achingly dull, three-volume history of the schedule of Leonid Brezhnev, published three years ago in Russia.        Andrzej Grajewski plowed through these materials, concentrating on Brezhnev’s activities in April and May 1981 (shortly after Agca, by then in Zurich, met with several shady characters to complete the logistical and financial arrangements for the assassination attempt, which was set for May 13, 1981). Over the course of his reign as de facto head of the Soviet Union from 1964 to 1982, Brezhnev did not meet all that often with Andropov, the KGB spymaster. But the tempo of their meetings increased dramatically in April and May 1981, as did the frequency of their phone conversations. Why this sudden intensification of contact between the Soviet chieftain and Andropov, at that precise time? Inquiring minds will wonder.

As they will wonder about Brezhnev’s schedule on May 13, 1981. That morning, Brezhnev met with a delegation from the Congo to sign several agreements. About 1 p.m., he came to his Kremlin office and worked by himself on documents; but the schedule does not indicate that he met with anyone that entire afternoon, nor did he make any phone calls. What was he waiting for? Was news anticipated? After 6 p.m.  — i.e., soon after Agca’s fired his shots in St. Peter’s Square — Brezhnev left the Kremlin for his residence in the Moscow suburbs. The next day he met in the Kremlin with Soviet foreign minister Andrei Gromyko, and on May 15, with Yuri Andropov.

Andrzej Grajewski’s careful but suggestive conclusion: “Does such a sequence of events prove that Brezhnev was informed about…the attack? We do not know that. Assuming that the idea of assassinating the Pope had arisen in the Soviet leadership, Brezhnev knew when it would happen. Of course, the records of [his] Kremlin schedule are not irrefutable evidence in this matter. However, they indicate that… May 13, 1981…was not a routine day for [Brezhnev]. His schedule shows that, during almost 18 years at the pinnacle of power, there was only one day, May 13, 1981, when Brezhnev’s attention was not absorbed by acting, directing, managing — but perhaps waiting for something to happen.”

Inquiring minds wonder.

Featured image: © L’Osservatore Romano