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What is Nationalism and should it be embraced?

Is nationalism evil? The answer seems to vary for everyone. One might categorize misfortunate events such as the January 6th Capitol Riot in Washington D.C to be driven by it, while others like former President Donald Trump may esteem it as a healthy and morally good principle. Whether someone believes nationalism to be good or bad will depend on what they perceive it to be.

So, what defines nationalism? According to the Merriam-Webster 1828 Dictionary, nationalism is defined as: “Loyalty and devotion to a nation; especially a sense of national consciousness, exalting one nation above all others and placing primary emphasis on promotion of its culture and interests as opposed to those of other nations or supranational groups” (Merriam). The definition seems to leave the moral basis up for interpretation. In this paper, we will look at a few examples of nationalism and the consequences that followed by comparing France and Germany. We will explore nationalism and look for evidence of it being evil, or morally superior as some suggest.

A bird’s eye view of nationalism in world history

 The independence of the United States of America from Great Britain taught us that nationalism can lead to the building up of a country and nation, and unite a people for the common good. The phenomenon of Brexit demonstrated that nationalism could abolish a nation’s dependency on others. History has also taught us that nationalism can completely break a nation and people. Examples include France during the French revolution, as well as Germany during the totalitarian control of the Nazi Party.

On the scale of governmental systems, respectively, humanity has labeled tyranny and communism on the extreme “left,” and anarchy on the extreme “right”—as though they were complete opposites. Political author W. Cleon Skousen argues that “In reality they are simply different names for similar forms of despotism—the police state. They both belong together on the side of the spectrum representing despotic government” (Skousen). On one extreme there is too much government and on the other there is too little. Nationalism can lead to tyranny or anarchy, depending on the majority interest of the nation.

The French Revolution

Historically, the swinging of the pendulum from tyranny to anarchy and then back again to tyranny is the history of the French Revolution. Before the initiation of the revolution, France was divided into three estates. The First and Second consisted of the wealthy and elite, who made the laws, accumulated the wealth, and reaped the rewards from the taxpayers. Only 3% of the population belonged to the First and Second Estates. The third consisted of the rest of the population who were extremely poor and living miserably. This system of power lasted for many years until 1789 when France experienced an economic collapse.

With shortages of food and grain, citizens of the third estate were suffering greatly and were rightfully angry at their ruler—King Louis the XVI—who was not effectively responding to the crisis. On June 20th, 1789, the Third Estate broke off from the Second and First, declaring themselves as “The Nation Assembly,” and vowed to continue meeting independently until a new French constitution was made. It was later written and known as “The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen,” which highlighted principles of reason and freedom promulgated during the period of “The Enlightenment.” By 1791, rebellion against the French Monarchy had spread across the country, the feudal system was abolished, and Louis the XVI was charged with treason and beheaded, ending one-thousand years of monarch rule.

However, the revolution did not stop there. Extremists within the National Assembly, known as the “Jacobins” wanted to go further and enforce mass change in French society from top to bottom. To accomplish this, they concluded that extermination of all opposition was necessary, resulting in the capturing and execution of anyone who even remotely opposed them. As a result, about 20,000 people were executed via the guillotine. This period from 1793 to 1794 was known as “The Reign of Terror.” Eventually, amid the chaos, General Napolean Bonaparte took charge of France, becoming emperor and claiming to defend the nation’s democratic values. With Napolean as emperor, France had gone in a full circle, and once again were back in the hands of total dictatorial authority, precisely where they had been before.

Nazi Germany

Germany is most famous for its significant role in World War II with the formation of the Nazi Party, led by the fascist leader Adolf Hitler. Following the loss of World War I, Germany was forced to sign the Treaty of Versailles, and was burdened with heavy reparations to pay and laws to obey that weakened their government and country. Many German nationalists and veterans wrongly believed that the war could have been won if they had not been betrayed by their leaders, politicians, and protestors.

Hitler—a member of the former German workers party—was an incredible and influential speaker who pushed for a strong unified Germany and blamed the disparities and issues on the Jews, who were considered by many in the country as “outsiders.” After World War I, Jewish success led to ungrounded accusations of subversion and war profiteering. All these conspiracies were driven by emotions of fear, anger, and bigotry. Hitler continuously drew in larger crowds and propagated these ideas. The Nazi Party combined antisemitism with popular resentment and denounced communism and capitalism as international Jewish conspiracies to destroy Germany. Eventually, the party tried to overthrow the government, but as a result was banned and Hitler was charged with treason. Later, he began to rebuild the Nazi movement.

In 1929 the Great Depression weakened Germany further, and Hitler seized the opportunity by promising to restore Germany and rebuild a strong country and economy. He convinced the people that they needed a single leader to accomplish this task: “Over the last 40 years the German bourgeoisie has been a lamentable failure. It has not given the German people a single leader. It will have to bow without concession to the totality of my ideology… The bourgeoisie rules by intrigue but it can have no foothold in my movement” (Hitler).

Hitler ran under the Nazi Party for President of Germany in 1932…but lost. However, he was later appointed Chancellor and steadily expanded the power of his position. He broke promises from the Treaty of Versailles, proclaiming that only he could restore law and order.

