The Rise of Nationalism in Germany

by Camryn DiFiore for Prof Holm's SS 102 class

“We have the good fortune to live in a great age, we must brace ourselves and triumph over hardship!”1 exclaimed the German schoolmaster, Kantorek, who inspired many of his students to join the German war effort in World War I. His speech owed its power to the rise of nationalism in Germany. Without this newfound sense of identity within the state and belief that honor comes from defending your country, Kantorek’s speech would have just been empty, meaningless rhetoric to the Germans. While All Quiet on the Western Front is merely a novel, it clearly displays how nationalism, simply put as love and devotion to one’s country, motivated these soldiers to go and risk their lives in a war that they likely would not return home from. The idea of national duty, respect, and honor drove men from all across Europe to make the ultimate sacrifice in order to secure their country’s well-being and superiority. As nationalism grew it became a powerful force to be reckon with and as historians McGrath and Martin point out nationalism started as “‘My nation is great’ [and] tended to become ‘my nation is superior to yours.’”2 No other European nation embodied this theory as much as Germany. From 1880 to 1945 the works Nations and Nationalism by Heinrich von Treitshcke, the Official Statement of the German Government: “How Russia Betrayed Germany’s Confidence,” the German War Bond Poster “Help Us Triumph!” and the address given by Adolf Hitler to the Nazi Party Congress in Nuremberg, September 15, 1935, clearly depict the rise and intensification of German nationalism which helped cause the two World Wars in the 20th century.

Nationalism is immense loyalty and love for your country and the belief that your country is of the highest caliber. To add, historians McGrath and Martin define nationalism as emphasizing “a unified culture that transcends ethnic and local identities and promotes a sense of mutual obligation towards the state.”3 Notably, nationalism was not always a major ideology; it emerged due to the “effects of the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution [that] spread throughout the continent, [and before long] nation-states and nationalism assumed various forms.”4 As countries began to modernize their ideologies and economies, and overall developed as a nation, the sense of nationalism grew throughout Europe. The intense kind of nationalism people usually associate with Germany started to develop during the reign of Otto von Bismarck. Bismarck led Germany to two military victories in 1866 when Germany defeated Austria in the Austro-Prussian War and five years later in 1871 when Germany claimed yet another victory over France in the Franco-Prussian War.5 These events allowed Germany to become stronger and more confident than ever which allowed Bismarck to continue to push his nationalistic agenda. After these iconic victories Bismarck began uniting the German state and spreading German influence thus contributing to the growth of the German empire. At the same time, the “major political development [in Germany] …was the creation of a unified German state, which was composed of the varied collection of former principalities” thanks to Otto von Bismarck. By promoting the unification of Germany Bismarck laid the groundwork for nationalism to develop because as pointed out by Martin and McGrath nationalism requires a unified culture and territories. Otto von Bismarck worked to expand and unite Germans beyond Germany’s current borders, which “is a good example of how nationalism [started to become] a force of political right.”6 Otto von Bismarck used this developing sense of national identity bestowed in the German citizens to make Germany stronger and sizable. In 1884 Russia wanted to sign a Reinsurance Treaty with Germany which meant that when faced with war both countries would remain neutral.7 However, due to the growth and unity of the German state and the two huge victories roughly twenty years prior Otto von Bismarck refused to sign the Reinsurance Treaty because he believed Germany was strong enough to stand on its own. During Bismarck’s rule, Heinrich von Treitshcke, a German historian, wrote his piece Nations and Nationalism. Heinrich von Treitshcke was one of the first Germans to realize the power nationalism gives a nation and theorized that nationalism was key to creating a powerful state. Treitshcke saw the Germany Otto von Bismarck had created, by promoting unity and underscoring German strength to motivate the people, and was inspired by the “Iron Chancellor” and his nationalistic yet victorious agenda.

