Rising Nationalism was a fundamental underlying cause of World War I. Before discussing how nationalism raised tensions in Europe, let’s clarify the definitions of a “nation,” a “state,” and a “country”. Though people often mistakenly equate the two, a “country” is not the same as a “nation.” Nations typically share a common language, history, and cultural traditions. So, a nation is like an ethnic group historically connected to a territory or a homeland. But a nation may or may not have political control, or sovereignty, over its traditional territory. So, a nation may not have its own country. On the other hand, a “country” is pretty much the same as a “state”, and it has the highest political authority over a territory. A country may consist of many separate nations, as was true in Europe on the eve of World War I. “Nationalism” then is when people identify with their nation and seek to create a country that matches national boundaries or expand their existing country’s borders to include more of their national group. Let’s look at some examples of nations in Europe.

Languages in Austria-Hungary at the start of World War I























European countries at the end of the 19th century often included multiple nations. The state of Belgium, for example, included two main national groups, the Dutch-speaking Flemish and the French-speaking Walloons. In many countries, one powerful national group dominated over smaller minority nations. For example, in addition to the large Russian nation, the country of Russia included, at the turn of the 19th century, many different minority nations, including Latvians, Lithuanians, Estonians, Azerbaijanis, Ukrainians, Georgians, and more. Though a minority German-speaking national group ruled the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, the country consisted of various other nations, such as Hungarians, Italians, Slovaks, Czechs, Croatians, Slovenes, Romanians, and Serbs. In total, the Austrian-Hungarian Empire included 13 nations, 16 languages and 5 religions. The ruling Hapsburg monarchy unified Austria-Hungary, but language, religion, and culture did not. Like Russia and Austria-Hungary, most European countries expanded under the leadership of one dominant national group.

Nationalism grew in the 19th century as a result of Enlightenment thinking about equality, freedom, and democracy, and the concomitant political reforms and revolutions that gave voice to people who had previously been excluded. People began to identify with their nation rather than their kingdom, their king, or their country. This new identity threatened the boundaries of states throughout Europe, almost all of which did not have borders that matched national groups. If pursued to its pure and logical conclusion, nationalism would reset the entire map of Europe.

The creation of Germany is a good example of rising nationalism in Europe at the end of the 19th century. German-speaking people had lived in Central Europe since Roman times. After the fall of the Roman Empire, however, the German nation divided into small states and principalities. In the early 19th century, dozens of small German states combined to form a German confederation. It didn’t last, but it showed that a vision of one pure German nation-state, in which all Germans were unified in one country, might take hold. Shortly after the German confederation failed, Prussia, the largest German-speaking state, grew increasingly powerful and expanded its territory to include more and more German-speaking people in Central Europe. After a quick string of impressive military victories against Denmark in 1864, Austria in 1866, and France in 1871, Prussia expanded its German territory and emerged as a great military and industrial power in Europe. The King of Prussia established the German Empire in 1871 and continued to unite smaller German states and principalities. German leaders used language as a key unifying force of the new nation-state. A law in 1876 law defined German as the official language, even though many minority groups spoke other national languages, such as Polish, French, Russian, Czech, and more.

Germany (and Prussia before 1871) grew larger and more powerful under the clever leadership of Otto von Bismarck. A wealthy German aristocrat who understood the connection between industrial strength, military power, and political prestige, Bismarck sought to unite the scattered German nation. Under the great Prussian aristocrat, Germany won several wars with “blood and iron” and repeatedly expanded its territory. It also enjoyed the effects of industrial booms in railroad, steel, coal, and machine building industries. Bismarck became known as the “Iron Chancellor” because of his strong and steady rule dedicated to German nationalism. As Prussia, and then Germany, rose as an industrial and military power at the end of the 19th century, Bismarck used the new country’s rising prestige to challenge older powers in Europe, such as Austria-Hungary, Great Britain, Russia, and France.

The surprising German victory over France in the Franco-Prussian War in 1871 raised national tensions and aspirations in both countries. The underrated Prussian Army stormed through France in just seven weeks and surrounded the capital city of Paris. At the decisive victory at the Battle of Sedan, the Prussians even captured the French Emperor, Napoleon III. In the peace settlement, Germany demanded that France pay a large indemnity for the war. Most humiliating for the French, the Germans insisted on permanently annexing the French provinces of Alsace and Lorraine, which included both French and German language speakers. This culturally mixed border region had been French for over 200 years and German occupation stirred French nationalist aspirations for the decades leading up to World War I. The people who actually lived there saw it differently. An old Alsatian folk song revealed how people living in the diverse region wanted autonomy from both great powers and did not identify with either: “French I cannot be. Prussian I do not want to be. Alsatian I am” (Neiberg 59). After the quick and impressive victory over France, it was clear for all to see that this new state of Germany had suddenly arrived with panache on the European stage. The German General Friedrich von Bernhardi declared, “We must secure to German nationality and German spirit throughout the globe that high esteem which is due them and hitherto been withheld from them” (Tuchman 8). The great powers of Europe no longer underrated the capabilities of the Prussian (or German) Army.

