War and Nationalism
Part II of Daniele Conversi's Paper
An excerpt of Daniele Conversi’s paper appears below.
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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.

Key to the nation-state’s war effort has been its capacity to secure the willingness of its able-bodied citizens to die for a ‘higher’ ideal. Such power of life and death over most of its population, previously unthinkable, could only occur when nationalism allowed ordinary citizens to visualize the nation as a unified, organic body, the defense of which demanded individual sacrifice.

Book by Daniele Conversi
Ethnonationalism in the Contemporary World: Walker Connor and the Study of Nationalism

For information on ordering through Amazon, PLEASE CLICK HERE.
World-renowned scholars explicate the recent upsurge of nationalism on a global scale. In keeping with the growing awareness that the study of ethnonationalism requires an interdisciplinary approach, the contributors represent a number of academic disciplines, including anthropology, geography, history, linguistics, social psychology, sociology and world politics. The book discusses issues such as identity, ethnicity and nationalism, primordialism, social constructionism, ethnic conflict, separatism and federalism.

War, Industry, and Nation:
The Egalitarian Impetus

Emerging modern armies experienced first and most forcefully the demand for cultural standardization and recruits’ sameness. For instance, the U.S. army anticipated desegregation before the heydays of the civil rights movements, Fascism enrolled Italian peasants on the basis of the egalitarian promises, both symbolic (military comradeship) and tangible (pensions, special rights). This ‘egalitarian’ emphasis in times of war was shared by authoritarian, totalitarian, and democratic systems.

In this way, dissent could be controlled through unprecedented, and otherwise unattainable, forms of conformism. But conformism also led to extermination, as replaceability does not value individual life and human uniqueness. In the process, European states led the way by “building up fearsome coercive means of their own as they deprived civilian populations of access to those means,” relying mostly on capital and capitalists to reorganize coercion (Tilly). Their impact was so far-reaching that a whole global order emerged in its image.

In the social sciences, “there is virtually no disagreement that the eruption of war almost instinctively increases in-group solidarity and national homogeneity,” although it is likely that “macro-level solidarity and group homogeneity exhibited in times of violent conflicts originate outside of these conflicts…(and) homogenisation is a complex process that requires a great deal of long-term institutional work”.

In fact, before war could complete its task of bureaucratizing and militarizing society, preparations for war had already hard-pressed citizens toward greater forms of homogeneity. But war itself contributed to wiping out many local cultures in all of the belligerent countries, while contributing to the enemy’s cultural obliteration. For Eugene Weber, it was the experience of World War I, which proved decisive in diluting local attachments (Weber, 1976).

World War I

State-building, the cultivation of patriotism, colonial aggrandizement, economic expansion, heavy industrialization, and the unprecedented advance of technological progress led to uncontrollable military buildup, which finally exploded with World War I. Industries, economic welfare, and military arsenals expanded until everything short-circuited under the ‘European apocalypses’ of 1914–18.

Rapid industrial development meant that for the first time peasants could move in larger number to the cities leaving behind millennial traditions. A powerful and influential class of new riches emerged, which often embraced war, nationalism, and modernity with similar enthusiasm and greed. In many consolidated nation-states, like Italy, Germany, and France, modernists and ultranationalists became the most prominent advocates of war, including poets like d’Annunzio and Apollinaire, and art entrepreneurs like Marinetti.

Before the conflagration, Leo Tolstoy (1828–1910) understood well the destructive linkage between nationalism and war:

To free people from those terrible calamities of armaments and wars, which they suffer now, and which keep growing greater and greater, we do not need congresses, conferences, treaties, or tribunals, but the abolition of that implement of violence that is called government, and from which originates all the greatest calamities of men.

To abolish the governments only one thing is needed. It is necessary that men should understand that the sentiment of patriotism, which alone maintains this implement of violence, is a coarse, harmful, disgraceful, bad, and above all, immoral sentiment.

This bitter commentary would remain unheeded and submerged by the more vociferous noise of patriotic war mongering. Interstate competition was measured not only in terms of technological progress, but also in the application of new technologies to the practice of war.

