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The Historical Evolution Of Nationalism

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            A social being, man has the natural inclination to commune with other people, initially to the ones who are within his reach. Man has the inner drive towards self-identification and unites with those whom he finds to be of the same beliefs, culture, language and race. Such unification then brings individuals together basically for the purpose of establishing a community of the same language and race. As they live and work together in common place, experience the same triumphs and hardships, share common dreams and aspirations, they are creating a tie that brings them closer together, gradually strengthening them as one community. They will soon be able to create an identity unique from those who are not embraced by the tie. Similarly, the ideology of nationalism developed with this sense of unity. Thus, nationalism ideally brings together people of common goal, vision and principle. However, the pure and ideal concept of nationalism has been distorted overtime due to misuse and abuse by many power-hungry ones. Because of this, it is vital to establish what shade of nationalism we are going to analyze. To be able to do this, it is important to know what constitutes the ideology of nationalism.

            Nationalism is a 1“political or social philosophy in which the welfare of the nation-state as an entity is considered paramount.” 2It means “primarily a principle which holds that the political and national unit should be congruent.” (E. Gellner) Nationalism therefore originally connotes and requires that the common interest of the people should be of highest priority. Any self-interest should be set aside for the sake of the community. Nationalism should bring about unity and equality among the members of the community. Ideal nationalism therefore disregards ethnicity, language and religion. This is the reason why 3“nationalism essentially comes before nations and it is nationalism which makes a nation.” (Hobsbawin) 3As Ernest Renan puts it, “nations are based on peoples’ rich legacy and memories and consent to live together and to have a common will at present.” The defining criteria of nationalism include a common goal, a common interest, a willful consent to live together and a sense of shared responsibility to the community. It is in this context where 4“nationalism invents nations.” (Anderson)

            Since the birth of modern nationalism, which can be traced back from the French Revolution, the ideology of nationalism became a powerful tool by those who are hungry for power in oppressing the weak and grabbing what can be taken away from them.  Nationalism became a strong magnet by the opportunity seekers in capturing the hearts of those who were blinded by the belief that genocide will make a nation stronger. It became a powerful mask in hiding the true face of slavery, discrimination and violence. Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo simply have exploited nationalism in the name of fame and power. It is worth stressing that nationalism is not a multi-faced ideology. Thus, there is no such thing as “the other face” of nationalism. Racism during the time of Hitler’s reign is not another face of nationalism but obviously a misconception and exploitation of nationalism. Homogeneity, as a requisite of nationalism does not apply to racial and ethnic purity but rather to the interests and aspirations of the community concerned.

            In this paper, the writer aims to present the highlights of the history of nationalism from its roots in the French Revolution to present. The discussion will be divided in to the major events in history relative to the development of this ideology. In this manner, the writer hopes to establish the facts about its development and be able to present a critical analysis of how nationalism has gone through a painful exploitation in history.


            Prior to the Revolution, 5France which was then the “most powerful state in Europe” in the 17th century was composed of three major estates: The Church, the Nobility and the Commoners estates. The Church, which constitutes only up to 2% of the population 5owned almost 10% of the lands in France. The clergy and the nobles belong to this estate. Characterized by great land wealth, the Nobility is generally the richest of the three estates. The third estate, called the Commoners is made up of the bourgeoisie, peasants and city workers. This only show that the social structure in France before the revolution presents inequality of rights and distribution of wealth.

            During this time, national feeling in France was centered in the king. Despite this, government structure and the differing ideas of reform among the three estates, France managed to be on top of European power until King Louis XVI has expended much of his country’s money for military affairs. It is primarily the serious economic crisis in France which awakened the senses of the people to rise up and present their sentiments to the King. Riots and other disturbances made such uprising a bloody one. Because of the differing interests of the people, the king was hard up in finding the means of collecting revenues to make up for France’ finances. Since the third estate have refused to pay their usual rents and taxes, their financial situation became worse. King Louis XVI later was then forced to summon all the three estates to discuss the issue of the economic crisis and later a National Assembly was formed by the third estate.

