How Did Nationalism Lead to WW1?

The rising nationalism that was apparent throughout Europe in the early twentieth century is often cited as one of the four longterm causes of World War One; and with its natural links to both militarism and imperialism is considered by many historians to be the single biggest cause.

In this article, we shall attempt to define what nationalism was, in the context of nineteenth and twentieth century Europe, and have a look at how exactly nationalism contributed to the outbreak of World War I.

What is Nationalism?

Nationalism can be defined as a feeling of immense pride in one’s country or in one’s people. It is a fierce form of patriotism and at its most extreme can lead to negative attitudes towards other nations or even feelings of superiority over other peoples.

The Origins of Nationalism in Europe

A likely origin of the wave of nationalism that spread through Europe in the second half of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century was the Spring of Nations, in 1848.

The Spring of Nations (also known as the Springtime of the Peoples) consisted of a series of political upheavals, although mostly democratic in nature, which had the aim of removing the old monarchical structures to create independent nation-states.

This national awakening grew out of a cultural revolution of nationhood and a national identity, where the notion of foreign rule began to be resented more and more by those citizens who were governed by a different nationality to their own; and in the thirty years after the Spring of Nations, a total of seven new national states were created within Europe.

June Uprising of 1848 in Prague
The June Uprising of 1848 in Prague

Examples of Nationalism Before WW1

Nationalism took many different forms within Europe, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. As well as those nations still seeking their independence, there were also those newly created nations looking to forge a place for themselves on the world stage.

Finally, there was a different type of nationalism, seen in those countries that had enjoyed a sustained period of prosperity and influence, both at home and abroad, and where some nationalists felt a certain superiority over most other countries and peoples.

British Nationalism

By the end of the nineteenth century, Britain had enjoyed two hundred years as the richest and most powerful nation on the planet, with the greatest empire the world had ever seen. Perhaps not surprisingly, a feeling of nationalist pride swept through the country during this time and there were many in the country who believed the British to be superior to all other nations in Europe.

How Did Nationalism Lead to WW1 - British Nationalism
British Nationalism – Britannia Rules The Waves

This idea of nationalism was spurred on by the British press, who regularly published satirical cartoons of foreign countries and their monarchs, often depicting them as greedy, arrogant or lazy.

A particularly dangerous form of popular press in Britain, towards the end of the century, was the Invasion genre of literature, which scared their readers into believing that the enemy was just about to invade this Sceptred Isle. As well as fuelling the flames of militarism in the country, these serialised novellas depicted foreign nations such as Germany and France in the worst possible light.


Nationalism and xenophobia were just as rife in Germany, although the root of this patriotism was not from centuries of world dominance, but rather the overzealous optimism of a new nation-state.

In order to consolidate the newly unified Germany and strengthen the national identity of the German people, the government employed various strategies to help create a nationalist sentiment.

1908 map of German dialects.

Pan-Germanism sought to unify all of the German-speaking people in Europe, and was very successful in building a German national identity. Unfortunately, Pan-Germanism at its most extreme, such as the Pan-German League, which was founded in 1891, led to openly ethnocentric and racist ideologies, which would really come to the fore in the nineteen thirties and forties, with diabolical consequences.

German nationalism in the late nineteenth century was also intrinsically linked with German militarism—it was believed that the strength of the nation was mirrored by the strength of its military. And when the young and ambitious Wilhelm II became Kaiser, in 1888, he became the epitome of a nationalistic and militaristic Germany.

The Kaiser’s policy of Weltpolitik, the aim of which was to transform Germany into a global power, led the country to be envious of the other more established empires, especially that of Great Britain. As a result, Britain became a target for the German press, where she was portrayed as selfish and greedy, thus encouraging anti-British sentiments throughout the country.


A very different type of nationalism emerged within Central Europe during the middle of the nineteenth century. Austro-Slavism was a political concept that originated within the Czech lands, which sought to solve the problems that the Slavs faced with the Habsburg Monarchy at that time.

Seen as a more peaceful alternative to the concept of pan-Slavism, the policy of Austro-Slavism proposed a federation of eight national regions, with a degree of self-rule. Austro-Slavism gained support from Slovaks, Slovenes, Croats and Poles, but was ultimately dismissed following the formation of Austria-Hungary, in 1867, which honoured Hungarian demands, but not Slavic ones.

Distribution of Races in Austria-Hungary

The political concept of Austro-Slavism helped lay the foundations for the The First Czechoslovak Republic, in 1918, following the end of World War One and the collapse of Austria-Hungary.


Pan-Slavic postcard depicting Cyril and Methodius
with the text “God/Our Lord, watch over our heritage/grandfatherland” in 9 Slavic languages.

The roots of Pan-Slavism were similar to Pan-Germanism in that they originated from the nationalism of an ethnic group who wished to unite—in this case the Slavic people.

Again originating in the Czech lands, Pan-Slavism was especially embraced by the Slovak people, following the creation of Austria-Hungrary, when it became clear the preferred concept of Austro-Slavism was not going to be accepted by Austrian Emperor, Franz Jozeph I.

Ľudovít Štúr, who codified the first official Slovak language, wrote in his book, Slavdom and the World of the Future, that Austro-Slavism was no longer possible and he looked towards Russia, the only Slavic nation-state, to one day annexe the land of the Slovaks.

