Nationalism as a Cause of World War 1

Of the four major causes cited for World War One, Nationalism stands out for its re-emergence in Europe during this new century. Understanding how an inflated sense of importance for your country can lead to the devastating horrors of war may help prevent conflicts today. 

Nationalism is an extreme form of patriotism; it is the belief that your country deserves special consideration on the global stage. Acceptable forms of nationalism are often the belief that your people deserve an independent state recognized by other countries as having its borders and laws.

Other forms include the belief that your country should expand to include others and, at the end, the belief that your country should be the center of a global empire.

The Importance of the Balkan Crisis

In 1903, a military coup installed a new King to the country of Serbia and ended its peaceful relationship with Austria-Hungary.

Five years later, Austria-Hungary annexed the area known as Bosnia and Herzegovina, taking complete control from the Ottoman Empire. During the Balkan wars of 1912-13, Serbia took Macedonia and Kosovo, and in 1911 a secret military organization called “The Black Hand” was established with the aim of creating a “Greater Serbia”.

A significant part of their operation was convincing Serbs outside of Serbian borders to join their cause.

The Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand generally considered the “tipping point” of the first world war, was undertaken by a group called “Young Bosnia” under the guidance of the Black Hand. Ferdinand was a staunch nationalist himself, believing in a large and powerful Austrian federation, while his assassins believed in a Serbian empire.

However, this clash of minor empires may have had a smaller impact on global diplomacy, if not for the interest of larger powers. Under the new king, Serbia and Russia had grown closer, while Austria had a pact with Germany that, if they were to invade Serbia, they would have the larger powers backing.

Even then, the United Kingdom may have avoided conflict, as having relatively good relations with both Germany and Russia. However, to properly support Austria-Hungary, the German armies would have to invade Belgium and pass through its country. Belgium had much closer ties to the UK, who were then drawn into the war. 

The Power of Propaganda and Invasion Literature

Beyond the strong diplomatic ties between countries, however, there was an underlying nationalism within the major powers that were far more dangerous. Over the fifty years before the Great War, Russia, the United Kingdom, and Germany had all been waging nationalistic campaigns domestically.

Nationalistic propaganda has always been a powerful tool for those who wish to maintain control of their citizens. If a person is afraid of outside forces but convinced that the might of their country’s government is keeping them safe, they are more likely to trust that government in all matters.

Once the war had started, that same propaganda would be necessary to counteract the news of the horrors from the front and keep the people at home confident in victory.

The Nationalism of a Young Germany

Germany was, strangely, a young country in WW1. Formed in 1871 by unifying 26 separate states, nationalism was one of the primary tools used to keep these previously separate entities working cohesively to form what was now a strong country both economically and militarily. German culture, from Goethe to Wagner, was celebrated highly.

Kaiser Wilhelm II, leader of Germany, was a staunch nationalist and openly jealous of the empire controlled by Britain at the time. Already there were tensions between the two countries over German colonialist maneuvers in Africa and the Boer War of 1899-1902.

Nationalist propaganda, therefore, often focused on the United Kingdom as “the boogie man”, painting its people as greedy expansionists who prevented hard-working Germans from having a better life.

Nationalism in the United Kingdom and Its Colonies

Before WWI, Britain and the commonwealth were in an identity crisis. The Australian colonies had federated to become their own nation (albeit one still ruled to some degree by the King), and the independence movement was growing in India.

There were ongoing rebellions in Ireland, and even in England, workers were rising against inhumane working conditions in the factories and mines.

To rationalise the treatment of its workers and colonies, England’s propaganda machine, including their “penny presses”, pumped out material reminding the people that their contribution was why England was the wealthiest, most technologically advanced country in the world.

They fed on the idea that it was holding back Russian and German colonialism that made England so prosperous and powerful and that fighting aggressors overseas would eventually lead to greater peace at home.

In places like India, the government even made deals to offer more control to the citizens in return for them joining the war efforts.

The UK propaganda was highly successful, with millions of volunteers signing up from around the world to fight for “the mother country”. However, post-war, a similar sense of localized patriotism led to a weakening of the empire.

Many colonies felt betrayed by England, having lost so many young men to battle, and began to look further inward rather than believe they could rely on Britain for support in the future. 

Nationalism and Russia

Tsar Nicholas II was a nationalist blinded to the views of his own people. A committed believer in Christianity, he believed that Russia was quite literally “protected by god”, and between this and his familial relationship with Kaiser Wilhelm, he expected military maneuvers to be respected and for there to be little ongoing conflict once he entered the war.

This view was bolstered by the militarism of the Russian aristocracy and a naive view of the ongoing rebellions in his own country.

Ironically, it was another form of nationalism that would become the downfall of Nicholas II. The Russian Revolution began in February 1917 on the back of the idea that the Tsar and monarchists did not care for the citizens of Russia and that only by working against them would the country be truly united and protected.

The leaders used propaganda that said the war was not the best thing for the country, and when they took power immediately signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with Germany in March 1918. 

Nationalism Today

Unfortunately, the last decade has seen a dramatic rise in nationalism and ultra-nationalistic groups in Europe once more.

People who have been hurt by global recession and depression are easily swayed by propaganda that uses the same symbols and language used before the first world war, and vague memories of empires and countries that once were may once again fuel new conflicts.

Only by closely examining how nationalism presented itself among the world powers at the turn of the 20th century may we prevent it from causing another war in the 21st. 

How to Cite this Article

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