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Nationalism: What were its effects in the 20th century?
Nationalism is characterized by a belief in the uniqueness and integrity of one’s nation and culture. It is a form of ‘national pride,’ which, if taken to an extreme, can result in the sentiment that one’s own nation is ‘better’ than other nations. Over the course of the 19th century, a number of the relatively loose confederacies of states in Italy and Prussia were consolidated to become distinct, unified nations. “Nationalism taught that people were defined by their membership in a nation and that nation deserved their loyalty” (Shubert & Goldstein 2012: 1.3). Nationalism did not replace the old ties to religion, clans, and professions that had existed previously, rather it intensified them. During World War I, nationalism was a critical component in how Germany enforced authority over nations under its control, such as demanding all classes for children be held in German (Shubert & Goldstein 2012: 2.6).
The Versailles Treaty placed blame squarely upon Germany for the start of the war. As a result, Germans suffered from hyperinflation and the crippling war reparations demanded by the Allies. Germans began to feel anger and rage against the European powers that had taken away what they saw as their rightful, powerful place in Europe. By ignoring the dictates of Versailles and re-arming Germany, Adolph Hitler’s National Socialists gained support and political prominence. The nationalism of the Axis powers of Germany, Italy and Japan were characterized by a strong sense of superiority over other peoples in a racially-coded manner. Hitler viewed his conquest over Europe as ‘liberation’ of Aryan peoples, and a reflection of his determination to exterminate so-called inferior races. Expansionist, aggressive policies over ‘inferior’ persons were also characteristic of Mussolini’s Italy and Tojo’s Japan. Nationalism was used to justify militarization and political oppression of ‘state enemies’ (such as Jews and communists) and of a repressive domestic governing regime. If ‘enemies’ were everywhere, only through total control of the political system could the nation be spared, according to the Axis powers’ nationalist rationales.
Amongst the Allied powers, there was a profound sense of pessimism about the future of Europe, and as a counterweight to the extreme nationalism of the fascists, the internationalism of communism and advocates of a unified European state held sway. At the end of World War I, a number of new nations had been created from the map formerly dominated by the European colonial powers, but nations such as Czechoslovakia and Poland were subsumed into the far-reaching Nazi Empire during World War II. This created a stronger sense of nationhood amongst many residents of Eastern Europe. In other occupied territories in the West such as Denmark, there was likewise a strong, nationalist resistance to domination by the Nazi powers. Nationalism mobilized people to resist rather than endorse tyranny.
Since the end of World War II, nationalism has been a double-edged sword in terms of promoting democracy and peace. It had undeniable power in spurring people to resist Russian domination of Eastern Europe and the non-Russian Soviet Republics. But nationalism has also been used to justify genocides and ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, Croatia, and Cambodia. Furthermore, there is a great deal that is problematic about nationalism in terms of promoting peace and regional security. The European powers were forced to give up some of their nationalist ideals when they formed the EU, which created a common market with a common currency. Difficulties amongst member countries have reinvigorated old cultural divides characterized by nationalist ideologies even in the 21st centuries, although these disputes are economic rather than political and territorial.
Shubert, Adrian & Goldstein, Robin Justin. (2012). Twentieth-Century Europe. San Diego, CA:
Bridgepoint Education, Inc.
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