The Role of Nationalism in Independence Movements

Updated on December 22, 2018
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Yamuna tries to write thought provoking content based on her history studies and personal experiences.

Nationalism

Nationalism has played a significant role in the independence movements for many countries. A sense of national identity and national pride has proven to be instrumental in nations’ ability to organize and overcome unwelcome colonial powers and achieve status as independent states. The way that nationalism plays its role varies depending upon the details of every situation. In some cases, it brings unity and fraternity among the people, and in other times it has led to division and bloodshed among people of the same nation. An example of how nationalism can manifest in different ways is in a comparison of the struggles for independence in Algeria and in Vietnam.

Nationalism can be described as loyalty and devotion to a nation. It is an ideology which, “holds that all peoples derive their identities from their nations, which are defined by common language, shared cultural traditions, and sometimes religion.”[1] In this way, being a nationalist doesn’t necessarily mean that one’s loyalty lies with the state that is defined by official boundaries. The concept is more strongly related to what one would consider “their people,” regardless of state or national lines that are drawn. This is one way that nationalism can lead to violence and warfare as two separate groups fight for control over a territory. However, when people of a nation can be united through nationalism, it can be a very powerful tool to bring the wishes of the people to reality.


[1] Hunt, Lynn, Martin, Thomas R., Rosenwein, Barbara H., Smith, Bonnie G. The Making of the West Peoples and Cultures: A Concise History. (3rd Ed). (Page 656). Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2010.

Charles De Gaulle: French leader during the Algerian War for Independence, and strong believer in maintaining the French Empire.
Charles De Gaulle: French leader during the Algerian War for Independence, and strong believer in maintaining the French Empire.

Nationalism in Empire

Nationalism showed itself in the belief of European superiority for a long time. This is how and why Europe was able to take over so many territories throughout colonial campaigns. The Europeans believed that they were superior to the colonized peoples, and faced with the technologically advanced colonists, many of the people in these territories believed this as well in some ways. However, as the colonized peoples began to recognize the short comings of the Europeans, grow impatient with the corruption of the ruling powers, and become aware of their own worth, these attitudes changed. In a way, nationalism both lead to and destroyed the idea of European empire.

Ideas of European superiority were shattered after nearly all European nations suffered defeat and ruin at the end of World War II. These new weaknesses, coupled with growing nationalist movements all across the world, forced the previously great imperial powers to release their grip on the colonies that they had conquered. While the struggle for independence had begun and was in fact underway in many places prior to World War II, the events that unfolded during and after the war helped to push those movements forward and allow more of them gain ground elsewhere.

Both Algeria and Vietnam had been under the control of the French empire. The struggle for independence was long and bloody in both of these territories. Algeria and Vietnam eventually won their independence from France, humiliating what remained of the French empire in both situations. One of the main differences between these two situations can be seen in the way that nationalism was expressed in each of these previous colonies. In Algeria, the war against the French was drawn out and bloody, but the people of Algeria were united under their belief in themselves as a nation. In Vietnam, after a vicious war with the French, the people were divided and waged war against each other in a struggle over which way their new nation should be governed.

Photo of a rally following a massacre which took place in 1955, during the Algerian War for Independence.
Photo of a rally following a massacre which took place in 1955, during the Algerian War for Independence.

Independence in Algeria

Algeria was heavily settled by Europeans who came to the colony and obtained or took vast amounts of land and started their own businesses. The white settlers became very rich off of the land, which fueled division between them and the native Algerians who had been pushed out of their land and run out of business. Algeria was first conquered in 1830 and was settled and pacified over the next couple of decades.[1] “By 1850, more than seventy thousand French, Italian, and Maltese had settled in Algeria.”[2] The natives protested and were killed, or died of European diseases, and in 1872, the native population of Algeria declined by twenty percent from five years earlier.[3] This is one reason why the independence movement here was so difficult compared to other North African colonies. The opposition between the settlers and the natives complicated the struggle further.

The French fought bitterly in their attempts to maintain control of Algeria. The French army massacred tens of millions of Algerian nationalists who were seeking independence, following World War 2. The Front for National Liberation (FNL) surfaced in 1954 and took to the frontlines in the war against France, fighting for Algeria’s right to be a self-governing state. The National Liberation Front produced a proclamation in 1954, which expressed their nationalist ideals, and their conviction in fighting the war. The FNL proclaimed, “Placing national interest above all petty and erroneous considerations of personality and prestige, in conformity with revolutionary principles, our action is directed solely against colonialism, our only enemy, blind and obstinate, which has always avoided any extension of even the most minor liberties [when confronted] through peaceful means.”[4] Both sides ignored the accepted rules of warfare at the time. France was practicing horrific torture techniques while the FNL was sending women to place bombs in European cafes.[5] After years of war, Algeria finally gained independence from France in 1962 and appointed Ahmed Ben Bella (previously a high-ranking member of the FLN) as their leader.

A large part of France’s refusal to back out of the war in Algeria was pride. France was afraid of suffering another embarrassing defeat such as what happened in Vietnam.


[1] Betts, Raymond. Decolonization (2nd ed.). (Page 81). New York: Routledge, 2004.

[2] Hunt, Lynn, Martin, Thomas R., Rosenwein, Barbara H., Smith, Bonnie G. The Making of the West Peoples and Cultures: A Concise History. (3rd ed.). (Page 669). Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2010.

[3] Hunt, Lynn, Martin, Thomas R., Rosenwein, Barbara H., Smith, Bonnie G. The Making of the West Peoples and Cultures: A Concise History. (3rd ed.). (Page 714). Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2010.

