War and Nationalism
Part I of Daniele Conversi's Paper
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Daniele Conversi is currently Research Professor at the University of the Basque Country, Bilbao. He received his PhD at the London School of Economics. He taught at the Government and History Depts. at Cornell and Syracuse Universities, as well as at the Central European University, Budapest.

Book by Daniele Conversi
The Basques, the Catalans and Spain: Alternative Routes to Nationalist Mobilization

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This work provides an introduction to Basque and Catalan nationalism. The two movements have much in common, but have differed in the strategies adopted. Basque nationalism, in the shape of the military wing of ETA, took the path of violence, spawning an efficient terrorist campaign, while Catalan nationalism is more accommodating and peaceful. Conversi compares the history, motives and methods of these two movements, considering the influence of such aspects of nationalist mobilization as: the choice of language, race and descent; the consequences of large-scale immigration; and the causes and effects of social violence.
While organized warfare has been taking place at least since the Bronze Age, nationalism is an entirely modern phenomenon, which can be ascribed back to the French Revolution (1789–99), to the English Civil War (1642–51), and the American declaration of independence (1776). Because of their impact on both political legitimacy and warfare, the French Revolutionary Wars (1792– 1802) are the most clearly identifiable chain of events inaugurating the ‘special relationship’ between war and nationalism as it shaped the development of the Western system of nation-states.

In particular, Paris’ introduction of the levée en masse (a term combining the meanings of ‘uprising’ and ‘levy’) on 16 August 1793 established mass conscription in the defense of the nation as a military model then widely emulated. Despite its uneven spreading, the industrial revolution also contributed to both warfare and nationalism, although the latter often proliferated among elites well before they embraced industrialism.

From the French Revolution to the French Revolutionary Wars and the Napoleonic Campaigns (1789–1915)

As the French revolution degenerated onto a factional bloodbath, appeals to unity became nearly inescapable among ruling elites and quarrelsome Jacobins. After France entered into war (1792), a deeper cycle of conflicts began, so that international violence, rather than revolutionary violence, became the main unitary catalyst. According to the historian David A. Bell, the Battle of Valmy (20 September 1792) saw the first army in human history inspired by nationalism, as throngs of soldiers immolated themselves to shouts of ‘Vive la Nation!’.

Jacobin propaganda seized Valmy as a foundational myth, unleashing waves of enthusiasm and the belief that fighting in the name of ‘freedom’ would grant soldiers a sort of immortality. David A. Bell (2008) identifies this as the ‘first total war,’ a concept usually associated with the trenches and the ‘human waves attacks’ of World War I. At Valmy, for the first time, the sheer number of men ready to sacrifice themselves on the front line became decisive. The unprecedented ‘enthusiasm’ for mass death was only made possible by the Parisian elites’ coherent effort to channel popular emotions by appealing to nationhood and patriotism as an organizing ideology.

From July 1791, even before the war began, to July 1794, the French army became the target of a strenuous propaganda effort, with 7 million copies of various revolutionary journals distributed among high and low-rank soldiers, although most of them could hardly read or write. Mobilized around the sacred defense of La Patrie (the Mother/Fatherland), soldiers were hailed as the supreme expression of ‘collective will,’ while war was described as the finest of national virtues.

Before the levée, volunteers were drafted in through an array of visual effects and media grandeur, often surrounded by a festival atmosphere punctuated by martial music. For urban elites, mass conscription became de facto a ‘nation-building’ device insofar as nationalism could emerge as the broader interclass ideology suitable to mobilize and control a largely rural population. “The first mass army depended ultimately upon a political revolution whose ideology, redolent of nationalism, stressed the equality and community of all Frenchmen”.

The emphasis on patriotic unity concealed and embellished deep ideological cleavages. This is how nationalism sprouted like a deus ex machina, providing the decisive strategic advantage and the common denominator of all ideological forces competing to act in the name of the Republic. Through war mobilization, Parisian riotous elites achieved unified support for what had become one of the most fragmented, ideologically splintered, and identity-fractured countries in Europe.

Although the Reign of Terror’s bloodbath reached its peak after November 1793, when the threat of foreign invasion had receded, war abroad coincided with a dramatic increase in repression at home: systematic mass killing by government troops led some historians to identify the Vendée massacres (1793–96) as the first modern genocide.

The Napoleonic campaigns (1803–15) are sometimes seen as a continuation of the French Revolutionary Wars, but had an even more direct impact on the spread of nationalism while reinforcing its links with warfare: Napoleon Bonaparte’s invasions not only created throughout Europe ‘proto-national’ institutions, which served as embryos for nascent nation-states, they also spawned unprecedented nationalist reactions against French occupation troops, like in Germany, Russia, Italy, Portugal, and Spain.

