A nationalist movement is a social and political movement for obtaining and maintaining national identity and autonomy among a group of people that some of its members consider a nation. The underlying principle of its motivating ideology, nationalism, is to uphold national interest or national identity as the primary basis on which political decisions are made.
Most historians agree that, as an ideology, nationalism became prevalent in North America and Western Europe in the latter half of the eighteenth century, and shortly thereafter in Latin America. The first wave of nationalist movements reached its peak during the 1848 revolutions in Europe, which led to the unification of Germany and Italy. Toward the end of the nineteenth century a second wave swept Eastern and Northern Europe, as well as Japan, India, Armenia, and Egypt. Soon nationalist movements spread to most of Asia and parts of Africa. In the twentieth century nationalist movements became a global phenomenon. In many instances, such as the anticolonial struggles in Latin America, Asia, and Africa, nationalist movements were a progressive force. However, nationalist movements also led to some of the darkest moments in modern history, such as the rise of fascism in Europe during the 1930s and ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia during the 1990s.
The early theorists of nationalism highlighted the crucial role of sentiments in modern politics as well as the importance of preexisting traditions such as race, language, and culture. Later European nationalists reacted to industrialization and linked the economic aspect of a nation’s life to its culture and politics, thus making nationalism a more powerful ideology. Nationalism’s appeal is based on the perception of individuals as an integral part of a community who cannot be defined in isolation from this community, rather than as independent and self-sufficient people. Such a viewpoint provides ample justification for a nationalist movement and its perceived uniqueness.
theories and debates
Nationalism and nationalist movements did not become the subject of historical enquiry until the mid-nineteenth century, or of social scientific analysis until the early twentieth century. In the wake of the widespread nationalist movements of decolonization in Africa and Asia in the 1950s and 1960s, many models and theories of nationalism emerged with the premise that nations and nationalism are intrinsic to modernity. These theories perceive the nation as the creation of a distinctively modernizing, industrial, and capitalist West, and the product of specific social, economic, bureaucratic, and technological innovations.
During the decades that followed, the “modernist ” view of nationalism was further developed and refined as scholars redefined the nation as a purely intellectual construct. The fundamental premise of this kind of theory is challenged by “primordialists,” who point to modernism’s failure to grasp the recurring nature of ethnic ties and to ground its understanding of modern nations in history and earlier traditions. They argue that the power of ethnicity and ethnic history is crucial to understanding the modern nation-state, and the modern nation-state would simply not exist without ethnic foundations, even though such foundations are often idealized. These theorists hold that ethnicity, although mutable and constantly evolving, limits the degree to which a given cultural identity may be transformed. In this sense, it is not a mere fiction and cannot be expected to vanish gradually as a result of modernization.
Over the years the differences between the modernists and primordialists seem to have narrowed, at least among leading voices. At the same time, some argue that both intellectual camps have adopted a perspective emphasizing historical progress and the necessary development of nation-states that has, in fact, become an impediment to understanding non-Western national consciousness and new forms of modern community.