Nationalism as a Cause of World War 1

As the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I approaches, historians and scholars continue to dissect the complex web of political, economic, and social factors that led the major powers of Europe to engage in a conflict of unprecedented scale and destruction.

nationalism as a cause of world war 1
nationalism as a cause of world war 1

While militarism, imperialism, and an entangling system of alliances each played important roles, one of the primary underlying causes that pulled these various threads together was the rise of aggressive nationalism across the continent in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Nationalist sentiments had been growing steadily stronger in countries like Germany, France, Britain, Austria-Hungary and Russia for decades as modern nationalist ideologies took hold among intellectuals and politicians.

After centuries of dynastic rule by royal families and empires, the rise of democracy and representative government led many to place greater importance on ethnic and cultural identities defined by language, heritage, and territory.

Nationalism introduced a new and powerful tribalism that divided people from one another based on allegiance to the nation-state.

In Germany, which had only recently unified in 1871 after centuries as separate kingdoms and principalities, a virulent strain of nationalism took root under Otto von Bismarck and successive Kaiser emperors who sought to instill pride and cohesion in the new German Reich.

Elsewhere, long-established colonial empires like Britain and France faced a mix of aggressive nationalism abroad and demands for independence from subjected populations at home.

In the Balkans, the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire left a precarious patchwork of aspiring nation-states mixed with large ethnic populations clinging to dreams of territorial expansion.

It was in this volatile atmosphere of competing nationalisms, emerging from both new and old regimes, that the assassination in 1914 of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand by Serbian nationalists would transform a regional dispute into a global conflagration.

This article will explore how nationalist ideologies took hold across Europe in the late 19th century and helped drive major powers into destructive conflict, a lesson that remains relevant as nationalist movements again rise in the modern world.

The Importance of the Balkan Crisis

Of all the flashpoints that contributed to the outbreak of World War I, perhaps none was as volatile as the long-simmering disputes and territorial conflicts across the Balkans.

Straddling the borderlands of major European empires and home to a complex ethnic patchwork, tensions in this war-torn region had been exacerbated for decades by receding Ottoman rule and emerging nationalist movements.

Serbia, newly independent after the 1877-78 war that drove Turkish forces from the region, sought to Liberate and unite southern Slavs still under foreign domination.

This pan-Slavic agenda brought it into direct conflict with the neighboring Austro-Hungarian Empire, which controlled sizeable Slovene, Croat, Serbian, and other Slavic populations.

Tensions escalated in 1903 when a coup in Belgrade installed a pro-Russian, nationalist-minded king and aligned Serbia more closely with Russia, Austria-Hungary’s chief rival.

Five years later, the hotly disputed annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina by Austria-Hungary threw fuel on the fire.

The land had been under joint Austro-Ottoman administration but was populated largely by Serbs. Serbia protested vehemently, seeing the takeover as an affront to its goals of regional Slavic unity.

With Serbia also rapidly modernizing its military with French and Russian help, Vienna grew increasingly wary of its neighbor’s ambitions.

When the Balkan states of Serbia, Montenegro, Greece and Bulgaria defeated the Ottomans in the First Balkan War of 1912-13, carving up former Turkish holdings, new disputes arose over borders and minorities.

A Second Balkan War soon erupted between the victors as they turned on each another. By 1914, as nationalist and irredentist passions ran at a fever pitch across the region, all that was needed was a spark.

That spark would be provided when a Serbian nationalist extremist group assassinated Austria-Hungary’s heir to the throne, setting in motion the chain of events that led the great powers headlong into total war.

The Power of Propaganda and Invasion Literature

As tensions mounted in the Late 19th/early 20th century, Europe’s major powers increasingly turned to nationalism to bolster domestic support and stoke patriotic fervor.

Knowing that nationalism was most effective when embraced on an emotional, rather than rational, level, governments pooled resources into sophisticated propaganda campaigns.

Through press outlets, schools, arts subsidies and patriotic societies, they sought to inculcate citizens with a sense of cultural superiority and destiny.

Nowhere was this more evident than imperial Germany, where a concerted effort was made after unification to develop a cohesive national identity.

The education system placed heavy focus on teaching German heritage and great men like Bismarck, while censorship laws kept “undesirable” foreign influences at bay. jingoistic poets like Freiligrath penned rousing verses celebrating Teutonic power and glory.

Britain also recognized the usefulness of propaganda in governing its far-flung empire. Newspapers published uplifting stories about British innovations and the civilizing mission, along with lurid tales of brutality from rival empires.

Figures like author Rudyard Kipling, born in British India, extolled duty to the empire and unity of the “Anglo-Saxon” race.

Even ostensibly liberal France hadn’t shied away from jingoism, with schools imprinting lessons of French cultural eminence since the Revolution.

Elites deliberately promoted an aggressive nationalism focused on revanchism and revenge against Germany.

As the possibility of war emerged, these well-oiled propaganda machines kicked into overdrive to maintain domestic commitment while demonizing opponents.

They ensured people saw their own cause as righteous and the enemy’s as morally corrupt – a effective means to galvanize support that would prove tragically consequential in 1914.

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Nationalism in Germany

While nationalism was on the rise across Europe in the late 19th century, perhaps no country saw its development – and the challenges it posed – like the new German Empire.

Only decades prior, the land encompassing modern Germany had been a patchwork of over 300 independent states – from large kingdoms to tiny principalities – without a unifying identity or government.

Otto von Bismarck, as Chancellor of Prussia, successfully engineered unification in 1871 through “blood and iron,” crushing rivals and declaring Kaiser Wilhelm I head of a new German Reich.

