"Nationalism" is the pathology of modern developmental history, as inescapable as neurosis in the individual, with much the same essential ambiguity attaching to it, a similar built-in capacity for descent into dementia, rooted in the dilemmas of helplessness thrust upon most of the world (the equivalent of infantilism for societies) and largely incurable".

- Benedict Anderson

A Short History

Although some scholars trace the roots of nationalism to the ancient Greeks or Hebrews, it wasn't until the 19th century that nationalism became a widespread and powerful driving force in politics. During this period, nationalism took a particularly strong hold in Germany, where thinkers such as Johann Gottfried von Herder and Johann Gottlieb Fichte developed the concept of Volk. However, the nationalism that inspired the German people to rise against the empire of Napoleon I was conservative and strongly bound to tradition rather than liberal and progressive. When Germany was finally unified as an empire in 1871, it was a highly authoritarian and militarist state. A sense of nationalism also drove Italy towards national unification and freedom from foreign rule, but certain areas such as Trieste were excluded from the new state, and this gave rise to irredentism. In the US of A, where nationalism had evinced itself in the doctrine of Manifest Destiny, national unity was maintained at the cost of the Civil War.

In the latter half of the 19th century, nationalist movements arose within the supranational empires (Austrian, Ottoman, Ireland under the British rule, and Russian-controlled Poland). Whilst much of this nationalism was in a revolutionary spirit, increasingly nationalism became the a sentiment of conservatives. It was both turned against international movements such as socialism, and used as a rallying cry for imperialism. Nationalist struggle and conflict were the antecedents of World War I.

At the end of the Great War, the Paris Peace Conference established the principle of national self-determination, upheld by the League of Nations and later by the United Nations. While self-determination is a principle of nationalism, it also recognizes the basic equality of all nations, large or small, and therefore transcends a narrow nationalism that claims superiority for itself.

It was this latter type of ultranationalism that arose in Nazi Germany, and fed into the extreme nationalist sentiments of Italian fascism. At the same time, Asian and African colonial territories mobilised nationalist rhetoric as a way to combat imperialism. Most famously of these was the Indian National Congress, which struggled for Indian independence for over 60 years. Post-World War II nationalism spread at such a fast pace that dozens of new nations were created from former colonial territorial holdings. Although globalisation has fundamentally challenged ideas of homogenous nations, the past few decades has seen a rise in ultranationalist movements.

Why did Nationalism happen?

Nationalism is a discourse that constructs meanings with influences; and organises both our actions and our conception of ourselves around the idea of the nation. Nationalism is not a timeless or perrenial phenomena, as national cultures actively imagine meanings about the nation with which each individual can identify. To quote sociologist Benedict Anderson;

"It is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion"
At the heart of Anderson's theory is his idea of "print capitalism". As the nations underwent industrialisation, they adopted print-based information technologies. For reasons of economies of scale, technology such as the printing press demands homogeneous spelling, grammar, and vocabulary. This homogeneity developed into the idea of nationhood - a homogenous mass who share ideals based upon their shared, common literature. As literacy and print (as a commodity) spread throughout nations, the dominant religious culture was gradually superceded by national culture because literate individuals were provided with a different imaginary source of identity and community. Nationalism quickly became something that nations aspired to, and modern nation-states actively participate in its creation.

So, I'm looking to stir up nationalist fervour. What do I need?

As nations are imagined constructs, Stuart Hall elaborates on Andersons work by identifying five discursive strategies by which nations are created. You'll need to tap into these:

  • The narrative of the nation, as it is simulated in national histories, the media, literature, and popular culture. These, as Hall comments "provide a set of stories, images, landscapes, scenarios, historical events, national symbols and rituals which stand for, or represent, the shared experiences, sorrows, triumphs and disasters which give meaning to a nation". Try creating some sort of story that starts with the words "Four score and seven years ago..."
  • An emphasis on origins, continuity, tradition, and timelessness. National culture is imagined to be both changeless and eternal, stemming from an indeterminate past, and continuing into a definite future. Play games that involve teleology.
  • A foundational myth: a story that locates the origin of a national culture "so early that they are lost in the mists of, not 'real', but 'mythic' time".
  • The invention of tradition. Nationalism tends to selectively appropriate pre-existing traditions, often which are arbitrary historical inventions . Folk culture is often borrowed from, and then celebrated as part of high culture. Steal myths from the locals that you may have slaughtered when you first colonised the place.
  • The imagining of a pure, original culture or folk. At the very worst, nationalism descends into the rhetoric of racial purity and xenophobia. Avoid this.


Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities, London, Verso, 1983
Stuart Hall (ed.), Modernity and it’s Futures, Cambridge, Polity Press,1992

Since the early nineteenth century, nationalism has evolved from a means of self-determination for a people and freedom from oppression by dictators like Napoleon into a source of mistrust and violence against 'outsiders'. Conservatism, being a reactionary movement, used nationalism to discredit the left. They claimed that the only way to truly serve your "Duties...to Humanity" is through your Country, for "The individual is too weak, and Humanity too vast" (Mazinni, doc. 7B,p. 225). Therefore, the anti-nationalist left is not serving its "Duties...to Humanity" but is instead being selfish and stubborn. Nationalism evokes emotions that there is some sort of common bond of a people, and if you do not feel this common bond then you do not belong there and you are not serving your fellow German, or Frenchman.

The extent to which nationalism contributes to violence can be seen in the two World Wars. It was nationalist sentiment that led an assassin to murder the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Although the responses of other nations were not nationalistic, the spark of the First World War can be attributed to nationalism. The Second World War is more clearly and definitely linked to nationalism. In Germany, the ultra-nationalist Nazi Party had come into power with the assertion that they must include all ethnic Germans within the Fatherland even if that meant war. They also must 'cleanse' the German 'race' by eliminating 'non-German' elements from their midst. Such thought contributed heavily to the breakout of war when Germany invaded Poland in 1939.

Three ideas, though not the only ideas, about the future of nationalism are:

  1. Nationalism is necessary in order to serve your duty to humanity, but once this duty is being served across the world, nationalism will no longer be necessary.
  2. Nationalism is slowly disappearing in an increasingly global world, and will soon disappear altogether.
  3. A significant number of people can be bound in love only if there are still people they can hate.

When one looks at the world today, one sees an ever-increasing 'globalization' effect. Transportation is becoming easier, communication is faster than ever before, and economies are more linked and dependent on one another than in the past. McDonalds and blue jeans are seen all over the world. The Communist Manifesto states that "national differences...between peoples are daily more and more vanishing." Indeed this is so in many cases. One must not forget, however, that there does seem, as Freud wrote, to be a desire of people to need somebody to "...receive the manifestations of their aggressiveness." Samuel Huntington, in his article "Clash of Civilizations", claimed that the future of nationalism was somewhere between these two extremes presented by Freud and Marx. He believed that instead of most violent conflict being drawn along nationalistic lines, that the most violent conflict would be on lines between civilizations. These civilizations are the highest possible level by which one can culturally separate people. Some of these civilizations today are the West (Europe and North America), Islam (Mainly the Middle East), Christian Orthodox (Russia), Japan, and several others. This hypothesis signals an end to nationalism, as Marx and Engels pointed out, and the continuation of aggression between peoples as Freud pointed out. So, none of these is perhaps totally right, but various aspects of each are indeed true and will continue to be so.

Na"tion*al*ism (?), n.


The state of being national; national attachment; nationality.


An idiom, trait, or character peculiar to any nation.


National independence; the principles of the Nationalists.


© Webster 1913.

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