An Analysis on the Rise of German Nationalism from the International Relations Perspective



Nationalism is the belief that the interests and values of a particular nation are prior to, and often superior to, those of others. Starting from the mid-1800s, nationalism has become a political doctrine whose purpose was to build states in national identities. In this study, the historical and political origins of German Nationalism following the German Unification will be analyzed comprehensively. In addition to that, there’ll be an analysis of how nationalism had been used as a political propaganda tool during the Nazi Germany period will be discussed. The conclusion arrived in this analysis suggests that German nationalism served a great purpose by uniting scattered principalities throughout the region and facilitating them to develop economically and socially. In addition to that, it has created a common national identity among society which paved the way for the people to be organized. All in all, German nationalism had enabled the establishment of a vast and rich German Empire with the leadership of Prussia but also contrary to that, the same notion had been misinterpreted and completely abused in the hands of a dictator.

Keywords: Nationalism, German Unification, Nazi Germany, Nation-state, Common identity


In order to address the correlation between German nationalism from an international relations viewpoint, first there is a need to address and understand the origins of German nationalism. German nationalism hadn’t always been too strong within and between various German groups since most of them were divided by sects as well as before the German Unification, they mostly had not lived under the same state due to the co-existence of tens of different German states at the same time. “In the 18th century, Friedrich Karl von Moser who was a German nationalist and jurist, discussed that compared with “the British, Swiss, Dutch and Swedes”, the Germans lacked a “national way of thinking”. (Jansen, 2011, p. 234-259; p. 239-240)


German philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder was the first person to describe the term nationalism. “Fichte in particular brought German nationalism forward as a response to the French occupation of German territories in his Addresses to the German Nation (1808), evoking a sense of German distinctiveness in language, tradition, and literature that composed a common identity. ” (Jusdanis, 2001, pp. 82–83)

Historical Origins and German Nationalism through Political Discourse

In the following years, especially in the 19th and 20th centuries, nationalists had put more emphasis on the term German nationalism with the rise of Prussia and especially with the German Unification of 1871. All these developments paved the way to create and solidify what’s considered to be a German not only through cultural and linguistical ties but as well as through putting these people under a common political and economic roof. Later on, some nationalists took it further by creating a whole new German identity. They simply created a discourse that eventually resulted in the creation of Nuremberg Laws, the laws which allegedly determined if someone was eligible to be German or not. In the 1930s, after the Nazis came to power, some elites in the party felt influenced by the social construct in the United States regarding ethnicity or race. In the US, people had been getting different treatments and had different rights, solely because of the color of their skin. It was evident that black Americans and white Americans had been treated differently. German elitists had the vision to interpret this sort of discrimination regarding ethnicity into their own society in order to solidify their pure German nationalistic ideas. As the Weimar Republic came to an end in 1933, the Nazis took power through creating a sense of national pride in German peoples, putting forth that Germans had been humiliated with the Treaty of Versailles and the war preparations following their defeat in World War I had been an unfair treatment.

Revolutions of 1848 to German Unification of 1871

“The Revolutions of 1848 comprised of multiple revolutions in a vast number of German-speaking states. Nationalists did seize power in a number of German states and an all-German parliament was created in Frankfurt in May 1848.”( Verheyen,1999, pp. 7.) Attempts to make up a ’national constitution’ for all German countries in the region were undermined by the disputes between Austria and Prussia. Now, the question was to either establish a ‘Greater’ German state including Austria or, a ‘lesser’ one that would exclude Austria. As a consequence, the efforts to create a lesser German state were undermined by the Prussian King.

In order to have a full grasp of the developments that led to German Unification, first there is a need to understand the aftermath of the defeat of the French in the Napoleonic Wars and the consequences of the Congress of Vienna of 1815. After the Congress of Vienna, German nationalists had attempted to create a one-unified German state that carried all the elements of a nation-state. As a result, they could no manage to build one unified state but instead, the German Confederation was formed which was made up of multiple autonomous German states. Unfortunately, the Confederation was quite far from having a strong institutional foundation.

 “Economic integration between the German states was achieved by the creation of the Zollverein (“Custom Union”) of Germany in 1818 that existed until 1866.” (Verheyen,1999, pp. 7.) The Zollverein ended up causing, even more, conflict and hostility between Austria and Prussia.

While looking at the establishment of the German Union as a political union, it would only be smart to make an analysis from the viewpoint of Prussia, who could be deemed as the founder of the Union of the German states. First of all, Prussia was the only powerful state in the region at the time being outside of the principalities that were scattered around the region. Additionally, it had been facing the ultimate threat of the French and Austro-Hungarian Empires which made it difficult for Prussia to become an assertive, dominant power throughout the continent. There are two key actors who played a great role regarding the German unification and the rising trend of German nationalism in the 19th century. These figures were Otto Von Bismarck and Wilhelm I. First was the chancellor of Prussia and the latter was the King of Prussia who both were very influential figures at the time in European politics. Bismarck was constantly in battle with Austria to gain German-populated territories within Austria. Bismarck had been quite successful against Austria which eventually led him to establish North German Confederation in 1867 as a result. From here, it can be discussed that the dominance of Prussia in the continent has obviously accelerated due to the victories against the Austrian Empire. However, this had not eradicated the French dominance on the continent. At some point, the French and Germans were at war again and this has resulted in the victory of Prussia in 1870.