For instance, the cavalry had remained the key unit until 1916, when war compelled armies to replace horses and cavalrymen with tanks and technically trained drivers, co-drivers, gunners, radio operators, and specialist mechanics, therefore amplifying and deepening bureaucratization. In terms of citizens and education, most states continued to further their goal of building homogenous communities in which school and army played a conjunct role in fomenting extreme patriotism and a quasi-religious cult for the Fatherland.

The deification and divinization of the state, which first manifested itself under Robespierre, became the new ‘normal’ throughout Europe, as it was perfected and magnified by Fascism and Nazism.

The Peak of Nationalist Homogenization:
From World War I to World War II (1914–45)

In Charles Tilly’s words, the modern nation-state’s yearning for homogeneity and control spawned ‘the most bellicose century in human history’ with about 275 wars, 115 million deaths in battle, and over 115 civilian deaths during the whole century. However, these data are still ‘optimistic’ because they exclude hundreds of millions and more killed by the state, through policies of genocide, politicide, ‘classicide,’ starvation, population transfer, economic manipulation, and war-related diseases.

Nationalism, War, and Genocide

The linkage between war and genocide is so deeply established among scholars of all disciplines as to appear indissociable. In fact, the two have been defined as the ‘Siamese twins of history’. There is further consensus that interstate wars provide the ideal circumstance for carrying out atrocities which would be unthinkable in peace times.

Under the aegis of total war, pressures toward ethnic and cultural homogenization reached their peak. When the Anglo-French allied forces landed in Gallipoli in 1915, Turkey’s military authorities began a ‘securitization’ campaign against the entire Armenian population, whom they perceived as the West’s ‘fifth column.’

“What turned a war crime into a genocidal act was the context of total war [...] that translated deportation swiftly into the mass slaughter, abuse, and starvation of an entire ethnic group potentially troublesome to an authoritarian regime at war” (Winter, 2003).

Under siege by the ‘West,’ Turkey’s elites ended up imitating the West. As a consequence, their military nationalism bred a ‘culture of hatred’ that demonized Christians and non-Turks. Bartov’s (1996, 2001) work on Hitler’s war in the east anticipated much of this war-centered approach as the Shoah was also carried out beneath the curtains and under the strains of war.


Dying for the ‘fatherland’ may not be a contemporary fixation: Horace’s epigram Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori (‘It is sweet and good to die for one’s country’) expressed a similar mandate during the time of Augustus, the founder of the Roman Empire. What makes the difference with modern times is a superimposed multilayered ideological apparatus, whose upper layer is constituted by nationalism – with various intermediate layers like egalitarianism and the faith in progress subsumed in it.

Although bureaucratization and centralization predated the French revolution, politics and warfare changed forever once infused with nationalism. A wider project of mass self-abnegation and sacrifice could only be conceived by political elites in a post-1789 scenario.

Key to the nation-state’s war effort has been its capacity to secure the willingness of its able-bodied citizens to die for a ‘higher’ ideal. Such power of life and death over most of its population, previously unthinkable, could only occur when nationalism allowed ordinary citizens to visualize the nation as a unified, organic body, the defense of which demanded individual sacrifice.

The second essential element was ‘replicability’ or replaceability: despite the cult of patriotic heroes, no individual was unique enough not to be fully replaceable by another individual like him. All this was made possible by nationalism’s ability to conceal new hierarchies of power behind a rhetoric curtain of egalitarianism.

Replicability was largely founded on a previously established stress on national homogeneity encouraging conformism, uniformity, obedience, peer pressure, cultural standardization, and fear of criticism, while conflating nation, ethnicity, and culture.

Although these have been systematically cultivated in peace times through nationalism as a mass-mobilizing ideology, it was during the war, and through the war experience, that they could shape society at a deeper level while removing all traces of constructive dissent.

Therefore, World War I provided rulers with an opportunity to practice totalitarianism before its ‘lessons’ could be systematically applied by fascism and communism. In other words, totalitarianism manifested itself first in the trenches as an ‘ancillary’ aspect of the relation between war and nationalism.

State-builders were often obsessed with shaping the character, virtue, and manners of their citizens. Barrack and school continuously overlapped: the army served to inculcate the values of patriotism and the education system served to prepare the youth for army life. Whenever war and education were joined, nationalism would provide the ideological foundation underpinning the entire bureaucratic military apparatus.