            Through the National Assembly, political reforms were made possible. The adopted the 5“Declaration of the Rights of Man” where special privileges of the Church were abolished and all ancient customs were removed. 5A new constitution in 1791 crashed down the distinctions among the three estates and made France at the same time a limited monarchy. Despite the efforts of the government to improve their economic situation, to the point of selling all the Church lands, France fell short of the people’s expectations. Later, the king was sentenced to death after he has been tried and convicted by the National Assemble of treason. The French people tried to cope by demanding and imposing changes on their government, changing and creating new constitution in the effort to adopt a system that would conform to the demand of the people. They have gone through defeat in battle, they have experienced the Reign of Terror until it all ended in 1799 where a new system of government was established by the French General Napoleon Bonaparte.

            6“Nationalism is a child of the French Revolution.” (G.P. Gooch) The French people have demonstrated the defining criteria of an ideal nationalism- common interest, aspiration and dream. The revolutionary leaders were able to bring valuable changes in the history of France. Equality, standardization and uniformity have greatly improved the lives of the common French. It is during the French Revolution where freedom of expression has been truly exercised. It is during the French Revolution where the nation truly became of the highest priority. The people’s commitment to get over the Old Regime gave way to the birth of Nationalism. Although it has gone through painful and bloody process, Nationalism triumphed to push its way through the French history. It is true that such Nationalistic movement was primarily brought about by the need of solve economic crisis, the Revolution has planted seeds of liberalism and democracy in the hearts of its people and left a vital legacy to the world. This is nationalism in the absence of ethnic and religious discrimination. The French Revolution 7“replaced loyalty to the king by the loyalty to the patrie.”


            6“Just as every girl should have a husband, preferably her own, so is every culture must have its state preferably its own.” (Gellner) In his article “Nationalism and War”, Carl Savich analyzed nationalism as an ideology which is “a product of industrialization, capitalism and modernization.” He further explained that nationalism “require uniformity, standardization and homogeneity.” In his analysis, homogeneity, which covers cultural, ethnic, racial, religious and linguistic aspects, is “mandated by the logic of nationalism.” This homogeneity is Hitler’s defense of genocide. Nationalism became his frontline in eliminating the Jews. While it is true that nationalism connoted national identity, it does not require pure race. As has been discussed earlier, nationalism rooted from the genuine love of the country and its people, and that love sets aside any single self interest.

            Patriotism and nationalism are far different ideologies. 8George Orwell, in his “Notes on Nationalism” stressed out that both terms should not be used interchangeably. Patriotism sets trust and commitment to a particular person, place or belief. “It is in nature defensive both militarily and culturally.” (G. Orwell) Nationalism on the other hand is 8“inseparable to the desire for power for the sake of the nation.” IN the case of Germany, Hitler’s followers has obviously committed to the ideology of patriotism. Hitler’s love for his country and race has brought him to the height of racism and genocide. To the least, Hitler is accountable for misconception of nationalism.

            Beside Hitler and Nazism, there is Germany’s inevitable contribution to the evolution of nationalism. 9After they defeated Napoleon Bonaparte in the Battle of Leipzig in 1813, Germany retained the legacy of the French occupation- the elimination of feudalism and the political and social reforms. However, like France before the Revolution, Germany was a divided country. Prior to the German Revolution in 1848, there were “Little Germany” and “Large Germany” – the strong and weak states of Germany. 9Germany’s liberal intelligentsia which composed of the lower government officials, professors and lawyers proposed for representative government and wider political reforms. They wanted a sort of United Germany in order to push through with such reforms. What made this unification impossible for them that time were the differing interests within their own group.

9There were those who call for parliamentary democracy and universal suffrage and others just wanted commercial reforms. Some desired for a democratic constitution with the king as the leader. Within Germany, there exists discrimination among the group of the lower classes who were not included in the discussion of political reforms. In 1848, liberals sparked a revolution which crashed down the conservative governments of divided Germany. A National Assembly was then established which drafted a constitution for all Germany until March of 1849. The said constitution proposed for the unification which had excluded the empires of Austria and Habsburg. 9United Germany elected Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia as its first emperor, 9but refused to have his crown. This caused the National Assemble to disband. This failure of German unity gave way to the establishment of the German Confederation which adopted the former liberals’ economic proposals.

