USM Open Source History Text: The World at War: World History 1914-1945

National identity

Throughout the last part of the nineteenth century and until 1914, the process of creating national citizens took place almost everywhere in the industrializing world. A united Germany had to create Germans, imperial Russia had from all its different peoples to create Russians, a recently united Italy had to create Italians, a United States that had innumerable immigrant groups speaking dozens of languages (with millions arriving every year) had to create Americans. Smaller groups with national aspirations sought to create firm ethnic identities. Czech nationalists had to create an idea of being “Czech” as opposed to being Austrian or German. Irish nationalists had to create a sense of being “Irish” as opposed to being English. Serbs, Greeks, and Croats used language, religion, and history to assert independence from the Ottoman Empire. In Spain, an aggressive campaign began to push Castilian Spanish as the national language of Spain, pushing out its fiercest competitors, Catalonian in the southeast around Barcelona and Basque to the northeast. And even France, the most unified of European nations, underwent an aggressive push towards national identification, in order, as Eugen Weber has termed it, “to turn peasants into Frenchmen.”

Governments in the late 19th century understood quite well that identifying with a nation as opposed to some other more deeply rooted and local historical or cultural identification would not develop on its own, nationalism was a process, an evolution. States understood that they would have to cultivate the transformation of their peoples from subjects into citizens. This was done in two principle ways: public education and the army.

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