On the eve of the Great War, barely more than half the citizens of France spoke the French language or considered themselves ethnically French, as historian Eugen Weber famously illustrated; it was the war itself that replaced France’s regional languages and identities with a national one.
And France was one of the more unified nations. In 1914, less than half the population of Romanov Russia was ethnic Russian. In post-unification Italy, only 2.5 per cent of citizens spoke Italian on a daily basis.
Multiculturalism was the prewar norm: For every 100 soldiers in the Hapsburg army in 1914, historian David Reynolds observes, “there were on average 25 Germans, 18 Magyars, 13 Czechs, 11 Serbs and Croats, 9 Poles, 9 Ruthenes, 6 Romanians, 4 Slovaks, 2 Slovenes and 2 Italians. … Many units operated with two languages, some as many as five.”
It wasn’t the war that changed all that, but the peace. In the postwar wreckage of Europe’s empires and economies, the Treaty of Versailles attempted to create a new peace by granting independent statehood to virtually anyone who sought it and asked loudly or forcefully enough. U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, the man most responsible for shaping the postwar world, famously declared, in early 1918, that “all well-defined national aspirations shall be accorded the utmost satisfaction.” He took the phrase “self-determination” – a Bolshevik idea popular with Lenin – and gave it a much wider meaning.
This was not at all an inevitable development – in fact, both countries best poised to determine the peace, the United States and Britain, were opposed to (and sometimes threatened by) ethnic and linguistic nationalism. But, as historian Eric Hobsbawm once observed, the postwar explosion of new countries “was the result of two unintended developments: the collapse of the great multinational empires of Europe, and the Russian Revolution – which made it desirable for the Allies to play the Wilsonian card against the Bolshevik card.” Ethnic nationalism was ugly, but it trumped communist internationalism.
These new postwar nations were of a very different flavour from those created in the nationalist fervour of the 19th century. “Whereas Italy and Germany had been created through the unification of various local polities with similar language and culture,” David Reynolds writes in his superb history, The Long Shadow: The Great War and the Twentieth Century, these nations were created “through secession from dynastic empires that had hitherto controlled a volatile mix of ethnic groups in various stages of national self-consciousness and political mobilization.”
Even before the war was over, more cautious people warned that this thrust to create ethno-states was a ticking bomb. Wilson’s secretary of state, Robert Lansing, expressed alarm: “When the President talks of ‘self-determination,’ what unit has he in mind? Does he mean a race, a territorial area, or a community?” The phrase, in Lansing’s view, was “simply loaded with dynamite,” and would “raise hopes which can never be realized” and “cost thousands of lives.” He was certainly correct.
These newborn nations were destined for further violence: None was actually uni-ethnic or uni-linguistic, despite their claims; most contained competing nationalities and faiths seeking self-determination. Some, such as Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia and Iraq, were purely artificial hodgepodges of groups that had ancient rivalries. Arab states such as Jordan and Syria were essentially gifts to tribal families that had favoured the old empire. The Israel-Palestine conflict was the most inevitable conflict arising from the borders of this post-1914 world, but there have been hundreds of others – including, most recently, ISIL’s Sunni-imperial challenge to the Sykes-Picot line.
“Although nationalist frenzy was more consequence than cause of the Great War,” Mr. Reynolds writes, “the war-makers had let the genie out of the bottle and the peace-makers could not put it back.”
The new nationalism
That nationalist frenzy was not merely the product of top-down peace treaties and diplomatic deals, though. What Wilson and his allies unleashed was a new form of thinking, and a new form of politics and violence, that had filled the air in 1914.
It is important to distinguish these nationalist movements from the liberal states that were created in their name. They were different things, with different consequences.