In England, France and Germany, the people had been slow-fed on a diet of brief and victorious colonial wars, fought against under-equipped opponents in far away places.No major European nation had tasted military defeat for more than half a century. The arms race and the development of new military technology furthered this mood of invincibility. Britons thought their naval power, backed with the economic might of the empire, would secure victory in any conflict. The Germans placed great store in their policy of armament, their growing fleet of dreadnoughts (battleships) and Prussian military training and efficiency; the German high command’s confidence was predicated upon its bold but decisive Schlieffen Plan. The Russian tsar believed his empire to be protected by God – and his massive peacetime army of 1.5 million men. The French believed a string of concrete fortresses and defenses, running the length of their eastern border, made them impervious to German attack.
Along with these practical considerations existed a near-spiritual belief in the strength and viability of each nation. By the late 1800s, England was almost drunk with patriotism and nationalism. She had enjoyed two centuries of imperial, commercial and naval dominance: the lyrics of a popular song, Rule, Britannia!, trumpeted that “Britons never never will be slaves”. London spent most of the 19th century purposefully avoiding wars – however the unification of Germany, the pace of German armament and the bellicose remarks of Kaiser Wilhelm II gave much cause for concern. Britain’s ‘penny press’ (serialized novels and short stories) fueled rivalry with Russia and Germany by publishing incredulous fiction about foreign intrigue, espionage and future war.
German attitudes were just as intense but sprang from different origins. Germany as a nation-state was comparatively new, forming from the unification of 26 German-speaking states or territories in 1871. As a consequence, German nationalism had a political purpose: it was the glue that bound together these disparate states: Prussia, Bavaria, Saxony, Hesse, Baden, Brunswick and others. The leaders of post-1871 Germany relied on nationalism to maintain and strengthen the country. German culture was promoted and celebrated: from the poetry of Goethe, to the music of Richard Wagner. National strength was continuously associated with military strength: if the army was weak or incapable of fighting, so too was the nation. The new kaiser, Wilhelm II, was in many respects the personification of late 1800s Germany: both were young, intensely patriotic, obsessed with militarism and expansion, nervous about the future and desperate for national success. The main obstacle to the latter was Britain, which became a popular target for the German press.
another dangerous form of nationalism was emerging in Europe. This was not about supremacy or military power, but about self-determination, self-government and independence. With the world largely divided into empires and spheres of influence, there were a host of regions, races and religions who sought freedom from their imperial masters. In Russia, for example, more than 80 ethnic groups were forced to speak Russian and practice the Russian Orthodox religion. China, a nation with more than 400 million people, had been ‘carved up’ and economically ravaged by several European powers; this instigated the formation of secret and exiled nationalist groups who wanted to free China from foreign influence. Nationalist groups had contributed to the weakening of the Ottoman Empire in eastern Europe
KEY POINTS: 1. Nationalism was an intense form of patriotism that celebrated one’s own country and demonized other nations. 2. Pre-war nationalism was fueled by wars but also by political rhetoric, the press and popular culture, such as novelists. 3. Anti-German literature in Britain focused on a future war with Germany and even a future German invasion. 4. German nationalism was predicated on the belief that Britain sought to deprive Germany of her ‘place in the sun’. 5. Rising nationalism was also a factor in the Balkans, where Serbians and others sought independence and autonomy from the political domination of Austria-Hungary.