Elie Kedourie’s Insight on National Conflicts

Tony Abbott’s essay “Putin’s War and the Lessons of History” (Quadrant, April) prompts me to comment on nationalism and on shirtfronting as it might exist within a history of ideas.

I have returned to Elie Kedourie’s Nationalism (1960), and to Eric Voegelin’s The New Science of Politics (1952) over the half-century since I began as a student at the University of Western Australia. The books have become even more prescient and offer an explanatory matrix for current events in Europe and the Middle East. Both books were introduced to me by Julius Kovesi, a professor who had left Hungary as a young man in 1956 when the Soviets suppressed the uprising against Soviet rule and executed Imre Nagy, the new Premier, for treason. War now erupts between Russia and Ukraine.

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A simple glance at maps of Central Europe with a focus on Poland from 1635 to the present day is confronting. It shows a national or state boundary advancing and retreating like a tide, displaying fluid boundaries at the heart of Europe—at times spreading into Ukraine, Russia, Prussia and Austria. One tries to discern an organising principle to determine where a boundary might properly lie. Poland’s boundaries were always subject to the political-military synergies of neighbouring states.

“Political-military synergy” references a well-used phrase in Carl von Clausewitz’s 1830 work On War and conveys some of “war is politics by other means”. One’s neighbour presses on the boundary, one who was once neighbour is now in the back yard, now in the front yard and finally in the house itself that was once yours. Your neighbour may in this sense swallow you entirely and in some sense become you, replace you, or cause you to become him. Ukraine might be absorbed into Russia. Their languages diverged from Old East Slavonic over a thousand years ago. Their Orthodox Christianity diverged. Political-military synergy may compel a new sameness.

The three partitions and annexures of Poland enforced by neighbouring powers (Habsburg, Prussia, Russia) caused the Polish state to cease to exist for 123 years until the end of the First World War. Poland now exists as a political state at the heart of Europe and borders modern Ukraine and other post-Soviet states. Poland also disappeared briefly in the German-Soviet conflagration of the Second World War.

Tony Abbott has almost revived Carl von Clausewitz’s vocabulary from On War. I refer to the well-remembered promise that Abbott made as Prime Minister of Australia—that he would “shirtfront” Mr Putin, the President of Russia. Mr Abbott explains:

Well, after a Russian missile battery shot down MH17 over eastern Ukraine, killing thirty-eight Australians, I promised to “shirtfront” the Russian president—it’s an Australian sporting term for a rough tackle. I had that very robust conversation with him on the sidelines of the APEC summit in Beijing in 2014. With rare intensity, he insisted that Ukraine was really Russian and that their [Ukraine’s] government was fascist or worse—and that provocateurs had brought down the plane.

On the first page of On War, von Clausewitz says:

War is nothing but a duel on a larger scale. Countless duels go to make up a war, but a picture of it … can be formed by imagining a pair of wrestlers. Each tries through physical force to compel the other to do his will; his immediate aim is to throw his opponent in order to make him incapable of further resistance …

Perhaps shirtfronting fits within this wrestling vocabulary. Abbott then writes that Putin charges him with not being a native Australian, and Putin contrasts this with the presumed superiority of his own identity as a native Russian. Perhaps this more than anything shows the nationalist roots of what drives Putin and the significantly different notion of the nation and the state that holds in Australia. Perhaps this difference is due to some of the distinctive tributaries that have flowed into the British experience, from the seventeenth century in particular, and then on into the Australian domain. Mr Abbott continues:

And then he grabbed me with both hands and said something both strange and revealing: “You are not a native Australian,” he said, “but I am a native Russian.” It’s this passion for blood and soil and sacred mission that drives my sense that he’s ready to take big risks, to restore the Russia of his dreams, especially against weakness and vulnerability.

It is not only blood and soil of course, but a mystical vision of Orthodoxy and of Moscow as the third Rome of perpetual endurance. But neither need Australia be a second-hand England because the same language is spoken.

