THE MODERN CONCEPT of nationalism was born with the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. Before then, Europe was a checkerboard of small states, cities, principalities, and alliances united by religions, language, history, and politics. As recently as the 1800s, such nations as CHINA, INDIA, and even ITALY looked nothing like they do today but instead were divided into such multiple states, cities, principalities, and alliances. The concept of nationalism was foreign to much of Africa and Asia as well, which were divided by language, culture, tribal ethnicity, politics, and geography.

The Westphalia peace agreements ended the Eighty Years' War between SPAIN and the NETHERLANDS as well as GERMANY'S Thirty Years' War. SWEDEN's and FRANCE's borders were clearly identified. The United Provinces of the Netherlands became a nation. A variety of mountainous city-states calling themselves the Swiss Confederation became an independent republic. Germany's treaty ended a century-long struggle between the Holy Roman Empire and 300 German princes who ruled over a variety of dominions. The Peace of Westphalia recognized the full territorial sovereignty of the member states. The princes were empowered to contract treaties with one another and with foreign powers. They became absolute sovereigns in their own dominions: nations.


The Versailles Treaty ending World War I further recognized the principle of nationalism with Europe and the MIDDLE EAST divided into autonomous entities empowered to take care of their own affairs. A number of such brand-new states were carved out of the defeated Ottoman Republic as British administrators created with the stroke of a pen on a map such countries as JORDAN, SAUDI ARABIA, IRAQ, and IRAN—ignoring geography as well as historic, ethnic, and religious differences. For example, what might have been a homeland for the Kurds was separated by artificial borders and assigned to the new Iraq, Iran, and TURKEY.

Created by diplomats, Yugoslavia was made up of several intensely rivalrous Balkan states with historical differences and competing interests. It held together until the death of its head of state, Josip Broz Tito, dissolving into such nations as SLOVENIA, BOSNIA, and SERBIA AND MONTENEGRO. One of the former Yugoslav republics goes by the official United Nations-assigned title of the Former Yugoslav Republic of MACEDONIA since adjacent Greece is worried that declaration of an independent Macedonia would prompt a wave of nationalism among Greek Macedonians, who would want to secede from Greece and join the new all-Macedonian nation.

The collapse of Yugoslavia and the dissolution of the Soviet Union at the close of the Cold War resulted in even more independent nations. Nationalism continued to assert itself in such ways as DENMARK refusing to give up its national currency in favor of the EUROPEAN UNION's new currency, the euro. IMMIGRATION became a controversial issue in Britain, with some vocalizing that the British identity was blurring. Nationalistic parties did well in French and Dutch elections. Polls showed that most people continued to have a strong sense of attachment to their nationality. GLOBALIZATION was violently opposed in massive worldwide street demonstrations.

Yet, significant antinationalistic trends also took place. The EUROPEAN UNION transferred significant power from the national level to both local and continental bodies. Historic trade agreements such as the NORTH AMERICAN FREE TRADE AGREEMENT (NAFTA) lowered the economic borders between the UNITED STATES, CANADA, and MEXICO. Such counternationalism increased the internationalization of trade markets while weakening the sovereignty and authority of the nation states. Even so, nationalism has maintained its appeal. Belonging to a culturally, economically, or politically strong nation seemingly makes citizens feel better regardless of whether they have made any contribution to that strength.

Regrettably, nationalism can have extreme negatives. In the 1980s, a very negative nationalism was projected by an Argentine military junta desperate to avert popular attention from inflation and unemployment as well as institutionalized corruption and the outright murder of thousands of political opponents. Amid loud proclamations of national pride and destiny, Argentina invaded the remote FALKLAND ISLANDS, proudly proclaiming that Las Islas Malvinas (as Argentines call the islands) had been “liberated” and restored to the Argentine motherland. The few hundred inhabitants, mostly shepherds, spoke English and traced their roots to England. They appealed to Great Britain for rescue. Argentina was startled when the British mobilized, sinking Argentine navy ships, destroying the Argentine air force, and invading the islands, thereby precipitating the collapse of the Argentine government—deposed in a twist of nationalism as the Argentine people repudiated their actions. Whereas this manifestation of Argentine nationalism was politically motivated and manipulated, nationalism has many forms, which can be positive as well as negative and which include ethnic, religious, historical, linguistic, geographical, and civil nationalism.


Ethnic nationalism exists when the state derives political legitimacy from hereditary groupings and ethnicities. A very negative example would be RWANDA and BURUNDI when, in 1994, frenzied by radio broadcasts, leaders called for a national “cleansing” of both nations. Half a million Tutsi tribespeople in Rwanda and another 300,000 in neighboring Burundi were murdered over a three-month period in which families were hacked to death by machete and refugees huddling in church sanctuaries were burned alive. Perpetrators expressed little remorse, explaining that they were merely ridding the world of Tutsis.