While keeping his effective leader in mind Heinrich von Treitshcke wrote Nations and Nationalism in which he theorized what nationalism is and how it can be effectively used to promote a nation by referencing what Bismarck had accomplished for Germany. Treitshcke opens his piece by stating that “The state is the people, legally united as an independent entity.”8 Instantly, Treitshcke links the people and the state together, stressing that the wellbeing of one impacts the wellbeing of another. This mindset of uniting the people is evidently influenced by Bismarck because Bismarck made it his mission to unite all Germans under a common state which Treitshcke recognized helped German nationalism develop. In addition, by preaching this interdependence between the state and the people Treitshcke creates an incentive for the people to advocate for the state which allowed nationalism to continue to flourish. Treitshcke continues “the high moral ideal of national honour is a factor handed down from one generation to another.”9 In other words, by passing the idea of national honor and national accomplishments down it allows the German people to take pride in the achievements of the state and as time goes by the number of accomplishments will grow thus increasing the sense of nationalism in Germany. Treitshcke’s piece then takes a turn and focuses on foreign policy and political views that must be in place for nationalism to flourish. He declares “every treaty is a voluntary curb upon the power of [the State]…No State can pledge its future to another.”10 This belief that treaties subordinate the state stems from what Treitshcke witnessed during his time, Bismarck refusing to sign the Reinsurance Treaty with Russia. Treitshcke has gathered through Bismarck’s diplomatic approaches that securing the country’s power is most important and the one way to ensure power in Germany is to pledge the future of the state to Germany and not to other nations. Treitshcke’s final point is that “without war no State can be,”11 which is another theory proven to be true based on the time period he lived during. Germany would never have been as strong as it was in the late 19th century without their victories over Austria and later France. Treitshcke took note of what was happening around him and was able to draw the conclusion that the union of the people and the state, as promoted by Bismarck, was key to the development of nationalism. This advocacy for a link between the people and the state, the notion of looking for war to prove your dominance, and the idea of avoiding alliances because they subordinate your country planted the seed that allowed nationalism to flourish within Germany in the years to come.

After Heinrich von Treitshcke’s piece nationalism started to develop in the Balkans, meanwhile a new type of nationalism began to develop in Germany that quickly intensified and became destructive and later acted as the spark that ignited the flame known as World War I. “One of the most important impacts of nationalism was that it helped to create a climate of competition and rivalry among the nations of the western world.”12 Similar to the German victories in the middle to latter end of the 19th century, Serbia had a nationalistic uprising of its own. Serbian peasants revolted against the Ottoman Empire in the beginning of the 19th century and their eventual victory led to an increasing sense of nationalism throughout Serbia.13 The rising sense of nationalism in Serbia resulted in Serbian aggression toward other nations due to this new-found national identity and pride. Their nationalism became so intense and threatening to other countries that it led Austria Hungary to reach out to Serbia declaring “not a day passes without the organs of the Serbian press stirring up their readers to hatred or contempt for the neighboring monarchy [Austria Hungary].”14 This letter from the Austria Hungarians perpetuated conflict between Germany, Austria Hungary, Serbia, and Russia. Due to overlapping cultures Germany and Austria Hungary were bound together, as a result if Austria Hungary declared war, Germany did as well. This overlap in culture eventually dragged Germany into war against Serbia and Russia, though not against Germany’s will.15 During this time, the early 20th century, Germany was in its intermediary stages of nationalistic development. After Otto von Bismarck Germans abandoned the idea of realpolitik, principles based on practical objectives rather than theoretical concepts, and started pushing the idea of Weltpolitik, or world politics which stressed the nationwide desire to become a world power at any cost.16 This desire for world domination and a close alliance with Austria Hungary allowed Germany to satisfy its nationalistic craving for a worldwide victory.

The new outlook Germans had of Weltpolitik and the growing sense of German nationalism can only be understood by reference to the shift from Otto von Bismarck to Wilhelm II. This shift in power is a crucial one because it was when the ‘my country is great’ ideology transformed to the ‘my country is superior to yours’ in Germany.17 For instance, Otto von Bismarck used the idea that Germany is great and must unite its people to motivate the Germans but Wilhelm used the ideology that Germany was superior to other nations and this had to be proven through war. In Wilhelm’s speech in 1901 to the North German Regatta Association he reflected on Germany’s successes and declared that “It will now be my task to see that this place in the sun shall remain our undisputed possession.”18 It is here that Wilhelm displays his own sense of nationalism by referring to the German state in such a positive manner. In that, Wilhelm stressed the importance of national identity by ensuring that under his rule Germany will remain powerful, if not more powerful than before. In contrast to Bismarck and Treitshcke who believed that Germany needed to expand and unite Wilhelm views Germany as a unique place in the world with its own special destiny that does not need other nations. Wilhelm continued and affirmed that he will “rejoice over every citizen…who goes forth with this large outlook and seeks new points where we can drive in the nail on which to hang our armour.”19 Here Wilhelm encourages nationalism among the people and points out the need to expand Germany both economically and politically, thus further building on Bismarck’s expansion philosophy, through military accomplishments resulting in increasing German power in the world and advancing Germany’s nationalistic agenda.

