Front Page Titles (by Subject) 5.: The Role of Chauvinism - Omnipotent Government: The Rise of the Total State and Total War
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
5.: The Role of Chauvinism - Ludwig von Mises, Omnipotent Government: The Rise of the Total State and Total War 
Omnipotent Government: The Rise of the Total State and Total War, edited with a Foreword by Bettina Bien Greaves (Indianapolis: Indiana, 2011).
About Liberty Fund:
The copyright to this edition, in both print and electronic forms, is held by Liberty Fund, Inc.
Fair use statement:
The Role of Chauvinism
Confusing nationalism and chauvinism or explaining nationalism as a consequence of chauvinism is a widespread error.
Chauvinism is a disposition of character and mind. It does not result in action. Nationalism is, on the one hand, a doctrine recommending a certain type of action and, on the other hand, the policy by which this action is consummated. Chauvinism and nationalism are therefore two entirely different things. The two are not necessarily linked together. Many old liberals were also chauvinists. But they did not believe that inflicting harm upon other nations was the proper means of promoting the welfare of their own nation. They were chauvinists but not nationalists.
Chauvinism is a presumption of the superiority of the qualities and achievements of one’s own nation. Under present conditions this means, in Europe, of one’s own linguistic group. Such arrogance is a common weakness of the average man. It is not too difficult to explain its origin.
Nothing links men more closely together than a community of language, and nothing segregates them more effectively than a difference of language. We may just as well invert this statement by asserting that men who associate with each other use the same idiom, and men between whom there is no direct intercourse do not. If the lower classes of England and of Germany had more in common with each other than with the upper strata of the society of their own countries, then the proletarians of both countries would speak the same idiom, a language different from that of the upper classes. When under the social system of the eighteenth century the aristocracies of various European countries were more closely linked with each other than with the commoners of their own nation, they used a common upper-class language—French.
The man who speaks a foreign language and does not understand our language is a “barbarian,” because we cannot communicate with him. A “foreign” country is one where our own idiom is not understood. It is a great discomfort to live in such a country; it brings about uneasiness and homesickness. When people meet other people speaking a foreign language, they regard them as strangers; they come to consider those speaking their own tongue as more closely connected, as friends. They transfer the linguistic designations to the people speaking the languages. All those speaking Italian as their main and daily language are called Italians. Next the linguistic terminology is used to designate the country in which the Italians live, and finally to designate everything in this country that differs from other countries. People speak of Italian cooking, Italian wine, Italian art, Italian industry, and so on. Italian institutions are naturally more familiar to the Italians than foreign ones. As they call themselves Italians, in speaking of these institutions they use the possessive pronouns “mine” and “our.”
Overestimation of one’s own linguistic community, and of everything commonly called by the same adjective as the language, is psychologically not more difficult to explain than the overvaluation of an individual’s own personality or underestimation of that of other persons. (The contrary—undervaluation of a man’s own personality and nation, and overestimation of other people and of foreign countries—may sometimes happen too, although more rarely.) At any rate it must be emphasized that chauvinism was more or less restricted up to the beginning of the nineteenth century. Only a small minority had a knowledge of foreign countries, languages, and institutions, and these few were in the main educated enough to judge foreign things in a relatively objective way. The masses knew nothing about foreign lands. To them the foreign world was not inferior but merely unfamiliar. Whoever was conceited in those days was proud of his rank, not of his nation. Differences in caste counted more than national or linguistic ones.
With the rise of liberalism and capitalism conditions changed quickly. The masses became better educated. They acquired a better knowledge of their own language. They started reading and learned something about foreign countries and habits. Travel became cheaper, and more foreigners visited the country. The schools included more foreign languages in their curriculum. But nevertheless for the masses a foreigner is still in the main a creature whom they know only from books and newspapers. Even today there are living in Europe millions who have never had the opportunity of meeting or speaking with a foreigner, except on a battlefield.
Conceit and overvaluation of one’s own nation are quite common. But it would be wrong to assume that hatred and contempt of foreigners are natural and innate qualities. Even soldiers fighting to kill their enemies do not hate the individual foe, if they happen to meet him apart from the battle. The boastful warrior neither hates nor despises the enemy; he simply wants to display his own valor in a glorious light. When a German manufacturer says that no other country can produce as cheap and good commodities as Germany, it is no different from his assertion that the products of his domestic competitors are worse than his own.
Modern chauvinism is a product of literature. Writers and orators strive for success by flattering their public. Chauvinism spread therefore with the mass production of books, periodicals, and newspapers. The propaganda of nationalism favors it. Nevertheless, it has comparatively slight political significance, and must in any case be clearly distinguished from nationalism.
The Russians are convinced that physics is taught in the schools of Soviet Russia only, and that Moscow is the only city equipped with a subway system. The Germans assert that only Germany has true philosophers; they picture Paris as an agglomeration of amusement places. The British believe that adultery is quite usual in France, and the French style homosexuality le vice allemand. The Americans doubt whether the Europeans use bathtubs. These are sad facts. But they do not result in war.
It is paradoxical that French boors pride themselves on the fact that Descartes, Voltaire, and Pasteur were Frenchmen and take a part of Molière’s and Balzac’s glory to themselves. But it is politically innocuous. The same is true of the overestimation of one’s own country’s military achievements and of the eagerness of historians to interpret lost battles, after decades or even centuries, as victories. It gives an impartial observer a curious feeling when Hungarians or Rumanians speak of their nation’s civilization in epithets which would be grotesquely incongruous even if the Bible, the Corpus Juris Civilis, the Declaration of the Rights of Man, and the works of Shakespeare, Newton, Goethe, Laplace, Ricardo, and Darwin were written by Hungarians or Rumanians in Hungarian or Rumanian. But the political antagonism of these two nations has nothing to do with such statements.
Chauvinism has not begotten nationalism. Its chief function in the scheme of nationalist policies is to adorn the shows and festivals of nationalism. People overflow with joy and pride when the official speakers hail them as the elite of mankind and praise the immortal deeds of their ancestors and the invincibility of their armed forces. But when the words fade away and the celebration reaches its end, people return home and go to bed. They do not mount the battle-horse.
From the political point of view it is no doubt dangerous that men are so easily stirred by bombastic talk. But the political actions of modern nationalism cannot be explained or excused by chauvinist intoxication. They are the outcome of cool though misguided reasoning. The carefully elaborated, although erroneous, doctrines of scholarly and thoughtful books have led to the clash of nations, to bloody wars, and destruction.