“If ponies rode men and grass ate cows,” goes the text of “The World Turned Upside Down,” the tune piped by the Continental Army band at Cornwallis’ surrender of Yorktown. Europeans might consider adopting it as their anthem to replace the present European Community hymn, the overused Ode to Joy. The resurgent nationalists who made the Alternative fuer Deutschland into Germany’s third-largest party and the Austrian Freedom Party into that country’s second-largest (and a likely member of a new governing coalition) have an extreme-right reputation, but they are now the most pro-Israel parties in Europe. The world has indeed turned upside-down, and we might as well sing about it.
Most remarkable is the success of the Austrian Freedom Party (German initials FPŐ) in last Sunday’s Austrian elections. It came in second with 26% of the vote, ahead of the governing Social Democrats. Its chairman, Heinz-Christian Strache, rubbed shoulders with neo-Nazis during his early political career, and four years ago posted an anti-Semitic cartoon on his Facebook page, “showing a banker with a large hooked nose and Star of David cuff links profiting from Europe’s financial crisis,” as the Times of Israel reported. Since then Strache has undergone a Damascus road conversion from Saul to Paul (or perhaps the other way round). He has visited Israel several times, defended Israeli settlers in Judea and Samaria, and demanded that Austria move its embassy to Jerusalem.
Strache brings to mind the canonical definition of a philo-Semite, that is, an anti-Semite who likes Jews. It is widely alleged that he is looking for respectability after emerging from the extreme right swamp into the mainstream of Austrian politics, and hoping to burnish his credentials through gestures of reconciliation with the Jewish State. It is also widely believed that the FPŐ as well as the AfD support Israel as the enemy of their enemy, that is, the flood of Muslim migrants that provoked the surge in their support among voters.
I do not know Herr Strache and have no knowledge of his true motives. But I have had the opportunity to speak at length with a leader of the Alternative for Germany. Both motives–the desire to shed the stigma of neo-Nazi associations and common cause with Israel against radical Islam–are relevant, but something far more interesting is at work.
There are neo-Nazis and other swamp creatures lurking in the new nationalist right. Earlier this year I stated that, deplorably, I would vote for Angela Merkel rather than the AfD in the German elections, in part because the AfD’s Vice-Chairman Alexander Gauland defended a regional AfD leader who proposed to dismantle Holocaust monuments, in part because Gauland is insultingly anti-American, and in part because Gauland is too friendly with the mystical nationalists around Vladimir Putin. But that is not the whole of the AfD, and it is possible that the AfD will go in quite a different direction.
There are European nationalists who support Israel out of conviction rather than expediency. They admire the accomplishments of the Jewish State, moral as well as military or commercial. They observe that Israeli women bear on average 3 children compared to just 1.3 in Germany. They wish that Europeans could show the same love of country and culture that the Jews evince in Israel, and the same willingness to defend themselves.
That really is the world turned upside-down. European nationalism from its inception drew inspiration from biblical Israel. Greece was not a nation but a collection of small, quarreling city-states. Rome was not a nation but an empire–as were the Egyptians, Hittites, Sumerians, and so forth. Israel is the only exemplar of a nation in the ancient world, and the Davidic kingdom the only instance of a national monarchy. As I explained in my 2011 book How Civilizations Die, the first national monarchies in Europe–the 7th-century Merovingian kingdom in France and the Visigoth kingdom in Spain–emulated the Davidic model under the tutelage, respectively, of St. Gregory of Tours and St. Isidore of Seville.
Isidore and Gregory, I remarked elsewhere, were the Bialystock and Bloom of the Low Middle Ages: They sold 100% of the deal to every investor. That is, they persuaded each national monarch that his line was the new Davidic dynasty and his people the New Israel. This form of supercessionism gave rise to anti-Semitism (how could the Merovingians or Visigoths be the new Israel if the old Israel was still wandering about asserting its claim to divine election?). It also gave rise to perpetual warfare among Europe’s national dynasties for the claim to chosenness. The Thirty Years’ War of 1618-1648, Europe’s most devastating conflict, was fought by fanatics in France and Spain respectively who believed in the divine election of their respective lands. National exclusivity and hatred had the same roots as anti-Semitism.
There is another path, taken by the United States, which allows that every nation can be “almost chosen,” in Lincoln’s memorable phrase. It can emulate Israel without seeking to supercede it. What distinguishes American culture is the radical Protestant belief that the City of God cannot be realized in the City of Man, that life is a pilgrimage whose goal is ever beyond the horizon. This concept defines and shapes American literary as well as popular culture, as I tried to show in this essay.
The existence and success of the State of Israel changes everything. It is not merely a promise, spiritualized by Christianity into a vision of another life beyond this one, but a living, breathing people that punches above its weight in every field of human endeavor. Perhaps the people of Israel will help fulfill their mission to be a light unto the nations by example. Europe’s new nationalists may attempt to emulate Israel not but superceding it or by asserting their claims for election against each other, but by seeking to identify its virtues.
Post-nationalist Europe bears an irrational hatred of Israel, I wrote in this space in 2014.
The flowering of Jewish national life in Israel makes the Europeans crazy. It is not simply envy: it is a terrible reminder of the vanity of European national aspirations over the centuries, of the continent’s ultimate failure as a civilization. Just as the Europeans (most emphatically the Scandinavians) would prefer to dissolve into the post-national stew of European identity, they demand that Israel do the same. Never mind that Israel lacks the option to do so, and would be destroyed were it to try, for reasons that should be obvious to any casual consumer of news media.
It is too early to judge the direction of the new European nationalism, which has some elements that make me cringe, and some that make me release the safety-catch on my Browning. But it also has men and women who do not want to disappear into the dustbin of history and look to Israel for inspiration.