You’d Embrace My Sword Before My Culture

Nationalism is on the rise across the globe. It’s responsible for Brexit, the rise of several nationalist parties in Europe, and the trade wars the United States is waging against her foes and allies. It’s a reason for the Arab Spring, the Russian Annexation of Crimea, and the rise of Erdogan in Turkey.

It’s easy to take an abstract concept and blame every bad thing currently occurring in the world on it, so let’s dive into what it is and how exactly it’s affecting our world.

Nationalism, in short, is the elevation of a given people’s culture and heritage above all others. This might be anything from language, history, art, or even forms of governance. It’s a loyalty to the idea that what unites us is heritage, and our heritage is superior. It ties one’s identity not to their family or town, but to their nation. Nationalism is also generally a very modern idea, one that generates from the idea that a state is controlled by its citizens. It’s modern because the idea that control would be in the hands of anyone other than a rich and blood borne aristocracy at best and a unchecked despot at worst is laughable prior to about the 17th or 18th centuries.

What’s particularly important to note is that Nationalism isn’t inherently bad, but it does have a habit of begetting conflict between the nationalists and anyone perceived as “other.”  Nationalism is often divided into two different types, Civic Nationalism and Ethnic Nationalism.   Civic Nationalism is often viewed as a positive, or at least more positive than its alternative. Civic Nationalism is effectively the idea that people are united around their liberal democracy. Ideally, under Civic Nationalism, immigrants need not integrate into the nation as much as exalt the nation’s ideals,  often ideals such as free speech and freedom of religion. This contrasts with Ethnic Nationalism, in which people often unite around their ancestry, language, religion or culture and can quickly give way to xenophobia, isolationism, or at its worst, war.

Nationalism has existed in one form or another since, at minimum, the French revolution, so why is it a big deal now? Let’s take a quick look at some of the Nationalist movements that are taking place right now that I didn’t discuss last time.

This will be a long post, so lets dive in.

The Learned Will Love China

China has never been a bastion of freedoms or human rights, but it has always used Nationalism to cultivate support for the government, and they’re doing so more frequently under Xi Jingping. Xi Jingping has been controversial for instituting several “Patriotic Education” reforms aimed at getting intellectuals to support, instead of criticize, the Communist Party of China. Their schools also routinely ask their parents for photographic evidence that their children are watching assigned propaganda films, and even more ominously, have setup “reeducation camps” for their Muslim citizens. These camps, reportedly, are for captured Muslims who are sentenced to attend without any trial in an effort to teach them the Chinese language and break them of having a belief system aside from loyalty to the CPC.

Propaganda has been a main stay of Chinese Education since shortly after the second World War, but Xi has turned into it with a fairly unprecedented ferocity cultivating a patriotism so fervent and tribal, he’s struggled to control it. When Japan bought a few small and mostly uninhabited islands in 2012, anti-Japanese riots broke out across the country.

India’s Nationalism Takes a Turn

India has a much more optimistic history than most countries when it comes to Nationalism, and a history that, in many ways, mirrors our own. India under the British Empire did not share a language, heritage, or even mutual interests with India. India, unlike the United States, had no sense of heritage from the crown, which gives the same famous declarations from the United States’ independence movement (“There shall be no taxation without representation”) both relevance and bite. Their nationalism was born from a sense of anti-colonialism and a desire for governmental reform.

However, today’s surge of Nationalism has minorities (non-Hindus) worried they may become second class citizens.  As part of this movement, India’s government, elected in 2014, will be rewriting their history books to paint all of its citizens as direct descendants from the first Hindus rather than the multi-cultural and diverse country that it truly is. Their government has two singular missions: Proving the events described in Hindu texts occurred, and that todays Hindus are direct descendants of people from those times. This alone doesn’t sound odd or even that bad, until you read that Sharma, head of their culture ministry wants to “prove the supremacy of their glorious past.”  What this means for Muslims, Christians, or members of any the other diverse religions who reside in India is unclear and unsettling.

