Department of Government
New publication

Do Wars breed Nationalism?

Carlo Koos from the Department of Government is one of the authors of this new article published in American Political Science Review.

photos from German archives
De Juan, Haass, Koos, Riaz, Tichelbaecker

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Alexander De Juan (University of Osnabrück), Felix Haass (University of Oslo), Carlo Koos (University of Bergen), Sascha Riaz (Harvard University) and Thomas Tichelbaecker (Princeton University) just published an article in American Political Science Review: "War and Nationalism: How WW1 Battle Deaths Fueled Civilians' Support for the Nazi Party". 

The authors explore the question of whether wars can breed nationalism. They build on research in psychology that suggests that experiencing the death of people close to us can make us more attached to our in-group, typically our nation. In wars, the vast majority of people experience loss through the deaths of relatives and friends on far-away battlefields. The authors hypothesize the war is especially likely to incite nationalism in locations that are strongly affected by the enormous human costs of war. 

But testing that hypotesis is challenging. If nationalism itself can drive wars, the reverse relationship - the effect of war on people's feelings of national superiority - is likely to be tainted by issues of reverse causality. 

To study this hypothesis, the authors look at the case of Weimar Germany after World War I. They zoom in on a very peculiar but often overlooked characteristic of WWI: the impact of the Great War varied widely across the German Reich. Of these two Bavarian towns, Neuburg was hit by almost 8 times as many deaths as Deggendorf. 

To measure how war exposure varied geographically, the authors use digitized and geolocated information from over 7 million entries in the "loss lists", which almost represent the entire population of German casualties in WWI.This data helps them isolate the independent effect of war on nationalism in counties across Germany: a county's casualty fatality rate - the ratio of deaths to wounded - is strongly determined by WWI battlefield dynamics. They then match the measure of war exposure to local-level election results for the two main, radically nationalist parties in Weimar: the German Nationalist People's Party (DNVP) and the NSDAP - Hitler's Nazi party.

The effect of war on nationalism is mostly driven by civilians at the home front, rather than returning and radicalized veterans. The authors find that particularly those individuals too young to be drafted into the war joined the Nazi party early, especially in those counties that were hit hard by WWI losses. 

The authors suggest that one way through which wars shaped people's nationalist fervour was through practices of joint commemoration. They collect data on all war monuments in Germany, especially pre-WWI, to probe this idea. They find that the effect of war deaths on radical nationalist voting is stronger in counties where war commemoration was already prevalent before WWI broke out. A key implication of this finding is that the vicious cycle between war and nationalism is driven by the politicized exploitation of grief and sense-making over war losses by scrupulous political actors. And that is something, the authors argue, that is very much alive to this day.

The article is Open Access and can be read by clicking this link.