            Like France, German nationalism went through the hard times and has experienced ups and downs. Like France, economic depression fueled the rise of nationalism. The point is that, the key to Germany’s economic recovery is their unification. This fact now proves that nationalism is not a product of modernization as Carl Savich claims. Modernization, in the opposite is a product of nationalism because primarily, nationalistic spirit is required to push through with the idea of modernization. Nationalism, regardless of race and language, demands for a unified interests and goals which are necessarily for the benefit of the country. The bad side of it is that there ought to be sacrifices of blood because proponents of nationalism have to face the opponents who normally do not give up that easy. Germany’s economic recovery and its current strength owed it from nationalism. German nationalists like 10Johann Gottlieb Fichte, and Johann Gottfried von Herder who developed the idea of volk are needed by every country to lead unification.


            10“Nationalism in Great Britain had different meanings than it did in the European continent.” The central issue which led to bloody revolutions was the participation of the people in the Parliamentary electoral system. Voting rights of the common people were deprived from them until a nationalistic move to demand for political reforms was initiated by the liberals in 1819. The Paterloo Massacre in Manchester was a result of a clash of the police authorities and the liberals while a mass meeting for Parliamentary reforms was being held. 10It was Klemenz von Matternich, chief minister of the Austrian Habsburg Dynasty who was the prime enemy to the nationalists.  In response to the continuing cries of the nationalists for political reforms, the 10Great Reform Bill was passed by the British Parliament in 1832. The said bill reorganized the political representation of mostly the middle class which gave them the political power to participate in the electoral system.  10Although it gave way to 300, 000 new voters, and the “reform left 80% of the British males without voting rights.”

            In 1839, advocates of the People’s Charter presented its proposal to the British Parliament, relative to the democratic reforms. Such reforms include their petition for political inclusion. 10Although signed by more than one million British subjects, the Parliament refused to discuss the matter. A larger petition in 1842, with over three million signatures had the same fate. As a result, nationalists resort to the Plug Riots, where rioters pulled out plugs from factory steam boilers, which lead to economic problems. Later, democratic politics was finally considered and adopted by the British Parliament.


            Racial discrimination was the primary cause of civil war in the United States. The main issue was the inequality of rights between the Whites and the Blacks. The American national identity was “questioned for slavery and racial prejudice”. This is what I am referring to as the ethnical misconception of nationalism. Racial purity, as demanded by the Americans is never possible. Besides, it is not race and ethnicity which defines nationalism. I stress out that it is the spirit of unity towards a better country which is required on a genuine nationalism. For the centuries, it has always been the inequality of rights and privileges which shed blood in wars. In the case of America, which demands racial superiority, has forced the African Americans to civil war in 1861. The Draft Riot in New York City in 1863 was also a result of the anger of the laborers of this inequality. Buildings were set to fire, robbery and armories were attacked. Many blacks were beaten to death, orphanages were burned which left hundreds of children homeless. It is estimated that about one thousand people died in the said riot. As a result, amendments to the constitution were made. Although these amendments to the constitution were carried out to bring legal equality to the African Americans, it all faded when the States Rights in 1877 was reasserted.

            Black Nationalism, in its 11Statement of Basic Aims and Objectives on June 28, 1964, stated that: “The Afro-American community must accept the responsibility for regaining our people who have lost their place in society…We must be prepared to help each other in all ways possible… Afro-Americans must unite and work together. We must take pride in the Afro-American community, for it is home, and it is power.” Black Nationalism is against the brutal and violent conditions of the Afro-American people in America. 11They seek for a “positive affirmation of the cultural, political, social and economic identity of African people.” Their claims and demands include those of common to the sovereign people: freedom from foreign oppression, control of internal economy and unrestricted control of internal economy. Their cry is that only the African people alone should have the right to define their way of existence.


            The 20th century nationalism is more of the desire for democracy and the freedom from slavery and foreign domination. Civilian participation in all the country’s vital political and economic affairs was the demands of this century’s nationalism. This time, it evolved to be a powerful force in the people’s desire for independence. After the World Wars I and II, the spirit of nationalism was embrace by countries and states outside Europe.