Erdogan, My Country’s Gone

In 2004, Turkey began membership talks with the EU. It had a healthy separation of church and state, and, frankly, Turkey had an optimistic future. Unfortunately, in 2016 after a failed coup attempt, President Erdogan began a”Post-coup purge.” Thousands of journalists, policemen, teachers, professors, and politicians were (and some still are) jailed. The New York Times put into perspective exactly how many were jailed. Erdogan even claimed that Europe has failed on Democracy and that journalists are “gardeners of terrorism.

Erdogan used Nationalism extensively to secure his 2016 election bid in an age old tactic – blame others for the problems. Turkey has been pumping money into Muslim religious schools and was even accused of wanting to return to being an Ottoman Sultan. Turkey’s once democratic light is sliding quickly into authoritarianism, and every step there has been justified by claims that the dark and shadowy westerners from Britain, France and the United States have been seeking to wreck Turkey before their glorious rise to global dominance. As cartoonishly exaggerated as it sounds, it’s close to a direct quote.

When Angry People Vote

So what? It’s all talk, you might say. Kim Jong Un has been saying that North Korea’s valiant rise would see the United States fall in fiery ashes for years now. What makes the above any different? I’ve scoured the web for several examples of excessive nationalism, and there are far too many to include here. Wikipedia has a page for 39 countries titled “Nationalism in [country].” This is in addition to dozens more on history, types and ethnic groups.

Let’s take a look at how Nationalism has impacted the past.

Nationalism is often credited with originating in the American and especially the French Revolution. However, we can see similar political movements that are far, far older. One of these is the Jewish Revolt in Ancient Rome.

Yahweh made Man, and a Man-made God.

Most of our knowledge about the Jewish Revolt comes from a guy by the name of Flavius Josephus, who’s definitely a contender for the “most interesting man” award. Josephus was originally a leader during the Jewish Wars, which broke out under the reign of Nero. He was captured by then-general, but would-be emperor, Vespasian. Josephus, now a slave to Vespasian, served as a translator for Vespasian between the Romans and the Jews. He was eventually set free, and then served as an advisor to Rome’s Flavian Dynasty serving emperors Vespacian, Titus, Domitian, and possibly even Nerva and Trajan before deciding that his life really was interesting and writing it all down. You can read his entire body of work online for free here.

To understand the situation in Judea (roughly the area surrounding modern day Jerusalem) and accept the premise that this revolt is Nationalistic in character, it’s important to know the province’s history. Judea revolted against the Greeks and won its independence as its own nation in the Maccabean Revolt in the 160s BCE. Pompey the Great conquered Judea and added it to the Roman Empire around 63 BCE. These people had a common religion, territory and history – something that all nationalists hold dear.

Decades of heavy taxation to fund wars against Parthia and subsequently Mark Antony drove the Jews into poverty.

Then, Emperor Caligula insisted on adding a statue of himself into the Judean temple effectively forcing the worship of the Imperial Cult onto the Jews. As we learned from the Maccabean Revolt, the Jews were ready to die for their religion. An image of Caligula in the temple was nothing short of idolatry, sacrilege, and blasphemy.  This tension between the Roman Imperial Cult who would continue to insist that Roman idols be placed in and near Jerusalem and the monotheistic Jews would divide the two peoples further apart.

Josephus also writes that the Roman Governor Florus ordered his soldiers to plunder their great temple, and when the people of Judea protested, he slaughtered 3,600 men, women, and children. This brought the entire province into a revolt for understandable reasons. The Jews managed to defeat a small army of 6,000 Romans before the Syrian Legion was brought in to crush the rebellion, and crush it they did. They destroyed the temple, plundered the rest of the city and sold thousands of Jews into slavery, many of whom would work on the Colosseum. All of which had a profound effect on the religion.

