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Nationalism is an ideology that creates and sustains a nation as a concept of a common identity for groups of humans. According to the theory of nationalism, the preservation of identity features, the independence in all subjects, the wellbeing, and the glory of one's own nation are fundamental values.

Nationalists base nations on various notions of political legitimacy. These can derive from the Romantic theory of "cultural identity", the liberal argument that political legitimacy is derived from the consent of a region's population, or combinations of the two.

The modern vernacular use of nationalism refers to the political (and military) exercise of ethnic and religious nationalism, as defined below. Political scientists usually tend to research and focus on the more extreme forms of nationalism usually related with National Socialism, separatism etc.



Nationalism is a controversial term, as its most general definition is broad and has been controversial throughout history, and specific examples of nationalism are extremely diverse. Often the most negative consequences of the clash of nationalisms, ethnic tension, war, and political conflicts within states, are taken for nationalism itself, leading some to view the general concept of nationalism negatively and others to argue that viewing nationalism through its most negative consequences distorts the meaning of the term.

Depending on the specific content of a nationalism, it may or may not necessarily imply that one nation is better than another. At times it simply argues that a given nation is better off when it is permitted to govern themselves, following its own political, economic, and cultural interests independently. Jingoism is a more pejorative term for a nationalism that emphasizes the superiority of one nation over another.

All forms of nationalism must answer the question of who belongs to the nation and who does not, and what does belonging to a nation mean. Early theories of nationalism took the view that the existence and boundaries of a nation were the natural consequence of ethnicity and geography. However, in the late 20th century, theorists of nationalism influenced by postmodernism began to argue that the concept of nations is a socially constructed phenomenon. Benedict Anderson, for example, termed the concept of nation as imagined communities. Ernest Gellner further discusses the concept: "Nationalism is not the awakening of nations to self-consciousness: it invents nations where they do not exist." (Anderson and Gellner deploy terms such as 'imagined' and 'invent' in a neutral, descriptive manner. The use of these terms in this context is not intended to imply that nations are fictional or fantastic.) As such, they view the necessary conditions for nationalism as including such things as the printing press and capitalism.

Anthony Smith proposes a synthesis of 'post-modernist' and traditional views. According to Smith, the preconditions for the formation of a nation are a fixed homeland (current or historical), high autonomy, hostile surroundings, memories of battles, sacred centres, languages and scripts, special customs, historical records and thinking. Smith considers that nations are formed through the inclusion of the whole populace (not just elites), constitution of legal and political institutions, nationalist ideology, international recognition and drawing up of borders.

Evolution of nationalism

The nation-state was born in Europe with the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. People long before that time often displayed great zeal for the place that they lived very much like nationalism but it did not rely exclusively on the idea of nationhood. Divisions along the lines of religion and culture were more important in times past and rather then owing allegiance to the land on which they lived they tended to owe their allegiance to the ruler who reigned over them. The ancient Greeks called everyone who was not Greek a barbarian but the Greek city states often fought amongst themselves for dominance. Nationalism can be thought of as recognition that another nation exists but our nation is superior whereas before that only one nation was recognised and barbarians were simply people who had not yet been conquered and made part of the nation.

Nationalism was still an elite phenomenon for a couple of centuries after the Treaty of Westphalia, but during the 19th century in Europe it spread widely and became popularized. Nationalism has dominated European and even global politics ever since. Much of 19th century European politics can be seen as a struggle between newer nationalist movements and old autocratic regimes. In some cases nationalism took a liberal anti-monarchical face whereas in other cases nationalist movements were co-opted by conservative monarchical regimes. Gradually through that century the old multi-national states such as the Austro-Hungarian Empire began to lose their grip, and various localized states were absorbed into larger national entities, most notably Germany and Italy.

By the end of the 19th century, nationalistic ideas had began to spread into Asia. In India, nationalism began to encourage calls for the end of British rule. In China, nationalism created a justification for the Chinese state that was at odds with the idea of the universal empire. In Japan, nationalism combined with Japanese exceptionalism.

The First World War marked the final destruction of several multinational states (Ottoman Empire, Austro-Hungarian Empire, and to some extent Russia). The Versailles Treaty was marked by an attempt to recognize the principle of nationalism, as most of Europe was divided into nation states in an attempt to keep the peace. However, several multinational states and empires survived. The 20th century has also been marked by the slow assertion of nationalism around the world with the destruction of European colonial Empires, the Soviet Union, and various other smaller multinational states.