Elie Kedourie grew up in Iraq, a crucible in which to think about national identity and nationalism and about the political persistence of a state that was called into existence by the political actions of those with the power to say and to do: “Let there be a self-governing state called Iraq.” It is also a place for his profound personal memory (to borrow Voegelin’s term “anamnesis”) in which he saw the Jewish community, the largest religious affiliation in Baghdad in 1900, disappear by the time of his own death in 1992.

Whatever form the Iraqi state took in its own bloody history following the dissection of the Ottoman empire, it was not good for the Jews of Mesopotamia, where they had thrived for 2600 years since the victory of Nebuchadnezzar. Their movement to the new state of Israel might have become a somewhat brutal necessity, but that did not make it the better or best solution, given what might have been in another history of Mesopotamia after the First World War.

Great Britain, France and to some extent the United States had the power for nation-creating or “enhancing peoples’ well-being” following that dissection. It seemed that the emergence of a nation called Iraq was part of the answer to the question of the dissected empire, but as Ottoman bonds and constraints were dissolved, matters of difference and generators of conflict did not vanish, but simply re-emerged as flashpoints within the confected nation. Wars raged on. New nationalism was not a panacea for old empire. Brutality was no substitute for good policy.

There is no compelling reason why an Australian political leader should be able to reflect with a longer, informed historical perspective on the spirit of the age, or reflect on any longer cycle of human history of the rise and fall of peoples. Who is to say that on reaching adulthood any of our leaders will be educated in a history of what has happened, what it was like to be alive in those times and places, let alone what to do to make it less likely to be worse next time around? One doubts our national curriculum.

Manning Clark pointed out that the general focus in Australia was rather on whether Phar Lap had won, Bradman scored a century or whether the surf was up at Bondi—and today, cricket remains the sine qua non of national aspiration and the source of our gods.

The past is more than a foreign country when it is the past of a foreign country. Consider Kedourie’s incisive statement in his major work The Chatham House Version and Other Middle Eastern Studies. He is talking about what was once his own country, long before Saddam Hussein was on the world stage. These passages are from chapter nine, “The Kingdom of Iraq: A Retrospect”:

The events which took place in Baghdad on 14 July 1958 were received by the world with a shock of horror and incredulity … There was also the murder at dawn of the royal family, of the king, an innocent and harmless young man of twenty-four, of his aged grandmother, of his devoted aunt, and other inmates of the royal palace … [but] brief as it is, the record of the kingdom of Iraq is full of bloodshed, treason, rapine, and however pitiful its end, we may now say that this was implicit in its beginning … This bare record of twenty-six years of independent government is a grim history; and when we add that in the thirty-seven years which lie between the accession in 1921 of Faisal I to the throne of Iraq and the murder in 1958 of his grandson Faisal II, fifty-seven ministries took office, we must conclude that such a condition argues a wretched political architecture and constitutional jerry-building of the flimsiest and most dangerous kind. The kingdom of Iraq was, in its origin, an emanation of British policy … [and] built around one man, Faisal, the third son of the sharif of Mecca …

Only a fragment of the Australian population who had opinions on Saddam Hussein and Iraq at the time of the recent military intervention of the US and its allies would have any idea of the prior history of that society. Who has a view on Faisal the third son? Neither can there be any reflection on the former alliance between Britain, France and the Ottomans when they fought Christian Russia in the Crimean War of 1853 to 1856.

The spaces that I have omitted across several pages from this extensive passage from Kedourie generally depicted more than a quarter-century of brutal intervention by the then new Iraq to suppress valid and ancient tribal and religiously different groups, and enforce “unity” within the artifice of “the nation”. The nation tended to be Sunni and Arab to the exclusion of the “others”.

Yet the idea that Iraq was something called a nation with a natural right to exist as a nation was unquestionable to many, as unquestioned as the idea of nation itself. “Nation” becomes the genie in the room, gesturing hypnotically to beguile any thought of an alternative way of organising human life, local human life at that.