A positive example would be the experience of SWAZILAND. According to Swazi legend, in the late 18th century, Chief Ngwane II led a small band of followers over the Lebombo Mountains, found other African peoples, made peace with them, and together they became what today are the ethnic Swazi. After a difficult British colonial period, Swazi independence was granted in 1968. A new constitution written in 1973 took care to reflect Swazi national traditions, including the rule of the Ngwenyama or king as the country's hereditary head of state, assisted by a council of elders and the Ndlovukazi or mother of the king, who for centuries has been in charge of national rituals. Today, Swaziland is a leader among southern Africa's emerging nations—united by a rich history, proud culture, and unique ethnicity.

Religious nationalism exists when the state derives political legitimacy as a consequence of shared religion, such as Judaism in ISRAEL, ISLAM in PAKISTAN, Catholicism in Italy, or Shintoism in JAPAN. One familiar example would be the independence movement on the Indian subcontinent following World War II. Protesting the policies of an occupying nation that insisted that India was British and would always remain so, thousands of indigenous Indians put aside language, geographical, religious, and historical differences to unite, refusing to cooperate with colonial administrators. Mohandas K. Gandhi exhorted the masses to shame the British into leaving the Indian subcontinent through passive revolt, refusing to submit to the authority or rule of the occupiers, and instead asserting that the right to govern belonged to those whose ancestors had been there for thousands of years, and that no government would be better than a government by outsiders. On the eve of independence, however, religious differences between Muslims and Hindus split the proposed new nation apart. Muslim provinces on the east and west sides became Pakistan. What had been scores of small rival states united as the predominantly Hindu nation of India. Although it also had been administered as part of British India, the Buddhist kingdom of Burma had no interest in joining the confederation and instead sought its own independence as MYANMAR.

Another example is IRELAND. The inhabitants of most of the island are Catholic. The northern province of Ulster is Protestant as a result of the politically motivated importation of Scottish Presbyterians centuries ago. These Scots-Irish have remained geographically, religiously, ethnically, and linguistically separate from the rest of Ireland, electing to remain a part of Great Britain. Irish nationalists who have used violent means to seek the unification of the island are nominally motivated by religion, yet one never hears the Irish Republican Army offer to debate the Scots-Irish Protestants of Ulster on celibacy, predestination, or the authority of the papacy. Instead, they fight over nationalistic ideologies, views of Irish culture, and the status of the British army. Nevertheless, the conflict is popularly regarded as religious.


Another kind of nationalism is historical nationalism. In this case, nationalism is projected because of the pride that inhabitants take in the history and heritage of their nation. An example is GREECE. Citizens on the Greek peninsula and islands feel great pride over their nation's rich past as the birthplace of democracy as well as the incubator of Western philosophy and the historic home of the Olympics. During World War II, Greek partisans were fierce defenders of their homeland, driven by a love of their homeland, culture, traditions, and their distinct national identity.

In China during the 1800s, furious that foreign occupiers had subjugated their leaders and introduced nationwide opium abuse, Shaolin monks led their followers in a futile attempt to drive European occupiers out of China. Armed with only bare fists and deep beliefs, these predecessors of today's kung fu and karate practitioners failed to liberate China in what Westerners would dub the Boxer Rebellion.

Instead, China was forced at gunpoint to sign over a number of Chinese coastal cities as foreign enclaves, serving as doorways and giving the Europeans trade access to China. The last of those, Britain's HONG KONG and PORTUGAL's Macao, were ceded back to China only at the turn of the millennium—the result of nationalistic demands on the part of the China, which had never forgotten its historic humiliation. The entire Chinese nation celebrated the return of the two cities with nationwide festivities and proclamations of Chinese national pride.

A common language has been one of the main presuppositions for nationalism. In FRANCE, for example, before the French Revolution, dialects such as Breton and Occitan were spoken in the various regions and were incomprehensible to each other. Following the Revolution, French was imposed as the national language. Nationalism has also prompted the revival of languages, such as Gaelic after Ireland won its independence, and Hebrew upon the founding of the state of Israel.

Civil nationalism exists when the state derives political legitimacy from the active participation of its citizenry, as in the “will of the people.” An individual in such a nation must believe that the state's actions somehow reflect his or her will, even when specific actions go against that will. It is the theory behind constitutional democracies such as the United States. A dramatic example of civil nationalism is South KOREA. With their national economy threatened by a 1990s recession, thousands of South Koreans sold family heirlooms and melted down precious jewelry so they could make voluntarily contributions toward paying off the national debt and restoring the prosperity of their industrialized, market economy.

Many citizens remembered well the difficult days of the Korean War and, before that, the Japanese occupation in World War II. Although united by thousands of years of history with the ethnically and linguistically identical inhabitants of the communist northern half of their peninsula, South Koreans remain skeptical of reunification with North KOREA, which has a hereditary, non-democratic government and a centralized socialist economy. South Koreans have fought and sacrificed for their nation's security and prosperity—and take strong nationalistic pride in being South Koreans.