Why did they fight? Nationalism, for one thing. That ideology even emerged strengthened by the war, and it has kept causing more wars ever since – and despite the continued bloodshed, most people today consider nationalism right and logical. It seems identical to patriotism, but nationalism differs from patriotism in one small cancerous way. Patriotism means pride in your country, but nationalism limits who can be part of your country.
The French Revolution gave the ideology a kickstart two centuries ago, and eventually author Maurice Barrès, in the throes of nationalism, insisted that instead of being “citizens of humanity” its inhabitants should strive to be “Frenchmen of France,” a goal he thought of as more noble but was also smaller in striving and scope.
Nationalism celebrates a glorious past and it defines a nation as something composed of a single people who share a language, tradition, culture, geography, race, folk-tales, legends, national heroes, music, religion, and future. (All of which can be invented or at least consolidated if necessary.) Finally, nationalism says that a people – because it is a “nation” – deserves its own sovereign independent state.
What’s wrong with that? Edmund Burke (no relation) saw nationalism as the end of individuality. “The state is all in all,” he said, because under nationalism the state defines your language, culture, race, heroes, religion, favorite foods, and memory. The government gets the power to tell you who you are, and it can enforce that identity by law – if necessary, at the point of a gun.
In addition, it almost always teaches you that your nationality is superior to the rest and your nation is under threat by lesser nations, so you need a strong military. Since you are superior and have military might, you can and should expand your borders and colonize inferior people for their own good (and your own good, if they have nice resources). This is why Francois Mitterrand said, “Nationalism is war.”
But most dangerously of all, nationalism tells you who does not belong, who is the “other” and must be eliminated.
The idea of nationalism spread from France across Europe during the 1800s: to the Slavic people in the Balkans and, among other countries, to Germany. German nationalism was anti-French. French nationalism was anti-German. Both were anti-British. In Germany, nationalist antisemitism arose at the end of the 1800s claiming that Jews, a convenient “other,” were an exploiting, corrupting, and alien influence that would weaken the nation – and this idea turned genocidal in the 1930s and 1940s.
You can see where this is going.
Yet not every country has to succumb to this. The United States of America is one of several countries founded on a civic rather than nationalistic union. Its Constitution deliberately outlaws a national religion, a radical concept at the time of its drafting and still controversial now. It permits both anyone born in the country and immigrants to become citizens – not every country permits that. The founding philosophy glorifies freedom, tolerance, equality, and individual rights, and the United States has spent its existence trying to refine these ideals – again, not ideals that every other country shares.
World War I ended with the creation of seven new countries, but they always held minorities within them. One of those new countries was Yugoslavia. They were all Slavs, but they didn’t speak the same language or share the same faith, and this finally led to yet another nationalist war. Twenty years ago, Sarajevo was under siege, and thousands were dying from constant bombardment and sniper fire.
Right now, people are dying in the fight between Ukraine and Russia, one of many nationalist struggles underway in the world. Some of these fights remain political, others sometimes turn violent and even genocidal.
This is why when I hear people in the United States complaining about “Push 1 for English” as if it were an affront to the country to have several languages coexist, I despair. This is not patriotism. It does not reflect the founding principals of the country. It attempts to define the country by its language, as if the United States were France or Russia, as if those two countries were following a wise course. Instead, it is a tiny but toxic step down a well-trod nationalistic path that eventually leads to a sea of blood.
The military learned a lot from World War I. Civilians came away with the wrong lesson.
— Sue Burke
Nouriel Roubini also discusses this at Project Syndicate.