If we look at the causes for the French Revolution, often the prime example of the beginning of Nationalism, you’ll see a lot in common:

  • Overburdening taxes
  • Inept government
  • Social Antagonism
  • Economic Hardship

While the Jews didn’t necessarily have a united front in terms of what they wanted to achieve (and in fact, that lack of unity may have been a reason the revolt was shut down), they did believe that their government was not representing them, which is often a wick for Nationalism. Many of those who voted for Donald Trump in 2016 voted in hopes of getting one of their own to into the White House to “drain the swamp.” Such a phrase can only catch on in the wake of politicians out of touch with the plight of the commoners. Unlike classical liberal values, the Jews didn’t necessarily want more of a say in government (though you could make the argument that wanting your own government is the same as wanting more of a say), but they did want to be represented  (not to mention avoiding having their temples plundered or their citizens massacred). The revolt was also largely an “us vs them” mentality. Forcing statues of Roman Gods in the city of Jews isn’t too far removed from forcing Muslims to adhere to a dress code that goes against their religion.

The Shogun Show Is Gone

For a more modern and lesser known story of nationalism (and imperialism, colonialism and what could arguably be called state sponsored pirates), let’s examine the collapse of Japan’s Shogunate.

Within the Edo period of Japan, Japan kinda resembled a police state.  To expound on that, the Edo period had several interesting policies that were in contention with most of the western world. Specifically, they were extremely isolationist to the point of literally killing any Christians in Japan and forbidding any foreigners from entering (with the exception of a single Dutch trading post) in an effort to subdue any outside influences. Despite this, the Edo period was, by feudal standards, very peaceful and often considered a golden age of prosperity. They still had an emperor, but the emperor at served as more of a figurehead than anything else. The true authority rested on the highest military ranking official, the Shogunate.

The lack of war meant that constantly mobilized Japan had several Samurai’s with little to do. Most of them were poor as military service is often rewarded in loot, booty, or whatever term you prefer for the spoils of war. Samurais thus subsisted on stipends from their lords, called Daimyō. The Edo prosperity, however, gave way to an increasingly wealthy merchant class that remained stuck on the bottom rung of the social ladder. This sewed discord amongst themselves and the samurai who were now poorer than the merchants who were supposed to be “below them.”

In addition to this internal strife, many Japanese became wary of westerners after seeing what happened to China in the wake of the Opium Wars, which resulted in a humiliating defeat and one-sided trade agreements with Britain and other western countries.

A Mr. Matthew Perry would prove they had every right to be concerned. Commodore Matthew Perry was an American naval officer on a mission, open Japan’s ports. Matthew arrived with several gunboats “asking” that the Japanese open their ports to trade, and if not, well, it’d be a shame if all these canons happened to fire on your antiquated navy and towns.

There are a few reasons why Japanese trade was so important to the US, but it mostly has to do with “Manifest Destiny” (mostly a codeword for Imperialism),  merchants needing a place to fuel up  their steam ships, and other technically innocuous reasons with a specious overtone.

The shogunate saw Perry’s steamboats and realized that Japan could not win a war with America. In addition, many Japanese were seeing a steamboat for the first time, and saw it as a harbinger of impending doom like what had come to China. The following is a Japanese depiction of his boat:


The Shogunate polled his Daimyōs for advice on what to do (a blunder that would break the facade of a strong Shogunate), and received mixed responses, but one that stands out today as perfectly describing the atmosphere comes to us from the Daimyo, Shimazu Nariakira, “If we take the initiative, we can dominate; if we do not, we will be dominated.” 

The Shogun, feeling he had little choice, signed the Treaty of Kanagawa, which was perceived as capitulating to the West. This kickstarted an anti-Shogun movement fueled by an uncharacteristically militant emperor who was beginning to take more of an interest in political affairs than was traditional. Eventually, emperor Kōmei gave an order to “Expel the Barbarians” referring to all westerners. This became a rallying cry of, “Revere the Emperor, Expel the Barbarians” and resulted in trade ships being fired on from the coast of Japan. This was all in direct opposition to the Shogunate’s orders, and before long, a civil war known as the Boshin War started and resulted in the Shogun’s resignation and more importantly, the Meiji Restoration.

