Nationalism as a cause of World War I

nationalism world war 1

The British Empire was an important source of nationalism

Nationalism is an extreme form of patriotism and loyalty to one’s country. Nationalists place the interests of their own country above the interests of other countries. Nationalism was prevalent in early 20th century Europe and was a significant cause of World War I. Most pre-war Europeans believed in the cultural, economic and military supremacy of their nation. Their attitudes and overconfidence were fuelled by things like jingoistic press reporting. The pages of newspapers were often packed with nationalist rhetoric and inflammatory stories or rumours about rival nations. Nationalism could also be found in other aspects of popular culture, including literature, music and theatre. Royals, politicians and diplomats did little to deflate nationalism – and some actively contributed to it with provocative remarks and rhetoric.

Nationalism gave citizens excessive confidence in their nation, their governments and their military strength. It assured them that their country was fair, righteous and without blame. In contrast, nationalist ideas demonised rival nations, caricaturing them as aggressive, scheming, deceitful, backward or uncivilised. It convinced many citizens their nation was being threatened by the plotting, scheming and hungry imperialism of its rivals. Nationalist and militarist rhetoric assured people that if war erupted, their nation would emerge victorious. In concert with its brothers, imperialism and militarism, nationalism contributed to a mass delusion that made a European war seem both necessary and winnable.

“A new and aggressive nationalism, different from its predecessors, emerged in Europe at the end of the 19th century… The new nationalism engaged the fierce us/them group emotions – loyalty inwards, aggression outwards – that characterise human relations at simpler sociological levels, like the family or the tribe. What was new was attaching these passions to the nation… In its outward-looking dimension, the new nationalism was fully a movement of the ‘age of imperialism’ – of the ‘great game’, the ‘scramble for Africa’, the enterprise of great powers.”
Lawrence Rosenthal, historian

Europe’s nationalism and its indifference to war can be explained. Aside from the Crimean War (1853-56) and the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71), the 1800s were a century of comparative peace for Europe. Citizens of England, France and Germany had grown accustomed to colonial wars. These conflicts were fought against undeveloped and under-equipped opponents in far away places, and were mostly brief and victorious. With the exception of France, which was defeated by the Prussians in 1871, none of Europe’s Great Powers had experienced a significant military defeat for more than half a century. This indifference to war, along with the arms race, contributed to a growing delusion of invincibility. Britons believed their naval power, backed by the economic might of the British Empire, would give them the upper hand in any war.

The Germans placed great faith in Prussian military efficiency, their industrial base, their growth in armaments and their expanding fleet of battleships and U-boats (submarines). In the event of a war, the German high command had supreme confidence in the Schlieffen Plan, a preemptive military strategy designed to win a war against Germany’s eastern and western neighbours (Russia and France). Within Russia, the tsar believed his throne and empire were protected by God – as well as Russia’s massive standing army of 1.5 million men, Europe’s largest peacetime land force. Russia’s commanders believed its enormous population gave it the upper hand over the much smaller nations of western Europe. The French placed their faith in a wall of concrete fortresses and defences running the length of their eastern border, capable of deterring and withstanding any German attack.

nationalism world war one

The cover of The Battle of Dorking, a typical example of anti-German invasion fiction

By the late 1800s some European powers had grown almost drunk with patriotism and nationalism – not without some cause. Britain, to focus on one example, had enjoyed two centuries of imperial, commercial and naval dominance, her empire spanning one quarter of the globe. The lyrics of a popular patriotic song, Rule, Britannia!, trumpeted that “Britons never never will be slaves”. London had spent the 19th century advancing her imperial and commercial interests and avoiding wars – however the unification of Germany, the speed of German armament and the bellicosity of Kaiser Wilhelm II caused concern among British nationalists. England’s ‘penny press’ – cheap serialised novels, essays and short stories – fuelled foreign rivalries by publishing incredible fictions about foreign intrigues, espionage, future war and invasion. The Battle of Dorking (1871), one of the best known examples of ‘invasion literature’, was a wild tale about an invasion of England by German forces. By 1910 a Londoner could buy dozens of tawdry novellas, each gamely warning of German, Russian or French aggression, perpetrated against England or her interests. This invasion literature often employed racial stereotyping or innuendo: the German was painted as cold, cruel and calculating, the Russian was an uncultured barbarian, the Frenchman was a leisure-seeking layabout, the Chinese were a race of murderous opium-smoking savages. Penny novelists, cartoonists and satirists mocked the rulers of these countries. Two of the most popular targets were the German kaiser and the Russian tsar, who were both ridiculed for their arrogance, excessive ambition or megalomania.