Fatherland, Barrack, and School

The relationship between nationalism and war is underlined by the role of education as a facilitator and preparatory training for military life and war. Modern states aspired to the long-term molding of national consciousness through educational indoctrination and military mobilization. Of the two, the aim of mass education was more all-pervasive and long-term than mass conscription, ordinary citizens could welcome it more positively, despite heavy fines and even sequestration for nonattendance.

The intimate connection between military service, patriotic coaching, and educational standardization is epitomized by Napoleon’s ‘nation in arms,’ with its fusion of barrack and school: Napoleon was both hailed as the greatest military strategist and the ‘education Emperor.’ He implemented the standardization of the curriculum, instituted the lycées system, introduced school uniforms and examination procedures, reinforced the bureaucratic structure, and drafted newly stringent disciplinary standards.

The Westernization of the World: Nationalism and Conscription

Napoleon’s project of a ‘nation-in-arms’ with its ‘citizen-soldiers’ was emulated across the ecumene with various degrees of intensity. Mass conscription was thus instituted in a host of countries of both the developed and developing world, from Prussia and Russia to Turkey and Japan, where it often merged with extreme forms of nationalism.

In Japan, the new Meiji rulers (1870–81) transformed the samurai class system into the Imperial army through nationalism, education, and conscription. Conscription was one of the first measures taken in 1860 by the newly formed Kingdom of Italy: since the start it acted in tandem with the elementary school system to shape and structure a unitary Italian identity. Most of these governments saw conscription and militarization “as an instrument for developing social cohesion and political docility of the masses”.

Pupils into Soldiers: Expanding the Franco-Prussian Model

In 1880, France’s minister of education, Jules Ferry (1832–93), introduced a set of sweeping reforms to impose compulsory, ‘non-clerical’ (laïque) education, which aspired to nationalize the masses through nationalist indoctrination by raising the public profile of the army.

School reforms included courses in military exercises, gymnastics, needlework (for girls), and the replacement of religion with the cult of la Patrie. Eugene Weber describes the pedagogical catechism calling for the child’s duty to defend the fatherland, to shed his blood or die for the commonweal, to obey the government, to perform military service, to work, learn, pay taxes and so on.

Children were taught that their first duty was to defend their countries as soldiers. Commencement speeches recalled this sacred duty in ritual terms—our boys will defend the soil of the fatherland. The whole school programme turned on expanding the theme”. All disciplines were harnessed to this goal: history, literature, geography, and civic education.

Similarly, schools elsewhere acted as indoctrinating institutions. Thus, in Japan, primary and secondary schools operated to coach students for the imperial army, while teachers were trained in military barracks. In Turkey, the ‘military-nation’ based on education became ‘foundational myth of Turkish nationalism’.

One decade after France’s defeat by Prussia (1871), “one could neatly perceive the notion of a Spartan-style education, entirely devoted to patriotic adulation and where the school became the antechamber of the barrack”. Propaganda through schooling and mass media became essential in the dissemination of militarism and was the key in the process:

In the 1870s nearly every French family became acquainted with the nature of army life. The darker aspects of barrack life were pushed into the background; what mattered above all was to prepare for the imminent war of revenge against Germany. Officers marked in black the frontiers of the lost provinces on maps of France, and soldiers ending their service often presented a bust of ‘Alsace in tears’ to their company commander.

While conscription was highly unpopular in some areas, with various anti-conscript revolts both before and after Napoleon’s times, soldiers’ memoirs describe military service in highly commendable, praiseworthy terms. The army’s popularity was largely founded on the persisting myth of the ‘nation-in-arms’ as appeared during the late revolutionary period and then regulated by Napoleon.

“Prior to 1920, there was no serious discussion of conscientious objection in France. Insoumis, rebels and insubordinates, and réfractaires, draft dodgers, were a serious problem for the government at times”. It is also possible that nationalism exerted a mobilizing function before soldiers joined their battalions and regiments, serving more to tie up civil society to the military, while justifying both military spending and human sacrifice.

The army provided a deeper and faster emotional impact on conscripts than compulsory education could exert on pupils – particularly in wartimes. School took much longer to shape loyal citizens than the drastic, strongly centralized, and hierarchical barrack. Isolation from family and friend, punishment, drill, and round-the-clock propaganda yielded more drastic results than the deeper river’s flow of half-day classes.

Despite widespread resentment against various forms of state intrusion and repression, the idea that the Patrie was being victimized and its soil violated awakened powerful patriotic sentiments. Ordinary citizens were taught to see the soldier as the supreme expression of the collective will, condensing the finest of national virtues: “War itself became an homogenizing experience as soldiers and sailors represented the entire nation and the civilian population endured common privations and responsibilities” (Tilly, 1990).