The Psychology of Nationalism

If the 20th century has just one lesson to teach, it must surely be the power and danger of nationalism. Time and again, liberals, socialists and internationalists are caught off-guard by its power and irrational intensity. In 1941, George Orwell wrote of nationalism: “as a positive force there is nothing to set beside it. Christianity and international socialism are as weak as straw in comparison with it.” Nationalism is not just a subject for historians and politicians but for anyone interested in human psychology.

The Nature of Nationalism

It may help to begin by contrasting nationalism with patriotism. Obviously, these words mean different things to different people, but in general “patriotism” has positive connotations, while “nationalism” has mostly bad ones. A patriot feels affection towards the nation in which he was born or has adopted. But this affection is gentle, sensible, and realistic. The patriot keeps his emotions in check and does not allow them to tip over into fantasy or blind obedience.

The patriotic also celebrate what is best about their country: the humor, the food, the literature, the art etc. But these things are positive and open to all – they enrich the world. So, for example, when a patriotic Frenchman says, “I love my country for coming up with the phrase ‘liberte, egalite, fraternite,’ ” he does so because he believes that such ideals may inspire others. And the national heroes patriots admire tend to be great humanitarians and poets rather than generals or war leaders. Patriots will also acknowledge that every group has its strengths and weaknesses, and that every group has something to offer.

The word “nationalism,” however, suggests excessive emotions, ones out of proportion to the facts. It also suggests aggression: the need to assert, bully, and dominate. Sometimes, nationalism can be combined with racism. The most obvious example would be Nazi Germany, where national pride rested on the idea of a Nordic or North European master race. But the Nazis were not alone in this. In the 1930s, many Japanese believed in the superiority of their race. There was even a racist edge to early Irish nationalism, with some arguing that the Irish Celts were more sensitive, spiritual, and imaginative than the shallow, materialistic Anglo-Saxons (the Irish writer James Joyce, for example, ridicules such ideas in his novel Ulysses).

Nationalism can also be purely negative, fuelled by contempt for another country rather than by a love for one’s own. In other words, someone may be indifferent to the nation they were born in but develop such a dislike for their neighbor that they celebrate and exaggerate any differences. This is especially common when that neighbor is bigger, richer or more popular. People often feel belittled by such success, taking it almost as a personal slight.

Escape and Self-Esteem

So why do people become nationalists? First, and most obviously, nationalism offers an escape. Through taking on a larger identity the individual escapes his own. So, John may feel small, insignificant, and unpopular, but if his nation is rich and powerful, this will provide the self-respect he’s never known.

Of course, some people lack a sense of self altogether. The British psychiatrist R. D. Laing used the phrase “ontological insecurity” to describe this, by which he meant the feeling that your true, deep, inner self, who you really are, is unacceptable – or even unreal. In extreme cases this can lead to a schizophrenic breakdown. More generally, such people will attach themselves to stronger personalities. In relationships, for example, they often disappear into the other person, adopting their political views and artistic tastes and agreeing with any decision they make. For such people, the nation provides the stable identity they have always lacked.

For others, nationalism gives a sense of meaning and purpose. Hitler is an obvious example of this. Like many nationalists, he was unhappy in his private life: poor, aimless, a failed artist. The famous photograph of him celebrating the outbreak of World War One shows the grinning face of a man whose life suddenly has direction.

Such things explain the irrational emotions nationalism arouses and the frequently aggressive, even violent, reaction of those whose nation is criticized. Indeed, many react more aggressively when their nation is ridiculed than they do when they are ridiculed! And it is certainly true that many people take their nation more seriously than they take themselves. When one’s pride, self-respect, even sense of purpose, depends on the success or failure of this larger unit, it is hardly surprising.


Obsession is another common trait. Since a nationalist invests so much in his country’s success or failure, its triumphs and disasters will totally consume him. But the nationalist tends to link everything back to national identity. So, for example, he will not only claim that his nation’s army or economy is superior, but also that its literature, food, sport, climate, even landscape trumps everyone else’s.

The nationalist will also be highly sensitive about things that other people let slide, such as the proper display of flags. They will also be eager to correct mistakes whenever possible, to claim it was really their country that invented or discovered such and such a thing and that another stole the glory.

And nationalists mistakenly assume other people share this obsession. They will thus be quick to take offence, to assume that every insult was deliberate. In fact, other people usually mispronounce the name of some historical figure, or overlook some historical fact, in pure innocence.

Fantasy and Denial

True nationalists dislike reality, preferring fantasy and denial instead. And such resistance can be astonishing to watch. This is especially true when it comes to the reputation of some great historical figure. Even the greatest had their faults, and yet when these are pointed out, the nationalist will dismiss such criticism as propaganda or outright lies. Of course, when similar accusations are levelled against the hero of a rival nation, they will be accepted, eagerly and without hesitation!

Nationalists also spend a great deal of their time lost in the past, struggling to accept historic failures and humiliations. Instead, they will often try to personally re-write history. Since their nation is exceptional, such failures make no sense. And, since they make no sense, reasons the nationalist, they cannot have happened, at least not in the way most believe. Tell a nationalist that his country did something shameful in the past and he will probably reply that history is written by the winners, or that others are jealous. When he reads a newspaper or history book he will also practise selective attention, picking out the bits he likes and either ignoring, forgetting, or literally failing to see anything he dislikes.


Tell a nationalist that the armed forces of his neighbor committed mass rape, or shot partisans, and he will believe you immediately. He will then tell you that this is only to be expected, since his neighbor is fundamentally barbaric and uncivilized. Unearth evidence that his own nation did precisely the same thing, however, and he will deny it. Show him photographs and he will dismiss them as forgeries. Give him overwhelming, irrefutable proof, and you will be astonished by the inconsistency. Well, what can you expect, he will say, men traumatized by war act in ways they never would at home. The rapes were part of a collective madness. As for shooting the partisans, it had to be done and was quite justifiable since only men in uniform are protected by the Geneva Convention.

Nationalists have also been known to swap their allegiance, transferring their delusions of perfection from one nation to another. Others will change their mind about their own. Many left-wingers in Britain and France, for example, who spent the 1930s criticising, even loathing, their own countries, switched to fervent nationalism when war began against Nazi Germany. And, as has often been noted, many of the most notorious nationalist leaders were not even born in the nation they led. Hitler, for example, was not a German but an Austrian while Stalin was a Georgian!

Obviously, there is nothing wrong with feeling an affection for one’s nation. And it would be absurd to liken such affection to mental illness. However, in the case of extreme nationalism, certain odd, even disturbing, psychological traits recur. And, given the appalling horror and destruction nationalism can unleash (especially in the age of nuclear weapons), such traits need to be understood.

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