By “nationalism,” historians mean something a bit different from the usual media blather. For us, nationalism is different from patriotism (“I love my country”), chauvinism “(My country, right or wrong”), or a more generic populism; all of which usually get lumped together under the nationalistic rubric. Rather, we define nationalism as the desire on the part of a group of culturally coherent people (usually an ethno-linguistic group) to organize themselves politically as a formal state which encompasses all of that group (e.g., Poles, Tamils, Arabs) and which similarly excludes members of other groups. This is the concept of the “nation-state” which has been the touchstone of political debates across the world since the late 18C. Thus, for example, a group of Arabs have defined themselves as Palestinians and have aspired to a Palestinian state.
Nationalism has often emerged from empires, which are, by definition, multi-national states, such as the Austro-Hungarian Empire of the 19-20C, the Soviet Empire of the 20C, and the British Empire of the 16-20C.
Nationalism has an intimate relationship with democracy and both were arguably rooted in the French Revolution of the late 18C. The shift of consciousness and power embodied in the recharacterization of the gathering of notables from the royally-ordained “Estates-General” into a self-defined “National Assembly” in 1789 represented claims by the “people” that “we are the nation” and that political power resides in us, not in the monarchy or aristocracy. Much of the story of Europe in the “long 19C” (i.e., from 1789 to the start of WWI in 1914) is a reflection of the spread of these twinned ideas, including the unification of Italy (1850s-60s) and Germany (1860s-70), and the independence of Christian components of the Ottoman Empire in the Balkans (1870s-1910s).
The apogee of nationalism was likely the post-WWI settlements (usually referred to as the Treaty of Versailles) which sorted boundaries out of the carnage of that conflict which led to the destruction of the Russian, German, Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman Empires and the creation of a bunch of new “national” states in Central Europe. While, initially, the empires of the winners (Britain, France) remained intact, eventually they, too, disintegrated (literally) with the decolonization wave of the mid-20C which was led by leaders in colonial contexts (e.g. India, Vietnam, Kenya) who demanded that Indians, Vietnamese, and Kenyans (respectively) should run their own countries, just as the Poles, Italians, and the French had argued earlier.
Through the course of the rest of the 20C and up to today, the concept of nationalism has served to inspire a variety of independence, separatist, and anti-colonial movements. It is inherent in the “League of Nations” and its scion, the UN.
Here in the US, nationalism is a problematic concept. Huge in size, long characterized as a “melting-pot” of ethnic groups (despite an early and continuing dominance by British culture), and lacking the sharp juxtapositions of others (Canada isn’t very “other” and Mexico has been far away for most of our history), the US certainly isn’t a “nation-state” in the classic sense. This is a large part of the reason why our common discourse conflates “nationalism” with patriotism.
There are other important angles to nationalism and its history, however, which might apply to us as well. In particular, if we look at how people have thought of themselves, the rise of nationalism in the 19C reflects a shift in the geographic scope of personal identity. Most people in traditional societies have identified themselves by kinship groups or clans, perhaps by villages or language/culture groups (largely regional in scope). Industrialization, capitalism, and technologies of communications and transportation made clear by the 19C that such groupings were inadequate to address the challenges of modernity. In other words, political structures had to adapt to the significant economies of scale then available. Nationalism became a means of progress, a mark of leaving behind pre-industrial localism, and a force for coherence and integration.
By the 20C, it was becoming increasingly clear that changes in these scale economies would have structural implications. Issues of trade, finance, peace, transportation, and communications now required at least regional/continental, if not global, management. At the same time, dis-economies of scale—fostered by greater economic efficiency and a sharper sense of local identity and culture—meant that the nation-state faced pressures to disaggregate at least some of its functions. Still, for most folks, the sense of personal identity (as a Scot, Thai, or Chilean) remained resolutely local.
Much of 19/early 20C nationalism was led by local elites, consolidating their economic and cultural hinterlands into political structures. Global elites (aka “cosmopolitans”) don’t yet seem to have the same power to move the mentalities of the masses. Global migration and inter-marriage will help some, but slowly. Perhaps greater awareness of genealogy and historical DNA analyses will convince more people that classifications such as “race” and “nation” are entirely human constructs of the past few hundred years.
Nation-states, particularly the more powerful among them, often resisted the development of global, supra-national, organizations. In this context, nationalism became associated not with progress and integration, as it had in the 19C, but with a discourse of independence and separatism, usually advanced by “populist” politicians who claimed that “essential” national rights (aka “sovereignty”) were being trampled upon. Such claims have usually been disingenuous; although there are plenty of examples of overstepping by (very) distant bureaucracies and expressions of power from foreign capitals). These debates have often arisen in the economic arena (e.g., World Trade Organization, European Union), but also have appeared with regard to human rights (e.g., foreign interventions, International Criminal Court), and will be central to the solution of the climate crisis (e.g., the COP process).
Last year, I addressed the broad sense of fragility and sclerosis in the modern world and it is useful to see the nation-state as an artifact of the 19C whose time is passing, but whose lingering promises to continue to be problematic.