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Yoram Hazony: How Hitler and Marxists Defiled the Idea of Nationalism

Adolf Hitler “detested the idea that nations should be independent. His worldview was to eliminate independent nations. … He stole our word [nationalism] and applied it to this evil-doing, to his imperialism.”

At the National Conservatism Conference in Orlando, Florida, we sat down with Yoram Hazony, chairman of the Edmund Burke Foundation and author of “The Virtue of Nationalism,” to discuss the values of national conservatism and what he sees as an assault on tradition, family, and nation.

“Honor, hierarchy, tradition, all of these things are pejoratives today because Marxists worked hard and systematically to make it so,” Hazony says.


Jan Jekielek: Yoram Hazony such a pleasure to have you on American Thought Leaders.

Yoram Hazony: Pleasure to be here. Thank you for having me.

Mr. Jekielek: Well, thank you for having us here at the National Conservatism Conference. I’ve learned a ton. So for starters, thank you for putting this on and thank you for inviting us.

Mr. Hazony: Right.

Mr. Jekielek: I want to talk a little bit about the conference. Before I go there you were on, it was a very fascinating panel to me and you were talking about this distinction between conservatism and classic liberalism would be the way to put it. I think that’s lost on a lot of us, I mean certainly was lost on me to some extent and certainly some of our viewers could be. I mean super briefly, I know you’ve written on this before.

Mr. Hazony: I’ll try to put it in a nutshell. Liberalism and conservatism are separate worldviews—they’re competing movements. Conservatism is in England in the common law tradition is several centuries older than liberalism is. Liberalism was born in the 17th century and liberalism and conservatism have competed since then. It’s true that at some points like in the cold war they were allies. They may need to be allies again facing the current crisis, but still it’s important to keep them distinct.

When we talk about liberalism, we’re talking about a worldview that has as its fundamental premises, the claims that every individual is free from birth or at least from adulthood is endowed with all sorts of well known natural freedoms and must be given those freedoms by the government and treated equally. That’s liberalism. And we’re all familiar with it. All the Western countries at this point grew up with it.

Conservatism is in Britain, in America. It’s an older indigenous political theory or political system which has its center, the Anglo American. We can say the common law, legal tradition, the English language, the kind of Christianity that is particular to England and America traditionally. The great thinkers in that tradition. So you can say Fortescue, who was in the 1400s he’s still a Catholic and then once Anglicanism becomes Anglican, Protestantism becomes the central thing.

We have thinkers like Hooker, Coke, John Selden, Matthew Hale, Blackstone going up to Edmund Burke. Edmund Burke they often said to be the founder of this—it isn’t even slightly true. Burke is defending a conservative tradition that’s many centuries old. And the main distinctions are that conservative tradition sees rights as growing out of a historical context by trial and error over history, not something that was discovered by universal reason but something that was discovered historically by trial and error in Britain.

It has a biblical basis, it has a traditional basis. When we bring that down to today, there are many differences. One of them is the centrality of the nation of a group of people loyal to one another who are different from other nations, have a different legal system and a different worldview and yearn for, and deserve independence rather than being dictated by some kind of universal theory.

So for centuries, this English traditionalist nationalism was locked in struggle with the Habsburg Empire which wanted to conquer Britain and bring it back to Catholicism. But today the main opponent of traditionalist national conservatism, the main opponent is liberalism universal, universal liberal order that wants to impose a single liberal worldview on all the nations of the earth rather than giving them the freedom each to find God and to find truth and stability their own way. Of course, in the last year there’s kind of been a Marxist Cultural Revolution which has taken over much of what was really liberal up until recently.

So we’re talking about that at this conference too, but liberals and conservatives at this point are certainly some of them we’re going to have to be allies to fight the Marxists. But it’s important to remember the differences because a liberal life is very different from a conservative life. And most conservatives think that ultimately liberalism is not sustainable, that it’s because it undermines tradition. It doesn’t allow for transmission to future generations.

Mr. Jekielek: Well, so something very fascinating about what you just said to me is that it seems like you’re saying that conservatism is tied to nationalism, whereas liberalism is tied to a kind of internationalism. Is that fair?

Mr. Hazony: It’s fair at the theoretical level. In historical practice, it’s a little bit more complicated. There certainly have been famous liberal nationalists, Metiny and the Italians are famous examples of liberal nationalists. There was a period in the 19th century where liberals and nationalists were on the same side and were closely allied. But liberalism in most of its forms, not in every single form but in most of its forms liberalism is a universal creed. It claims to be based on truth that is supposed to be evident to people in every nation. And that actually the impetus for certain phenomena like American globalism and European globalism in the last 30-40 years has been driven by this view that liberalism is self-evident or it should be self-evident to all people.

