How Did Nationalism Contribute to World War I?

In World War I, nationalism led to the desire of countries with strong self-identities to unite and attack other countries. Nationalism, along with militarism and imperialism, is a contributing factor of World War I.

The term “nation” refers to a group of people who share the same language, history and traditions. In politics, a nation is similar to an ethnic group. Nations are sometimes equated with countries or states, but nations may not have political control. Countries may have multiple nations within their borders. Nationalism arises when a nation seeks to exert influence and dominance over another group. This may include an attempt to expand its borders into another nation or country. In World War I, nationalist fervor led to a growing competition among Europe’s leading powers to assert their dominance. Nationalism is intertwined closely with patriotism, which is the love of one’s country. The leading European powers, fueled by their citizens, formed strategic military blocs and eventually engaged in warfare.

The Rise of Nationalism The seeds of nationalism were sown prior to the war. In the 19th century, there were many small European nations under the control of one dominant nation. Nationalism prompted the expansion of many European countries’ boundaries to include like groups in neighboring countries. The Austro-Hungarian empire, for instance, included what we now know as 13 different nations, 16 languages and five religions in its heyday. Nationalist tendencies were also strengthened during the Enlightenment, which introduced the concept of common power to Europe. Enlightenment philosophers encouraged freedom and democracy and gave power to people who were previously subjected to aristocratic rule. Instead of identifying with their kings and other leaders, citizens formed strong identities with others in their nation. This new unity transcended political boundaries and tested the limits of existing country lines.

Nationalism’s Effect on World War I Political unrest in the Balkans, largely fueled by nationalism, grew for years before World War I broke out. Eventually, it led to the outbreak of the war after Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian empire, was assassinated by a Serbian nationalist. The empire’s leaders blamed the attack on the Serbian government, citing nationalism as the motive for the shooting. World leaders quickly mobilized. Germany backed the Austro-Hungarian empire, while Russia allied itself with France and Britain after Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia.

Militarism, another factor in World War I, is closely linked with nationalism. Militarism refers to a nation’s capacity to develop a standing army and fortify it with advanced weaponry. The goal of militarism is to build a strong and powerful army that can be deployed quickly when necessary. In the years leading up to World War I, European nations, sparked by the Industrial Revolution, had competed against each other to build the strongest armies and economies. When war broke out, many countries were armed to defend themselves. Militarism combined with patriotism in World War I as citizens supported their countries’ role in combat. Ultimately, World War I ended with the reorganization of the European continent as many of the old empires fell, including Turkey, Austria-Hungary and Russia.