Hitler utilized the principal of nationalism to receive reinforcement from the people proclaiming, “It is…necessary that the individual should finally come to realize that his own ego is of no importance in comparison with the existence of the nation, that the position of the individual is conditioned solely by the interests of the nation as a whole” (Mein Kampf). After convincing the people of his greatness he used the principles of nationalism to back his agenda further. In 1933, a young worker set fire to the parliament building and Hitler used the event to convince the government to grant him emergency powers. He tripled the military, banned rival parties, executed opponents, and targeted the Jews. After he conquered Germany as a fascist leader, he aimed to conquer the world. Thus, began World War II.

What went wrong?

Although the French Revolution ended up being a blood bath with only minor change in the end, there were things that the French did right. The revolution contributed to ideas of modern nationalism, in that a state should represent and serve the interests of its people. Nationalism in the French Revolution initially began as a morally upright movement, rooted in the causes of constitutional government, liberty, happiness, free will, toleration and progress.

The extremism of groups such as the Jacobins is where the revolution went over the edge. Initially, the Jacobins were supposed to control several political bodies, specifically the Committee of Public Safety and National Convention. However, the obsession of preserving the republic led them to cross the line and cause massive terror—the likes of which were never seen. Maximilien Robespierre, the head of the Committee of Public Safety said it was to “force men to be free” (Roskin). Nationalism had carried them beyond the boundaries set forth by “The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen,” which firmly declared citizens’ rights to safety and resistance to oppression. The rights of those who were killed were ignored. France taught us that while nationalism can bring us out of oppression—if extended too far—others can suffer the same consequences.

As discussed previously, Hitler gained popularity by pushing for a strong and unified Germany, which they did not have at the time. Hitler saw the chaos around him as an opportunity to seize power by promising to return Germany to greatness, while simultaneously criticizing the ruling government. Germans believed they had found their savior, and many followed out of fear, despair, and desperation. Nationalism drove Hitler to power by criticism of the federal parliamentary-democratic system that Germany had, and people were convinced that it was a failure out of fear for the future of their country. Nationalism was a tool utilized by the Nazis to conquer Germany and was driven by a lack of morals and too many people permitting an overextension of Hitler’s powers.

Nationalism and Salt

Jonah Goldberg, a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, compares nationalism to salt: “My standard analogy about this is that every poison is determined by the dose…nationalism is a little bit like salt. A pinch brings the meal together, combines all the flavors well, and really sells the dish. A little too much, it ruins the dish. Way too much; it’s literally toxic. A little nationalism is essential. You need some sense of social solidarity and cultural affiliation that binds you together” (Sunday). He then professes that nationalism can be toxic when put as the highest ideal, becoming more mystic than fathomable, and that living in a multi-ethnic society can make it an exclusionary movement.

Political parties that control government mainly take up the mantle of nationalism because the central government generally is the only institution that speaks for the whole country. As a result, nationalism can result in socialism or statism.


So, is nationalism good, or bad? My belief is that nationalism, in its pure definition, is a good thing. Nationalism is largely what drove the colonists to form the United States of America along with the spirit of patriotism. Some suggest that nationalism is opposite to moral creeds such as patriotism; however, political commentator Ben Shapiro argues that “when combined with patriotism, nationalism can be a bulwark against tyranny. Nationalism can stand up to international communism. Nationalism can refuse to bow before the dictates of multiculturalism, which suggests all cultures and practices are of equal value. It is a simple fact human beings resonate to nationalism. The question is whether that nationalism can be grafted to a worthwhile philosophy. Nationalism then isn’t the problem. Lack of values is” (Shapiro). I completely agree with Ben Shapiro’s argument. Nationalism is a good thing, so long as it is driven by good morals and a respect for the foundations of one’s free country.

I think of my ancestors; Americans who fought and died for our flag, our freedom, and their families and future posterity. They were driven by a sense of nationalism, which the flag greatly represents in standing for certain values which American families are built on. So long as nationalism is bridled by our fundamental, unalienable rights, a constitutional government and a people built on moral principles, we have good reason for it to prosper among nations.

Works Cited

Hitler, Adolf., years-the-german-bourgeoisie-h/. Accessed 26 Oct. 2022.

“Mein Kampf Chapter 11.” The University of Oklahoma, Accessed 26 Oct. 2022.

Merriam-Webster. “Definition of NATIONALISM.” Dictionary by Merriam-Webster: America’s Most-trusted Online Dictionary, Accessed 26 Oct. 2022.

Roskin, Michael G. “France.” Countries and Concepts: Politics, Geography, Culture, Pearson, 2015, p. 81.

Shapiro, Ben. “Ben Shapiro: Nationalism, Patriotism Need Not Be Opposites.” AP NEWS, 18 Nov. 2018, Accessed 26 Oct. 2022.

Skousen, Willard C. “Discovery of the ancient principles” The Making of America: The Substance and Meaning of the Constitution, National Center for Constitutional Studies, 1985, pp. 42-43.

Sunday Special, Jonah Goldberg. “Is Nationalism always a bad thing?” Interview by Ben Shapiro. Youtube, Sunday Special, 10 June 2018, Accessed 26 Oct. 2022.

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