In November 1991 in Prague, in a conversation between the Polish historian and intellectual, Adam Michnik, and the late Czech president and playwright, Vaclav Havel, Michnik remarked that with communism set to expire and Yugoslavia having just erupted in war, a "coarse and primitive nationalism" had replaced communism as the great enemy. But last May in The New Republic, the historian and columnist Anne Applebaum wrote that a public-spirited nationalism was exactly what Ukrainians needed to buttress their own democracy. Are Michnik and Applebaum in disagreement? Not really. Michnik is writing about nationalism in one historical context; Applebaum is writing about nationalism in another context.
The same observation can be made about imperialism. In the 1990s when Yugoslavia was in violent disarray a number of writers, despairing of the effect of ethnic nationalism, waxed sentimental about the relative multiethnic tolerance of the Habsburg Empire in Europe. Imperialism then did not seem so bad. To wit, it was not so much multiethnic Ottoman imperialism that led to the Armenian genocide as monoethnic Young Turk nationalism. Of course, now it is different. With Russian imperialism on the march and the 100th anniversary of World War I this week -- a war that saw empires collide in bloody cataclysm -- imperialism is under strong attack. The civilizational glories of the Han, Achaemenid, Mauryan, Songhai and many other empires throughout history seem not to be considered, if even known about.