Understanding How Nationalistic Ideas Led to World War I

European nations WW1 holding flags nationalism main

The nationalism that greatly motivated World War I (WWI) itself was a result of various factors. WWII (1914-18) was known as the “Great War” because of the immense scale of the fighting. The immediate cause was the assassination of the heir (and wife) to the Austro-Hungarian throne. The ability of a spark to set off the blaze of war was the result of underlining pressures that were simmering for decades, including nationalism. 


Nationalism is a strong pride in one’s national identity.  Your nation plays a very important role in your belief system.  Threats to your nation warrant strong responses, even military action.  

The nation can be the official country that you live in.  You also might believe a new nation should be formed out of a group of people that currently do not have their own country.  

The British colonies had a connection by ethnicity, language, culture, and political ideals and fought a war for independence.  The colonies fought a war of “self-determination,” the right to be their own nation.  What some deemed treason was felt to be morally justifiable. 

Nationalism In Europe 

European history has been filled with national conflicts.  Different groups of people joined together for reasons of religion, language, and other interests to form nations.  Other nations were deemed “foreign” and there are often were wars of conflict over land and resources.  

The path to the modern age involved the growth of major European nations.  The localized power of the Middle Ages developed into powerful nation-states with strong centralized power.  

Two major developments in the 19th Century were the unification of different mini-states into the modern countries of Italy and Germany.   Other major powers, Austro-Hungary (Central Europe) and the Ottoman Empire (Middle East) had various problems, and their authority was more in jeopardy.  Nationalism was in place all over with various conflicts and complications.  

Nationalist Organizations 

Nationalism can be promoted in a variety of forms.  Nationalism is often promoted by the government itself.  The Fourth of July in the United States is an official holiday.  

Various nationalist organizations arose in Europe in the 19th Century. These organizations contributed to the growth and conflicts that helped to bring about World War I. 

The Pan-German League was a private organization that was formed to promote the cause of uniting Germans into one German Empire.  The league was focused on the needs of Germans alone, with the interests of ethnic Germans put over all others.  The ultimate aim was one big German state, including territories currently under the control of other nations.  

The Black Hand was a secret military society in the Central European nation of Serbia.  Members wished to end foreign control in the Balkans, including Austro-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire.  Black Hand operatives sometimes used terroristic methods.  

Effects of Pre-WWI Nationalism 

[1] Xenophobia and Racism

One major effect of nationalism was the rise of xenophobia, which is the fear and disgust of other nations, their people, and their ways of life.  

Racism also increased, especially as a means to justify taking control of the lands of Africans and Asians.  “Race” also was defined broadly.  An ethnic group like the Germans or Jews can be considered a race, with “foreign” and “inferior” races less worthy of self-respect.  

[2] Militarism and Alliances 

Nationalism also led to an increased battle for dominance.  

One way to prove your dominance is to have a strong military.  Militarism celebrates war and armed forces.  From ancient times, the military was an important expression of national power.  

Britain had long promoted its naval power.  Militarism became an important part of Germany’s self-image.  The Industrial Revolution helped the building of large, mechanized militaries.  

Nations also formed alliances with each other.  Great Britain and France, for instance, for various reasons were rivals of Germany.  They joined forces with Russia.  Germany formed an alliance with regional powers such as Austria-Hungary and Italy.  

This increased the chance for conflict because once a single power was attacked, everyone on each side had an obligation to join in the fight.  Also, there were no strong international peace-making organizations in place such as the modern-day United Nations.  

[3] Civil Unrest

The decades before World War I involved various instances of civil unrest, ethnic conflict, and revolutions among the nations of Europe that aggravated the situation.  The conflicts both made the situation more unstable and strengthened nationalism in response.  

The formation of Italy and Germany encouraged other peoples to dream of their own nations. The Balkans, a region in southeastern Europe, was a major area of conflict shortly before the outbreak of WWI.  Various ethnic groups pushed for self-determination, particularly putting pressure on Austro-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire.  


The outbreak of WWI did not simply occur because someone with a funny-sounding name assassinated someone few people in Europe probably even heard of even at the time.  

WWI was a result of decades of tension in Europe with nationalism playing a major role.  One way to keep track of all the moving parts is the acronym MAIN: militarism, alliances, imperialism, and nationalism.  And, nationalism might be the most important of them all.  
And, ironically, nationalism that was a result of WWI led to more conflict and helped to contribute to WWII.  But, that is another story.

Teach and Thrive

A Bronx, NY veteran high school social studies teacher who has learned most of what she has learned through trial and error and error and error.... and wants to save others that pain.