The extent of nationalism cause the First World War
Question: To what extent did nationalism cause the First World War?
Nationalism was a prominent force in early 20th century Europe and a significant cause of World War I. Nationalism is an intense form of patriotism or loyalty to one’s country. Nationalists exaggerate the importance or virtues of their home country, placing its interests above those of other nations.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, many Europeans, particularly citizens of the so-called Great Powers (Britain, France and Germany) had convinced themselves of the cultural, economic and military supremacy of their nation.
The effects of this growing nationalism were an inflated confidence in one’s nation, its government, economy and military power. Many nationalists also became blind to the faults of their own nation. In matters of foreign affairs or global competition, they were convinced that their country was fair, righteous and beyond fault.
In contrast, nationalists criticised rival nations to the point of demonisation, caricaturing them as aggressive, scheming, deceitful, backward or uncivilised. Nationalist press reports convinced many readers the interests of their country were being threatened by the plotting, scheming and hungry imperialism of its rivals.
The origins of this intense European nationalism are a matter of debate. Nationalism is likely a product of Europe’s complex modern history. The rise of popular sovereignty (the involvement of people in government), the formation of empires and periods of economic growth and social transformation all contributed to nationalist sentiments.
Some historians suggest that nationalism was encouraged and harnessed by European elites to encourage loyalty and compliance. Others believe that nationalism was a by-product of economic and imperial expansion. Growth and prosperity were interpreted by some as a sign of destiny. Other nations and empires, in contrast, were dismissed as inferiors or rivals.
Politicians, diplomats and royals contributed to this nationalism in their speeches and rhetoric. Nationalist sentiment was also prevalent in press reporting and popular culture. The pages of many newspapers were filled with nationalist rhetoric and provocative stories, such as rumours about rival nations and their evil intentions. Nationalist ideas could also be found in literature, music, theatre and art.
In each country, nationalism was underpinned by different attitudes, themes and events. Nationalist sentiment was fuelled by a sense of historical destiny and, therefore, closely tied to the history and development of each nation.
Nationalism was closely linked to militarism. It fostered delusions about the relative military strength of European nations. Many living in the Great Powers considered their nations to be militarily superior and better equipped to win a future war in Europe.
The British, for example, believed their naval power, coupled with the size and resources of the British Empire, would give them the upper hand in any war. Being an island also isolated Britain from invasion or foreign threat.
German leaders, in contrast, placed great faith in Prussian military efficiency, the nation’s powerful industrial base, her new armaments and her expanding fleet of battleships and U-boats (submarines). If war erupted, the German high command had great confidence in the Schlieffen Plan, a preemptive military strategy for defeating France before Russia could mobilise to support her.
In Russia, Tsar Nicholas II 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 heavy industry, which had expanded rapidly in the late 1800s. Paris also played great stock in its defences, particularly a wall of concrete barriers and fortresses running the length of its eastern border.
Nationalist and militarist rhetoric assured Europeans that if war did erupt, their nation would emerge as the victor. Along with its dangerous brothers, imperialism and militarism, nationalism fuelled a continental delusion that contributed to the growing mood for war.
By 1914, Europeans had grown apathetic and dismissive about the dangers of war. This was understandable. Aside from the Crimean War (1853-56) and the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71), the 1800s was a century of comparative peace in Europe. With the exception of France, defeated by the Prussians in 1871, the Great Powers had not experienced a significant military defeat for more than half a century.
For most Europeans, the experiences of war were distant and vague. The British and French had fought colonial wars in Africa and Asia but they were brief conflicts against disorganised and underdeveloped opponents in faraway places. Militarism and nationalism revived the prospects of a European war, as well as naivety and overconfidence about its likely outcomes.