Charles (Chip) Hauss

September 2003

"Why should I be a minority in your republic when you can be a minority in mine?" -- Anonymous activist, former Yugoslavia

In the Dictionary of International Relations, Graham Evans and Jeffrey Newnham start their entry with this relatively benign definition of nationalism. "This term is used in two related senses. In the first usage, nationalism seeks to identify a behavioral entity - the nation - and thereafter to pursue certain political and cultural goals on behalf of it. In the second usage, nationalism is a sentiment of loyalty toward the nation which is shared by people."[1] But, like most modern students of international relations, they argue that nationalism has been one of the most important forces shaping international politics.

And not always for the better.

What Is Nationalism?

Nationalism has been the subject of hundreds of analyses and dozens of theories. However, the Evans/Newnham definition is a good start.

Political scientists draw a sharp distinction between the concepts of state and nation. State refers to government and other institutions which run the country. Nation, by contrast, is a psychological characteristic, what individuals identify with. There are nation-states in which almost everyone accepts the state as theirs and makes it the primary home of their political identity and loyalty. That would certainly be true of most people in the United States or France, but is less true in countries where people might think of themselves as Scots more than British, Quebecois more than Canadian, or Walloon more than Belgian. There are also countries with important Diasporas or groups of people who live outside the countries' borders but would rather not do so. As we will see later in this article, one of the most tragic examples of nationalism-induced violence occurred when Yugoslavia disintegrated into now six separate states. Only Slovenia was anywhere near homogeneous, and most ethnic minorities chafed under the nationalistic rule of the majority group's leaders.

Nationalism and the state are surprisingly new phenomena given the importance they play in international relations today.

Why Nationalism Is Important

Nationalism is important in two ways.

The first is relatively benign and is best seen in the patriotism of most people in the United States, the United Kingdom, or France. In those countries, almost everyone believes that the state is legitimate and supports it often without question. In countries that still have a draft, virtually everyone agrees to put on a uniform if conscripted.

Such patriotism can have an ugly side - who hasn't been appalled by the boorishness of American hockey or English soccer fans. And, most observers are convinced that patriotism can leave most people more blind than they should be to their country's political flaws, something many critics have argued about Americans since the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Yet that sort of hyper-nationalism has not often led to the kind of violent conflict which claimed well over 100 million people in the twentieth century. One of the major causes of most of those conflicts has been nationalism of a different kind -- one that gets out of hand, turns into hatred of others, and sparks violence, often of the most brutal form. That is especially true when leaders of states can convince people that they have somehow been treated abusively by the "other" or that members of "our" group who live outside "our" borders need to be incorporated into the "homeland."

As far as interstate war is concerned, there is no more obvious example than World War II. Japan, Italy, and especially Germany were all led by leaders who stressed unmet nationalist goals and grievances in the years leading up to the outbreak of fighting in 1939. While psychologists and historians still debate exactly how this took place, there is little doubt that the intense emotions felt by leaders and followers alike contributed to the atrocities committed by people from all three of these countries.

Nationalism of only a slightly different sort has fueled much of the intrastate violence that has been the dominant form of intractable political conflict since the end of World War II. In some cases, the term nationalism itself may not be used at all in what are referred to as ethnic or other "sub-national" conflicts, as is the case with many of the conflicts taking place inside of multinational countries such as India. In other cases, there is no realistic possibility of creating ethnically pure states; there is, for instance, no way to envision Hutu or Tutsi states emerging out of either Rwanda or Burundi. The largest number of cases involve nationalities whose historical claims to state- or nation-ness are rather tenuous as in Kashmir, Chechnya, or most of the former Yugoslav republics. But, the people who take up arms in those conflicts share the same kind of deeply rooted emotions that gave rise to the Nazis in Germany and any other Volk or nation-based ideology.

What Individuals Can Do

The most obvious thing for an average citizen to do is to resist adopting ideologies that starkly divide the world into "we versus them" terms or choosing leaders who do so. I know from personal experience that is not always easy to do. I still harbor significant resentment toward Germans who wiped out half of my family. It is also hard for me not to feel hatred toward the terrorists who carried out the 9/11 and other attacks in recent years.

In more general terms, it is hard for people to refuse to accept such values during times of crisis, such as the combination of defeat and depression that gripped Germany during the interwar years. To begin with, the Germans had legitimate grievances about the humiliation they were forced to suffer as a result of losing World War I. Moreover, the German people were bombarded with "messages" from the media and respected local leaders which served to deepen their resentments. Eighty years ago, Hitler had to rely on newspapers, mass organizations, public meetings, and primitive radio and film technologies. Today's nationalist (and often demagogic) leader has the full range of mass media technologies to draw on. And, in some of the most destructive conflicts in the last decade (e.g., in Rwanda and Serbia), they did just that.

What Leaders Can Do

Obviously, leaders should resist the temptation to support and promote hyper-nationalist ideas. They may pay off in the short term, but the carnage of the last century suggests that they produce few, if any, lasting winners.

But, it may be even harder for leaders to resist hyper-nationalism than it is for average citizens. First, it is clear that some leaders, like Adolf Hitler, truly believe in their nationalism and the prejudices that go with it. Second, and probably more common, are the politicians like Slobodan Milosevic who used hyper-nationalist themes in a more opportunistic way to propel and keep themselves in power.

[1] Evans, Graham and Jeffrey Newnham, Penguin Dictionary of International Relations. 1st ed. (London: Penguin, 1998), 346. <>.

Use the following to cite this article:
Hauss, Charles (Chip). "Nationalism." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: September 2003 <>.

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