Fearing colonization by the west and needing a united front, Nationalism was in full swing. Top officials toured the west to modernize all of Japan. Within 40 years, Japan had created a Constitutional Monarchy based on Germany’s government with the emperor at its head, developed universal education, a conscript army, a capitalist model of economy, and even began colonizing land of its own.  The conscript army gave all Japanese a common purpose to fight for, the emperor, something that united all of the Japanese and furthered Nationalism. To give you an idea of how wide and how quickly this shift occurred, take a look at Emperor Meiji in 1872 and sometime in the 1890s:





The colonization took the form of wars, specifically, the Sino-Japanese War in 1895, where they colonized Korea, and the Russo-Japanese war in 1905. The defeat of the Russians in 1905 proved to the West that Japan was now a world power that was not to be reckoned with, and Japan alone on an island would need more colonies for resources to fuel its ongoing industrialization. This string of victories, need for resources, anti-foreign sentiment were all among their Nationalistic motives for the empire of Japan going into World War I.

Bismarck Makes His Mark

The last story of Nationalism I want to tell is that of Otto Von Bismarck and the making of the German Empire.

Germany as we know it today was founded in the late 19th century as Prussia and multiple other German states united into what was then called the German Empire. Prior to this, modern day Germany was a set of separate states part of the Holy Roman Empire, which as Voltaire quips, “was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire.”

The Holy Roman Empire officially dissolved in 1806 after Napoleon crushed it in his many conquests and annexed parts of their land. The individual states later rejoined, kind of, as a band of states known as the German Confederation. The states were pretty independent, but with a mutual understanding that they would protect each other in case of war. Here’s how the “empire” compared to the German Confederation, whose borders are outlined in red, Prussia is colored in blue, Austria in yellow, and the minor provinces in grey. Note that both Prussia and Austria’s land extended beyond the confederation.



Otto von Bismarck sought to unite Germany fully. He had found himself as chancellor of Prussia, one of the dominate states of would be Germany, and he was concerned about the many Liberal democratic revolutions sweeping through all of Europe, not unlike the Arab Spring of 2011. Let’s just say, he had reason to be concerned.

A more fully realized German unity had been a political topic since the “Empire’s” dissolution. Johann Gottlieb Fichte, a German philosopher, addresses the German people in 1806:

The first, original, and truly natural boundaries of states are beyond doubt their internal boundaries. Those who speak the same language are joined to each other by a multitude of invisible bonds by nature herself…they belong together and are by nature one and an inseparable whole. Such a whole, if it wishes to absorb and mingle with itself any other people of different descent and language, cannot do so without itself becoming confused.

We immediately see the aura of Nationalism pervading the German people, even in their separate states. Otto Von Bismarck, Chancellor of Prussia, would use the common people’s sentiment to unite them. Important context going forward is that Bismarck was in favor of a “smaller” German empire; that is, one that did not include Austria, and to not include Austria, he’d need to dissolve the German Confederation which bounded all the states, Austria included, loosely together. Austria and Prussia were rivals jockeying for position, so Austria’s inclusion in the German empire may have led to further discord within the unified state. Also of note was that Catholicism was the majority religion in Austria compared to Prussia’s Protestantism, which was a bigger deal before freedom of religion was commonplace.

Bismarck’s desire for a stronger centralized state was also the will of the people’s, who wanted classical liberal rights as well, such as freedom of the press, freedom of religion, democracy, and whatnot. While Bismarck wasn’t a fan of these ideas, he did recognize that a wholly unified Germany could stand its ground against France and other European powers.

To dislodge Austria, he needed a war with Austria, but he also needed a reason, so other states would back Prussia. He was able to secure French neutrality “just in case” a war broke out between Austria and Prussia, and he also approached Italy, who was in the process of unifying herself, and said something to the effect of, “in the total wacko scenario that Austria and Prussia would go to war with each other, would you ally with Prussia in exchange for Venice?” Being that Italy needed Venice for a unified Italy, they agreed. As a pure hypothetical of course.

