Nationalism as a cause of World War I

world war one nationalism
The lion was a symbol of British imperialism and nationalism

Nationalism is an intense form of patriotism or loyalty to one’s country. Nationalists exaggerate the status, value or importance of their country, placing its interests above those of other countries. These sentiments were prominent in early 20th century Europe, particularly in the so-called Great Powers (Britain, France and Germany), leading many Europeans to believe their nation occupied a position of cultural, economic and military supremacy.

Sources of nationalism

The rising nationalism of the 19th and early 20th centuries came from many sources. A good deal sprang from historical events and developments. In Britain, the Industrial Revolution of the 18th century had created remarkable technological change and created new forms of wealth, while the British Empire had grown to span one-quarter of the globe. France and Germany also experienced rapid economic transformation, imperial growth and social modernisation.

National successes of this kind led to excessive pride and confidence which, in turn, gave rise to nationalist sentiment. Politicians, diplomats and some royal leaders contributed to this in their remarks and rhetoric. Nationalism was also fueled by one-sided press reporting that was excessively critical of other nations but rarely critical of one’s own.

Nationalist ideas were also perpetuated and advanced by popular culture – from the high art of painters and sculptures down to common forms of entertainment like cheap literature and music hall comedy. Music, whether in orchestral or song form, was a notable medium of nationalist sentiment.

Inflated confidence

The product of this brewing nationalism was an inflated confidence in one’s nation, government and military power. In matters of foreign affairs or global competition, many became convinced that their country was fair, righteous and without fault or blame.

In contrast, nationalists demonised rival nations, caricaturing them as aggressive, scheming, deceitful, backward or uncivilised. Nationalist press reports convinced many that the interests of their country were threatened by the plotting, scheming and hungry imperialism of its rivals. Nationalist and militarist rhetoric assured Europeans that if war did erupt, their nation would emerge victorious.

In concert with its dangerous brothers, imperialism and militarism, nationalism contributed to a continental delusion that war was not only justified, it was easily winnable. In its most extreme form, this aggressive patriotism was known as ‘jingoism’, taking its name from a British music hall song of the 1870s:

We don’t want to fight but by Jingo, if we do
We’ve got the ships, we’ve got the men, we’ve got the money too
We’ve fought the Bear before, and while we’re Britons true
The Russians shall not have Constantinople!

Europe’s ambivalence to war

By the start of the 20th century, many Europeans seemed indifferent to the dangers of war. This was partly due to their lack of exposure to it. Aside from the Crimean War (1853-56) and the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71), the second-half of the 1800s was a century of comparative peace in Europe. With the exception of France, which was defeated by the Prussians in 1871, the Great Powers had not experienced a significant military defeat for at least two generations.

For most Europeans, war was a distant memory. The British and French had fought colonial wars in Africa and Asia but they were brief conflicts against disorganised and under-equipped opponents in faraway places. Militarism and nationalism revived the prospects of a European war and created naivete and overconfidence about its likely outcomes.

Nationalism also bred some delusion about the military capacity of the Great Powers. The British believed their naval power, supported by the economic might of the Empire, offered them the upper hand in any war. German leaders placed great faith in Prussian military efficiency, Germany’s growing industrial base, new armaments and her expanding fleet of battleships and U-boats (submarines). If war erupted, the German high command had supreme confidence in the Schlieffen Plan, a preemptive military strategy for defeating France before Russia could mobilise to support her.

In Russia, the tsar believed his empire was sustained by God and protected by a massive standing army of 1.5 million men, the largest peacetime land force in Europe. Russian commanders believed the country’s enormous population gave it the whip hand over the smaller nations of western Europe. The French placed their faith in the country’s industries and defences, particularly a wall of concrete barriers and fortresses running the length of its eastern border.

Stereotypes and ‘invasion literature’

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The Battle of Dorking, typical of anti-German invasion fiction

By the late 1800s, some Europeans were almost drunk with patriotism and nationalism. Britain, to focus on one example, had enjoyed two centuries of imperial, commercial and naval dominance. Britain’s empire spanned one-quarter of the globe and the lyrics of the 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 bellicose ambitions of Kaiser Wilhelm II caused concern for British nationalists. England’s ‘penny press’ – a collective term for cheap, serialised novels – intensified 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 the occupation of England by German forces.

By 1910, a Londoner could buy dozens of tawdry novellas warning of German, Russian or French aggression. This invasion literature often employed racial stereotypes or innuendo. The German, for example, was usually depicted as cold, emotionless and calculating; the Russian was an uncultured barbarian, given to wanton violence; the Frenchman was a leisure-seeking layabout; the Chinese a race of murderous, opium-smoking savages.

Penny novelists, cartoonists and satirists also mocked the rulers of these countries. The German Kaiser and the Russian Tsar, both of whom were frequent targets, were ridiculed for their arrogance, ambition or megalomania.

German nationalism

German nationalism and xenophobia were no less intense, though they took different forms. Unlike Britain, Germany was a comparatively young nation, formed in 1871 after the unification of 26 German-speaking states and territories. The belief that all German-speaking peoples should be united in a single empire, or ‘Pan-Germanism’, was the political glue that bound these states together.

The leaders of post-1871 Germany relied on nationalist sentiment to consolidate the new nation and gain public support. German culture – from the poetry of Goethe to the music of Richard Wagner – was promoted and celebrated. German nationalism was also underpinned by German militarism: the strength of the nation was sustained by the strength of its military forces.

The new Kaiser, Wilhelm II, became the personification of this new, nationalistic Germany. Both the Kaiser and his nation were young and ambitious, 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.

To the Kaiser, and to many other Germans, Britain was the main obstacle to German progress and expansion. Wilhelm was envious of Britain’s vast empire, commercial enterprise and naval power – but he thought the British avaricious and hypocritical. The British government oversaw the world’s largest empire yet manoeuvred against German colonial expansion in Africa and Asia.

As a consequence, Britain became a popular target in the pre-war German press, 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.

Independence movements

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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 rode this wave of self-righteousness and superiority, a second type of nationalism was on the rise in southern and eastern Europe. This nationalism was not about supremacy or empire but the right of ethnic groups to independence, autonomy and self-government.

With the world divided into large empires and spheres of influence, many regions, races and religious groups sought freedom from their imperial masters. In Russia, more than 80 ethnic groups in eastern Europe and Asia had been 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.

Serbian nationalism

No nationalist movement had a greater impact on 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.

“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

nationalism world war one

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.

Citation information
Title: ‘Nationalism as a cause of World War I’
Authors: Jim Southey, Steve Thompson
Publisher: Alpha History
Date published: April 5, 2017
Date updated: December 20, 2023
Date accessed: May 27, 2024
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