I mean the idea of creating a liberal democracy in Afghanistan or Iraq to a conservative, that looks like an absurdity. It looks inherently absurd because they don’t have a thousand years of traditions that are capable of supporting this kind of government—this kind of way of life. But liberals don’t believe in tradition, and I mean most liberals think if you’re reasonable, if you think about it, if you follow my argument, you’ll see that liberalism simply is the final political theory, the end of history. We’ve reached the political theory that answers all the most important questions for all mankind.

Now it’s just a question of getting it to them. You can feel that behind many of these ideological foreign wars that America and some of the European countries have been  involved in for the last generation. In my book on nationalism, “The Virtue of Nationalism.” I say it reminds us a little bit of Napoleon. Napoleon also had this universal liberal theory and he said “Look this is right for all nations.” and he set out to conquer Europe and then the world in order to impose it.

It’s strange that it’s alive again but it flourished mightily after the collapse of the Soviet Union, it lasted 30 years. Now it looks like it’s on the ropes but it survived long enough to do tremendous harm.

Mr. Jekielek: This is also fascinating and of course you’re the author of the amazing book “The Virtue of Nationalism.” The thing that I always assumed is that nationalism has kind of become like there’s been an attempt to make it a pejorative term almost, right?

I think there’s actually some success in that, clearly national conservatism suggests a different view when your book talks about the virtues of this. I’ve always assumed the reason for that kind of other rating, the idea of nationalism comes from the Marxist internationalist ideology right? But what you’re telling me here is that there’s more to that.

Mr. Hazony: Yes. I think when you’re talking about what is and what isn’t a pejorative term, it helps to start with the broader picture. Anything that’s conservative, anything that is part of this conservative tradition that I’m describing in Britain and America is today either already a pejorative or is on route to being a pejorative. So people think that God is too dangerous an idea to be brought into schools.

People think that anything that’s biblical, that’s based on the foundational text of our civilization but today to say I learned this from the Bible, people tell you’re crazy man or they’ll work systematically to make sure that learning from scripture doesn’t happen in public’s schools, and that it’s maligned in the universities to such a degree that people won’t study Bible in the university.

So it’s not just the nation. The traditional family also is at this point now searingly called the patriarchy and to be anti-women, it is said to be antigay. You can keep going: honor, hierarchy, tradition. All of these things are pejoratives today because Marxists worked hard and systematically to make it, so many liberals participated in that and continue to participate in that. So when we go to talk about nationalism specifically, that has its own particular history.

Nationalism was a term that up until World War II was often used almost as a progressive term. The colonialism and empire were seen as evil or dangerous or at least generally not such a good thing. And the freedom of nations, the idea that India should be independent, that Ethiopia should have its independence, that Israel could be reconstituted.

Those were the things that generous people, magnanimous people in all countries,  felt like. Yes this nationalism, this idea that people should be free to chart their own course. It was until World War II,  seeing generally as a good thing by people who were looking to think about how do we have justice in the world.

Even in World War II the allies purposely placed the idea of the independence and liberation of nations in the Atlantic Charter. It was part of the platform of the allies during World War II. After World War II is a different story because it is true that Hitler who was a classic imperialist right? If you read Mein Kampf, Hitler speaks without any embarrassment about Germany becoming the lord of the earth and mistress of the globe. That was Hitler’s view, he detested the independent nations state.

He detested the idea that nations should be independent and his worldview was to eliminate independent nations. But it’s true that he used the word nationalism and he stole our word and applied it to his evil doing—to his imperialism. You see the word “Imperialism” doesn’t appear in any significant context in Mein Kampf.

He calls what he’s doing nationalism and by that he means the German nation is going to take over the entire planet; that’s what we call imperialism. You see? So he stole our term and many Marxists were happy to run with that and quite a few liberals are happy to run with that. I don’t think we need to learn our political terminology from Adolf Hitler.

Mr. Jekielek: As you’re talking, I can’t help think Hitler appropriated all sorts of things, symbology, the symbol Swastika, all these things. Anything that he touched became the worst thing ever. right? Because of what his ideology perpetrated subsequently is fascinating. I could talk to you for ages here. Is part of your goal to try to rehabilitate, isn’t the right word, but bring back nationalism as a virtue, I guess it is, this is the title of your book right?

Mr. Hazony: Yeah, well look first of all nationalism is back and I don’t claim that every nationalist, that every individual or every movement that is seeking the independence and freedom of their nation, I don’t claim that every one of those movements is inherently just or inherently righteous.

