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

The Ascendance of Nationalism

Nationalism, in essence, is a notion that constructs political identity (and, increasingly, identity as such) in terms of a shared language, culture, and history of a group of people. These elements of nationalism, language, culture, history, are themselves constructed or systematized in order to promote social cohesion, boundaries, and dynamics of inclusion/exclusion. The picture above of the German monument to the Battle of Nations during the Napoleonic War was just such an attempt to define a common German history (against the French) during a time that no "Germany" existed.

Previously, one’s political identity had next to nothing to do with one’s language or culture. Politics, in the age of empires, was not based on personal identity. Peoples of all languages and cultures could obey a monarch. With the spread of representative government and nationalism, however, politics for the first time became a reflection of a person’s inner self. Under this new political thinking, a Czech could not be a German. A Serb, Slovene, or person from Trieste could never be Austrian. Likewise, people who didn’t speak Russian could never be really Russian, even if these people lived in Russian territory (like Jews). People living in the United States, some thought, who didn’t speak English could never be truly American.

The Creation of "national" languages went hand in hand with the rise of nationalism. Before the unification of Germany (1871), there had never been a nation called Germany before. People in the Germanic lands identified locally. A person was a Saxon, Bavarian, or a Prussian. It would be impossible to claim that German people spoke the same language. Of course, people in these territories spoke something that approximated modern German, but often their dialects were as different as today’s German is from today’s Dutch or Danish. Languages throughout Europe were localized to a much greater extent in the 19th century than they are today. The identification of a nation with a national language first began in the 18th century and gained force in the mid-late 19th century. A united Germany in 1871 pushed a standardized German. Italy, which was united by forces from the northern Italian Piedmont in the 1860s, began an aggressive campaign to force people to speak a standardized Italian, as opposed to the hundreds of regional dialects that had been spoken for centuries. This process of first creating or imagining a political entity called a “nation” and then creating people who would trade their local loyalties for an identity as a citizen of that nation, prompted the Italian statesman, artist, and novelist Massimo d’Azeglio to proclaim, “We have made Italy; now we must make Italians.”

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