The document that best exhibits Wilhelm II’s nationalistic aggression is the Official Statement of the German Government: “How Russia Betrayed Germany’s Confidence,” a document in which the strength of German nationalism became evident while the Germans made their military power and willingness to fight known by warning the Russians about part taking in the conflict between Austria Hungary and Serbia. The current ruler of Russia was Czar Nicholas and of Germany, Kaiser Wilhelm II, and they were cousins. In a telegram sent on July 31, 1914 at 2pm Kaiser Wilhelm II reminded Czar Nicholas of their family bond “bequeathed to [them] by [their] grandfather.”20 However, despite their family bond Kaiser Wilhelm II and Czar Nicholas had no problem betraying it to promote their countries, during this time nationalism trumped family relations and it is here that nationalism proved itself to be an extremely dominant force. With great confidence Kaiser Wilhelm II stated “Preparatory military measures by Russia will force us to counter-measures which must consist in mobilizing the army. But mobilization means war.”21 Many can view this as a friendly warning but based on the nationalistic attitudes of the Germans and their new emphasis on Weltpolitik, it was essentially a declaration of war. At the very least it was a serious threat, a threat that included the strength and willpower of thousands of men that would fight to the bitter end to prove that Germany is a competitive world power due to the emergence of nationalism in Germany. Russia realized that Germany was driven by nationalism and reflected that “Germany attempted to create a peace atmosphere which would allow her to consolidate her aggressive and Imperialist tendencies.”22 Through Russia’s own nationalistic viewpoint they saw that although Germany tried to make it seem to the rest of the world that Germany was trying to keep the peace their motives were driven by their desire to conquer, defeat, and inject their dominance into European society and the world. Germany continued to push toward war by threatening Russia and giving Russia a time constraint of when they could reply to the German government without the Germans mobilizing against them. The Germans stated “if Russia did not cease its military measures against Germany and Austria-Hungary within 12 hours,”23 Germany would be forced to mobilize against Russia. While this may seem like Germany is trying to do all they can to prevent war the time frame they granted Russia was simply infeasible. During the time of telegrams once the telegram arrived in Russia Czar Nicholas would have had a matter of minutes to respond and send his telegram back to Germany within the given 12-hour time frame; Germany wanted war. When the Russians responded two hours late Kaiser Wilhelm II responded “I asked for a reply by to-day at noon, no telegram from my Ambassador has reached me with the reply of your Government. I therefore have been forced to mobilize my army.”24 Germany was finally granted the opportunity to engage in a world war to prove its dominance and the rulers and people were excited to prove to the world just how strong and advanced Germany was. If Germany ignored Russian mobilization the first world war would have never started but because of Germany’s growing sense of nationalism and their desire to prove their dominance in the world they pounced on Russia’s military preparations, declaring that mobilization meant war, and perpetrated the first world war purely due to their nationalistic desires.

