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Nationalism as a Major Cause of the First World War

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World War 1 was a deadly, and devastating event that occured in 1914-1918. However, how did such a horrible war even begin? There are many factors that lead to The Great War, but nationalism is the main cause of them all. Nationalism is an extreme form of patriotism, marked by a feeling of superiority over other countries. It also means being extremely loyal to one’s country. But how did Nationalism cause WW1?

According to History Home, a website of English History which is managed by Marjie Bloy who is a qualified history teacher, in the early 1900s, nationalism created strong competition and rivalry between Europe’s most powerful nations. These nations were; Britain, Russia, France, Italy, Germany, and Austria-Hungary. They competed over who was strongest both militarily and economically to determine who was the best and most powerful nation. However, the competition caused a lot of tension between the nations. We can link this to the concept of power, because every nation’s goal was to have the most power and viciously competed for it. Nationalism was a huge issue for the Austria-Hungary empire. This was because the empire consisted of many ethnic groups, which was problematic since many of them wanted to have independence and hated one another. There were demands for political and cultural equality for all national groups in the Empire. Eventually the nationalist rivalry between the nationalities became intense.

Another problem for the Austrian empire was the growth of the south Slav nationalism among the Slovenes, croats and particularly the Serbs. The empire felt immensely threatened by the rapid growth of Serbia, and therefore agreed that Serbian power had to be ruined. We can link this to the concept of choice, because the Austrian empire made the decision to plan to attack Serbia due to them feeling threatened that Serbia would become superior to them. This caused much tension between the two countries. Eventually, the nationalism caused a Serb to assassinate Archduke Francis Ferdinand which lead to WW1.

Several Sources and Historians agree with thinking that Nationalism was major cause of WW1. For example; Alpha History, a website managed by several former or current history teachers, and a historian called Lawrence Rosenthal. Alpha History’s value is that the website is managed by professionals in the field, but it’s limitation is that the professionals weren’t alive at the time of WW1 therefore access to data could’ve been problematic. Alpha History explained that citizens of the great nations believed in the cultural, economic, and military supremacy of their nation. This was due to the popular culture and media, which spread rumours about rival nations and their evil intentions. They would also boast and exaggerate about the nations successes, power, and military. This caused people to become overconfident in their country, government, and military strength, which eventually leads to the citizens believing that their nation is unbeatable in war. The media would also paint their nation as fair, righteous, and innocent. While it would paint rival nations as aggressive, scheming, and evil. This only contributed to the hatred and anger citizens felt against their rivals.

Nationalism portrayed that War was necessary and easily winnable. Lawrence Rosenthal is an expert in history, but a limitation is that he gave his opinion based off of his knowledge. He stated that nationalism engaged the fierce emotions that characterise human relations at simpler sociological levels. He described nationalism as: loyalty inwards, aggression outwards. This meant that the fierce loyalty you felt for your nation, turned into fierce anger for your rivals. (

Despite all of this overwhelming evidence, some people say that a major cause of war was the naval rivalry which was the main event of Militarism. However, According to a Tutor/Student Studying History at university; the naval rivalry began due to German nationalism. This was because German nationalists felt that by building a larger navy they would challenge Britain which would increase German prestige and allow Germany to gain more colonies in Africa. Britain felt very threatened over Germany’s plans to build a larger navy. Therefore, this lead to extreme tension between the two countries. We can link this to the concept of Change & Choice, because by making the choice of building a larger navy, it changed the relationship between Britain and Germany. Germany made this choice because they wanted to feel superior to Britain by owning a larger navy, which Britain feared would happen. After going through with the decision, it changed the atmosphere between the two nations and caused more tension. An author named Jamie Cawley, has even stated the nationalism meant that groups of people would compete with one another which was the sole cause of European competitiveness (in other words militarism) that led to WW1.


In conclusion, nationalism is the main cause of WW1 because it created so much tension between nations, countries, and nationalities. Nationalism was also the main reasoning behind many of the issues that eventually caused the outbreak of The great war.

Counterargument 1: Alliances

While alliances might be the reason why so many countries got involved in WW1, it was due to nationalism why the alliances were formed in the first place. In 1914, a German military writer named General Friedrich von Bernhardi wrote about the triple alliance, he explains that Germany and Austria-Hungary formed an alliance because Austria consisted of a lot of German history, and due to nationalism Germans were extremely loyal to their country and culture. This historical perspective has the limitation that he provided a narrow focus when he only talks about the German and Austrian Alliance and the value of the historian being an expert in his field because he was alive during the time. He also states that they also shared the German language, and the Germans were the backbone of the Austrian territory, the bond of union that hold together the different nationalities of the Empire. This can be linked to Identities and Relationships, because Germany and the Austrian empire had a good relationship due to their similar identities. Overall, it means that alliances wouldn’t have existed in the first place, if it wasn’t for nationalism.

Counterargument 2: The spark

While the spark did cause the outbreak of WW1, it couldn’t have happened if it weren’t for nationalism. According to Alpha History, this was because of the nationalist movement of Slavic groups in the Balkans. Slavic nationalism was very powerful in Serbia. Especially pan-Slavism: the belief that Slavic people should have their own nation, and was against the Austrian Empire. After Vienna’s annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, young people from Serbia would join radical nationalist groups like the ‘Black Hand’. Groups like the Black Hand hoped to create a unified state for all Slavic people. Eventually one of these radical nationalist groups planned the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, which was what triggered the outbreak of WW1. Therefore, it was nationalism that begun and caused the planning of the assassination. Without it, the assassination would have never occurred, making nationalism far more important than the assassination itself. We can link this to the concept of change, because after the annexation young Serbs started taking action as well which not as many of them were doing before. Meaning that the Nationalism caused people to change and become more determined for their freedom.

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