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American irredentism: What is it leading to?


“Irredentism” is a valuable concept in describing political history. The formal definition is a policy of advocating the restoration to a country of any territory formerly belonging to it,” but the term is more broadly used to describe any political-cultural minority—usually a country or a large part of it—that feels slighted by the majority, often after losing a war.

There’s always a lot of irredentism going on in the world. The Palestinians are irredentists with regard to the Occupied Territories. China is to some extent irredentist about Taiwan. There are American southerners to this day who believe they would not have lost the Civil War were it not for treachery and infamy; they, too, are irredentist.

The most famous example of irrendentism in modern world history is that of Germans after they lost the First World War. Many, probably most Germans felt they had been cheated of victory by traitors (Jews, Communists, liberal democrats, cowards) among their own people. Once cheated, foreign enemies piled on, sending Germany into humiliated resentment. Tens of millions of Germans believed they had been robbed of their country’s birthright; and this resentment found its arch expression in Adolf Hitler, who knew how to stoke anger into action.

The Armistice of November, 1918, by which Germany acknowledged losing the war, and the Treaty of Versailles, signed a year later between the losing Germany and the victorious Allies, both led to the “end” of the First World War, but it was an “end” in name only. Most statesmen, and the masses they led, believed that the War to End All Wars signaled a new period of peace and prosperity for all mankind. But, of course, that was not to be. Ferdinand Foch, the French Marshall who was that country’s greatest military leader, was one of the few who correctly foresaw an uneasy future. “This is not a peace,” he declared after Versailles; “it is an armistice for twenty years.” He said that in 1919. Exactly twenty years later, the Second World War, a continuation of the First, broke out.

Germany had made pledges and promises after defeat in which she committed herself to disarmament, to respecting her neighbors’ borders, to rejecting war as a continuation of policy by other means. But those pledges meant nothing. The German people themselves resented the peace treaty. They could not understand how the victory they thought they had in their grasp had been snatched from them at the last minute. They longed for vengeance. They were, in other words, irredentist.

And there was nothing the Allies, or anyone else, could do about it. Even in retrospect (where hindsight is always 20/20), it’s hard to surmise what could have been done to prevent the Second World War. Like a virus sleeping deep within the body politic, German resentment metastasized in the breasts of ordinary Germans until it erupted in the obscenity of Hitler and the Nazis. Some things seem destined from the start; the Second World War was as inevitable as any event in human history.

America has its own growing irredentist movement. I referred above to some Southerners who refuse to concede defeat, 154 years after the Civil War ended. (Think of all those pickup trucks in Dixie flying the Stars and Bars.) Those Southerners are one facet of American irredentism. Other facets are evangelicals, anti-government types, xenophobes, white nationalists, and that whole genre of individuals we commonly think of as Trump supporters.

America has witnessed rightwing irredentism for many decades, but most historians dismissed it as being something so far out on the fringe that no one needed to take it seriously, or worry about it. In a further parallel with Hitlerian Germany, most Western journalists, politicians and historians likewise dismissed Hitler, in the 1920s and early 1930s and even to some extent after he became Chancellor in 1933, as an aberration, a strange and exotic creature of the fringe, who could be ignored until “normal” political forces in Germany resumed, and got rid of him. This did not happen, and again, in retrospect it’s very difficult to imagine what anyone could have done to alter what eventually happened.

This is the problem with irredentists. As people, they’re real. Their grievances are real—not in the sense that those grievances are based on facts, but in the sense that the irredentists feel them strongly, and are prepared to act on them. The thirty percent of Americans who still support Trump are irredentists, and “hard” irredentists, at that. They’re not going away. Their sense of grievance grows by the hour, and if Trump is legally charged with crimes, or is Impeached, their resentment will explode to become at least as strong as the irredentism of Germans after Versailles. And irredentists, as you plainly see, can cause an awful lot of damage.

How we Americans deal with our irredentists is as incalculable as how Germany could have dealt with hers. It’s common historical wisdom that the seeds of the Second World War were planted deep within the fertile soil of the settlement of the First World War, thus making the Second conflagration unavoidable. What seeds are planted in the soils of Red districts? Is there something unavoidable now slouching towards Bethlehem, something dark and fierce whose coming cannot be prevented?

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