During the First World War, in 1917, the U.S. entered the war because the Germans were fighting with unrestricted submarine warfare. From the beginning of the war to the United States’ entry, Germany introduced several bold military advancements and their most prevalent was the German U-boat or submarine. “The U-boats were unleashed to their maximum ferocity against the British and neutral countries…This was in full knowledge that it meant war with the United States.”25 But, the Germans wanted war and as previously realized by German historian Heinrich von Treitshcke thirty years prior “without war no State can exist.”26 However, Germany and the new level of nationalism at this time took Treitshcke’s theory and perverted his original vision of German nationalism which resulted in Germany’s ill-conceived aggression toward the United States. However, Wilhelm took Treitshcke’s theory and turned it on its head because Germany not only caused World War I but also dragged the neutral United States into the war with their nationalistic, no mercy war tactics. The U.S. entry into World War I prompted the German government to release a war bond poster with the bold front message that translates to “Help us Triumph!”27 The fact that this poster was even effective displays the increasing sense of nationalism in Germany because the German people were legitimately moved by this poster to donate to the war bond. The poster also “implies that such aid will make the person supporting the war effort part of the “us” who will be victorious.”28 The concept of uniting Germany has been key to the rise of German nationalism since Otto von Bismarck. In addition, historians McGrath and Martin’s definition of nationalism stressed the need to have a united state for nationalism to flourish, a theory which the Germans prove to be a valid one. This war bond poster allowed the Germans to feel as if they were essentially part taking in the war and thriving alongside the soldiers and their country which caused the sense of nationalism in Germany to rise exponentially. While this war bond poster is simple, it proves that while nationalism was developed among German political leaders, by World War I the German citizens had a strong sense of nationalism as well and they would sacrifice anything to promote their country’s wellbeing to secure their “place in the sun.”29

When World War I came to a close it was unclear to many who the true victor was because the war itself was caused by a hodgepodge of alliances that joined the war due to their alliance with another country fighting in the war. Nevertheless, just as with most other wars World War I ended with a peace treaty, The Treaty of Versailles, that identified a guilty party responsible for starting the war. Representatives from the United States, France, Britain, and Italy met in Paris to figure out how the reparations of the war should be paid. The Big Four excluded Germany from the decision-making process and summoned them to Paris once the four came to an agreement. As the Germans waited they did not think the punishment would be bad or arbitrary; they believed there would be a fair agreement made because they had faith that President Wilson of the United States would assure a fair peace because of his Fourteen Points that promoted the idea of worldwide peace.30 When the Big Four finally called the Germans to discuss the future fate of Europe and Germany, the Germans were enraged by the exaggerated reparations the Big Four had set forth for them. In reaction to the Treaty, German Count Ulrich von Brockdorff- Ranntzau declared to the Big Four “We are expected to admit that we alone are guilty. For me, to make such an admission would be a lie.”31 The Germans did not see themselves as the full loser in this war and by no means the instigator. In the Official Statement of the German Government in August 1914, Germany had warned Russia that “It is not I who bear the responsibility for the misfortune which now threatens the entire world. It rests in your hands to avert it.”32 Therefore Germany claimed that Russian mobilization meant war which in the German’s minds justified the German mobilization which led to World War I. Nonetheless, the other powers saw Germany as the instigator of World War I and “Germany had to accept full responsibility both for starting the war and for making good on the losses and damage it caused.”33 The Treaty of Versailles declared that Germany was expected to pay 132 billion gold marks, surrender all of its colonies, deconstruct its military, and give up 13% of German territory.34 The reparations Germany was expected to pay were unrealistically severe and before long the German economy began to collapse. Inflation had risen so high that “money became essentially worthless, and many Germans used it for fuel, since it was cheaper than purchasing wood or coal.”35 As the German economy was suffering so was their former ally in World War I’s economy, Italy. The collapse of the Italian economy and hopelessness of the Italian people allowed the fascist Benito Mussolini to rise to power. Mussolini’s monumental manifesto, On Fascism, emphasized national glory and inspired the rehabilitation of Italian society. Mussolini asserted the idea of having a single ruler who rules in favor of the common will of the people.36 Mussolini’s uprising roused the minds of many Germans but most importantly Mussolini strongly influenced Adolf Hitler. Hitler’s rise to power in Germany marks the shift to the highest level of nationalism among Germans which motivated Germans to start yet another world war based on their new, powerful form of nationalism.

