The Seduction of Nationalism

Our country has been insulted! Our honor is at stake!  Declare war now!  

In 1870, the French press howled for a military response to the rise of Prussia. The French feared that they would soon be eclipsed by the economic and military power of Prussia. They believed they still had the best army in the world and could win easily.  They fell into the trap of jingoistic nationalism.

It all started in 1806 when Napoleon I (the Napoleon) smashed the moribund remains of the Holy Roman Empire.  That left a giant political hole in the middle of Europe clogged with tiny, weak German kingdoms, electorates, principalities and duchies.  One of those kingdoms was Prussia.

Prussia and the rest of the German states struggled to find a new identity not connected to the Holy Roman Empire.  Their search for identity was aided by another outcome of the Napoleonic Era, the rise of nationalism.  In 19th century Europe and America, a belief in the unique characteristics, often called exceptionalism, of each country became the basis for identity. 

A national identity can bind people together in a shared culture.  Yet, it can quickly degenerate into less savory territory dividing the world into “us” against “them”. This brand of jingoistic nationalism relies on a sense of victimhood, while simultaneously believing that other people and cultures are inferior.  When jingoistic nationalism is combined with vain, cynical leaders the world usually explodes. 

In 1870, Napoleon III was a fat caricature of his younger self, easily manipulated by flattery.  He had been democratically elected in 1848, but soon seized power and declared himself Emperor of France.  He sponsored a number of foreign military interventions trying to match the military brilliance of his uncle, Napoleon I but mostly failed.  

Across the Rhine River, Prussia was dominated by Otto von Bismarck, who became prime minister in 1862.  Bismarck was vain, dressing in military uniforms despite never serving a day as a soldier.  He was often unethical using insider information to amass a huge fortune.  He cynically betrayed friends, political allies and his king to stay in power.  

Bismarck ruled Prussia as a virtual dictator, alternately charming and bullying the king, the parliament and the free press. He was skilled at inducing his negotiating partners to commit promises in writing.  Many of these secret agreements were later leaked by Bismarck to undermine and humiliate friends and enemies. 

One of his calculated leaks occurred in 1870. Bismarck maneuvered the Spanish government into agreeing to accept Leopold, a German prince, for the vacant throne of Spain. To make that deal palatable to the French, who feared being surrounded by Germans, Bismarck encouraged the French to annex the French-speaking parts of Belgium and promised to cede German interests in Alsace-Lorraine.  

Bismarck then began leaking details in the press. The plot to carve up Belgium shocked England into refusing to support France. German states like Bavaria were shocked into believing that France would advance beyond Alsace-Lorraine to threaten to all German states. The Russians and Austrians sat on the sidelines looking for ways they could profit from a fight between Prussia and France. No one cared about Spain.

The French response left Napoleon III and his ministers looking greedy and foolish, deepening the crisis.  The French press screamed that France had been humiliated by Prussia and their national honor was at stake.  The Prussian press screamed that Prussia was a victim of French efforts to deny them a just and rightful place in the world and that Prussian national honor was at stake. Populist politicians supported the frenzy.  

On July 19, 1870 France declared war on Prussia as both sides continued to proclaim their victimhood.  By May 1871, the French army was devastated, Paris was occupied by Prussian troops and crushing war reparations were imposed on France.  Bavaria was absorbed into Prussian Germany, as was Alsace-Lorraine and Bismarck declared the German Empire.  

The defeat cost Napoleon III his throne and he fled to England where he died in 1873. Bismarck died in 1898, eight years after he was pushed into retirement by Kaiser Wilhelm II. The Kaiser combined vanity, recklessness and military infatuation with a bullying attitude and jingoistic nationalism. It cost him his throne in 1918 and France got revenge against Germany with the Versailles Treaty, leading to a new cycle of jingoistic nationalism and war.

The Machiavellian twists by Bismarck that fed on and were supported by jingoistic nationalism are too convoluted to describe in detail here. Two sources I consulted are Bismarck, by Edward Crankshaw (1981) or a History of Prussia, by H.W. Koch (1978).

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