Nationalism is often blamed for the devastating wars of the modern period, but is this fair? Critics pinpoint four dangerous aspects of nationalism: its utopian ideology (originating in the late 18th century), its cult of the war dead, the mass character of its wars, and its encouragement of the break-up of states. I argue, however, that the case against nationalism is not proven.
A first charge is that the ideology of nationalism is itself a cause of war. Nationalism is a secular ‘religion’ that proclaims that the world is composed of unique and ancient nations which have exclusive homelands, and that the’ sacred duty of individuals is to defend the territory, independence, and identity of their nation. But critics say that nationalism is historical fantasy: such nations have not existed before the modern world, human populations more often than not have been intermingled, and attempts to separate them into exclusive territories generates conflict. Moreover, nationalists also deny all existing agreements, including treaties between states, that are not based on the free will of peoples. Nationalism thus necessarily leads to war. An awkward fact for this argument is that the number of interstate wars in the era of nationalism (the 19th and 20th centuries) has fallen. Many nationalisms are pragmatic and conservative in character. In fact, warfare was more frequent in the period before modern nationalism during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that were wracked by religious and imperial conflicts. The modern nation state system is arguably an effect of these wars.
A second accusation is that nationalism glorifies war through its cult of ‘fallen soldiers.’ The purpose of war commemorations, it is claimed, is to ensure a ready supply of recruits for future wars by appealing to the idealism as well as the ‘aggressive instincts’ of young males. Some have even argued that ‘regular blood sacrifice’ for the nation is necessary for social cohesion. To prevent social disunity, political leaders create external enemies, thereby diverting the violence inherent in human beings outwards rather than towards the powers that be.
But this is to simplify. While some politicians might evoke memories of ‘ancient hatreds’ in their drive for power, remembrance ceremonies of the world wars, at least in Western Europe, are rather ‘sites of mourning’ offering the lesson of ‘never again.’ The continued power of such ceremonies may be linked to the decline of traditional religions and the need to find a transcendent meaning for the tragedies of mass death. As George Mosse showed, nationalism took on the characteristics of a surrogate ‘religion’, appropriating the iconography and even the liturgies of Christian religion during the 19th century, to extoll the fallen soldiers as national martyrs and make their military cemeteries, places of pilgrimage. Nationalists promise a kind of immortality to all who die for the nation in ‘being remembered for ever.’
A third argument is that nationalist wars, if less frequent than those of the early modern period, are more destructive since nation states are based on a new contract between the state elites and the people. In return for citizenship, the masses agree to fight for the nation state. Before wars were fought largely by military professionals and for limited objectives, now they are peoples’ wars conducted with unbridled passions. This began with the French Revolutionary period in the late 18th century and by the twentieth century wars became total, involving all the population. In the mechanised conflicts of industrialised nation states during the First and Second World Wars, civilians were as central to the war effort as the military and become targets. At its extreme, war can slide into genocide.
This third position too is one-sided. As states have been more representative of the people (more national), there has been a major shift in public spending from guns to butter. Today, at least in Western Europe, the welfare state has replaced the warfare state. Moreover, liberal nationalists and their nation states have been prominent in constructing international laws and bodies designed to regulate the conduct of war. These include Hague Peace Conferences, Geneva Conventions, the League of Nations, and the United Nations whose Charter narrowed the scope of legitimate war to that of self-defence. After the Second World War interstate wars between the great powers has declined steeply, in part because of this new internationalism.
Admittedly, violence within states (including civil wars) has increased since 1945, much of which arises from secessionist movements of minorities which claim the right to national self-determination. This can lead to state breakdowns and the creation of ungoverned spaces that become havens for global terrorist movements.
A fourth criticism, then, is that the principle of self-determination can lead to the break-up of states. This accusation too is overdrawn. The principle of self-determination by itself should not lead to state breakdown. States can offer federal and consociational (power-sharing as in Northern Ireland) arrangements, through which different national communities can be reconciled. Much of nationalist violence occurs in weak postcolonial states with multiple minorities that were rapidly constructed after Empires dissolved after 1945. It is the absence of unifying national loyalties that is the problem. Furthermore, the international peace-keeping missions formed to restore order in conflict zones are led by coalitions of nation states, often working under United Nations mandates.
To conclude, there are many varieties of nationalism, some xenophobic, others liberal-democratic and internationalist. Even the former is not necessarily a cause of war: other factors are usually required such as an external threat and a breakdown of the state. Indeed, where this occurs, the restoration of stability in the contemporary period is above all dependent on nation states acting in concert in the name of a ruled-based international order.
Featured image credit: Graves war cemetery by MaartenB. Public Domain via Pixabay.