The last refuge of a scoundrel

Friedrich Reck-Malleczewen

That’s how Dr Samuel Johnson described patriotism on April 7, 1775.

Since Dr Johnson loved England with all his heart and still didn’t consider himself a scoundrel, he had to be talking not about patriotism as such, but about something else.

Sure enough, Johnson was specifically referring to William Pitt, 1st Earl of Chatham, and his ‘patriot party’. The author of our first dictionary was scathing about “self-professed patriots”, not true ones like himself.

Like any true love, true patriotism is a quiet emotion, something whispered in private, not shouted off the rooftops. Wear it on your sleeve, and patriotism will get caked in grime.

When a man tells all and sundry how much he loves his wife, you can be sure he abuses her in private. His protestations of love are his way of saying: “See what a good, virtuous fellow I am, how the milk of human kindness is overflowing my heart.”

Similarly, when a man asserts his patriotism, insistently and out loud, it’s not his country he loves but himself. His patriotism is a form of self-aggrandisement. Unsure about his own virtue, or perhaps sure of its absence, he wants to bask in the reflected glory of his country, sensing that thereby he himself can become glorious.

That’s why I detest any public manifestations of patriotism, such as hand on heart, slogans, institutional symbols worn in the lapel or, mainly in the US, bumper stickers saying “My country, right or wrong”. If a man does that sort of thing out of sincere conviction, he is chronically lacking in self-confidence. If he does so for an ulterior reason, such as political gain, he is, well, a scoundrel.

Like any kind of love, patriotism always has two components, and only their ratio changes from man to man. One component is love offered to one’s country for free, the other is something a country has to earn.

The free component is visceral; the second, contingent. Dr Johnson loved England the way every native-born Englishman, and even a co-opted one like myself, loves her. We feel intuitive affinity with people who inhabit “England’s green and pleasant land” and the land itself. Why, even I have grown to prefer warm beer to cold vodka, although I may still compromise by using the former as a chaser for the latter.

That type of love is almost universal. Even the Cambridge spies who had worked most of their lives to harm England, felt pangs of acute nostalgia when they ended up in Moscow. They desperately missed English things: Coleman’s mustard, Jermyn Street clothes, a good pint and – incomprehensible today – The Times.

The earned component is what Edmund Burke, Johnson’s contemporary and friend, meant when he said: “To make us love our country, our country ought to be lovely.” In other words, we’ll offer some of our love for free. The rest must be earned.

If a country refuses to earn it, it forfeits its claim to our love, some of it, much of it or, in extreme circumstances, even all of it.

I’m sure, for example, that Friedrich Reck-Malleczewen, whose Diary of a Man in Despair is among the most moving accounts of life in Nazi Germany I’ve ever read, still loved Bach, Goethe, the Black Forest, the Rhein and, for all I know, apple strudel. But he hated Nazism passionately and hence also Germany, which at that time was Nazi — at least partly because of her cultural inclination.

The Nazis hanged Reck-Malleczewen at Dachau a few days before the war ended. Their Germany had no need for Germans like him. I’m not certain that today’s England has any need for his cultural counterparts either. I doubt even France needs them, and I know the US doesn’t.

Reck-Malleczewen was an aristocrat by birth and, more important, by culture. The culture that was the flesh of his flesh was German, to some extent. To a greater extent, it was Western, which is to say European. He loved German culture not because it was German, but because it added a German glint to the light of a great civilisation.

He might have felt some affinity with the local burghers, but I’m sure a much greater one with those who shared his own culture, even if they didn’t have the good fortune of having been born German. Since European culture as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts, belonging to it trumps any cultural particularism – and it precludes any cultural nationalism.

It doesn’t have to preclude patriotism, but it may diminish it by practically obliterating its earned aspect. Cultured, conservative Europeans like Reck-Malleczewen these days feel homeless wherever the home is, England or America, France or Germany, Holland or Italy.

Do they still love their countries, where they no longer feel wanted? Yes, probably, perhaps. To some extent. But they feel more at home with those who share their culture, wherever they come from.

Cultured Englishmen have more in common with cultured Frenchmen or Dutchmen than with their own tattooed football lovers who welcome supporters of visiting teams by a rousing chorus of “If it wasn’t for England, you’d all be krauts”.

Loudmouthed patriotism, especially when it degenerates into blood-and-soil nationalism, is alien to our culture and hence to the very essence of our civilisation. From its first steps it asserted much higher loyalties than love of one’s country: “neither Jew nor Greek”.

Once we’ve established this pecking order, we can take delight in our own country – if not always as it is, then at least as it was in the past and, we hope, can still be in the future. And we can smile when reading the words of another great European, Joseph de Maistre (a Frenchman who never lived in France):

“Now, there is no such thing as ‘man’ in this world. In my life I have seen Frenchmen, Italians, Russians, and so on. I even know, thanks to Montesquieu, that one can be Persian. But as for man, I declare I’ve never encountered him.”

2 thoughts on “The last refuge of a scoundrel”

  1. I’m sorry to have to admit that I’d never heard of Friedrich Reck-Malleczewen, so I’m grateful to you for enlightening me. I’m accustomed to used the example of Adolf Busch to make the same kind of point.

    Dr Johnson’s love of England was grounded in his love of Lichfield and London, and is an example of what Chesterton meant when he distinguished true patriotism, which is inseparable from local affection, from mere nationalism. And if one combines local affection with national patriotism, the next step is to love and defend Christendom. Because if Christendom falls, so will Lichfield, and vice versa.

    An anecdote: A Welshman and a Scotsman walked into a bar. It was in Bath in 1990, I was the Scotsman, and we wanted to watch Scotland play England at Rugby for the Grand Slam. Before we went in, we agreed that we’d be very, very quiet, because we’d be surrounded by dangerous Englishmen. But the England selectors had failed to pick any Bath RFC players, while Scotland had picked Damian Cronin, and so the dangerous Englishmen who surrounded us were cheering for Scotland. We all had a good time, and parted amicably while trading the usual affectionate “racist” insults. And we owed it all to Mr Cronin, a man with an Irish name who was born in Germany, lived in England and played for Scotland. That’s patriotism.

  2. Spot On! When I think of what it means to me to be an American I suddenly realize that I am focused on traits that were common 100 years ago, maybe even 50 years ago, that have nearly disappeared today. But then I wonder if that is truly the case or if the constant media barrage is meant to make us believe that. I conclude that the average man is not as lost as we are led to believe, but the lunatic fringe has definitely made inroads and will continue to do so (at an ever accelerating pace) if we are not diligent in fighting. And I would hope that I have more in common with, say, American men who refused government help during the depression than I do with modern day college students who demand the government pay their bills.

    As for the other side of the Atlantic, do let’s bring back the British stiff upper lip, stoicism, and dry humor.

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