What is Nationalism?



Peter Engholm

Monash University, 1997





This paper will explain the term ”nationalism”, and look at Europe in the late nineteenth century to see its development. It shall be argued that the late nineteenth century was an era of nationalism. In fact, the whole era from the French revolution and until today’s date is an era of nationalism, with the definition and appearance of it continuously changing.


Europe, nationalism



”Ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country.”

These words, once uttered by president John F. Kennedy, expresses the expectations of how we as citizens should focus our hearts and minds on the country to which we belong.  This is significant for the twentieth century, proved by, that in many past wars, patriotic young men heroically sacrificed their own lives for the sake of their country.

Love for the country and love for the people who live there has formed a special bond between people that we can call ”nationalism”.

This paper explains the term ”nationalism”, as well as looking at Europe in the late nineteenth century progressing in its development, and concludes whether this era can be said to be an era of nationalism.

The problem with defining ”nationalism” is that there is no single, accepted explanation of it.  Today, nationalism is often connected with racism, fascism and hatred, but in the nineteenth century it had other meanings.  Writers and expressionists at that time often discussed the meaning of a ”nation” and a ”state”, with different viewpoints.  G.W.F. Hegel (1770-1831), for example, saw the nation as the realization of a transition from a family or a clan to political conditions (Dahbour/Ishay, p.78), while Lord Acton (1834-1902) considered it more as a soul, ”...wandering in search of a body in which to begin life over again” (Dahbour/Ishay, p.109).  This last view was also defended by Ernest Renan (1823-1892), who rejected the later on more accepted views of what builds up a nation.  These include the common interests among people such as religion, race, language etc. (Dahbour/Ishay, p.147-53).  Whether a nation is a group of people with common interests, already in possession of a land, or the more vague notion of a wandering soul can be argued indefinitely, but the fact that these questions were widely discussed throughout Europe in this era is obvious, and the step from talking about nations and self determined states to the true practice of nationalism is insignificantly little.  Thus, the best explanation we can obtain from nationalism in late nineteenth century Europe (collecting information and thoughts from citizens at that time and looking backwards at the occurrences) is the increased awareness of living together in a unified form and to mobilize the political will of a people or a large section of a population - a principle and a vehicle for activating human beings for the purposes of achieving a common goal (Alter, p.4).  A modern writer, Thomas Spira (Palumbo/Shanahan, p.34) might want to include common religious beliefs and a common language to this criteria, but it will not be hard to understand that the desire of living together in one state necessarily do not have to include that kind of criteria. An example of this is Switzerland, which is, despite of its different languages and religious beliefs, still united as a state.  It must be mentioned, though, that nationalistic expressions at that time differed from country to country, as shall be shown. How it was manifested and why it was manifested is still of great concern.

Many historians agree that modern nationalism emerged from the French Revolution in 1789.  The idea of a state with a government rested on the principle that the people’s needs, not the king’s will, would direct the affairs became more apparent. The theory was that the state should be designed to serve the individual, and secondly, as indicated by president Kennedy, the individual should serve the state (Betts, ch.2).

Keeping in mind that the nationalistic results of the French Revolution began to inspire citizens in Europe, mainly among the bourgeoisie, other factors helped out to make the thoughts spread and develop.  Entering the late nineteenth century, Europe was to find itself being faced to new terms as imperialism, industrialism, class development and improved education, literacy, and transport systems - all to build up nationalism as well as the creation of nation-states.  Historians and writers actively helped out to develop the ”national awakening” and past political orders and great empires were reinterpreted as the forerunners of the nation-states to come (Alter, p.44-45).  Giuseppe Mazzini (1805-1872) was one of these writers who built his ideas on the reflection on former Roman greatness in his ”The Duties of Man”, published in 1861:

              ”Today a third mission is dawning for our Italy; as much vaster than
              those of old as the Italian People, the free and united Country which
              you are going to found, will be greater and more powerful than
              Ceasars and Popes.”  (Dahbour/Ishay, p.96)

Mazzini is an example of the ”romantic nationalists” who tried to combine myth of past communal happiness with the promise of meaningful future political unity.  This led Italy to hope for a ”New Rome” once the land was united (Betts, ch.2).

