Although nationalism is unique to the modern world, some of its elements can be traced throughout history. The first roots of nationalism are probably to be found in the ancient Hebrews, who conceived of themselves as both a chosen people, that is, a people as a whole superior to all other peoples, and a people with a common cultural history. The ancient Greeks also felt superior to all other peoples and moreover felt a sense of great loyalty to the political community. These feelings of cultural superiority (ethnocentrism), which are similar to nationalism, gave way to much more universal identifications under the Roman Empire and with the Christian Church through its teaching of the oneness of humanity.
As strong centralized monarchies were built from petty feudal states, as regional languages and art forms were evolved, and as local economies widened, popular identification with these developments became increasingly strong. In areas such as Italy, which were not yet single nations, recurring invasions led such thinkers as Niccolò Machiavelli to advocate national political federation. The religious wars of the Reformation set nation against nation, though the strongest loyalty continued to adhere to the sovereign. In the 16th and 17th cent. the nationalistic economic doctrine of mercantilism appeared.
The growth of the middle classes, their desire for political power, and the consequent development of democratic political theory were closely connected with the emergence of modern nationalism. The theorists of the French Revolution held that people should establish governments of equality and liberty for everyone. To them the nation was inseparable from the people, and for the first time in history a people could create a government in accordance with the nation's general will. Although their aims were universal, they glorified the nation that would establish their aims, and nationalism found its first political expression.
It was in the 19th cent. that nationalism became a widespread and powerful force. During this time nationalism expressed itself in many areas as a drive for national unification or independence. The spirit of nationalism took an especially strong hold in Germany, where thinkers such as Johann Gottfried von Herder and Johann Gottlieb Fichte had developed the idea of Volk. However, the nationalism that inspired the German people to rise against the empire of Napoleon I was conservative, tradition-bound, and narrow rather than liberal, progressive, and universal. And when the fragmented Germany was finally unified as the German Empire in 1871, it was a highly authoritarian and militarist state. After many years of fighting, Italy also achieved national unification and freedom from foreign domination, but certain areas inhabited by Italians (e.g., Trieste) were not included in the new state, and this gave rise to the problem of irredentism. In the United States, where nationalism had evinced itself in the doctrine of Manifest Destiny, national unity was maintained at the cost of the Civil War.
In the latter half of the 19th cent., there were strong nationalist movements among the peoples subject to the supranational Austrian and Ottoman empires, as there were in Ireland under British rule, and in Poland under Russian rule. At the same time, however, with the emergence in Europe of strong, integrated nation-states, nationalism became increasingly a sentiment of conservatives. It was turned against such international movements as socialism, and it found outlet in pursuit of glory and empire (see imperialism). Nationalist conflicts had much to do with bringing on World War I.
The early 20th cent., with the breakup of Austria-Hungary and of the Ottoman Empire, saw the establishment of many independent nations, especially through the peace treaties ending World War I. The Paris Peace Conference established the principle of national self-determination, upheld by the League of Nations and later by the United Nations. While self-determination is a nationalist principle, it also recognizes the basic equality of all nations, large or small, and therefore transcends a narrow nationalism that claims superiority for itself.
It was exactly this latter type of nationalism, however, that arose in Nazi Germany, preaching the superiority of the so-called Aryan race and the need for the extermination of the Jews and the enslavement of Slavic peoples in their "living space" (see National Socialism). Italian fascism was in a similar manner based on extreme nationalist sentiments. At the same time, Asian and African colonial territories, seeking to cast off imperial bonds, were developing nationalist movements. Perhaps the most famous of these was the Indian National Congress, which struggled for Indian independence for over 60 years. After World War II nationalism in Asia and Africa spread at such a fast pace that dozens of new "nations" were created from former colonial territorial holdings.
Although interdependence and global communications interconnected all nations by the 1990s, nationalism appears to have grown more extreme with the breakup of the Soviet empire, the growth of Muslim fundamentalism, and the collapse of Yugoslavia. Xenophobic, separatist movements are not necessarily confined to newly independent states; they appear in many European nations and Canada, as well as India, Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Lebanon, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and many others. International organizations, such as the United Nations, the European Union, the Organization of American States, and the Organization for African Unity, represent attempts to curb extreme nationalism, stressing cooperation among nations.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.