The historian and political scientist Benedict Anderson writes in his classic work, Imagined Communities, that the phenomenon of nationalism linked the concepts of fraternity and power where they didn’t otherwise exist. These imagined communities relied upon a sense of deep, horizontal comradeship. Its members, though strangers, felt a constant sense of obligation to each other.
The Power of Nationalism
French revolutionaries realized they needed to create a common culture, with shared customs, loyalties, and identities. This became the power of nationalism. Popular conscription—called the Levée en masse—was undertaken by newly liberated citizens who were aroused by patriotic fervor. In this way, the revolutionary government could send 800,000 soldiers into the field of battle, a number far exceeding anything its enemies could muster.
These French weren’t fighting for a monarchical dynasty. They weren’t laboring for the riches of a king. They were fighting for themselves, as members of the French nation. And the French government made these wars a national crusade. No Frenchman or woman could be neutral or uninvolved.
By taking on the crowned heads of Europe as a common fight, the wars of the 1790s became a secular crusade of the French nation as a whole. From this point forward, nationalism became part of the political lexicon. It was a term coined by “overwhelmed observers… struggling to make sense” of things, says Princeton University historian David Bell.
Herder: The Father of Cultural Nationalism
As French armies steamrolled over dynastic Europe, governments in Britain, Austria, Prussia, and Russia adopted the rhetoric of nationalism to mobilize every defense. Their task was abetted by Romantic intellectuals: above all Johann Gottfried Herder and the German idealist Johann Gottlieb Fichte.
Herder is typically thought of as the father of cultural nationalism. Although he wrote in the 1770s, a decade before French armies crossed into German territories, his philosophy found new resonance as the German states found themselves under siege.
Herder argued that all peoples around the world—in their natural state—have a national character of their own. He contended that there is nothing dearer to a people than language through which generations pass down through tradition, history, and heart and soul. As a result, language and common cultural bonds need to be cherished and protected.
“No greater injury can be inflicted on a nation,” Herder wrote, “than to be robbed of her national character, the peculiarity of her spirit and her language.” His philosophy epitomizes the sense of belonging and solace that can come from nationalism and the necessity of safeguarding common cultural bonds.
Nationalism Fights Nationalism
The German philosopher Johann Fichte drew an explicit connection between German nationalism and the French conquests in his 1807 political lecture series, Addresses to the German Nation. Fichte cited divisions among the German people as the reason for their vulnerability. He urged them to put aside individual interests and prejudices to find unity in the German fatherland.
Fichte wrote, “He to whom a fatherland has been handed down… such a man fights to the last drop of his blood to hand on the precious possession unimpaired to his posterity.” With Napoleon’s armies now occupying much German territory, he further wrote, “In order to save his nation, [a man] must be ready even to die that it may live.”
Fichte’s text is considered a classic of European nationalism. Now, given the turn toward Nazism that German nationalism took in the 20th century, it’s tempting to censure Fichte’s focus on language and the German race. However, we must avoid reading subsequent history into his writing.
Instead, we need to consider it as a document of its time: concerned with unity rather than division; inclusion rather than exclusion; and defense rather than aggression. It captured the essence of nationalism’s inclusive appeal at the start of the 19th century.
This article comes directly from content in the video series The Great Revolutions of Modern History. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Fighting for Strangers
Napoleon Bonaparte had seized power in France in a military coup in 1799, and had gone on to invade many foreign nations. With invasion and conquest as a backdrop, it wasn’t long before even dynastic states began to invoke the rhetoric of nationalism to stave off Napoleon’s armies. Doing so aided defensive mobilization efforts along the lines that previously had proved so successful in France.
It may be hard for us in the 21st century to imagine how grand a venture this was. For the first time, men were being asked to fight and die not on behalf of their religion or their personal interests, but rather for the larger nation. It’s one thing to feel obliged to defend your immediate neighbor. It might be natural to be willing to take up arms on his or her behalf. But taking up arms for neighbors whom you might never meet?
This was only possible through nationalism.
Common Questions about How Nationalism Changed the Face of War and Sacrifice
Johann Gottfried Herder is thought of as the father of cultural nationalism. He argued that people have a national character regardless of where they are. His philosophy epitomizes the sense of belonging and solace that can come from nationalism and the necessity of safeguarding common cultural bonds.
Fichte drew an explicit connection between German nationalism and the French conquests. He cited divisions among the German people as the reason for their vulnerability. He believed that the power of nationalism was to be harnessed by the German people by putting aside differences.
Fichte‘s political lecture series, Addresses to the German Nation, was concerned with unity rather than division; inclusion rather than exclusion; and defense rather than aggression. It captured the essence of nationalism’s inclusive appeal at the start of the 19th century.