But it was on account of the improved communications that the ideas became available for the masses, and improved communications was a result of the industrialism making its harsh way into the nineteenth century.  This new society  gave rise to the division of labour, and differentiation and specialization of work.  These rapid changes made traditional social ties collapse and new loyalties needed.  In this process, nationalism provided the individual with a vision of personal development and the devotion to a nation seemed to become an inner need (Alter, p.55-56).

Imperialism played an important role in the development of nationalism. The German states, for example, could see what the Great British Empire achieved with their colonization and the gains thereof.  The fear that the German nation would be impotent to compete with other nations if it lacked a steadfast unity was apparent.  This was the most important reason for forming a united German nation-state; not the people’s will, but the notion of not ”being deprived the place in the sun” in competition with other countries in Europe, particularly Great Britain and France (Alter, p.28-30).
It became easy for nationalists to conclude that the bigger the state was in size, the greater it was in culture and civilization, and of course it also would benefit economic gains from it (Betts, ch.6).  In Fichte’s ”Addresses to the German Nation” the German people could read about their nobility and their duty to create a strong German nation:

              ”What man of noble mind is there who does not want to scatter, by action or thought, a grain of seed for the unending process in perfection of his race, to fling something new and unprecedented into time, that it may remain there and become the inexhaustible source of new creations?” (Dahbour/Ishay, p. 63)

Thus it can be said that Germany and Italy was found with aims to become a state with great power, being able to compete with other European countries.  Nationalism in other parts of Europe, however, showed other sides.  In Ireland, for example, the rural population was the backbone for the constitutional nationalism, led by the urban middle class whose goal was an autonomous Ireland within the United Kingdom.  Not until in the beginning of the twentieth century, the wishes to be a separate state rose within the Irish nationalistic movement (Alter, p.53-54).

Nationalistic ideas have affected most of the European countries, if not all, from the end of the French Revolution in 1789 to the present date.  The fact is, that in the late nineteenth century five new states were founded;  Italy, Germany, Romania, Serbia, and Montenegro.  But the nationalistic movements also affected already existing states such as Great Britain (Ireland left the union 1922) and Sweden, which Norway was separated from in 1905.  In Balkan, various factors helped nation-states to crystallize from large multinational empires, such as the Ottoman Empire (Alter,

In conclusion, nationalism can be seen in its different variations.  It could result in merging smaller states together, or splitting bigger empires to smaller self determined nations.  Modern nation-based Europe has generated nation-states of different quality and form.  Since the early nineteenth century there have been monarchical, republican and dictatorial forms of nation-states (Alter, p.72), but no doubt can the late nineteenth century be described as an era of nationalism.  In fact, the entire era from the French Revolution through today is an era of nationalism, with the definition and appearance of it continuously changing.  The industrialization, however, gave it a helping hand to be developed and wide-spread, and people’s eyes and minds were opened for new possibilities, new personal developments and new relationships within a nation - within their own nation.


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Alter, P., Nationalism, 2nd ed., (London, 1994), p. 4, 28-30, 44-45, 53-56, 70-73

Betts, R.F., Europe in Retrospect: A Brief History of the Last Two Hundred Years., (Lexington, Massachusetts, D. C. Heath, 1979), chapter 2 and 6

Hegel, G.W.F., Extracts from The Philosophy of Right in Dahbour O./Ishay M.R., The Nationalism Reader, (New Jersey, 1995), p. 78

Lord Acton, Extracts from ”Nationality” (1907) in Dahbour O./Ishay M.R., The Nationalism Reader, (New Jersey, 1995), p. 109

Mazzini, G., Extracts from The Duties of Man in Dahbour O./Ishay M.R., The Nationalism Reader, (New Jersey, 1995), p. 96

Renan, E., Extracts from ”What Is a Nation?” (1939) in Dahbour O./Ishay M.R., The Nationalism Reader, (New Jersey, 1995), p. 147-53

Spira T., ”Nationalism: Recent Research and New Opportunities” in Palumbo, M./Shanahan, W.O., Nationalism: Essays in honour of Louis L. Snyder, (New York, 1981), p. 34