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 value or importance of their country, placing its interests above those of other countries. Nationalism was a prominent force in early 20th century Europe and became a significant cause of World War I. Many Europeans – particularly citizens of the so-called Great Powers – were convinced that their nation occupied a position of cultural, economic and military supremacy. Politicians, diplomats and some royals actively contributed to this mindset with provocative remarks and rhetoric. Nationalism was also strengthened by press reporting and in popular culture. The pages of many newspapers were filled with nationalist rhetoric and inflammatory stories, for example, rumours about rival nations and their evil intentions. Nationalist ideas were found in literature, music, theatre and art.

The outcome of nationalism was an inflated confidence in their nation, government and military power. In matters of foreign affairs or global competition, many were 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 reports convinced many that their country was 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 as a victor. In concert with its dangerous brothers, imperialism and militarism, nationalism contributed to a continental delusion that war was both justified and winnable.

Europe’s ambivalence to war

“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 apathy about the dangers of war can be explained. Aside from the Crimean War (1853-56) and the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71), the 19th century was one of comparative peace in Europe. With the exception of France, which was defeated by the Prussians in 1871, Europe’s Great Powers had not experienced a significant military defeat for more than half a century. For most Europeans, war was a distant memory. The British and French had known colonial wars but these were brief, victorious conflicts fought against disorganised and under-equipped opponents in faraway places. Rising militarism and the spiralling arms race fostered both a new interest in war and naivete and overconfidence about its likely outcomes.

Nationalism also fuelled a growing delusion about the military capacity of the Great Powers. The British believed their naval power and the economic might of the Empire would give them the upper hand in any war. The Germans placed great faith in Prussian military efficiency, a growing industrial base, new armaments and an 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 itself, the tsar believed his empire was ordained by God and protected by a massive standing army of 1.5 million men, the largest peacetime land force in Europe. Russian commanders believed their enormous population gave them the upper hand over the 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 withstanding any German attack.

Stereotypes and ‘invasion literature’

nationalism first world war
The Battle of Dorking, typical of anti-German invasion fiction

By the late 1800s, some European powers had grown 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 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’ – a collective term for cheap serialised novels – 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 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 used racial stereotyping or innuendo: the German was depicted 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, both of whom were ridiculed for their arrogance, ambition or megalomania.

German nationalism and xenophobia were no less intense, though they came from different origins. Unlike Britain, Germany was a comparatively young nation: it was 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 manoeuvred 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.

Independence movements

nationalism war china
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 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.

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.

© Alpha History 2017. 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 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,, 2017, accessed [date of last access].

  • 446