The Role of Nationalism in Starting World War I

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Nationalism is an intense form of patriotism and loyalty to a particular nation-state. It was one of the major causes that contributed to the start of World War I on July 28, 1914, and it was the motivating factor behind the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Nationalism provided the spark that helped in igniting the war, but it alone could not have caused the war. Other long-term factors like colonialism, militarism, and the two major alliances in Europe were all necessary in building up the tension that escalated to the great conflict.

First, nationalism convinced people that their nation and race was politically, economically, and culturally superior to other nations, thus motivated them to extend their influence and domination in the world. For example, the tsar of Russia believed that his status was preserved by God and took pride in the size of Russia’s massive army, the largest land force in Europe. Nationalism also aggrandized the integrity of a country through the press, filling newspapers with heroic stories of themselves while spreading twisted rumors about rival nations. Great Britain, for instance, boasted of its naval dominance and large empire, which expanded one-quarter of the globe, while depicting the Germans as cold and unscrupulous.

Furthermore, nationalism invoked in a race the desire to be united and independent from other countries. For example, when Austria-Hungary annexed Bosnia and Herzegovina after the Ottoman Empire broke up, the Serbians there were very angered. In the Balkans and especially in Serbia, nationalism inspired the Slavic people to believe that they should have their own nation independent from Austria-Hungary. This increased tensions between them and the Austro-Hungarian empire, eventually leading up to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Nationalism inspired in citizens the desire to support their nation’s interests regardless of all costs, making them more eager to join the military as well as play their part in contributing to the war effort. However, it alone could not have provoked World War I because citizens had always owned a certain degree of patriotism for their nation.

Nationalism worked together with another factor that contributed to the start of World War I, colonialism. Colonialism involves a stronger nation taking control over another one, occupying it, and exploiting its resources to benefit the mother country’s economy. The major European leaders, stirred by nationalism, each sought to increase their power, influence, and wealth by expanding their empire with colonial territories abroad. More colonies meant gaining more resources for industrialization, as well as monopolizing key trade locations, which allowed a nation to become economically and politically superior to their rivals. For example, Germany, Britain, Belgium, France, Spain, Portugal, and Italy all wanted to increase their prestige and become a dominant world power through imperialism, and thus the Scramble for Africa began in 1881 as they divided the African continent among themselves.

This reached its climax with the Berlin Conference of 1884, in which European nations negotiated on how to separate Africa into colonies among themselves. By 1914, European imperialism had taken over almost 90% of the African continent. This increase in colonialism, instilled by nationalism, caused distrust and suspicion among the major world empires and intensified the rivalry among them as they scrambled for more colonies. Although it alone could not have led to warfare, colonialism increased the likelihood of conflict and contributed to the build-up toward World War I. Thus, as European powers competed to acquire new colonial territories, enmity increased among them and tensions escalated to a point where war became very probable.

Third, nationalism led militarism, another major cause of the build-up to World War I, to grow in European countries. Militarism is the belief that a nation-state should build up its military and be prepared to use it aggressively for nationalistic reasons. It led nations to believe that an advanced, powerful military was the best way of solving feuds and demonstrating their strength to the rest of the world. As nationalistic rulers took extreme pride in the military supremacy of their nation-state, they expanded it by increasing military expenditure. For example, Wilhelm II, the Kaiser, was proud of Germany’s achievements but not satisfied, as he was desperate for more power and especially envious of other powers. Under his nationalistic leadership, Germany competed with Britain to produce the most powerful navy through the invention and mass production of weaponry.

It began building dreadnoughts, which utilized heavy guns and steam engines, from 1906. Because Britain heavily relied on its navy for trade and economic prosperity, it became very alarmed and responded by rapidly industrializing its navy. In both countries, the people were stirred by nationalism to negatively characterize the rival nation and demand the construction of more battleships. This Arms Race greatly heightened the tension between Germany and Britain, threatened peace in Europe, and made continental warfare much more likely because advanced weapons increased the possibility of large-scale mass executions. As European nations set nationalistic goals for their military, hostility and the inevitability of war grew.

Fourth, aside from nationalism, the alliance system in Europe played a significant role in leading up to World War I that cannot be ignored. An alliance is an official political, military, or economic agreement between two or more nations and includes promises that the members will support one another in war. Europe was divided into two major alliance blocs, the Triple Alliance, consisting of Germany, Turkey, and Austria-Hungary, and the Triple Entente, made up of Great Britain, Russia, and France. The alliance system was caused by militarism because nations sought to reduce any vulnerability in their military through the help of allies, as there is strength in numbers. They also formed alliances to prevent any one country from growing too powerful.

For example, one of France’s motives behind allying with Britain was its intention to protect itself against possible aggression from Germany, which had defeated France in the Franco-Prussian War back in 1870 and 1871. Britain, being threatened by Germany’s new naval program, also eagerly complied with the alliance. Similarly, after Austria-Hungary annexed Bosnia and Herzegovina, Russia responded by creating the Balkan League in 1908 to prevent it from gaining too much power. However, as European nations increasingly formed alliances, they were making more enemies for themselves as well. The existence of the two countering alliances increased hostility among the major world powers and meant that any conflict between two nations would very likely result in war between all of them. Thus, Russia, Germany, France, England, and their empires were dragged into a conflict that was initially only between Serbia and Austria-Hungary. Without alliances, the conflict likely would have been contained between the two nations and would not have resulted in a large-scale global war.

The main short-term cause that sparked World War I is considered to be the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, in June 1914. However, tension had long been building up in the Balkans, so by the time it happened, war was already imminent. Affected by the nationalism that had been growing in the region, many young Serbs had joined extremist nationalist groups, such as the Black Hand. One of its members, a Slavic nationalist named Gavrilo Princip, was responsible for the assassination of Franz Ferdinand. This provided the spark that triggered World War I, as Austria blamed Serbia for the assassination and one European power after another eagerly defended its allies in a chain reaction. By 1914, relations had tightened to such a point due to a combination of factors that this single assassination ended up igniting the start of a brutal, global war.

In conclusion, although the start of World War I was largely instigated by nationalism, many other factors played crucial roles in contributing to a massive, global war. Nationalism made citizens involved in the war effort as it stirred them to take pride for their country and fight against their rivals, and it intensified the hostility between imperial powers. The assassination of Franz Ferdinand was also motivated by nationalism and provided the spark that began war, but war was already inevitable by the time the assassination took place. Colonialism, militarism, and the alliance system all played key roles in increasing animosity among the major world powers in the years leading up to the assassination. Without these factors, a regional conflict could not have provoked such rivalry and antagonism as that which divided the major world powers against one another and resulted in global warfare.


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The Role of Nationalism in Starting World War I. (2020, Nov 25). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/the-role-of-nationalism-in-starting-world-war-i/

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