There are, as with everything, there are better versions and there are worse versions and there are decent and godly men and women who are involved in the efforts to strengthen the independence of their nations. And there are evil men and women who are involved in these projects.

So I’m not utopian. I don’t claim nationalism offers a magic formula for solving the world’s problems but in the book I do make the case in general. It’s the best alternative that we have that it’s better than these grasping empires.

That even something like the European Union, which is not usually thought of as an empire but it has many of the same characteristics. It knows no borders, it’s constantly trying to absorb additional peoples. It has a monolithic version of liberalism that it seeks to impose on all its member nations. It talks about subsidiarity and federalism and delegating powers.

But in truth if the Italians elect a prime minister, the European commission doesn’t approve of, they reach into Italy and appoint a new finance minister. They twist their arms until they agree to foreign appointments of their own ministers. The force of a country like in the case of the European Union, it’s Germany, the idea of New World Order which is the American version—we Americans know what’s right for everyone.

So we’re going to impose it if necessary by force. Those things have provoked a growing nationalist reaction. It’s been visible for 30 years already and it just grows stronger every year. And our job here, I mean the people who gather in this conference are, we have a few politicians who show up but we have a hundred speakers here, maybe four of them are office holders running for office.

The overwhelming majority of the people at the national conservatism conference are thinkers of one kind or another: they’re authors, and scholars, and journalists and YouTube stars, people whose business is to try to get as deep as they can into good ideas of and bad ideas and understanding the trends of the ideas that are shaping our country and the other countries in the world.

They come here in order to exchange ideas but also to make friends and check out the possibility of a broader alliance than maybe would’ve been possible, if they were just talking to their friends. We’re working on refining ideas, we’re working on learning, we’re looking on figuring out what books to read and write and publish.

Ultimately, this kind of work does have an impact on real world, world politics, but we’re not here to endorse particular candidates. We’re here to figure out what’s the best thing to think, what’s the best thing to argue for. I feel it’s something very important that has a crucial place and I think it’s working.

Mr. Jekielek: Well, I mean it’s been a fascinating learning experience for me thus far. You know something just occurred to me. You were talking about the reconstitution of Israel and how that was seen as a positive thing.

I think like for me being a Pole right? My parents escaped from communist Poland in the 70s. Poland prior to World War I was partitioned for over 150 years. It only existed as an idea, as I suppose a nationalist idea right? So for Poles I think the idea that nationalism is a positive thing, I think is more obvious perhaps because of this.

Mr. Hazony: Yes.

Mr. Jekielek: As it is perhaps for Israelis or Jews.

Mr. Hazony: Yes, it is.

Mr. Jekielek: And I think people, I keep hitting on this phenomenon that people don’t know, don’t get what they have like in America. It’s the immigrants, the founders of the Epoch Times who are championing the American spirit and the American dream but the Americans for generations are down on America. I find it so fascinating. We somehow as a species, we don’t appreciate what we have.

Mr. Hazony: Yeah, well in the leadership of the Edmund Burke Foundation, we certainly have a good representation of people as families who have been here many generations. But since you mentioned Poland, I think you may know that my vice president and close friend at the Edmund Burke Foundation was born in Poland. She’s a Polish American and she is a Polish nationalist and a devout Catholic.

And for me working with Anna has been a tremendous learning experience because I think Jews tend to grow up with sort of an instinctive suspicion of Poland for all sorts of historical reasons. And she and I find not only that we’re in agreement, in fact feels like we’re brother and sister fighting for a similar cause in America, in Poland, in Israel and in other countries.

It’s not just that we’re allies but through her, I’ve gotten to hear what a Polish nationalist, how a knowledgeable pious Polish nationalist sees a thousand years of Polish history. And it’s simply remarkable not to say that any history is perfect or ideal and that there’s no friction between peoples,

But it’s remarkable to see how much there really is that is common between the experience of Poles and the experience of Jews. Even though our histories are completely different, intertwined at certain points but in general it is just simply completely different histories. It’s very, very interesting.

Mr. Jekielek: A lot of people that I’m aware of lament the idea of the removal of God from the classroom, right? And this is something you were talking about. What is it really that created this movement that it’s almost sort of unthink this secularism in the classroom in any classroom is kind of sacrosanct as a concept. Where does that actually come from?

Mr. Hazony: It’s a very complicated question, it has a long history. I think probably the simplest way to think about it is that the coming of modern science challenged the prestige and standing of many traditional things, including the Catholic church. You can say that it shouldn’t have because when you learn the history.

