The Origin of Nationalism

“Patriotism is the exact opposite of nationalism: nationalism is a betrayal of patriotism. I know, the old demons are resurfacing, ready to finish off their work of chaos and death. New ideologies manipulate religions… Sometimes, history threatens to retake its tragic course and threaten our heritage of peace that we believed we had definitively settled with our ancestors’ blood.” That was French President Emmanuel Macron speaking at the First World War Centennial. Today in Europe, and across the world, political analysts are looking on and scratching their heads as an ideology they had thought dead rises resurgent. I am, of course, referring to nationalism. But the issue is that the understanding of what nationalism is today has been tainted and altered, by the actions taken under the auspices of variant nationalism in the previous century. So, before we dive in to where nationalism is rising again, and why, first we must understand what nationalism itself is.

In order to understand nationalism, it is necessary to understand the origin of the word as well as the idea behind it. 1648 and the Peace of Westphalia, which ended the 30 Year’s War, is largely viewed as the origin of the modern nation-state, with the initial groundwork being laid by Hugo Grotius in his work De Jure Belli ac Pacis (On the Laws of War and Peace) in 1625. Westphalia created the modern understanding of international law, beginning with the concept of inviolable borders and non-interference in the domestic affairs of other sovereign states. It was the first, however, that created our modern conception of the nation. Prior to this, individuals largely identified with their village or region; afterwards they were no longer Normans, but Frenchmen. And with this new unified identity, nationalism began to develop. The word was first used in 1844 in France, meaning, “devotion to one's country, national spirit or aspirations, desire for national unity, independence, or prosperity.”[1] And it is from this root that we see all the different blends of nationalism, the most infamous example being Nazism, a shortening from the original German. Known as the National Socialist German Workers Party, Nazism was a blend of authoritarian German Nationalism, expansionist nationalism, social Darwinism, racism, a cult of personality, and socialist economic policies. Using nationalism as a base, any political movement is able to rise, simply by adding their own blend. Scottish Nationalism, as seen in their recent failed referendum, Basque Nationalism, Zionism, and others.

So, what does this mean. In the current political climate, nationalism can only be a bad thing, due to the atrocities that were perpetrated in its name in the 20th century. This is, however, incorrect. Nationalism by itself is largely neutral, as it only refers to an individual’s attitude towards their own nation. What can, and has, made nationalism dangerous are the modifiers that are later added to it by differing political movements, Nazi Germany being a prime example of this. But other examples of nationalism exist, something that is too often overlooked due to the infamy of the Nazis. French Revanchism was a movement from 1871 to 1919, centering on a desire for revenge against Germany for their seizure of Elsaβ-Lothringen in 1871. The Italian Risorgimento movement ultimately led to the Italian Unification in 1871. Nor is nationalism a specifically European movement. Arab nationalism focused on the creation of an independent Arab state in the Middle East separate from the Ottoman Empire, while the later movement of Pan-Arabism advocated the creation of a unified Arab nation from Iraq to Egypt. And Zionism, which began in its modern form in 1897, was the political movement that ultimately led to the creation of the State of Israel in 1948. Each of these movements used nationalism as their core, oftentimes pining for nations that did not yet exist.


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