Nationalism as a cause of World War I

Symbols like the British lion and the German eagle were an ever-present part of pre-war nationalism

Symbols like the British lion and the German eagle were an ever-present part of pre-war nationalism

Nationalism was a significant cause of World War I. In the years prior to war, many Europeans nurtured a firm belief in the cultural, economic and military supremacy of their nation. This arrogance and overconfidence was fuelled by the jingoistic press. The pages of newspapers were often packed with nationalist rhetoric, inflammatory stories about rival nations and other forms of sabre rattling. Nationalism was also reflected 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 their own provocative remarks and rhetoric. Nationalism assured citizens of the moral rectitude of their nation, suggesting that it was fair, righteous and without blame. In contrast it demonised rival nations, caricaturing them as aggressive, scheming, deceitful, backward or uncivilised. It convinced many Europeans that their nation was threatened by the expansionist plotting of its rivals. It assured them that in the event of a war, their nation would emerge victorious. In concert with its brothers, imperialism and militarism, nationalism created a mass delusion that a European war was both winnable and necessary.

Europe’s failure to recognise the perils of war is to some extent explainable. Aside from the Crimean War (1853-56) and the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71), the 1800s was a century of comparative peace for the continent. In England, France and Germany, the public had become accustomed to a regular diet of brief and victorious colonial wars, fought against undeveloped and under-equipped opponents in far away places. With the exception of France, beaten by the Prussians in 1871, none of Europe’s Great Powers had tasted significant military defeat for more than half a century. On this indifference to war, the arms race and the development of new military technology built a growing delusion of invincibility. Britons believed that their naval power, backed by the economic might of the empire, would protect their island and give them the upper hand in any war. The Germans placed great faith in Prussian military prestige and efficiency, in their policy of armament and their growing fleet of battleships and U-boats (submarines). The German high command had supreme confidence in its Schlieffen Plan, a pre-emptive military strategy for winning a two-front war against both France and Russia. In Russia itself, tsar believed his throne and empire were protected by God – and by Russia’s massive army of 1.5 million men, the largest peacetime land force in Europe. The French placed their faith in a wall of concrete fortresses and defences, running the length of their eastern border and capable of withstanding any German attack.

Stories and stereotypes


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

Underpinning these practical measures was an near spiritual belief in the strength and righteousness of each nation. By the late 1800s some European powers were almost drunk with patriotism and nationalism, though not without some cause. Britain, for instance, 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 much of 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 gave many Britons cause for concern. Britain’s ‘penny press’ (serialised novels and short stories) fuelled foreign rivalries with incredible fictions about foreign intrigue, espionage, future war and invasion. The Battle of Dorking (1871), to cite one example, was a wild tale about a successful invasion of England by German forces. By 1910 a Londoner could buy dozens of tawdry examples of ‘invasion literature’, each gamely warning of German, Russian or French aggression or under-handedness, perpetrated against England or her interests. This invasion literature was often marked by racial stereotyping or innuendo: the German was painted as cold, cruel and calculating, the Russian an uncultured barbarian, the Frenchman a leisure-seeking layabout, the Chinese a race of murderous 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, both ridiculed for their arrogance, excessive ambition or megalomania.

“The first month of the war resembled a month-long patriotic festival. In the first three weeks of August, Germans said goodbye to their troops, smothering them with flowers and so much chocolate that the Red Cross asked the people to be less generous: the soldiers were getting sick… The national flag flew everywhere, even in the courtyards of Berlin’s working-class apartment houses, where it had never been seen before. Journalists, politicians and government officials contributed to this aura by employing a religious vocabulary… the ‘war enthusiasm’ was a ‘holy moment’, a ‘holy flame of anger’, ‘heroic’, a ‘revelation'; it had brought forth a ‘rebirth through war’.”
Jeffrey Verhey, historian

German attitudes were just as intense, though they sprang from different origins. The German nation was comparatively young, formed by the unification of 26 German-speaking states or territories in 1871. German nationalism was the political glue that bound together these disparate states: Prussia, Bavaria, Saxony, Hesse, Baden, Brunswick and others. The leaders of post-1871 Germany relied on nationalism to consolidate and strengthen the new nation. German culture – from the poetry of Goethe to the music of Richard Wagner – was promoted and celebrated. German nationalism also went hand in glove with German militarism: the state of the nation was both 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; proud of Germany’s achievements but nervous about its future; 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 considered them greedy and hypocritical: the British retained the world’s largest empire but maneuvered against German colonial acquisitions in Africa, Asia and elsewhere. Britain became a popular target in the pre-war German press, particularly during the Boer War of 1899-1902, Britain’s heavy-handed war against white farmer-settlers in South Africa. Berlin went as far as secretly supplying the anti-British Boers with weapons and munitions.

The quest for independence


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

As the Great Powers thumped their chests and trumpeted their own superiority, another dangerous form of nationalism was on the rise in southern Europe. This nationalism was not about supremacy or military power – but the right to independence, self determination and self government. With the world divided into empires and spheres of influence, different regions, races and religions sought freedom from their imperial masters. In Russia, more than 80 ethnic groups 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, striving to throw off Muslim rule. The growth of Slavic nationalist groups in the Balkans threatened the stability of the fragile Austro-Hungarian Empire. 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 lit the touch paper of World War I.

1. Nationalism was an intense form of patriotism. Those with nationalist tendencies celebrated 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 novelists.
3. Anti-German literature in Britain focused on a future war with Germany and even a future German invasion.
4. German nationalism was predicated on the belief that Britain sought to deprive Germany of her ‘place in the sun’.
5. Rising nationalism was also a factor in the Balkans, where Serbians and others sought independence and autonomy from the political domination of Austria-Hungary.

© Alpha History 2014. Content on this page may not be republished or distributed without permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use.
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].