Nationalism is an extreme form of patriotism and loyalty to one’s country. Nationalists place the interests of their own country above the interests of other countries. Nationalism was prevalent in early 20th century Europe and was a significant cause of World War I. Most pre-war Europeans believed in the cultural, economic and military supremacy of their nation. Their attitudes and overconfidence were fuelled by things like jingoistic press reporting. The pages of newspapers were often packed with nationalist rhetoric and inflammatory stories or rumours about rival nations. Nationalism could also be found in other aspects of popular culture, including literature, music and theatre. Royals, politicians and diplomats did little to deflate nationalism – and some actively contributed to it with provocative remarks and rhetoric.
Nationalism gave citizens excessive confidence in their nation, their governments and their military strength. It assured them that their country was fair, righteous and without blame. In contrast, nationalist ideas demonised rival nations, caricaturing them as aggressive, scheming, deceitful, backward or uncivilised. It convinced many citizens their nation was being threatened by the plotting, scheming and hungry imperialism of its rivals. Nationalist and militarist rhetoric assured people that if war erupted, their nation would emerge victorious. In concert with its brothers, imperialism and militarism, nationalism contributed to a mass delusion that made a European war seem both necessary and winnable.“A new and aggressive nationalism, different from its predecessors, emerged in Europe at the end of the 19th century… The new nationalism engaged the fierce us/them group emotions – loyalty inwards, aggression outwards – that characterise human relations at simpler sociological levels, like the family or the tribe. What was new was attaching these passions to the nation… In its outward-looking dimension, the new nationalism was fully a movement of the ‘age of imperialism’ – of the ‘great game’, the ‘scramble for Africa’, the enterprise of great powers.”
Lawrence Rosenthal, historian
Europe’s nationalism and its indifference to war can be explained. Aside from the Crimean War (1853-56) and the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71), the 1800s were a century of comparative peace for Europe. Citizens of England, France and Germany had grown accustomed to colonial wars. These conflicts were fought against undeveloped and under-equipped opponents in far away places, and were mostly brief and victorious. With the exception of France, which was defeated by the Prussians in 1871, none of Europe’s Great Powers had experienced a significant military defeat for more than half a century. This indifference to war, along with the arms race, contributed to a growing delusion of invincibility. Britons believed their naval power, backed by the economic might of the British Empire, would give them the upper hand in any war.