Loafing around Budapest last week during a welcome break from our miserable economic headlines, I found myself in the gift shop of one of the Hungarian capital’s oldest churches. Amid the postcards, statues and religious icons, my eye was drawn to a fine, brightly coloured map of Hungary hanging on the wall — mine for just a few thousand forints. It was no antique, but there was something odd about it, and it took me a moment to realise that the borders were all wrong. The map showed not Hungary as it is today, but “Greater Hungary”, complete with the territories lost after the First World War, including modern Slovakia and Transylvania. It was a nationalist fantasy — the kind of map that would no doubt appeal to Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, the President of Argentina.
Given that the last row over the sovereignty of the Falklands cost the lives of more than 600 young South Americans and brought down the Argentine Government, the omens for Mrs Kirchner’s latest foray into international diplomacy are not exactly promising. Like her predecessors, she clearly has at least one eye on domestic opinion, and presumably thinks that sabre-rattling over supposedly “illegal” oil drilling off the Falklands will obscure such trifling matters as her country’s dreadful economic problems and her own family’s involvement in a corruption scandal.
Yet the interesting question is why the Argentine public — like the man who drew that Hungarian map — are so easily roused about the ownership of land with which they have such little real connection. For better or worse, the Falklands have been solidly British since 1833, which is to say they have been British for about as long as Belgium has existed as an independent nation. While the nationalist Hungarian cartographer has the excuse that there are still Magyar-speakers in Romania and Slovakia, there are very few Argentine nationalists wandering the streets of Port Stanley. And while some commentators argue that mere geography means that the Falklands ought to be Argentine, the same principle would make the Channel Islands French, Malta Italian and Alaska Canadian.
What the latest Falklands furore reminds us, in fact, is how simultaneously potent and ridiculous territorial ambitions can be. Despite the posts on internet message boards from Argentinians insisting that they simply want “justice” from the evil British Empire, Mrs Kirchner’s threats ultimately boil down to old-fashioned blood-and-soil nationalism. Since narrow-minded nationalist irredentism has largely fallen out of favour in Western Europe, except in corners of Northern Ireland and the Basque Country, we frequently fail to recognise it when we see it; and since we now prefer to flagellate ourselves for our imperial past, we are often slow to call it by its proper name. But in the final analysis there is not much to choose between Argentine politicians eyeing up South Georgia and Hungarian skinheads wishing they still owned Bratislava.
The odd thing, though, is that anybody should be surprised. National irredentism has long been one of the most powerful weapons in a politician’s armoury. It is not so long since delegates at Conservative Party conferences would leap as one to their feet, cheering and clapping, whenever a speaker insisted that Northern Ireland was forever British.
Indeed, even the wealthiest, most secure democracies are not immune from nationalism’s siren call. In the late 1970s, Ronald Reagan found that American audiences liked nothing more than to hear him condemn Jimmy Carter’s perfectly sane and sensible plans to hand over the Panama Canal to the local government. “We built it,” Reagan used to say. “We paid for it, it’s ours, and we’re going to keep it!”
In many ways, though, these kinds of nationalist ambitions are simply a sign of immaturity, as embarrassing and inevitable as teenage spots. When Italian politicians queued up to demand Trento and Trieste from the Austro-Hungarians before the First World War, it was a reflection not of some native territorial cupidity but of the sheer insecurity of the new Italian state, whose leaders were desperate to prove their virility on the international stage.
Similarly, the Republic of Ireland’s original constitutional claim to the six partitioned counties of the island’s north owed more to national self-assertion than to a genuine interest in the people of Ulster.
And while the Serbs’ obsession with Kosovo is rooted deep in their political and ecclesiastical history, would an affluent, successful and self-confident Serbia really care quite as much?
Sadly, given Argentina’s apparently endless economic tribulations, it is probably a safe bet that it will still be moaning about the Falklands in 30 years’ time. Even so, the consolation is that most nationalist fantasies, with the notable exception of those in the Middle East, have a kind of unwritten sell-by date. The peace process in Northern Ireland testifies to the fact that even the bitterest and apparently most intractable of conflicts can find resolution, although it still beggars belief that thousands of people had to die first.
And in its way, that map in Budapest was a reminder that the attractions of prosperity generally trump those of nationalism. It was a curio, an oddity, not a blueprint for territorial conquest: there is about as much chance of Hungarian tanks rolling across the Danube bridges into Slovakia as there is of free-born Englishmen taking up arms to recapture our ancestral territories in Normandy. If the horrors of the last century served any purpose, it was to cure most of Europe of the cancer of nationalism. And if even the British and Irish can learn, then so, one day, can the Argentinians.
Dominic Sandbrook, the author of State of Emergency.