In addition to the events above which have facilitated the way through the Unification of Germany, there are multiple other means other than diplomacy or wars. Such events can be explained through functionalism. Bismarck had not only asserted dominance over the German-speaking lands through war and diplomacy but he also had put emphasis o nation-building so that the society could internalize a new, bold German identity.  From here on, the developments and projects that facilitated the unification process will be analyzed further.

Prussians have built an extensive network of railroads to connect multiple various parts of the country. Even before that, prior to the unification, a customs union named Zollverein had been operating amongst the German principalities which had facilitated trade, strengthened economic, political, and national ties. Another important point that must be discussed alongside the emergence of German nationalism is the language. In this regard, another significant nationalistic and patriotic figure should be mentioned is Friedrich Ludwig Jahn who is considered to be the “father of gymnastics” who founded the turnverein (gymnastics club) movement in Germany. He was a fervent patriot who believed that physical education was the cornerstone of national health and strength and important in strengthening character and national identity.

Friedrich Jahn stated in Das Deutsche Volkstum that language is the most important myth in nation-building that the language itself creates the people, heroes, and conquerors and he put emphasis on the importance of language teaching at schools. According to him, unity among different German-speaking peoples could be achieved more easily and efficiently this way. In addition to a common language, another important aspect of creating a nation-state is the cultural myth. According to nationalist discourse, people who believe in the same tales, same myths, and memories will be expected to come together. Literature, language, and culture are all of extreme importance. Lastly, Bismarck had a Kulturkampf conflict with the Roman Catholics within the Prussian borders especially from 1872 till 1878. “The main issues were clerical control of education and ecclesiastical appointments. A unique feature of Kulturkampf compared to other struggles between the state and the Catholic Church in other countries was Prussia’s anti-Polish component.”(Smith, 2011, pp 360) Throughout this period, Bismarck’s vision was to create a new interpretation of history that was centered on the unity of Germans. German historians have created a discourse at the time that German unification was crucial, inevitable, and was the most fitting scenario for the future of the continent.

Another viewpoint for German nationalism from the international relations perspective can be Eric Hobsbawm’s approach. According to him, nations are artificially built structures and this creation process is not a total top-down structure which means that the existence of some common components of culture is crucial beforehand. It would be quite beneficial to interpret his approach into the German unification example since even prior to the unification of one German state, these German principalities had a common language and most were able to understand each other. So as a consequence, their integration process had been relatively easier compared to the multi-ethnic empires such as Austro-Hungarian or Ottoman Empire.

Meanwhile, it resulted in the Prussian culture dominating the local folk cultures. The common historical emphasis of nationalist discourses was used precisely for the establishment of German unity. When we look at Hobsbawm’s approach, he puts the language first. German nationalists did not really have any issues in determining German as the official language of Prussia after the unification. Although we must not neglect the fact that Germans had been living in vast lands stretching from Western Europe all the way to Eastern Europe, differences in the local German dialects had been evident but caused no major problems or conflicts. We can even go ahead and say that the existence of these common elements such as common myths, language, and culture played a major role in ensuring the relatively unproblematic unity of the union.

The one major problem that had been faced was the religion/sect factor especially in Kulturkampf of Otto Von Bismarck which has manifested itself as a serious anti-Semitist and anti-Catholic conflict. Considering the possibility of Papacy intervening in the domestic affairs of Prussia, Bismarck kept quite a distance from Catholic Christianity and worked systematically to eradicate the influence of the Christian church over his subjects. It can be understood from his efforts of trying to eradicate the influence of the church is that Bismarck desired to tie his subjects only to their country by reminding them who they are and what their national identity is instead of them feeling a sense of belonging to a religious organization. Moreover, he also facilitated the engagement of Protestants up north with the Catholics down south.

Nationalism as a propaganda tool in Nazi Germany (1933-1945)

“What you have inherited you must earn before you can own. The most precious possession in this world, however, is your own people! And for these people and for the sake of these people, We will struggle and we will fight! And never slacken, and never weaken and never lose faith, and never despair, Long live our movement! Long live our German people! Long live our German Reich!” – an except by Adolf Hitler – “No Retreat, No Surrender; That is German law! ” (Goebbels,1927). The above paragraph is cited from Joseph Goebbels’ early Nazi propaganda publication of Der Nazi-Sozi. It is quite apparent that nationalism had been used as a propaganda tool by the Nazi Party for quite some time.

