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WATCH: Nationalism

Nationalism is the most impactful ideology in modern history. It is a cultural and political concept that argues that nations exist and have a right to govern themselves. That might not seem controversial, but it has been an incredibly disruptive force over the last 200 years. From the Atlantic Revolutions, the concept of nationalism spread around the world, sometimes liberating people from empires, and sometimes warping into new, destructive ideologies like fascism. Nationalists make historical claims that help them achieve their political goals. It’s time for you to test those claims. Is nationalism good or bad?

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Created by World History Project.

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  • leafers seedling style avatar for user Rafael
    I question the fact that nationalism is the reason why I will be cheering on the USA during the World Cup in Qatar this fall. I don't worship America, the way nationalists worship their nation. I think Fascism was evil. But America is my country. Why wouldn't I cheer for people who represent the country I love? I think it's more like patriotism that enables me to do this.
    *I'm posting this in the tips and thanks as well.
    (3 votes)
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  • duskpin sapling style avatar for user Ily
    At , he says that Nationalism is a belief that the borders of a state, should match the homeland of the people. I don't understand what he meant, how do borders match with a homeland?

    Also, what was it like before Nationalism? Was there no such thing as Italy or France or Germany? Were they all separated into families or religious communities?
    (2 votes)
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    • leaf orange style avatar for user August Berning
      1) I would say that is one definition of nationalism. In the case of Eastern European nationalistic movements, many just wanted the conquerors and oppressors gone. That did mean that the nation had to be able to govern itself (thus borders matching ethnic lines was basically a requirement), buuuut that doesn't necessarily mean that they wanted their homeland specifically per se. Populations move a lot, so a diaspora may just want autonomy where they are, rather than traveling back to their homeland and asserting independence there.

      What he means by borders matching the homeland, is lets take for example the Roman Empire. Theoretically, if a modern day Roman nationalist wanted a new Roman Empire's borders to match that of "the homeland", they might propose the borders of the Roman Empire at its height to be "the homeland" and thus advocate for a Roman country with the historical borders.

      2) Great question! Even in the BC era there were examples of sorts of nationalism. For example, the Israelites wanted to be free from the Egyptian, Babylonian, Persian, and Roman empires. Nationalism may not have been as common back then, but I would definitely say it existed in certain cases. The 1700s onwards saw a huge increase in the followers of the ideology of nationalism.
      (1 vote)