One can conclude that things would have been better had vilayet dimensions of the Ottoman imperial structure not been dismantled. Kedourie did not believe that the journey from administrative districts (vilayets) of the Ottoman empire to the imposed nation-state of Iraq (led by minority Sunni Muslims and an introduced monarch) was a journey into the light. The imposition of Faisal I never could unify by fiat or charisma and synthesise a nation of Shia, Yazidi, Assyrian, Jew and other distinctive smaller grouping. No philosopher king or charismatic leader was put on the throne who might have used all the powers of a Lockean debate on applied toleration and tolerance, or common purpose and opportunity, to hold diverse communities together in a new, singular state.

Perhaps in some ways, Turkey and Russia are now sibling states, as each sees itself as the core heir, the residual of a once mightier empire—Turkey from the Ottoman, and the Russia from the Tsarist domain.

Part of the common good in Iraq could have been not to kill and dispossess each other and to learn to value difference, even difference in claims to possess the one superior and absolute divine revelation, and not to see difference as a sign of sibling rivalry and the age-old tragedy of Cain versus Abel on every occasion.

The British had a tradition from their own experience, particularly drawn from the seventeenth-century civil war, to effect and even enforce policies of toleration, limiting religious power in the civic space, and making use of political power to discern and define legitimacy in the private realms of a well-ordered society. These lines from W.H. Auden’s poem from the early 1950s “The Shield of Achilles” are apt:

She looked over his shoulder

For vines and olive trees,

Marble well-governed cities

And ships upon untamed seas,

But there on the shining metal

His hands had put instead

An artificial wilderness

And a sky like lead.

The quest for a singular national society, inspired by a national impulse, the quest to enforce a singular or even “revealed” national style, was the beginning of disaster, and of the forced exile of those who do not “by our definition” belong here. “They” must go “somewhere else”, a somewhere else also to be defined on a different set of national or ethnic identity markers.

Kedourie did not want the Jews of Baghdad and Iraq to be made to leave an ancestral home of 2600 years (almost a thousand years before Mohammed irrupted into the scene). He did not support the Zionist drives to move Jewry from that home to the nascent nation of Israel, itself remade as an emergent, singular nation from the dissection of the same Ottoman domain.

Real differences between people do not vanish when nations are formed (see, for example, East Timor and Papua New Guinea), or when large populations are forcibly relocated to tidy things up. The problems of daily co-existence in a shared polity are not addressed by the simple wave of that magic wand “national homeland”.

In a multicultural Australia, one need not seek the emergence of administrative vilayets to emerge where, as it were, a white millionaire from ten kilometres away might not be able to represent fellow Australians in Parliament because a percentage in one administrative district have background traditions described as “different” via a number of ethnicities. There might be other reasons but that should not be one of them.

Nationalism was republished in 1993 with a foreword by Sylvia Kedourie. Elie had died suddenly in mid-1992 having completed a new introduction to the fourth edition. This passage from his new introduction sheds light on Russia and Ukraine in 2022:

Nationalism has once again come to the fore. The collapse of the Soviet Union with the resulting conflicts between and within its former constituents has meant the disappearance of a political entity put together by the Tsars and inherited (and mismanaged) by the Bolsheviks. There is a sad irony in the collapse of Yugoslavia where a ferocious civil war opposes Serbians, Albanians, Croats and Bosnians. Yugoslavia was formed after the First World War as the concrete expression of the supposedly fervent desires of the South Slav nation (the Yugoslavs) to achieve true national unity for which they were preordained, but of which they had been deprived by the conjugated rapacity and oppression at the hands of the Ottomans, Austrians and Hungarians.