However, transforming this collection of factions into a cohesive nation would not be easy. Bismarck recognized that nationalism could be a double-edged sword, bringing unity but also challenging his authoritarian rule.

As such, he carefully cultivated national symbols and patriotism focused on loyalty to the state. School curriculums standardized history lessons around heroes of German folklore.

Public works projects like autobahns gave the people a tangible symbol of national greatness. Strict press and speech laws kept nationalist fervor directed towards external goals like colonization rather than internal debate.

However, with Bismarck’s ouster in 1890, Kaiser Wilhelm II pursued a more confrontational nationalist agenda that disturbed Europe.

His bombastic rhetoric played upon hatred of neighbors like Britain while emphasizing racial tropes of Teutonic supremacy.

As Germany modernized its industry and militarized, its nationalism took on a defensive, insecure tone – seeing encirclement by jealous rivals despite being a dominant continental power.

By 1914, over two decades of increasingly aggressive pan-German nationalist movements, colonial adventurism and naval arms race had made the Reich a tinderbox.

It took only the spark of Austrian belligerence towards Serbia, backed by Germany’s blank check, to push the continent into all-out war amid highly combustible conditions of ethnic nationalisms.

Nationalism in the United Kingdom and Its Colonies

While British nationalism projected an image of staunch unity to the world, cracks were developing in the foundation of the global British Empire by the early 20th century.

After over a century of unchallenged dominance over a quarter of the world’s population, movements were stirring that sought independence and self-rule.

In the sprawling colonies of Asia and Africa, voices of resistance grew against exploitation by British imperialism.

Nationalist leaders emerged like India’s Gandhi, forging anti-colonial ideologies and civil disobedience campaigns.

Culturally, figures like Rabindranath Tagore voiced pride in indigenous heritage that rejected doting on English traditions.

Meanwhile, the centuries-old occupation of Ireland took a violent turn as Irish Republican groups like the IRA fought for full separation via guerrilla tactics. Pacifying Ireland drained British coffers and manpower.

Even within Britain, new tensions arose. The rise of trade unionism and the Labour party represented millions who felt left behind by the pro-business ruling class. In Scotland and Wales, calls arose for more autonomy within the UK.

British leaders responded by promoting imperial nationalism as the unifying force, stressing responsibility to civilize “lesser races” and spread progress. Patriotic societies dispatched lecturers worldwide and boosted productions like Kipling’s novel Kim.

However, these messages began falling on ever deafer ears abroad. When war erupted, enthusiasm from colonials like Indian troops masked bitterness that they were risking life and limb for a power grown detached from their interests.

Ultimately, this disconnect would accelerate the Empire’s collapse after idealistic colonials witnessed the war’s harsh disillusionments.

Nationalism and Russia

While nationalist sentiment flourished across Europe in the late 19th century, its development took a particularly fraught form in the vast lands of the Russian Empire.

Encompassing over 100 ethnic groups across Eastern Europe and Central Asia, imperial Russia struggled with inherent tensions between a culturally Russian identity and respecting diversity.

The reign of Tsar Nicholas II epitomized these challenges. A fervent proponent of the autocratic divine right of Russian sovereignty, he showed little understanding of restive non-Russian subjects seeking self-determination like Poles, Jews and Baltic peoples. Reforms were few under his watch.

Militarism and the Orthodox Church both played strong roles in promoting Russian nationalism as holy defense against encroaching foreign ideals.

Cyrillic script was imposed on newly conquered regions in a Russification campaign that bred resentment.

Meanwhile, forces for change grew within the empire’s borders. A new generation of Marxist intellectuals and activists organized a rising Leftist movement calling for democratic reforms, workers rights, and national equality. Figures like Lenin railed against the Tsar’s backwards policies and unfit leadership.

As Russia entered World War I under Nicholas’ command, his stubborn jingoism blinded him to preparedness problems and the human toll as millions perished.

By 1917, a perfect storm of economic collapse, military losses and unrest spawned the Russian Revolution, ending 300 years of Romanov rule.

While nationalism initially united Russia’s massive lands, the Tsar’s refusal to acknowledge diversity among the empire’s peoples ultimately accelerated his country’s unraveling from within—a cautionary example of forced unity bred through misguided ethnic chauvinism alone.


As the events leading to World War I make clear, the rise of aggressive ethnic nationalism in the late 19th/early 20th century had profoundly destabilizing consequences for Europe and the world.

By subordinating peaceful diplomacy, rational self-interest, and shared humanity to competitive notions of racial and cultural supremacy, the major powers succumbed to a combustible brew of mutual suspicion, hostility, and militarism.

Ultimately, it would take a war of unprecedented scale and carnage to settle territorial and colonial disputes that nationalism had inflamed.

In the wreckage of 1919, the political map of Europe and beyond had been redrawn, but nationalism’s legacy lives on.

Throughout the 20th century, we witnessed repeated instances of warfare, genocide and human rights violations stemming directly from virulent ethnonationalist ideologies in countless conflicts around the globe.

Even today, nationalist movements in Europe, Asia, and elsewhere continue preaching fear of the outsider, stoking historical grievances, and threatening regional stability.

As this century brings changes to established geopolitical structures, nationalist rhetoric appealing to cultural identity and lost glory fills voids left by weakening established institutions.

Unless vigilantly checked through inclusive policies promoting civil equality and humanism over “blood and soil,” these demagogic forces could lead populations once more down destructive paths seen a hundred years ago.

Understanding how ultimately self-defeating urges like revenge, revanchism and xenophobia contributed to the outbreak of World War I remains as important as ever for avoiding new disasters stemming from unchecked nationalism’s siren call.