That pure hypothetical was of course, not a hypothetical. Prussia and Austria had been military allies just 4 years before in a war with Denmark where they liberated two duchies that had been taken from the German people during Napoleon’s conquest. They agreed that the duchies, Schleswig and Holstein, would be split. Austria would rule Holstein, and Prussia Schleswig, both outside the German Confederation. This last part is important.

Soon afterwards, Austria declared that both duchies should be matters of the federation, a clear breach of the treaty. King William, a pacifist at heart, was reportedly in tears at the betrayal. Now agreeing with Bismarck, he prepared for war.

The war known as both the Austro-Prussian War and perhaps more humorously, the Seven Weeks War started in 1866. As you might have guessed by the latter title, Prussia crushed Austria with Italy’s help. As a result of this war, Austria ceded several territories (Venice included) and Bismarck annexed his allies to form the Northern German Confederation. The southern non-Austrian states would remain independent…for now.

France, of course, was unhappy with a larger united Germany. It challenged their dominance in the region, so France, now ruled by Napoleon III, wanted to knock this newcomer down a notch, but neither country wanted to declare war for fear of interference from the other countries of Europe. Bismarck knew if he declared war, Britain would interfere on behalf of France, but if it was France’s war, Britain might just leave them alone. Bismarck managed to trick France into declaring war.

How does one “trick” a country into declaring war? Well, as you might imagine, it’s quirky and complicated, but I’ll try to keep it short.

The Spanish throne found itself vacant, and for whatever reason, they offered the job to Prince Leopold of Prussia. Napoleon the III hated this idea. Being surrounded on both sides by your enemy is generally a recipe for disaster. Leopold ended up declining the offer, but the French pushed it further. In fact, they sent their ambassador to King William asking him to promise to never, ever, consider ascending to the Spanish throne, to which the king responded with something to the effect of, “We already declined. What more do you want? I’m not going to make promises on behalf of my grand children.” King William let Bismarck give this information to the press. Bismarck, through some clever editing, made the scenario sound much more insulting than it was although French translations likely exaggerated Bismarck’s edits. This is known as the EMS telegram.

Bismarck’s edits worked like a charm. France was so insulted by both the rejection of the demand and the flippant dismissal of their ambassador, they mobilized and declared war. Britain stayed out of France’s war, and every German state rushed to Prussia’s aide to fight the warmongering French who couldn’t leave Germany alone. Germans, not Prussians, not Saxons, or any other member state would defeat France. Germans, who had all suffered under the French thumb for far too long would defeat France.

France was absolutely crushed, with Paris itself being sieged. The Frankfurt treaty officially ended the French Republic and acknowledged King William as Emperor of the German Empire. It was signed at Versailles (a location you may recognize as intentional for the signing of the World War I treaty).

The effects of the Franco-Prussian War really can’t be understated. The Italians would be granted the last remaining pieces for a united Italy. It improved the importance of mobility through rails, which Prussia excelled at. It united the Germans through Nationalism and spurred nationalistic ambitions in the French who would seek revenge for their humiliating defeat at the hands of the Germans. Each would gain allies, become overly confident in their ability to wage war until a certain boiling point in 1914.

The Point

Nationalism, while it can serve as a unifying force and a force to modernize a country thrives on the idea of supremacy to a separate group of people and seemingly inevitably leads to war because of its capacity to inflate the confidence of an easy victory over the true horrors of war. Occasionally, the easy victory is achieved. However, when it is not, it can result in a very grisly, pointless, and horrific war.

Further Reading:

On Nationalism’s Origin in Jewish Antiquity  (Requires a free account to read)

On the collapse of the Tokugawa Shogunate

On The United States Government’s version of Matthew Perry

On the Austro-Prussian War

On Nationalism as a cause for the first world war

5 thoughts on “You’d Embrace My Sword Before My Culture

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