Sylvia Kedourie comments that Elie’s overriding concern was always for the safety of the individual. He was wary of descriptors of the collective society that in fact made the individual human life, and the life of countless small communities, far more vulnerable and prone to destruction. Here is the critical prognosis from the introduction, and one wonders if political thinkers and leaders in the West have pondered this voice from thirty and fifty years ago:

The implosion and self-destruction of Bolshevik and other Socialist regimes therefore does not mean that their succession will be effected peaceably or that the successor regimes will prove to be a success …

A nationalist aspiration does not signify ipso facto that the nations postulated by the ideology do in fact exist and can provide the social base for a nation-state, for example, Kazakh, Uzbek, Tajik, and the Moldovan nations …

The problems which made a mockery of national self-determination after 1918 once more reappeared: Uzbek–Armenian, Moldovan–Russian and many others …

The disappearance of the Soviet superpower, oppressive to its subjects as it was, has created a dangerous imbalance of power among its former components and between them and its neighbours. Possibility of serious conflict exists. Russia, which by any definition is a Great Power in the classical sense, is bordered by the much weaker states which have broken away from the Soviet structure. As with water, power will find its level … The impotence of the UN and of the EC in curbing Serbian ambitions in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina may be a foretaste of what is yet to come elsewhere in Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia. The perils resulting from Balkanisation are not confined to the Balkans.

Kedourie drew the following core matter from President Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points from 1918. Wilson sought “an independent Polish state … to be erected which should include the territories inhabited by indisputable Polish populations”. Kedourie says, “This was easier said than done, for, as has been seen, the nature of the territory precluded any clear-cut division into nation-states.” Thus:

The Germans were only one of the many groups inhabiting Central and Eastern Europe … there were in this area living side by side, a number of communities differing in language, customs or religion: Ests, Letts, Lithuanians, Poles, Ruthenians, Jews, Czechs, Slovaks, Magyars and Croats.

Kedourie observes (and in this he references the 123-year non-existence of the Polish state): “They formed part of the three states which … divided the territory of Central and Eastern Europe before the First World War, namely, Russia, the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, and the German Reich …” Clearly, in the long list of ten co-inhabiting groups that he names, he has his own Iraq in the back of his mind, or better, the land of Mesopotamia, the vilayets of the Ottoman world and the enforced imposition of Sunni Arabs under Faisal to confect a unified and impossibly singular nation.

Kedourie’s Nationalism contains a restrained lament for the lost treasures of the small and distinctive communities whose existential mode was destroyed in the long trajectory from 1920 to 1992:

Baghdad, again, the capital of the Kingdom of Iraq, set up after the First Word War, and ruled mainly by Sunni Arabs, was by no means a Sunni Arab city; it was the administrative and commercial centre of the heterogenous Mesopotamian area, and contained large elements of Shiites, Kurds and Jews who formed the most important group of the population. With the spread of nationalism, and the establishment of nationalist governments purporting to govern according to the national will, these urban groups suddenly found their position undermined …

Not only undermined but destroyed by violence and graft. Whether the Iraq of 2022 can be “better” is a matter in progress. How can one be hopeful when so much has been destroyed? Kedourie is unequivocal that the newly-created Iraq was worse than what it replaced:

They did not minister to political freedom, they did not increase prosperity, and their existence was not conducive to peace; in fact, the national question which their setting up, it was hoped, would solve, became on the contrary, more bitter and envenomed.

It is a short jump from these considerations to make reflections at the level of theory concerning Russia and Ukraine. As the German minorities in other post-First World War nations “by nature” must belong to greater Germany, and as Austria must also belong, so for some it seems that any Russian-speaking community within the state of Ukraine must existentially leap into the state of Russia, as indeed might greater Ukraine were its language corrected and purified.

This is the same type of question, the same question in form, that Kedourie addressed seventy years ago, and lived through in his formative experiences in Baghdad. Can the state to be built genuinely value the many different communities and associations and languages and dialects and religions and sects that must inhabit a landscape? Or will the state take on a national monochrome and imposed form where one of the types seeks to rise to the top in all matters and to its own advantage, suppressing or moving or eliminating those who oppose it? Must ethnicities contain a condensed libido dominandi?This can apply to great powers as to small nation-states. David Hume once referred “ironically” to the religious opinions of James II as expressing those of “the dominant sect”, and Europe has its own long history of centralised and enforced uniformities.