Video transcript

Let's say you're watching the opening parade  of the Olympic Games, hundreds of individuals marching together each under their own  banners, all wearing matching outfits. Which team will you be rooting for? Why?  Did you say because they're from my country or that's where my ancestors came from.  Maybe you just like the flag. Let's think about that for a second. Why  does any of that matter to you? You've probably never met any of these people.  They're most likely not from your hometown, and I'm guessing you're not a world-class swimmer  or shot putter. Why do you care whether these individuals win a game being played thousands of  miles away? Your answer to that question probably reveals your participation in the most impactful  ideology of the last 200 years: nationalism. Nationalism is an ideology that makes it  possible for millions of people, including you, who have never and will never meet each other  to care about one another, to share a common goal, to kill and to die for each other. Nationalism  is the belief that the borders of a state should match the homeland of a people,  a nation. That might seem obvious to you. Today, most everyone in the world is a citizen  of a nation-state, but in the late 18th century nation was a pretty radical idea. In the  year 1750, most people identified locally with their family or village or possibly  with a larger religious community. People were used to being governed by someone  foreign, usually a monarch or an emperor, but that all started to change at the end of the 18th  century when an age of revolutions reshaped power in the Atlantic world. Now before we get ahead  of ourselves, let's define what nationalism is. Nationalism is both a cultural and political  project, and it makes two big arguments: first, that nations exist and second, that  nations have a right to govern themselves. The political scientist Benedict Anderson defined  the nation as an imagined political community. That's the cultural part of nationalism. It's  the "that's my team" part. Nationalism asserts that nations exist, like the Italian nation  or the Nigerian nation, but you can't touch   or hold a nation. It's something that a group of  people collectively believe in, but just because it exists only in people's imaginations doesn't  make the idea any less powerful. Unlike empires, nations are imagined as having a right to govern themselves within the border of some ancient homeland. This idea is called a nation-state,  a sovereign state whose citizens are members of the same nation, but believing something  doesn't make it real. Why has nationalism been so powerful in the past two centuries?  Why do we live in a world of nation states? Nationalism has made a lot of people believe  very deeply in the idea that they are part of the same community and that their nationality  is the most important part of their identity. Millions of people might believe in the same  nation. Like you and those Olympic athletes, most of them will never meet each other.  Their societies might be terribly unequal, and yet in their minds they all believe they're  citizens of the same great nation. This belief makes it possible for millions of strangers to  share common goals and common identities. It has made millions of strangers willing to fight,  to kill, and to die for each other. So that's a powerful idea, and it has thoroughly reshaped  our world, so let's explore how that happened. Benedict Anderson traced the  beginnings of modern nationalism to the Atlantic revolutions of the late 18th and  early 19th century. There might have been some isolated examples of nationalism earlier, but when  European colonies in the Americas stopped thinking of themselves as subjects of European monarchs  and started to think of themselves as a nation, that really got the nationalism ball rolling. The  French Revolution took these ideas flowing around the Atlantic and put them together into  a comprehensive ideology of nationalism. As the French rose up and fired their king by  decapitating him, the revolutionary government desperately needed to unify their citizens in  the face of threats from other European monarchs. They promoted French culture and French  language. Thanks to universal conscription, military service became a national duty for every  male citizen. Nationalist passions helped Napoleon build his armies and launch his conquests.  However, as Napoleon swept across Europe, the presence of French conquerors inspired  conquered peoples to adopt their own nationalisms as a strategy of resistance. It went something  like this. Hey, why do our oppressors keep telling us their team France? Can't we  just form a team Italy and kick them out? The forces of nationalism, once they were  unleashed, were hard to contain. Now nationalism was straightforward in a country like France, which had a centralized government and relatively well-defined borders, and they'd already cut  off their king's head, so they had a head start, but other nations weren't so lucky. In places like  Italy and Germany, nationalists struggled to unify many different principalities, city-states, and  kingdoms into a single nation. In other places, nationalists rose up within large multi-ethnic empires, demanding their own nation-state made up of Hungarians, Serbians, Greeks,  Turks, Czechs, Romanians, Ukrainians, and many others. But no one seemed to quite agree  on what territory belonged to which nation or even who should lead that nation, and so the  19th century saw many wars as nations unified and empires crumbled. From the Atlantic revolutions,  nationalism spread around the globe. Nationalists in Egypt, Japan, India, China, and elsewhere  imagined and demanded their own nations. Nationalism spread like wildfire in the 19th  century, but it was the extreme violence of the 20th century that made nationalism the most  important ideology in modern history. World War One was caused in part by a Serbian nationalist  who assassinated the Austrian archduke, but it was also caused by increasing nationalist  competition among Europe's great powers. Extreme forms of nationalism made possible some of the  greatest atrocities in human history including the Armenian Genocide and the many horrors of  the Second World War, particularly the Holocaust. After the Second World War, a new wave of  nationalism swept the world as colonized peoples liberated themselves from empire and formed  their own nations. Today in the 21st century, nationalism continues to evolve. New technologies  make communication and travel easier, and many argue that this makes new transnational  identities even more significant, but others still point to the troubling resurgence of militant  nationalism, which embraces racism and xenophobia. Nationalism is less than three centuries old  and for a species that only started building cities about 50 centuries ago that makes it  pretty new, but it's also constructed on some ideas that are very old. Nationalists search for  common historical experiences that link different groups of people together. Shared language,  cultural traditions, and religion have all helped nationalists create the idea that modern  nations have deep connections to the past, and well if a deep connection didn't  really exist, nationalists just created it. Nationalist thinkers and politicians created  myths and histories that supported the idea of their nation. They promoted public  education and rituals like national anthems and pledges of allegiance that promoted national  unity and national identities. These ideas spread around the world quickly thanks to the rise of  mass printing and more literate populations. So here's the question. Is nationalism good or  bad? Nationalism makes it possible for millions of strangers to unify on a massive scale. It allows  people who have never met to cooperate with and   even die for one another. Nationalism offered a  revolutionary ideology that has liberated millions of people from the rule of kings and empires, but  nationalism has also caused a lot of conflicts and atrocities since the long 19th century. That's  because once people started defining who belonged in a nation, they also started defining who was  not a part of that nation. Foreigners, political enemies, and minorities became frequent targets of nationalists. In some places, nationalists defined membership to the nation along racial  or ethnic lines. Other places excluded women. Often those considered foreign, like Jews in Nazi  Germany, were persecuted, murdered, and expelled from their homes. Nationalism demands that the  nation come above all other identities. Frequently, this has driven nations to war as they compete  for the same territory or for national prestige. Even today, millions of people in  Kurdistan, Basque, Spain, Quebec, Angola, Tibet, and many other places believe  that they should have their own nation-state. Many continue to fight and to die for this  belief. For better and for worse, we live in a world of nation-states. Nationalism has  provoked some of humanity's greatest atrocities as well as our greatest triumphs. It's an ideology  that both empowers and subjugates. Nationalism is probably here to stay, so in the future can  we imagine forms of nationalism that unite, rather than divide? Is it possible for a world  of many different nations to cooperate toward shared goals in an era where challenges like  climate change transcend our national borders? So is nationalism good bad or both? That's up to you to decide for yourself using  evidence that you find in this course and beyond.