“For most Germans, life went on as much before but a little better, and there was a new excitement in the air. From the beginning, the Nazis’ publicity had been flamboyant, their posters striking, and their rallies well staged; after the movement came to power, propaganda became a way of life. Torchlight parades, chorused shouts of Sieg Heil! (‘’Hail to Victory’’), book burnings, the evocation of Norse gods, schoolyard calisthenics, the return to Gothic script- a thousand occasions offered Germans a feeling of participating, of being swept up and implicated in some great historical transformation. At the Reich Chamber of Culture, Joseph Goebbels saw to it that cinema, theater, literature, art and music all promoted Nazism. Things primitive and brutal were praised as Aryan; any who opposed or even doubted the Führer ceased to be German. For this new regime, warfare was its natural condition. “ (Chambers; Grew, 1974, pp 889)

Hitler’s idea of German nationalism is quite complex since nationalism was one of the main components he has used as a propaganda tool through his reign. As the German society had long been paying the leftover debts of World War I, the reparations and heavy provisions the Treaty of Versailles brought crippled the German economy and humiliated Germans in the eyes of others and furthermore, the ongoing effects of the Great Depression of 1929 have all been the deeply rooted reasons behind the success of Nazi Party. They have made it seem so appealing for people through patriotic and nationalist discourses. As a result, he has managed to bring a sense of national pride into existence which in turn helped Nazis take full-on, unprecedented control of Germany. Once Hitler seized power, he religiously started ruling the country through his extremist ideologies. He was raising the nationalistic instincts of his people through vanity, so-called racial purity, xenophobia, and antisemitism. The Nazi Party created a political discourse that was based on anti-Semitism which had blamed every single mistake of Germany on Jews.  The Jews have been declared as the scapegoat for everything. According to Nazi discourse that was hostile towards the Jewish people, the Jews were something that Germany had to get rid of. As a result, the destruction of a large portion of Jews took place within mainland Germany as well as in the occupied territories such as Poland, France, the Netherlands, Czechoslovakia, and Ukraine.

Nevertheless, The Nazis’ political agenda had included some enlargement policies as well. These plans had been made within the framework of their nationalist pan-German ideas and decisions. They have proposed the idea of a Greater Reich with lands stretching all the through the western part of Russia, as well as including Austria, Sudentenland region of Czechoslovakia which included some German peoples and in addition to all that, they had desired to capture the regions where other German populations lived outside Germany in masses. In such a case, Austria would be annexed which is already a term called ‘’Anschluss’’. Through all these annexation and occupation plans, the Nazi’s master plan was to achieve their nationalistic goals of building up a greater German nation through uniting their German Volksdeutsche (people/folk). Moreover, the Nazis had another plan named The Generalplan Ost. The plan has called for the extermination, expulsion, Germanization or enslavement of most or all Czechs, Poles, Russians, Belarusians and Ukrainians for the purpose of providing more living space for the German people ( Lebensraum).” (Snyder, 2010, pp 160).


In conclusion, in order to have a better grasp of an important phenomenon such as nationalism, briefly summarizing the historical context and describing the social and political situation of the period would be more practical and functional in order to reveal the main catalysts that led to the establishment of the German union, namely nationalism. Since German nationalism led to the establishment of the German Union, and the motivation of this union was to find itself a more privileged place in the international system by finding support through allies, such as through the establishment of the Italian Union. As the urge to place itself in a more privileged place in the international order, Prussia and its later successor Weimar Republic followed by Nazi Germany had eventually found itself in war with the rest of Europe twice and beyond that, it had introduced us to Hitler’s fascism and such occurrences has changed the course of world history forever. All in all, nationalism that is based on liberal values is vital for the survival of the state. It provides welfare, prosperity, a sense of belonging, security, and a sense of willingness to work to further develop one’s motherland. Although, as it had become quite apparent in the Nazi Germany instance, nationalism can be one of the most dangerous tools in the hands of the ‘right’ people. It can be used to manipulate people, create an unfair hierarchal order, threaten the existence of minorities or other ethnic groups within a country and create a sense of artificial hostility towards others. As in the 19th century German Unification example, it’s been used most efficiently and for peaceful means. Contrary to that, less than a century later, the world had witnessed how it brought about the end of states when it was intertwined with extremist ideologies and doctrines.




Jansen, C. (2011). “The Formation of German Nationalism, 1740–1850,” in: Helmut Walser Smith (Ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Modern German History. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 234-259; 239-240.

Jahn, F. Ludwig. (1817). Deutsches Volkstum.

Jusdanis, Gregory. (2001). The Necessary Nation. Princeton UP.

Friedrich-Ludwig-Jahn. ( 21 April 2021).

Snyder, Timothy. (2010). Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin. Basic Books, 160.

Chambers, M, R. Grew, D. Herlihy and Rabb (1995) The Western Experience. 9th Edition. McGraw-Hill Companies,

Verheyen, D. (1999). The German question: A Cultural, Historical, and Geopolitical Exploration. Westview Press

Goebbels, J. (1927). Der Nazi-Sozi (Elberfeld: Verlag der Nationalsozialistischen Briefe.

Smith, H Walser. (2011) . The Oxford Handbook of Modern German History (2011), 360.


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