At the same time, particularly in the latter half of the century, trends which some have interpreted as anti-nationalistic have taken place. The European Union is now transferring power from the national level to both local and continental bodies. Also, many critics of globalization assert that trade agreements, such as NAFTA and the GATT, and the increasing internationalization of trade markets are weakening the sovereignty of the nation state.

However, nationalism continues to assert itself in response to those trends. Street demonstrators vehemently oppose the negative aspects of globalization (see ATTAC), nationalistic parties continue to do well in elections, and most people continue to have a strong sense of attachment to their nationality. Moreover, it is not necessarily the case that globalism and European federalism are necessarily opposed to nationalism. For example, many theorists of Chinese nationalism within the People's Republic of China have articulated the idea that China's national power is substantially enhanced, rather than being reduced, by engaging in international trade and multinational organizations. With regard to European federalism, some of the strongest supporters of a more powerful Europe are local nationalist groups such as Catalans and Welsh nationalists who believe that that a stronger European center will create a Europe of the regions and limit the power of current nation-states.

Forms of nationalism

Nationalism may manifest itself as part of official state ideology or as a popular (non-state) movement and may be expressed along civic, ethnic, cultural, religious or ideological lines. However such categories are not mutually exclusive and many nationalist theories combine some or all of these elements to varying degrees.

Civic nationalism (also civil nationalism) is the form of nationalism in which the state derives political legitimacy from the active participation of its citizenry, the "will of the people"; "political representation". This theory was first developed by Jean-Jacques Rousseau and put down in various writings, particularly On the Social Contract. (See Social contract theories for a more in-depth discussion of the historical development of this philosophy.)

Civic nationalism lies within the traditions of rationalism and liberalism. It is the theory behind representative democracies such as the United States and France.

Ethnic nationalism is the form of nationalism in which the state derives political legitimacy from historical cultural or hereditary groupings (ethnicities). This was developed by Johann Gottfried von Herder, who introduced the concept of the Volk.

Romantic nationalism (also organic nationalism, identity nationalism) is the form of ethnic nationalism in which the state derives political legitimacy as a natural ("organic") consequence of race; in the spirit of Romanticism and opposed to Enlightenment rationalism. Romantic nationalism relies upon the existence of a historical ethnic culture which meets the Romantic Ideal; folklore developed as a Romantic nationalist concept. The Brothers Grimm were inspired by Herder's writings to create an idealized collection of tales which they labeled as ethnic German. See Populism and Nationalism; Giuseppe Mazzini (Italy), Jules Michelet (France), Johann Gottlieb Fichte (Germany), Roman Dmowski (Poland).

Cultural nationalism is a form of nationalism where only culture and not any hereditary features (such as skin pigmentation) becomes the central aspect of what constitues the nation. The best example for cultural nationalists are the Chinese who consider their nation to be based on culture. Race is being played down by these nationalists as they consider Manchus and other national minorities as part of the Chinese nation. The Qing dynasty's willingness to adapt to Chinese customs shows the supremacy of the mainstream Chinese culture. Many Chinese on Taiwan consider themselves Chinese nationalists because of their cultural background but they reject the Chinese Communist government.

State nationalism is a variant on civic nationalism, very often combined with ethnic nationalism. The nationalistic feelings are that strong that they often get priority over the universal rights and liberties. The success of the state often contrasts and conflicts with the principles of a democratic society. The maintenance of the national state is a superior argument, as if it brings better government on its own. Typical examples are Nazism, but also the contemporary Turkish nationalism, and in a lesser form the right-wing Franquism in Spain, and the 'Jacobin' attitude towards the unitary and centralist French state, as well as Belgian nationalism, fiercely opposed towards equal rights and more autonomy for the Flemings, and the Basque or Corsican nationalists. Systematically, wherever state nationalism is strong, there are conflicting appeals to both the loyalty of the people, and on territories, as the Turkish nationalism and its brutal repression of Kurdish nationalism, the opposition between strong central governement in Spain and France with Basque, Catalan, and Corsican nationalism.