When Hitler rose to power the belief that ‘my nation is superior’ still lingered among the devastated Germans and Hitler knew he could rehabilitate German sentiment by strengthening people’s inner sense of nationalism, which later developed into Germany’s last and most destructive stage of nationalism, romantic nationalism. On September 15, 1935 Adolf Hitler made his monumental speech to the Nazi Congress in Nuremberg. He began his speech by reflecting on the hardships the Germans faced after World War I by referring to the Treaty of Versailles and the unfair repercussions it set forth for Germans: “the robbery legalized by the League of Nations, has for years tortured Germans only because they are members of the German nation.”37 It is clear why Hitler and many Germans felt that Germany was unjustly penalized because first, the Germans did not believe they were responsible for starting the war and second, the Germans did not think they lost the war due to their overblown sense of nationalism. Despite this hardship Hitler rejoices and declares “The German people can be happy with this regained strength after such terrible sufferings and long unconsciousness.”38 In this part of his speech Hitler is emphasizing how much Germany has overcome. This statement helped renew nationalism within the devastated state of Germany because Hitler highlighted that German willpower and strength was able to conquer the impossible. Hitler continued and declared “We are a unified nation.”39 Once again, as used by Bismarck and Wilhelm, and stressed by Treitshcke, the unity of the people and the state is used to increase the sense of nationalism within Germany. As the leaders before him, Hitler does this strategically–he uses the unification of Germany and the unfair reparations set forth by the Treaty of Versailles to help him turn the Germans against non- Germans; this helps him alienate and label the Jews, communists, and non-Germans as other. By creating this notion of the other Hitler differs from the German leaders before him and successfully forms the most extreme type of nationalism within Germany. The Germans have held the notion of ‘my nation is superior to yours’ since Wilhelm but Hitler took this notion a step further to single out a particular group that was inferior to the Germans. The new kind of nationalism Hitler created in Germany is known as romantic nationalism which stresses a “shared history as well as a common language and customs.”40 Hitler establishes romantic nationalism by highlighting the hardships the Germans endured together and the superiority and strength of the Germans to overcome such hardships, while undermining the communists and Jews. Often “Bigotry and stereotyping… accompanied Romantic Nationalists” and in Hitler’s Germany it most certainly did. 41 As his speech continued, Hitler makes this bigotry explicit: “the time has come to confront Jewish interests with German national interests.”42 Here Hitler is calling for war against the Jews and he uses the German nationalistic fervor to accomplish his extermination plan. Hitler uses Volksgeist or “the will of the people”43 to mobilize the Germans against non-Germans. By identifying Jews and communists as a threat to Germany, Hitler implies that since they are a threat to Germany they are equally a threat to German citizens, and due to nationalism the German people were willing to fight beside their leader to advance and strengthen Germany no matter what. To end his speech before honoring the occasion to announce the Nuremberg Laws he stressed that maintaining the “purity of German blood is the basis for the survival of the German people.”44 This speech was one of Hitler’s more successful ones because he was able to renew and create the strongest form of nationalism in Germany and then he successfully mobilized his people against non-Germans based on their loyalty to the state. Hitler’s ability to play on and strengthen Germans’ nationalistic beliefs allowed him and his country to execute unthinkable crimes in the name of nationalism which led the world into the second world war.

“Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.” Kantorek cried to his young, inspired students, “sweet and fitting it is to die for the fatherland.”45-sweet and fitting because of nationalistic beliefs. The rise of nationalism in Germany was a crucial shift in ideology among citizens and political leaders in the 19th and 20th centuries. While nationalism was not always a concept ingrained in the great world powers it became a social norm, acceptable behavior, and grew within every state in the world. For Germany the launchpad for nationalism was Bismarck, which consistently ascended and gained momentum under Wilhelm’s rule and powerfully exploded with passion and cruel acts during in the name of nationalism during Hitler’s reign. As German nationalism spread and became more powerful it allowed people to create an identity within the state and it forced Germans to crave war to prove their dominance. At the end of World War II Winston Churchill realized the power of German nationalism and credited the Germans with starting the world wars, he declared “that series of frightful nationalistic quarrels, originated by the Teutonic nations, which we have seen even in this twentieth century and in our own lifetime, wreck the peace and mar the prospects of all mankind…”46 Churchill speaks for the rest of the world who has suffered from the world wars caused by German nationalism and has realized the immense power German nationalism had to have started these two world conflicts. Without the rise and intensification of German nationalism it is possible that the two world wars would have never happened indeed, German nationalism became so powerful it was inevitably going to cause some sort of conflict. The rise of nationalism gave Germans the power, motive, and confidence to perpetrate the two world wars which have shaped the world that we live in today.


1. Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front (New York: Ballantine Books, 2008)., p. 178.

