The Origin of Nationalism


Goya's painting entitled ‘The 3rd May 1808’

A. wrote:

What is the origin of nationalism? The germ of it may already have been in people long ago. Let us look at the history of the nation that gave us a special word for it: chauvinism.

Towards the end of the twelfth century the King of France, then a small country centred on Paris, launched the crusade against the Cathars in the south, where they spoke a different language (the “langue d’oc”, so named because oc was their word for yes.) It was certainly to enlarge his kingdom, and ostensibly to fight heretics (who were indeed massacred), but it did not begin from a feeling of national superiority. Similarly, when another Louis, Louis XIV annexed Elsass, it was to extend the territory of his kingdom. But nationalism as we have come to know it from our times did not exist then, and these wars were for power and personal glory. Those who fought had other motives than the assertion of the superiority of France as against other nations.

It is when we get to Napoleon that we can smell something different. The intoxicating slogan of the revolution- “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité”- was followed by the ‘Terror’, and then by the adventures of the Corsican upstart who was initially admired by many of the gullible “intelligentsia” as he plunged almost the whole of Europe into war. There was no ‘Germany’ then; instead, there were a number of large and small kingdoms and literally hundreds of independent little duchies, each with its own court, laws, customs and local traditions, while sharing the culture of the German-speaking people. In central Europe, the most famous battle of this terrible time is the Battle of Leipzig (1813), when Russia, Prussia and Austria for the first time defeated Napoleon. It was from this time that the idea of a “German nation” spread, reinforced by Blücher’s legendary crossing of the Rhine to give the coup de grace at Waterloo.

The unification and gaining strength of Germany came about through the military power of Prussia, yet, at the same time, it was a period when German literature, music, philosophy, art, and later, science, flourished there as never before. Its renowned universities attracted scholars and many notable students from other countries, including Turks and Armenians, who became infected with the viruses of European politics: the ideas of “rights”, of socialism, of “left” and “right”, and nationalism, all having their source in the notion that our civilisation is the result of the development of a reason such as never before existed on our planet.

After writing the above, I looked up Chauvinism. It is defined as “exaggerated (sic) nationalism”. The word comes from the name of a French soldier, Nicholas Chauvin, a veteran of Napoleon’s campaigns noted for his patriotic zeal.

B. commented:

I am no historian and my view and feeling of history has shifted a good deal since I struggled in my first year at University with E. H. Carr's – What is History – and today I feel no call to go back and read it.

I do not know the origin of Nationalism. In this regard what were the Romans? But that is an aside.

On reading the article on Nationalism I think it is too much of a leap to go from Louis XIV to Napoleon, in between there is England with its unique history and particularly its growing sense of Englishness under the Tudors, particularly Elizabeth, and of course in this the emergence of Protestantism. I have never researched this but the article on Nationalism stirred me to question, is there a link between Protestantism and Nationalism? Maybe there is something in this if one views the emergence of the Netherlands and the coalescing of the English nation/state.

Napoleon, as with Hitler. Can they be considered nationalist or something other?

Besides this the article touched me to ask for whom are we writing in our internet magazine? Although I would agree with most of the article, I would have written it differently in a way that would touch those who may already be questioning ‘What is history’ and although already feeling that Napoleon would have been a better man if he stayed at home and minded his own business, they may not yet be quite ready to hear that so much of our ‘so called history is nothing more than the history of crime’ or that civilization (so called) contrary to ‘progressing’ is in fact going down.

A. replies:

Perhaps nationalism, in a form recognisable to us, did emerge in Napoleonic times. If so, its roots must already have been there, and its causes, sown in us all long before that.

On reflection, I wondered whether nationalism was a kind of substitute for religion. One can see the unifying force of Christianity weakening from the Middle Ages onwards, fatally wounded perhaps by the Papacy’s attachment to temporal power and its conflict with the Holy Roman Empire. It was further weakened by the rise of Protestantism, the Thirty Years War, and the rise of “Reason” (the so-called “Enlightenment”). Faith in God and hope in another life were undermined. But it seems that we must believe and hope in something-if not in something within, then perhaps it must be something outside. What then could hold a people together?

C. commented:

A good example would be the way in which Elizabeth the 1st established herself as The Virgin Queen, her processions throughout England forming a substitute for the processing of statues of the Virgin Mary. Her aim was to unite the kingdom and to prevent the outbreak of civil war between the Catholics and Protestants.

D. commented:

I think of nationalism in a different way. The same energies that someone experiences when being nationalistic today, or in the first nation-states in Europe or elsewhere, were probably also experienced by people long, long before any ‘nations’ existed. The question, ‘What is the origin of nationalism? is not as interesting to me as, 'What is the root energy of nationalism?’ Is it a feeling? Or an emotion? A hypnotism? Self-calming? An identification? An education?

In this sense, I want to understand the psychology of nationalism. I wonder whether if we could understand the psychology of it well enough, then we could grope further back or, more precisely, back into the history/origins of it?