            12Carlton J.P. Hayes regarded nationalism as a “religion of the state” in the 20th century. His statement goes this way: “its love of country turns readily into hatred of the alien; its desire for prosperity into competition for territory; and the duty of national service is integrated as a duty to maintain national unity by unquestioning assent to every decision of the government.” 12During this time, nationalism has evolved into liberal nationalism from the traditional, ethnic one. Modern nationalism, as a legacy of the World Wars focused more on bringing each country out of colonization and gaining pure independence in managing its affairs. Colonial countries were granted independence among which were the Philippines, Indonesia, Japan, including Africa and the Middle East countries. The Great Britain willingly granted independence to 7India, Pakistan, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Burma (Myanmar), Malaya (Malaysia) and Ghana. Although Japan gained its independence through defeating the Russian in the Russo-Japanese war in 1905, Japan has set an inspiring spirit of nationalism for Asia. 7By 1958, new nation-states in Africa and the Middle East were born. Among them were Israel, Morocco, Libya, Sudan and Iraq.

            Nationalism throughout the century gained its worth as a powerful tool in creating political and economic reforms for the benefit of the country. Although nationalism often brought countries into war, it has powerfully led nations to better political and economic situations.


            The birth of modern nationalism is a vital event in the history of the world. Although bloody wars and hardships due to economic depression were major sacrifices of the all countries involved were part of its development, the results as we see them today are worth reminiscing. Throughout history, nationalism has evolved from the traditional ethnic-centered characteristic to the liberal one. The legacy of the French Revolution has to be regarded as a vital contribution to the kind of freedom and democracy we have today. The ideology of nationalism, like the evolution of man’s characters and life’s visions, has been molded in painful manner.

Due to differing ideas and interests, the spirit of nationalism came to the point of being abused and misused by the few opportunity seekers. Because of the differing level of understanding and the range of knowledge of a certain race, nationalism was regarded as having two faces- the good and the bad. Nationalism has been the wavering flag of the Nazis in defending genocide. It has been used to campaign for a pure race which resulted in mass racial discrimination. Nationalism does not pose threat to the weak, neither has it necessitated inequality. Nationalism does not grant power and access to the strong in depriving the weak ones of their rights. It has to be separated from the concept of patriotism. It does not grant superiority to any race or social status. It does not require patriotism to a certain person. It rather requires commitment and devotion to the country and its people. In nationalism, respect and duty to the country’s welfare is of highest importance.

            Although it has ruined lives and dreams, nationalism has brought forth new hopes and opportunities to people in general. In the absence of unity, colonization might have been currently invading most countries today. If not of nationalism, equality of rights and the experience of independence and freedom are impossible. If the common people of France remained in their seats and let the powerful ones deprive them of their rights to equal opportunity, France’s success is hard to imagine. If the Germans did not unite in bringing their demands to the government, it would have been impossible for them to get rid of French occupation. If the Japanese and the Asians did not join hands against the enemy, it would be impossible for them to experience the national identity that the world admires of them today. If the British colonies just sat back and relaxed and let the invaders regard them as minorities in their own lands, we can never say that they could enjoy the privilege of freedom that they have today. If the American Africans let themselves be enslaved and continue to be discriminated, their contribution to the different industries will not be recognized today.

            The history of nationalism played an important role in unifying the people of the world regardless of race and language. Its development was not written down in the history for the sake of having something to look back. It should serve as a learning tool for every generation to gain better access to freedom of expression and liberty to use his country’s resources for the welfare of many. Nationalism, as part of history has to be understood in its genuine purpose; that is to unite people towards a better life without discriminating others and depriving the weak of their freedom.

            It is worth noting that there is no such thing as good and bad nationalism. It is man’s misconception of wrong use of nationalism that makes it bad for others. Like Hitler and Bonaparte, who used nationalism as a tool in oppressing the weak, the ideology of nationalism made bad for those who were affected. Nationalism is inherently good for all. It is nationalism which created all the existing nations today. In the absence of nationalism, a country cannot be called a nation because a real nation has solidarity and a strong unified spirit of protecting itself against the enemy. It requires that all self-interest be denounced in the name of the nation. “A true nationalist places his country above everything.” (C. Maurras) It is nationalism which makes a nation’s identity evident and unique from the rest of the world.

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