2. John T. McGrath, Kathleen Callanan Martin, and Jay P Corrin, The Modernization of the Western World: A Society Transformed (United States: M.E. Sharpe, 2012)., p. 145.

3. Ibid. p. 250.

4. Ibid. p. 250.

5. Ibid. p. 250.

6. Ibid. p. 148.

7. John A. C. Conybeare and Todd Sandler, “The Triple Entente and the Triple Alliance 1880-1914: A Collective Goods Approach,” The American Political Science Review 84, no. 4 (1990): , doi:10.2307/1963259., p. 1198.

8. Kathleen Callanan Martin, ed., Social Theory & Modernization, Spring 2015 ed. (Boston, MA: Pearson Learning Solutions, n.d.)., p. 71.

9. Ibid. p. 72.

10. Ibid. p.73.

11. Ibid. p. 75.

12. John T. McGrath, et al., The Modernization of the Western World, p. 149.

13. Suzana Rajic, “Serbia—the Revival of the Nation-State, 1804-1829: From Turkish Provinces to Autonomous Principality,” in Empires and peninsulas: Southeastern Europe between Karlowitz and the Peace of Adrianople, 1699-1829, ed. Plamen Mitev (Berlin: Lit Verlag, 2010), p. 143.

14. Austria-Hungary’s Note to the European Powers in explaining its ultimatum issued to Serbia in the aftermath of the Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand (1909) (testimony of Austria Hungary)., p. 2

15. John T. McGrath, et al., The Modernization of the Western World, p. 158.

16. Michael Holm SS102 Lecture on February 21, 2017- Slide 21.

17. John T. McGrath, et al., The Modernization of the Western World, p. 145.

18. Kaiser Wilhelm, “A Place in the Sun ” (speech, North German Regatta Association)., p. 1.

19. Ibid.

20. Official Statement of the German Government: “How Russia Betrayed Germany’s Confidence”, p. 14.

21. Ibid. p. 10.

22. “Russian semi-official Statement regarding the German Peace Proposals, December 14, 1916,” Russian semi-official Statement regarding the German Peace Proposals, December 14, 1916 – World War I Document Archive, , accessed April 08, 2017,,_December_14,_1916., p. 1.

23. Official Statement of the German Government: “How Russia Betrayed Germany’s Confidence”, p. 14.

24. Ibid. p. 15.

25. Innes McCartney, The Maritime Archaeology of a Modern Conflict: Comparing the Archaeology of German Submarine Wrecks to the Historical Text, Master’s thesis, Bournemouth University,, p.27.

26. Kathleen Callanan Martin, ed., Social Theory & Modernization, p. 75.

27. Susan R. Grayzel, The First World War: a Brief History with Documents (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2013)., p. 59.

28. Ibid., p. 59.

29. Kaiser Wilhelm, “A Place in the Sun ” (speech, North German Regatta Association)., p. 1.

30. Millermx, “Paris 1919 Full documentary,” YouTube, July 25, 2016, , accessed April 19, 2017,

31. Ibid.

32. Official Statement of the German Government: “How Russia Betrayed Germany’s Confidence”, p. 14.

33. John T. McGrath, et al., The Modernization of the Western World, p. 174.

34. Michael Holm’s SS102 Lecture on March 3, 2017- Slide 49.

35. John T. McGrath, et al., The Modernization of the Western World, p. 179.

36. Benito Mussolini, On Fascism.

37. Michael E. McGuire, ed., As It Actually Was: A History of International Relations through Documents 1823-1945, 5th ed. (McGraw Hill, 2008), p. 175.

38. Ibid. p. 175.

39. Ibid., p. 175.

40. John T. McGrath, et al., The Modernization of the Western World, p. 145.

41. Ibid., p. 145.

42. Michael E. McGuire, ed., As It Actually Was, p. 176.

43. John T. McGrath, et al., The Modernization of the Western World, p. 145.

44. Michael E. McGuire, ed., As It Actually Was, p. 176.

45. All quiet on the Western Front, dir. Lewis Milestone, prod. Carl Laemmle, by Maxwell Anderson, George Abbott, Del Andrews, and David Broekman, perf. Lew Ayres, John Wray, Arnold Lucy, and Slim Summerville.

46. Michael Holm’s SS102 Lecture on April 3, 2017- Slide 9.

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