Religious nationalism is the form of nationalism in which the state derives political legitimacy as a consequence of shared religion. Zionism is an example, though many, if not most, forms of ethnic nationalism are in some ways religious nationalism as well. For example, Irish nationalism is associated with Catholicism; Indian nationalism is associated with Hinduism. In modern India, a contempary form of Hindu nationalism, or Hindutva has been prominent among many followers of the BJP and RSS. In general, religious nationalism is viewed as a form of ethnic nationalism.

Sometimes however religion is more of a marker of a group than the motivation for their nationalism. For example although most Irish nationalist leaders of the last 100 years are Catholic, in the 19th century and especially in the 18th century many nationalistic leaders were Protestant. Irish nationalists are not fighting for theological distinctions like transubstantiation, the status of the Virgin Mary, or the primacy of the Pope. Rather they are fighting for an ideology that identifies the geographical island of Ireland with a particular view of Irish culture, which for some nationalists does include Catholicism but has as a more dominant element other elements of culture. For many nations that had to struggle against the consequences of the imperialism of another nation, nationalism was linked to the pursuit of an ideal of freedom.

Islam is nominally opposed to any notion of Nationalism, Tribalism, Racism, or any other categorization of people not based on one's beliefs. Instead of nationalism, Islam advocates a strong feeling of community between all muslims, which is called the Ummah. This feeling of communal consciousness is emphasised by the awareness that a Muslim's daily prayers are shared with others as the sun sweeps across the globe, and during the holy month of Ramadan when worldwide Muslims fast and give charity together, and culminates in the sacred Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca in which muslim men and women of all cultures, colours, and backgrounds come together. The word ummah is often incorrectly translated into English as the Islamic "nation" (not to be confused with the "Nation of Islam" which differs altogether from the teachings of Islam and is disapproved of by most Muslims).

Banal nationalism is a concept put forward by Michael Billig (Prof. Social sciences, University of Loughborough ) whereby the everyday, less visible forms of nationalism exist, that remind and shape the minds of the nations on a day to day basis.


Extremist political movements such as fascism and Stalinism are usually marked by a strong combination of ethnic nationalism and state nationalism , the most extreme example being Nazism (see Nazi Germany). While Stalinism was not overtly nationalist in doctrine, ethnic minorities within the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe were brutally repressed during Stalin's reign, and a strong nationalist character was encouraged during World War II (the Great Patriotic War).

In some cases there has been a reaction against nationalism. An example was the perception in pre-World War I, European socialist movements that nationalism was being used to prevent workers uniting against capitalism. Adherents to globalisation also discourage nationalistic tendencies, as nationalism can be a barrier to global trade and a global capitalist system.

Another example is in present-day Germany, Israel, Ireland and Japan where there are people who are not comfortable with any nationalistic, patriotic, or even cultural symbols, because these have become associated (and permanently discredited in their view) with violent nationalism (see self-hatred).

Commonalities of all forms of nationalism

Some political theorists make the case that any discrimination of forms of nationalism is false. All forms of nationalism rely on the population being a nation; that is, that all the members of the population believe that they share some kind of common culture, and culture can't be wholly separated from ethnicity. Even the supposedly ethnically neutral "civic culture" of the United States, for example, relies on English as the one national language, has "God" on its coinage and in its Pledge of Allegiance, and designates official holidays, which promote cultural biases.

See also the concept of Manifest Destiny, American nativism, the House Un-American Activities Committee.

What makes nationalism so attractive?

One reason why nationalism has maintained its appeal over the centuries might be that belonging to a culturally, economically or politically strong nation makes one feel better regardless of one's own contribution to this strength.

Prominent nationalists

Benedict Anderson has stated, "only face-to-face contact can sustain community: nations are in some sense an illusion." [2] (see also [3] ).

Historical nationalism

Historical events (not just wars) in which nationalism played an essential role have included:

The two World Wars, World War I and World War II, can also be described as historical events fueled by nationalism, though wars are listed in the following section.

Related concepts

Nation and state, nation-state

A nation is not to be confused with a state, although nation is many times wrongfully used as a synonym for such. See: nation state.


Anti-nationalism is the idea that nationalism is dangerous and leads to conflict and war. Inherent in anti-nationalism is the idea that one must reject all forms of jingoism.

Prominent anti-nationalists have included:


Patriotism is mostly synonymous with nationalism. However, in an English language context, it differs in that patriotism is usually regarded as something positive within the national group, while nationalism is usually projected on others, usually with a negative effect. In a Continental European context, the distinction is rather that nationalism is projected towards one's own people, i.e. one's nation, while patriotism connotes a state — or an empire — and its government.