It turns out that there were actually many religious figures who were very supportive of the new science. But the fact is that in the public perception, the coming of modern physics and other sciences seemed like it was a better road to truth than the traditional religion and traditionalism generally.

And there’ve been different responses to this but I think still, even centuries later, the success of modern physics gives vast prestige to all of the sciences. I’d say physics and medicine are probably the two key things—modern science and modern medicine.

So Newton, Boyle and Harvey, these highest Christians who created the new sciences of physics and medicine and chemistry, their prestige ends up being handed down to the universities. The universities which had been Christian and  Aristotelian for most of their history replaced the Christian Aristotelianism belief in these modern sciences.

This happened somewhere around 1810 in Germany, roughly. The universities have wrapped themselves in the prestige and the success of Newton, and Boyle and Harvey and the others. And that prestige as far as the public is concerned, it almost is unchallenged to this day. If someone is a professor, if they teach in university, the average person learning there, or the average person not learning there says “Wow that must be a learned person. He or she must have tremendous wisdom.” This is instinctive in all of us.

This is the way that our culture raises us. And the idea that the universities have many good scholars but also a vast number of frauds and charlatans and vicious people who care very little about truth and care mostly about advancing themselves and harming people that they consider their enemies, that’s a very difficult thing for us.

It’s coming, there’s a change in the view of the universities and the sciences but it’s taken a long time and Christianity and Judaism and other traditional systems of belief are still staggering under the blow of being told “We don’t need you. We have science.”

Now of course we do need science, we need good science. As an Orthodox Jew, I don’t see any contradiction between good science and good versions of Orthodox Judaism, I think that go very well together but that’s where we are. We’re still in this moment in human history where the success of science is being used by the enemies of religion to destroy everywhere and quite successfully.

Mr. Jekielek: No, it’s fascinating. My brother-in-law actually is Habad and also an astrophysicist or was working for quite some time. It doesn’t seem to be a contradiction for many people including the eminent men that you mentioned earlier. So just in a brief nutshell, what are your hopes for what kind of the best outcomes that will come out of the national conservatism conference for the coming year and onwards?

Mr. Hazony: We have two goals. We’re looking to build an alliance and we’re looking to refine the set of ideas which can be proudly carried forward by that alliance in order not to put too finer point on it to save America and the democratic countries from the two scourges that became so dramatically evident in the year 2020, which is on the one hand a rising imperialist China abroad, and at home a version of Neo Marxism which is successfully running a cultural revolution, taking over maybe most of what until very recently were liberal institutions.

I don’t think the liberals are strong enough to save almost any of those institutions. To get anywhere we’re going to need a strong traditionalism, including religion and nationalism. And those elements’ religion, nationalism at this conference and in this movement are being balanced or rebalanced with the concerns for individual freedom that are important to all of us, but without a much stronger dose.

One of my teachers was Irving Kristol, when the 1990s said modern conservatism is based on three things; religion, nationalism, and economic growth and that’s roughly right. You can elaborate on it but that’s roughly right.

If we can put the national concerns for national independence, national cohesion, national traditions and the religious concerns back on the table together with the concern for individual freedoms, then we think we’ll have a political paradigm that will be powerful enough, God willing, to defeat these other opponents. I admit that it looks pretty tough now but that’s where we’re going.

Mr. Jekielek: And who can fit into this coalition that you’re envisioning?

Mr. Hazony: Almost everybody. There are certain things that we’ve said as red lines, we’re not interested in forms of nationalism which are looking to distinguish between people on the basis of race. We can have an argument about whether those are even legitimate nationalism but it’s not worth the argument.

Mr. Jekielek: Yeah.

Mr. Hazony: National conservatism is not interested in partners whose goal is to advance conflict between people with different skin colors. We don’t see that as necessary or helpful, or moral or desirable.

We’re also not interested in those nationalists who have become fond of dictatorships. So you heard a speech here this morning about Orbans’ Hungary. But Orbans’ Hungary is a democratic country. You can like Orban or dislike Orban and still be welcome in a national conservatism conference but that’s a democratic country. If you start talking about countries which are dictatorships then okay. That kind of nationalism, that’s not what we’re about here.

Mr. Jekielek: It sounds like quite a broad coalition nonetheless to me.

Mr. Hazony: Yeah, everybody’s welcome to come to the website and begin reading. There’s a number of books that we recommend. I obviously recommend my book “The Virtue of Nationalism” but there are many others on the site. We have a several series of educational videos and we hold these conferences and are looking forward to being in a conference hopefully in Brussels. In the next few months we’re looking for partners.

Mr. Jekielek: It’s such a pleasure to have you on.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

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