Britain, and England in particular, knew those problems in the seventeenth century, and the great theoretical work of John Locke emerged as part of the almost desperate need for a solution that would not perpetuate or renew a civil war, and which would enable difference in religion to be valued, rather than suppressed. His Letter on Toleration (1689) was a start.

In the end, Kedourie is pragmatic and empirical in his appraisal of the twentieth century as he knew it up to 1992. He knew that well-meant solutions could go badly wrong. He knew that even the jerry-built could be made to work by good and just and diligent people. But in the end, he knew that nations and states seeking purity and uniformity on the basis on dominant and preferred identity markers would tend to spiral into violence and destruction. Nationalism, as a resource for thinking about the Ukraine–Russia conflict, suggests that it looks frighteningly like the National Socialist beliefs of the 1930s, when all German-speakers and all German-speaking enclaves across Europe, must by nature, by will and military force unite into one enlarged state—no matter the cost in human life and community:

The only criterion capable of public defence is whether the new rulers are less corrupt and grasping, or more just and merciful, or whether there is no change at all, but the corruption, the greed, and the tyranny merely find victims other than those of the departed rulers.


Ivan Head is a former Warden of Christ College in the University of Tasmania and Warden of St Paul’s College in the University of Sydney. He is a frequent contributor to Quadrant

4 thoughts on “Elie Kedourie’s Insight on National Conflicts

  • Adam J says:

    People at heart are tribal. They prefer to be with others who are similar to them. The nation is simply the same principle on a large scale. Much is made of the forced unification of German-speakers by the Nazis, but there is no rejection of the unification of them into Germany itself. Likewise noted is the difficulty of drawing national borders for Poland, but there is no dispute that there is a Polish and that it must have borders within a certain area. Poland simply can’t be extended into Italy.

    The issue of Iraq and its creation is quite different because the history of the Middle East does not feature nations or states. It is no surprise that Iraq featured violence. The first nations and states in Europe were also not done peacefully or quickly. But what was the alternative? There won’t be another empire and that leaves a multitude of mini-states as the only other option, hardly anymore appealing. Perhaps the state-based federation model of Australia and the USA really is the best.

    But all this presupposes that the issue is the political rather than ideological. But Arab and Islamic culture encourages domination and aggression and discourages compromise. It is effectively a culture of toxic radical masculinity. No society can survive that.

  • Peter Marriott says:

    Good piece Ivan, thank you. For me I actually find it revealing that Tony Abbot thought it ‘strange and revealing’ that Putin said those words, after all Putin is a Russian native, and Tony Abbott is not an Australian native, meaning of course one born and bred in the country which can mean something.
    To get another good look at how Iraq ended up as it is I found Elie Kedourie’s book ‘The ‘Chatham House Version And Other Middle Eastern Studies’ a good guide. It illustrates nicely, for me anyway, that if one could but change the thinking and handling from the British Foreign Office, and Arnold Toynbee of Chatham House, that went into the Middle Eastern problems after the first World War and also Colonel Lawrence and his Saudi’s and of course, things would have been much better down the track. Obviously though it’s easy to be wise this long after the event, particularly an event like the first World War which none of us were around to experience.

  • whitelaughter says:

    Nationalism was an effort to prevent rivalries within nations by pointing the aggressive citizens at targets outside their borders. It was fairly successful. But nations grew from alliances below, not from divisions above; it is not a solution to any of our current problems.

  • Peter C Arnold says:

    Kedourie’s book was one of the most influential I have read. I rank it with Sowell’s ‘Knowledge and Decisions’. Both tell it as it is; no cow-towing to what is now known as PC.

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