Nationalism also united Italians in the new country of Italy at the end of the nineteenth century. Since the Middle Ages, Italian speakers on the peninsula had been divided amongst papal states, city-states such as Florence, small principalities, and foreign countries such as Austria-Hungary. With French support, Italians united against the Austrian-Hungarian Empire in order to take back Italian-speaking areas of what is today northeastern Italy, including Venice. The Italian kingdom was proclaimed in 1861 and the unity of Italy was assured with the capture of Rome in 1870. The new nation-states of Germany and Italy would prove natural allies against the older states of France, Russia, and Great Britain. As national movements in Germany and Italy succeeded in achieving statehood, older countries fretted that national sentiment might create conflict within their empires.

European powers such as Great Britain worried about national uprisings in their own backyard. Toward the end of the 19th century, for example, nationalists in Ireland organized clubs to revive the Irish language and rekindle an interest in ancient Irish literature and games, such as hurling. This national revival of Irish culture encouraged people to consider themselves a separate nation from England. Some Irish nationalists who wanted independence from Great Britain carried out assassinations of British officials and plotted rebellion. In the British Parliament, other Irish nationalists argued for political freedom. British leaders, however, worried that if they allowed the oldest colony to leave the empire, others, such as India, might soon follow the Irish lead. This example of Ireland shows that nationalism could be a source of pride and hope for a small, conquered nation, but it could also be a source of anxiety for a ruling nation trying to hold onto a multi-national empire. And no region in Europe at the end of the nineteenth century was more volatile than the Balkans.

The area of southeast Europe, known as the Balkans, was a crossroads between Eastern Europe, Western Europe, and the Middle East, and it reflected the cultural diversity of the many empires that had controlled it through the centuries. The Balkans included ethnic Slavic people—such as Serbs, Romanians, and Bulgarians—who, like their Slavic brethren in Russia and Eastern Europe, practiced the Eastern Orthodox religion, a cultural inheritance of the ancient Byzantine Empire. The region also included Croats and Slovenes who had their own national identities and languages and, like their allies in Western Europe, practiced Catholicism. And there were Muslims in Albania and Bosnia who reflected the centuries of Ottoman rule. Most of these national-religious groups had not ruled themselves in centuries, but many wanted to establish their own nation-states. Towards the end of the 19th century, this diverse region of the Balkans was squeezed between two declining powers.

As two old and moribund empires— the Ottoman and the Austrian-Hungarian Empires— receded from southeast Europe, tensions arose between countries and nations who wanted to take advantage of the new opportunity to win territory. In 1878, Otto von Bismarck, Chancellor of Germany, invited the most powerful European countries and the Ottoman Empire to negotiate an agreement in Berlin for how to reorganize and settle the future of the Balkans. At this Congress of Berlin, Romania won full independence, and Bulgaria almost did (as an autonomous principality in the Ottoman Empire). The European powers recognized Serbia as independent but in a truncated country smaller than its national boundaries. The Serbs immediately looked for ways to enlarge their nation-state to include Serbs living outside the country of Serbia; they called the area that included all Serbs “Greater Serbia.” But, a Greater Serbia was a threat to Austria-Hungary. Many Serbs remained living in Bosnia, a province that was taken from the Ottoman Empire at the Congress of Berlin and given to Austria-Hungary to rule as a protectorate. The German-speaking Habsburg nobility ruled the Austrian-Hungarian Empire from Vienna, Austria; but they were a ruling minority amidst many different national groups, such as Czechs, Slovaks, Croats, Italians, Ukranians, Romanians, Germans, and Poles. If they were to let one of these national groups secede, the entire Empire, they feared, would collapse because all the nations would fall like dominoes. So any nationalist movement in Austria-Hungary was a threat to the very survival of the entire empire. Over Serbian and Russian strong objections, the Austrian-Hungarian Empire formally annexed Bosnia in 1908, making it clear to Serbia that Serbs living in Bosnia would remain part of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire.

National tensions in the Balkans finally boiled over into two quick wars that redrew boundaries in the region. As Italy distracted the declining Ottoman Empire with a war in Libya in 1911, Balkan countries formed a league to push the Turks out of Europe in the Balkans. The Balkan League—Greece, Serbia, Bulgaria, and Montenegro—declared war on the Ottoman Empire in 1912. This First Balkan War, a Turkish defeat, doubled the size of Serbia. In the Second Balkan War in 1913, Serbia defeated Bulgaria and grew larger again, withdrawing from the Dalmatian coast only when Austria-Hungary threatened to invade. The mastermind behind these national wars of expansion was the Serbian chief of military intelligence who was also the leader of the Black Hand, the secret national organization that later assassinated Franz Ferdinand. Not all Serbian government officials favored the expansionist policy; the Prime Minister of Serbia was opposed to the Black Hand’s extreme measures.

Content by Vern Cleary    Design by Stephen Pinkerton