Fritz Groothues

Cosmopolitanism as disease

“If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the very word ‘citizenship’ means.” This is how Theresa May denounced cosmopolitanism in her first speech as Prime Minister to the Conservative Party conference.


It’s a strange choice of words, when she could have stuck to the much more specific targets she also mentions: people in power who behave as though they have more in common with international elites than the people they employ. And she goes on:

“So if you’re a boss who earns a fortune but doesn’t look after your staff… An international company that treats tax laws as an optional extra… A household name that refuses to work with the authorities even to fight terrorism… A director who takes out massive dividends while knowing that the company pension is about to go bust…”


In the British (and European) context it would be easy to think of a few examples for this kind of behaviour, so why not leave it at that, why bring in the “citizen of the world”, a much vaguer concept? This is even more difficult to understand if you look at the horrific ancestry of anti-cosmopolitanism in the 20th century.


In ‘Mein Kampf’ Hitler describes his own development from ‘weak cosmopolitan’ to ‘fierce anti-Semite.’ The future, he says, must not be governed by dreamy cosmopolitanism. And he had a particular piece of advice for England, as he liked to call Britain. Three days after his appointment as chancellor, on 3 February 1933, he told the military leadership in Berlin that


“England can only recover if it abandons its cosmopolitan perspectives and goes back to the standpoint of a master race; that is what made it great.”


The fact that anti-cosmopolitanism had been somewhat contaminated as a political idea didn’t seem to bother Stalin, when in 1946 he condemned cultural cosmopolitanism as undermining the positive image of the Soviet hero. The ‘rootless cosmopolitans’ he had in mind were the Jews, and in the following years anti-cosmopolitanism became a code word for anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union .


So the efforts to eradicate cosmopolitanism belong to the darkest years of the 20th century; they go hand in hand with blind nationalism and the division of the world into citizens and foreigners.


It was to prevent further bloodshed resulting from this mindset that the European Union was founded after the war. Citizenship could mean more than the citizenship of one country – European citizens would still be citizens of their own nations, but would not regard other Europeans as foreigners, they are, after all, their co-citizens.


So it takes a particularly mercurial approach to say, as Boris Johnson did before the election, that the EU was in fact continuing Hitler’s European policies by other means. And to insist on the narrow definition of citizenship of one country, as Theresa May did in her speech, is to misjudge the aspirations of millions of Britons, particularly the younger ones, who see themselves as British and Europeans.


An Ashanti proverb, quoted by the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah, sums it up like this: Kuro koro mu nni nyansa – In a single polis there is no wisdom.

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  1. I fullly agree with your views. The rise of nationalism, even xenophobia in the UK and elsewhere is alarming, given its miserable history.
    The current UK government seems to be keen on wooing those that voted to leave the EU rather than those who thought otherwise – possibly a majority. Many people in the UK, especially the young, want to be part of Europe and indeed the wider world, rather than just the place that issued their passports.

  2. The problem with ‘cosmopolitanism’ seems to be that it implies a loyalty free attitude. Impartiality isn’t exactly considered a virtue by everybody if you for instance sell out your mother.

    You can certainly view it at a vice if it makes you behave like an old fashion knight in a struggle with an enemy that doesn’t play fair at all.

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