[4] National Liberation Front. Proclamation. 1954.

[5] Hunt, Lynn, Martin, Thomas R., Rosenwein, Barbara H., Smith, Bonnie G. The Making of the West Peoples and Cultures: A Concise History. (3rd ed.). (Page 894). Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2010.

Ho Chi Minh: Vietnamese nationalist and leader during the Vietnam War, and elected national leader of Vietnam following the war.
Ho Chi Minh: Vietnamese nationalist and leader during the Vietnam War, and elected national leader of Vietnam following the war.

The Case of Vietnam

In the case of Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh formed the group often referred to as the Vietminh in 1941. The Vietminh fought valiantly against the French for many years, trying to gain their independence. In September of 1945, Ho Chi Minh made a declaration in Ba Dinh Square, the colonial capital of Hanoi, in which he stated, “The whole Vietnamese people, animated by a common purpose, are determined to fight to the bitter end against any attempt by the French colonialists to reconquer their territory.”[1] The Vietminh peasant guerrillas ultimately defeated the French army, which was receiving aid from the United States, in the battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954.[2] Although the fight was originally against the French in an effort to denounce and push out colonialism, the fight soon turned the Vietnamese people against one another. Unlike the situation in Algeria, where the natives were united against the French empire in their one goal, the Vietnamese were divided and were pitted against one another for control of their new nation.

The Geneva Convention was held in 1954, following the defeat in the battle of Dien Bien Phu. During the Geneva Convention, France stepped down and agreed to separate the territory of Vietnam into North and South. It was decided that after two years of official separation, an election would be held wherein the people of Vietnam would democratically elect their chosen president. During this time, the battle continued as the North and South fought for control over the territory, as they upheld opposing political views and different concepts of nationalism. The North was led by Ho Chi Minh and was receiving support from the Soviet Union. The South was led by Ngo Dinh Diem, and received support from the United States.[3] In a way, Vietnam was sucked into the war between the United States and the Soviet Union, which was being waged as a way of pitting democracy against communism. After the two years had passed, it seemed as though Ho Chi Minh was going to win the election, as he had great popular support across all of Vietnam. The United States couldn’t allow the chance that communism would win in Vietnam and spread further across the world, so the U.S. interfered further to prevent the election. Despite signing an agreement in 1973, which stated that the United States would end hostilities in Vietnam, the war continued on until 1975.[4] The war ended with the defeat of the United States and South Vietnam by a North Vietnamese offensive, which forcibly reunified the country under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh.

The role of nationalism in Vietnam was complicated. It is what brought the people together to force the corrupt and unfair French administrators that had for so long denied the rights of freedom and individual progress to the people of Vietnam. Nationalism took on another role in this nation when it caused the people to fight among themselves for control. This is an example of how nationalism can mean loyalty and devotion to a people who share common beliefs, rather than loyalty to a defined, physically represented country or nation. Here, the concept played a very different but equally significant role to the one that it played in the liberation of Algeria.


[1] Minh, Ho Chi. Declaration of Independence of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. 1945.

[2] Hunt, Lynn, Martin, Thomas R., Rosenwein, Barbara H., Smith, Bonnie G. The Making of the West Peoples and Cultures: A Concise History. (3rd ed.). (Page 891). Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2010.

[3] Tucker, Spencer, ed. Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War: A Political, Social, and Military History. (Chapter: Overview of the Vietnam War). New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

[4] Hunt, Lynn, Martin, Thomas R., Rosenwein, Barbara H., Smith, Bonnie G. The Making of the West Peoples and Cultures: A Concise History. (3rd ed.). (Page 931). Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2010.

The Human Factor

A sense of national identity is hugely important for the unity and cooperation among the people of a nation. It is what drives a society to work together for the betterment and progress of their nation and their people as defined by such. It can also lead to a sense of superiority and cause violence and aggression toward people of different nations, or toward people who hold different beliefs and ideals. Nationalism cannot be said to be necessarily good or bad, because as with any tool or idea, the way it is manifested is based on the people who hold it. It does seem to be a major force in most human failures, accomplishments, and events throughout history.

During the process of decolonization, mass immigration was a major event. People from all over the world were moving to different countries for many different reasons. Many were going to European schools with the intent of coming home afterward and using their education to further the endeavors of their people. Some were fleeing religious persecution, and many others simply saw hope in different countries and went to look for a better future. Unfortunately this ended up causing more open and widespread racism, especially in European countries.

The National Front emerged in Britain and France, which used nationalist ideals to promote racism and antisemitism. There were race riots in Great Britain in 1981 and 1985 because of angry, young white people, and equally angry ethnic minorities. The National Front's existence is still a problem for many today, especially in France. Current understandings of nationalism are tainted by the existence of groups like the National Front, and nationalism is often considered to be synonymous with racism and antisemitism. At the core of the concept, this isn't the case but current events and social issues continue to strengthen this correlation in the public mind.

Bibliography


Betts, Raymond. Decolonization (2nd ed.). New York: Routledge, 2004.

Hunt, Lynn, Martin, Thomas R., Rosenwein, Barbara H., Smith, Bonnie G. The Making of the West Peoples and Cultures: A Concise History. (3rd ed.). Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2010.

Minh, Ho Chi. Declaration of Independence of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. 1945.

National Liberation Front. Proclamation. 1954.

Shepard, Todd. Voices of Decolonization: A Brief History with Documents. Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2015.

Tucker, Spencer, ed. Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War: A Political, Social, and Military History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

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    © 2018 Yamuna Hrodvitnir

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