Nationalism in History

The first rather surprising thing about nationalism is that it is quite a recent concept and yet can present itself as both ancient and inevitable- both the product of ages and the result of evolution, but It was not until the late eighteenth century that the term 'nation' acquired political usage. It was in the period of the Enlightenment that nationalism and nationalists became a term used to classify groups and their aspirations. The term 'nationalism' was first used in print in 1789 by the anti-Jacobin French priest Augustin Barruel. In the Nineteenth century, nationalism became one of the most significant forces shaping international relations and the politics of Europe, by the 20th Century it became the dominant force in world politics. It was a major ingredient of the revolutions that swept across Europe in 1848, the movements against colonialism as it had been a justification for colonialism and later an ingredient of fascism and the world wars.

While it's easy enough to give a general definition of Nationalism as the belief that the nation is the central principle of political organisation which is based on two core assumptions shared by all nationalists. First, humankind is naturally divided into distinct nations, and second, the nation is the most appropriate, and perhaps only legit­imate, unit of political rule. However nationalist can be divided into those who emphasise it natural origins and those who emphasise its political necessity. For the right and conservatives it was born out of nature and for liberals it was born out of pragmatic necessity. For all nationalist it was simply the best way to organise mankind. This belief has been associated with a principled belief in national self-determination, based on the assumption that all nations are equal and it has also been used to defend traditional institutions and the established social order, as well as to fuel programmes of war, conquest and imperialism. Nationalism, moreover, has been linked to widely contrasting ideological traditions, ranging from liberalism to fascism.


Nationalism has its origins in the French Revolution. Previously, countries had been thought of as 'realms', `principalities' or 'kingdoms'. The inhabitants of a country were 'subjects', their political identity is formed by an allegiance to a ruler or ruling dynasty, rather than any sense of shared national identity. The revolutionaries in France claimed to be part of the French Nation-who rose up against Louis XVI in 1789 did so in the name of the people, and understood the people to be the 'French nation'. Their ideas drew on the idea of the national will of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Nationalism was a revolutionary and democratic, which sought to overturn the old order and begin a new era of popular government. This new idea reject empires as well as monarchies and while it was initially French it appealed to any group of people who defined themselves as a nation and it appealed to liberal modernisers who sought reform and political progress. The nation should be its own master. During the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (1792-1815) , areas of Europe who were invaded by France, were attracted to the ideals of democracy and patriotism as much as they resented the French. The led to a consciousness of national unity, expressed in a new language of nationalism. These ideas spread to Latin America in the early nineteenth century, where Simon Bolivar (1783-1830) , 'the Liberator', led revolutions against Spanish rule in what was then New Grenada, now the countries of Colombia, Venezuela and Ecuador, as well as in Peru and Bolivia. In the 20th Century national identity, self government and democracy became the rallying cry of independence movements across the all of European empires. While the revolutionary war which created the USA had been motivated by the same ideals of democracy and self determination the sense of an American patriotism came later.

Nationalism re-shaped the map of Europe in the nineteenth century as the autocratic and multinational empires of Turkey, Austria and Russia started to crumble in the face of liberal and nationalist pressure. In 1848, nationalist uprisings broke out in the Italian states, among the Czechs and the Hungarians, and in Germany, where the desire for national unity was expressed in the creation of the short-lived Frankfurt parliament. The nineteenth century was a period of nation building.

Italy, once dismissed by the Austrian Chancellor Metternich as a 'mere geographical expression', became a united state in 1861, the process of unification being completed with the acquisition of Rome in 1870. Germany, formerly a collection of 39 states, was unified in 1871, following the Franco-Prussian War. Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to assume that nationalism was either an irresistible or a genuinely popular movement during this period. Enthusiasm for nationalism was largely restricted to the rising middle classes, who were attracted to the ideas of national unity and constitutional government.

Jingoism and populist nationalism-each nation for itself-

By the end of the nineteenth-century nationalism had become a truly popular movement, with the spread of flags, national anthems, patriotic poetry and literature, public ceremonies and national holidays. Nationalism became the language of mass politics, made possible by the growth of primary education, mass literacy and the spread of popular newspapers. The character of nation­alism also changed. Nationalism had previously been associated with liberal and progressive movements but was taken up increasingly by conservative and reactionary politicians. Nationalism came to stand for social cohesion, order and stability, particularly in the face of the growing challenge of socialism, which embodied the ideas of social revolution and international working-class solidarity. Nationalism sought to integrate the increasingly powerful working class into the nation, and so to preserve the established social structure. Patriotic fervour was no longer aroused by the prospect of political liberty or democ­racy but by the commemoration of past national glories and military victo­ries. Such nationalism became increasingly chauvinistic and xenophobic.

Each nation claimed its own unique or superior qualities, while other nations were regarded as alien, untrustworthy, even menacing. This new climate of pop­ular nationalism helped to fuel policies of imperialism that inten­sified dramatically in the 1870s and 1880s and, by the end of the century, had brought most of the world's population under European control. It also con­tributed to a mood of international rivalry and suspicion, which led to world war in 1914.

The liberal doctrine of self determination and the rise of hyper nationalism- fascism

At the end of World War1, at the Paris Peace Conference, US President Woodrow Wilson advocated the principle of national self-determination. The German, Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires were broken up and eight new states created, including Finland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland and Yugoslavia. These new countries were designed to be nation-states that conformed to the geography' of existing national or ethnic groups. However, this was not applied to the colonial processions of the UK and France. However World War and the experience of defeat, and disappoint­ment with the terms of the peace treaties, left an inheritance of frustrated ambition and bitterness. This was most evident in Germany, Italy and Japan, where fascist or authoritarian movements came to power in the inter-war period by promising to restore national pride through policies of expansion and empire. Nationalism was therefore a powerful factor leading to war in both 1914 and 1939.

Anticolonial nationalism

During the twentieth century the doctrine of nationalism, which had been born in Europe, spread throughout the globe as the peoples of Asia and Africa rose in opposition to colonial rule. The process of colonialism had involved not only the establishment of political control and economic dominance, but also the importation of western ideas, including nationalism, which began to be used against the colonial masters themselves. Nationalist uprisings took place in Egypt in 1919 and quickly spread throughout the Middle East. The Anglo­Afghan war also broke out in 1919, and rebellions took place in India, the Dutch East Indies and Indochina. After 1945, the map of Africa and Asia was re-drawn as the British, French, Dutch and Portuguese empires each disinte­grated in the face of nationalist movements that succeeded in either negotiating independence or winning wars of 'national liberation'.

Anti-colonialism not only witnessed the spread of western-style nationalism to the developing world, but also generated new forms of nationalism. Nation­alism in the developing world has embraced a wide range of movements. In China, Vietnam and parts of Africa, nationalism has been fused with Marx­ism, and national liberation has been regarded not simply as a political goal but as part of a social revolution. Elsewhere, developing-world nationalism has been anti-western, rejecting both liberal democratic and revolutionary socialist conceptions of nationhood. This has been particularly evident in the rise of forms of religious nationalism and especially in the emergence of religious fundamentalism. The relationship between nationalism and religious fundamentalism is examined later in the chapter, in association with postcolonial nationalism.