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 and extreme patriotism were significant contributing factors to the outbreak of World War I. Every one of Europe’s Great Powers developed a firm but excessive belief in its own cultural, economic and military supremacy. This over-confidence gave birth to a fatal misconception: that in the event of war in Europe, one’s own country would be victorious inside a few months. This arrogance was fuelled by the jingoistic press in every country. The pages of newspapers, even usually sedate broadsheets, were often packed with stories and editorials filled with nationalist rhetoric and ‘sabre-rattling’. Heightened nationalism could also be found in other cultural expressions, like literature, music and theatre. European populations became convinced of two things: that their nations and governments were right and that their military would win any conflict. As these attitudes hardened, the likelihood of war increased. Royals, politicians and diplomats did little to defuse the public appetite for war, and some actively contributed to it with provocative commentary or belligerent policy.


This lack of awareness about a European war and its incipient dangers is at least partly explainable. Leaving aside the distant Crimean War (1853-56) and the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71), the 19th century was a period of comparative peace for the people of Europe. In England, France and Germany, the people had been slow-fed on a diet of brief and victorious colonial wars, fought against under-equipped opponents in far away places. With the exception of France, beaten by the Prussians in 1871, no major European nation had tasted military defeat for more than half a century. The arms race and the development of new military technology furthered this mood of invincibility. Britons thought their naval power, backed with the economic might of the empire, would secure victory in any conflict. The Germans placed great store in their policy of armament, their growing fleet of dreadnoughts (battleships) and Prussian military training and efficiency; the German high command’s confidence was predicated upon its bold but decisive Schlieffen Plan. The Russian tsar believed his empire to be protected by God – and his massive peacetime army of 1.5 million men. The French believed a string of concrete fortresses and defences, running the length of their eastern border, made them impervious to German attack.

Stories and stereotypes

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

“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

Along with these practical considerations existed a near-spiritual belief in the strength and viability of each nation. By the late 1800s, England was almost drunk with patriotism and nationalism. She had enjoyed two centuries of imperial, commercial and naval dominance: the lyrics of a popular song, Rule, Britannia!, trumpeted that “Britons never never will be slaves”. London spent most of the 19th century purposefully avoiding wars – however the unification of Germany, the pace of German armament and the bellicose remarks of Kaiser Wilhelm II gave much cause for concern. Britain’s ‘penny press’ (serialised novels and short stories) fueled rivalry with Russia and Germany by publishing incredulous fiction about foreign intrigue, espionage and future war. The Battle of Dorking (1871) was a wild cautionary tale about a successful invasion of England by German forces. By 1910 one could buy dozens of tawdry examples of ‘invasion literature'; each told of German, Russian or French aggression or under-handedness against England and her interests. These stories often featured racist stereotyping or innuendo: the German was painted as cold, cruel and calculating, the Russian was an uncultured barbarian, the Chinese a race of murderous savages. Penny novelists and cartoonists mocked the rulers of these countries – the German kaiser and the Russian tsar chiefly – for their ambition, arrogance or megalomania.

German attitudes were just as intense but sprang from different origins. Germany as a nation-state was comparatively new, forming from the unification of 26 German-speaking states or territories in 1871. As a consequence, German nationalism had a political purpose: it was the 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 maintain and strengthen the country. German culture was promoted and celebrated: from the poetry of Goethe, to the music of Richard Wagner. National strength was continuously associated with military strength: if the army was weak or incapable of fighting, so too was the nation. The new kaiser, Wilhelm II, was in many respects the personification of late 1800s Germany: both were young, intensely patriotic, obsessed with militarism and expansion, nervous about the future and desperate for national success. The main obstacle to the latter was Britain, which became a popular target for the German press. The British and their leaders were greedy and hypocritical: they maintained the world’s largest empire, while denying Germany any colonial gains. There was much criticism of Britain’s heavy-handed war against white South African farmers (the Second Boer War of 1899-1902); Berlin went as far as secretly supplying the Boers with weapons and munitions.

The quest for independence

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

As the Great Powers thumped their chests and revelled in their own superiority, another dangerous form of nationalism was emerging in Europe. This was not about supremacy or military power, but about self-determination, self-government and independence. With the world largely divided into empires and spheres of influence, there were a host of regions, races and religions who sought freedom from their imperial masters. In Russia, for example, more than 80 ethnic groups were forced to speak Russian and practice the Russian Orthodox religion. China, a nation with more than 400 million people, had been ‘carved up’ and economically ravaged by several European powers; this instigated the formation of secret and exiled nationalist groups who wanted to free China from foreign influence. Nationalist groups had contributed to the weakening of the Ottoman Empire in eastern Europe. The formation of revolutionary and separatist groups in the Balkans also threatened the fragile Austro-Hungarian Empire. The nationalism of young Serbs, seeking to restore the status of their country, prompted them to assassinate the Austrian archduke Franz Ferdinand, an event which lit the touchpaper of World War I.


 

 

 

1. Nationalism was an intense form of patriotism that celebrated one’s own country and demonised other nations.
2. Pre-war nationalism was fueled by wars but also by political rhetoric, the press 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.


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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”, Alpha History, accessed [today's date], http://alphahistory.com/worldwar1/nationalism/.