The revolutionary age of the 18th and 19th centuries sparked new waves of thinking about governance and sovereignty. From these waves came the idea that individuals could devote themselves to a nation of shared interests: nationalism. Nationalist states would put the interests of the national community first.
In the 20th century, nationalism referred to a broad swathe of political ideologies, each shaped by different national contexts. These nationalist movements united colonised peoples fighting for independence, provided a devastated people with a homeland and provoked conflicts that continue into the present.
1. The Russo-Japanese War helped awaken nationalism across the world
Japan defeated the Russian Empire in 1905 as they fought over access to sea trade and territories in Korea and Manchuria. This conflict had significance that spread far beyond Russia and Japan – the war gave subjected and colonised populations hope that they too could overcome imperial domination.
2. World War One was a formative period for 20th century nationalism
The war was even started by nationalism, when a Serbian nationalist assassinated Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914. This ‘total war’ mobilised entire domestic and military populations to support the conflict in ‘common interest’.
The war also ended with central and Eastern Europe being divided into smaller states, including Austria, Hungary, Poland and Yugoslavia.
3. Economic nationalism rose in Latin America after World War One
Although Brazil was the only country to send troops, the war crippled many Latin American countries’ economies who, until then, had been exporting to Europe and the US.
During the Depression, several Latin American leaders sought nationalist solutions to economic issues they saw as the result of US and European imperialism, raising their own tariffs and restricting foreign imports. Brazil also restricted immigration to secure jobs for its citizens.
4. China became a nationalist country in 1925
The Kuomintang or the ‘National People’s Party’ led by Sun Yat-sen defeated Qing imperial rule in 1925. Nationalist feeling had been rising since China’s humiliating defeat by the Eight-Nation Alliance in the First Sino-Japanese War.
Sun Yat-sen’s ideology included the Three Principles of the People: nationalism, democracy and livelihood of the people, becoming the cornerstone of early 20th century Chinese political thinking.
5. Arab nationalism grew from under the Ottoman Empire
Under Turkish Ottoman rule, a small group of Arab nationalists formed in 1911 called the ‘Young Arab Society’. The society aimed to unite the ‘Arab nation’ and gain independence. Throughout World War One the British supported Arab nationalists to undermine the Ottomans.
When the Ottoman Empire was defeated at the war’s end, European powers carved up the Middle East, creating and occupying countries like Syria (1920) and Jordan (1921). However, Arab peoples wanted to determine their independence without Western influence, so established the Arab League in 1945 to promote Arab interests and remove their occupiers.
6. Ultranationalism was a key part of Nazism
Adolf Hitler‘s National Socialist ideology built upon 19th century German nationalism, largely succeeding in uniting Germans behind the idea of a people with common interests – a ‘Volksgemeinschaft’ – which merged with the state. Within Nazi nationalism was the policy of ‘Lebensraum’ meaning ‘living room’, putting the needs of the Germans first by taking Polish land.
7. The 20th century saw the formation of the first Jewish state
Jewish nationalism or Zionism had emerged in the 19th century, as European Jews moved to Palestine to live in their homeland or ‘Zion’. At the end of World War Two, after the horrors of the Holocaust and the scattering of European Jews, it was decided under mounting pressure that a Jewish State should be established in British occupied Palestine. The State of Israel was established in 1948.
Yet the Jewish state collided with Arab nationalists who believed Palestine remained Arab land, leading to decades of violence which continues today.
8. African nationalism brought independence to Ghana in 1957
Colonial rule shifted during World War Two, as European Empires became dependent on colonial manpower. With Africa a theatre of war, they granted further freedoms to colonised peoples. Nationalist political parties thus found space during the 1950s in almost all African colonies.
Many of these nationalist movements were shaped by the legacy of colonialism and kept arbitrary colonial territory borders that forced nationalism onto sub-national tribes and ethnic groups. The nationalist leadership were also often Western-educated men, such as Kwame Nkrumah, the first president of independent Ghana in 1957.
9. Nationalism contributed to the fall of European communism
‘National communism’ was divisive within Soviet Europe. Leader of Communist Yugoslavia, Josef Tito, was denounced as a nationalist in 1948 and Yugoslavia was quickly cut-off from the USSR.
Nationalism was also a strong force in the Hungarian uprising of 1956 and the solidarity movement in Poland during the 1980s, which opened the door for political opposition to communist rule.
10. The end of the Communist Bloc in Eastern Europe led to a rise in nationalism
Following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, newly independent countries tried to create or re-establish their collective identity. Former Yugoslavia – formed after World War One – was home to Croatian Catholics, Orthodox Serbs and Bosnian Muslims, and mass nationalism and ethnic hostilities between these groups soon spread.
What resulted was a conflict lasting 6 years in which an estimated 200,000 to 500,000 people died. Many were Bosnian Muslims, who were subject to ethnic cleansing by Serb and Croat forces.