Pan-Slavism also had some supporters amongst the Czech and Slovak politicians, especially the nationalistic and far-right parties.

By the beginning of the twentieth century, Pan-Slavism had become especially popular amongst South Slavs, who often looked towards Russia for support. Here, the Pan-Slavism movement sought Slavs from both the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Ottoman Empire to unite together.

The notion of a united nation of Southern Slavs was particular strong within the newly independent country of Serbia, who eventually sought to create a South Slav (Yugoslav) nation-state.

How Did Nationalism Lead to WW1?

The link between nationalism and WW1 is arguably the strongest of the 4 main longterm causes of World War One. But even then, certainly for the major European powers, nationalism was intrinsically linked with two of the other causes—imperialism and militarism. Meanwhile, the sense of nationalism for many of the smaller European countries, can be strongly linked to independence and self-rule.

Nationalism Linked to Imperialism

The link between nationalism and imperialism was twofold. While nationalists would take great pride from their nation’s empire building, they were also quick to condemn the other European powers as being greedy, cruel and insensitive for their imperial aspirations.

Meanwhile, imperialism had probably given the major powers a false idea of what war was really about. Apart from the Crimean War and the Franco-Prussian war, there had not really been a major conflict between two of the European powers for almost a century.

With the exception of France, none of the major powers had experienced defeat in the half century prior to WW1; and victories against less equipped armies in Africa and Asia had no doubt led to a naive overconfidence in each nation’s ability to win a war in Europe.

France watches on as the other major powers
greedily carve up China

Nationalism Linked to Militarism

Nationalism Linked to Militarism

Another of the effects of the growing nationalism in Europe was an inflated confidence in one’s nation when it came to the country’s military power.

In the decades leading up to the First World War, there had been a strong link between nationalism and militarism, where the citizens of many European nations felt immense pride in how strong and powerful their country was in military terms.

This led to governments being pressured by their peoples and the popular press to build more and more battleships, stockpile more and more weapons and enlist more and more men, so as to whet this patriotic appetite running through the nation of needing to be the most powerful—not only to defend the country from would-be aggressors, but also as a source of national pride.

Such was this military fervour amongst the populace that by the time 1914 came around, and Europe found itself on the brink of war, many of the major European powers had almost a feeling of invincibility about them, completely certain in the belief that their nation could not possibly lose a war.

Nationalism Linked to Independence

While there was obviously no link between nationalism and imperialism or militarism for the smaller nations in Europe, there was a link to something that was perhaps more worth fighting for—namely, a national identity and for many, independence and self-rule.

Following the Spring of Nations, in 1848, more and more nations in Europe won their independence and became nation-states, including Germany, Italy, Serbia and Bulgaria.

However, by 1914, there were still many more nations with ambitions of self-rule on the continent, especially within Austria-Hungary.

Dividing Up the Ottoman Empire

In particular, this awakening of a national identity was causing tensions in the Balkans, where things were just about to come to a head.

Nationalism in WW1

There is no doubting the strong nationalistic feelings of patriotic citizens throughout Europe, which were also evident once the war had started as well. An example of nationalism in WW1 would be the numbers of young men in Britain from all classes, who clamoured to volunteer for king and country at the beginning of the war.

Example of Nationalism in WW1
Example of Nationalism in WW1

Of course, it was a different time when honour and doing one’s duty was still very much a thing, but nonetheless there is no doubt that WW1 nationalism also played its part.

It is much easier to recruit an army of patriotic men, who are convinced they are fighting for the right cause and who believe they are going to fight in a war, which they can’t lose.

When the reality of war began to set in, however, and it became harder and harder to attract new recruits, the government turned to different methods to pull on the nationalistic heart strings of the British people.

Propaganda posters painted the enemy as almost subhuman, who had committed unspeakable war crimes against our innocent allies—an evil that only Britain could defeat.

Other examples of nationalism in WW1 involved those patriotic citizens back home, who although were not directly involved in the fighting, were still needed by their country to win the war.

Older men and especially women fought the good fight at home, working in factories to help arm and supply the young lions; and even children and the elderly played their part by foregoing certain foodstuffs and other creature comforts, so that the men at the front had everything they needed to defeat the enemy.


Everything considered, nationalism was arguably the strongest of the four main causes of WW1, especially considering its links with two of the other main causes, militarism and imperialism. However, it is important to note that as well as the so-called M.A.I.N Causes of World War One, there were also a number of immediate causes, without which the Great War of 1914 may very well have not taken place at all.

Why not check out 4 M.A.I.N. Causes of WW1: NATIONALISM – PowerPoint Lesson with Speaker Notes

Test Your Knowledge with our FREE WebQuest

Now it’s time to test your knowledge of Nationalism as well as the other M.A.I.N. Causes of WW1.

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4 M.A.I.N. Causes of WW1 WebQuest
4 M.A.I.N. Causes of WW1


The 4 M.A.I.N. Causes of WW1 WebQuest (Student Version) – This 5 page teaching resource consists of a webquest that covers the four main longterm causes of World War One.

The webquest comprises of 5 worksheets, which contain 24 questions, as well as 4 jigsaw puzzles (with secret watermarks) and an online quiz (requiring a pass of 70% to reveal a secret phrase).