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A German cartoon ridiculing British imperial growth

German nationalism and xenophobia was no less intense, though it came from different origins. Unlike Britain, Germany was a comparatively young nation, formed in 1871 through the unification of 26 German-speaking states and territories. German nationalism or ‘Pan-Germanism’ was the political glue that bound these states together. The leaders of post-1871 Germany relied on nationalist sentiment to consolidate and strengthen the new nation and to gain public support. German culture – from the poetry of Goethe to the music of Richard Wagner – was promoted and celebrated. German nationalism was backed by German militarism; the state of the nation was defined and reflected by the strength of its military forces. The new kaiser, Wilhelm II, was the personification of this new Germany. Both the kaiser and his nation were young, nationalistic, obsessed with military power and imperial expansion. The kaiser was proud of Germany’s achievements but nervous about its future; he was envious of other powers and desperate for national success. In the kaiser’s mind, the main obstacle to German expansion was Britain. Wilhelm envied Britain’s vast empire and enormous naval power – but he thought the British avaricious and hypocritical. The British government oversaw the world’s largest empire yet maneuvered against German colonial expansion in Africa and Asia. The British became a popular target in the pre-war German press, where Britain was painted as expansionist, selfish, greedy and obsessed with money. Anti-British sentiment intensified during the Boer War of 1899-1902, Britain’s war against farmer-settlers for control of South Africa.

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Nationalism was also emerging in distant colonies. This cartoon depicts rising Chinese nationalism

As the Great Powers beat their chests and filled their people with a sense of righteousness and superiority, another form of nationalism was on the rise in southern Europe. This nationalism was not about supremacy or military power – but the right of ethnic groups to independence, autonomy and self government. With the world divided into large empires and spheres of influence, many different regions, races and religious groups wanted freedom from their imperial masters. In Russia, more than 80 ethnic groups in eastern Europe and Asia were forced to speak the Russian language, worship the Russian tsar and practice the Russian Orthodox religion. For much of the 19th century China had been ‘carved up’ and economically exploited by European powers; resentful Chinese formed secret and exiled nationalist groups to rid their country of foreign influence. Nationalist groups contributed to the weakening of the Ottoman Empire in eastern Europe, by seeking to throw off Muslim rule.

No nationalist movement had a greater impact in the outbreak of war than Slavic groups in the Balkans. Pan-Slavism, the belief that the Slavic peoples of eastern Europe should have their own nation, was a powerful force in the region. Slavic nationalism was strongest in Serbia, where it had risen significantly in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Pan-Slavism was particularly opposed to the Austro-Hungarian Empire and its control and influence over the region. Aggravated by Vienna’s annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, young Serbs joined radical nationalist groups like the ‘Black Hand’ (Crna Ruka). These groups hoped to drive Austria-Hungary from the Balkans and establish a ‘Greater Serbia’, a unified state for all Slavic people. It was this pan-Slavic nationalism that inspired the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in June 1914, an event that led directly to the outbreak of World War I.

1. Nationalism was an intense form of patriotism. Those with nationalist tendencies celebrated the culture and achievements of their own country and placed its interests above those of other nations.
2. Pre-war nationalism was fuelled by wars, imperial conquests and rivalry, political rhetoric, newspapers and popular culture, such as ‘invasion literature’ written by penny press novelists.
3. British nationalism was fuelled by a century of comparative peace and prosperity. The British Empire had flourished and expanded, its naval strength had grown and Britons had known only colonial wars.
4. German nationalism was a new phenomenon, emerging from the unification of Germany in 1871. It became fascinated with German imperial expansion (securing Germany’s ‘place in the sun’) and resentful of the British and their empire.
5. Rising nationalism was also a factor in the Balkans, where Slavic Serbs and others sought independence and autonomy from the political domination of Austria-Hungary.

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This page was written by Jennifer Llewellyn, Jim Southey and Steve Thompson. To reference this page, use the following citation:
J. Llewellyn et al, “Nationalism as a cause of World War I” at Alpha History,, 2014, accessed [date of last access].