See also chauvinism.


A common language has been one of the main presuppositions for nationalism; in France, for example, before the French Revolution, patois such as Breton and Occitan were spoken in the various regions which were incomprehensible to each other. Following the Revolution, French was imposed as the national language. For instance, in Brittany, Celtic names were forbidden. The same phenomenon occurred in Britain and the United States. In the majority of the cases, policies were passed to accelerate the downsizing of minority language groups at various moments in history. Even a policy of laissez-faire with regard to languages will generally lead to a unification under the language of the prevailing group or groups. See also: Language policy in France

Some theorists believe that nationalism became pronounced in the 19th century for the simple reason that language became more important as unifier due to increased literacy. With increasing numbers of people reading newspapers, books, pamphlets and so on, which were increasingly widely available and read since the spread of the printing press, it became possible for the first time to develop a broader cultural attachment that went beyond the local community. At the same time, differences in language solidified, breaking down old dialects, and excluding those from completely different language groups.

Nationalist movements from Ireland to India promote the teaching, preservation, and usage of traditional languages, such as Celtic, Hebrew, and Hindi.

Even the United States, a country which supposedly transcends nationality, has a long tradition of discrimination for other languages than English. Prominent examples are the German language, which was nearly eradicated during World War I; French and Italian have nearly disappeared from everyday life. Today Spanish is a large second language across large portion of the country. Some politicians, such as Pat Buchanan have consciously opposed the rise of Spanish as a second American language for fear that it would undermine traditional institutions.

In the Arab World during the colonial period, the Turkish language, French language, Spanish language and English language were often forced upon the Arabs. When the colonial period ended (mostly after World War Two), a process of "Arabisation" began; reviving the Arabic language to unify their states and to facilitate a broader Arab identity. Countries such as Algeria and Western Sahara have undergone large scale Arabisations, going from French and Spanish to Arabic respectively. Pan-Arabism was a major motivation for this, as were dreams of national liberation which mostly, except for in a few notible cases (Palestine and Western Sahara), came to fruition.


Although nationalism does not necessarily imply a belief in one's own superiority over others, excesses of nationalism have not infrequently led to racist variants of the ideology(see Jingoism). Excessive nationalism or self-pride has convinced many European powers that they were morally justicied to impose their rule to smaller or militarily weaker nations.

Around the beginning of the 20th century in many countries all over the world a tendency existed to mix nationalism with racism. One of the clearest examples of racist nationalism was embodied in the Nazi movement in Germany with the resulting Holocaust.

However there are other examples of racism that could have been motivated through nationalism, including ethnic cleansings during the Yugoslav secession war in the 1990s, the removal of Germans from the Volga Republic during the 1940s, the repressions against blacks in the United States during the 1930s, the extermination of the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire in 1915, terror bombing and gas attacks by the British army in Iraq in the 1920s and 1930s, killing of the Boers in British concentration camps at the end of the 19th century, and others.


Exceeding or violated pride or in the worst case both together can be the most potent driving forces for the rise of nationalism. In Germany the soil for nationalism was prepared by a sequence of a period with exceeding pride followed by a period of defeat and devastation. Whereas during the "Wilhelminian" era exceeding pride has been risen by the German government, the period after WWI was determined by violated pride due to defeat and the conditions of the Versailles Treaty. In conjunction with the resulting economic devastation due to hyperinflation (1922, 1923, and 1929), this lead to the rise of Nazism.

See also

External links

  • Religious Nationalism and Human Rights, David Little, United States Institute of Peace also briefly discusses history of nationalism
  • Internet Modern History Sourcebook: Nationalism's a lot of information here to incorporate
  • Alfred Verdross and Othmar Spann: German Romantic Nationalism, National Socialism and International Law , Anthony Carty , European Journal of International Law
  • The Nationalism Project is the world's most comprehensive website on nationalism.
  • The Prohibition of Nationalism in Islam


  • Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities, ISBN 0860913295
  • Anthony D. Smith, The Ethnic Origins of Nations, London: Basil Blackwell, 1986, pp 6–18.
  • Michael Billig, Banal Nationalism, ISBN 0803975252

Last updated: 02-07-2005 21:37:29
Last updated: 02-20-2005 07:26:06