The idea of nationalism came of age in the first few decades of the XX century, but its origin is older. It goes back to the end of the Enlightenment and the rise of the national states. In that time, the ideas of people and of nation started to form.
The People and the Nation
The concept of ‘nation’ is relatively new. It arose from the Enlightenment, then from Romanticism, when the idea of ‘people’ started to emerge in the philosophical arena.
‘People’ is an entity that is born when a group of individuals agree on common values, common behaviours and common representatives of the common will. It is, in itself, an act of will.
‘Nation’ has nothing to do with the will. It is instead a natural state. It’s an ethnic conception which – as A.D. Smith sustains – may be new and original when it manifests but sinks its roots in an ancient group of individuals who shared origin, language, race and all other elements that we group up in the concept of ‘tradition’. The nation is then a condition that grows and becomes more complex over time. It’s layered and multifaceted, and because it grows over time, it is very difficult, and it requires as much time and effort to destroy. It’s a heritage, something that comes to the individual whether they want it or not. Will is not involved in the concept of nation.
It was the French Revolution that started to bring together the idea of people and of nation. The Revolution defined the nation by its people, and the people became a free expression of the natural state of a nation.
From this union, the national states, as we know them today, started to emerge. The idea that a people is the expression of a nation (and so of a particular history, culture, ethnicity) and that a nation occupies a particular space where the people express themselves.
As this new concept became more widespread, the aspiration of different nations to be free and independent arose, giving birth to a great season of the fighting for national independence of the 1800s.
Nationalism was originally the idea that people and nation should match perfectly. It was this very concept that allowed the national states to arise between the beginning of the XIX century and the end of WWI.
The protected environment that flourished in the countries adhering to the Concert of Europe fostered the idea that a state should be a people’s nation.
In the mid-1800s, the idea of nation was still quite liberal. All nations deserved to be independent and free to express themselves. Most people accepted this idea. Upholding the people’s right to express their culture and history inside their nations freely was the first form of nationalism. It was the root and first impulse to the constitution of the national states.
But while this liberal interpretation of nation was all well and acceptable inside Europe, when the European borders were crossed, things became a lot more complicated. In a time of colonialism, how to cope with the right of a colonised country to express themselves? Didn’t all nationalities have the same right to express themselves freely and independently?
Of course, the answer could never be ‘yes’ or colonialism would have been unacceptable. There needed to be a different answer.
So the answer was that yes, ideally all nationalities should be able to express themselves freely. Unfortunately, not all nations have the same level of advancement. Some nations are more civilised and more advanced than others. They have a moral duty to dominate the lesser nations so to help them bring themselves – one day, as far away as possible – to the same level.
Nationalism then ceased to be a liberal idea and became an oppressive one, which required and employed violence and conquest.
This was the situation at the end of the XIX century. Then WWI broke out.
When WWI broke out, everybody expected the same kind of war as ever, which, inside the confines of Europe, meant a sort of chivalrous sport. It was a way like another to settle differences when diplomacy was not available or recommend
This is the reason why everybody thought it would last only a few months. Come winter, it was going to be over.
But the industrial war was unlike any other ever seen before. It brought in a level of cruelty and death that nobody expected, nobody could explain, nobody could accept, and nobody could forgive. The opposing part ceased to be a chivalrous opponent and turned into an enemy, a lesser being who would use horrible means to win. The only option was to use means just as horrible.
A part of historians explain that the colonial space broke into the European space. All the nations started to think to their opponents in the same terms they thought to colonised lesser nations. That is, they started to apply the colonialist ideals to their fellow European nations. Consequently, they would think of themselves as superior, more civilised and of course, deserving of more space to conquest.That the idea of nationalism goes back to the Enlightenment and the rise of the national states, when the ideas of people and of nation started to form #history Click To Tweet
When WWI ended, these ideas were firmly rooted in all European people. All countries now thought in terms of ‘us’ and ‘them’. It’s part of the reason why the Guilt Clause was in the Treaty of Versailles. Why Germany had to shoulder the entire responsibility of the war.
It was the worst of ideas because that ‘punishment’ strengthened the national feelings of Germany and raised nationalism in the country at alarming levels. Germany was certainly not the only Western Country were nationalism rose during the interwar years, but the opposition and the isolationism she met created the circumstances to make her nationalism the most explosive.
Eric D. Weitz, Weimar Germany. Promise and Tragedy. Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 2007
Gunther Mai, Die Weimarer Republik, Verlag C.H. Beck, Munchen, 2009
Enzo Travero, A ferro e fuoco. La guerra civile europea (1914-1945), Il Mulino, Bologna, 2008