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Ethnic Conflicts: Nationalism, Causes & Examples

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Conflicts can occur for any number of reasons, but a common one throughout history has been ethnic nationalism. In this lesson, we'll examine ethnic conflicts and see how they changed throughout the 20th century.

Ethnic Conflict

History is full of conflict. Sometimes conflicts are started over resources or ideologies, and sometimes they seem to be started for no reason at all. However, one consistent trait we find around the world is conflict fueled by ethnic tension.

Ethnic conflicts are those in which the underlying discord is based in the perceived differences between ethnolinguistic groups. Ethnic conflicts tend to involve the dehumanizing of another population based on their ethnic identity, which can often lead to violence. Because dehumanization is so often a prerequisite, violent ethnic conflicts all too often result in genocide and other unspeakable atrocities. So, why do ethnic conflicts occur? Answering that question may be the key to preventing such tragedies in the future.

Ethnicity and Nationalism

To many researchers, one of the first places we have to look in order to understand ethnic conflict is in how people of an ethnic group create a sense of community. In the world today, most people are organized into nations. In its simplest definition, a nation is just a community, one which plays a major role in the way people self-identify. Members of the same nation generally reside within a single nation-state, their geopolitical territory. We call the sense of belonging to a nation, nationalism.

National identity can be a powerful thing, especially when people start getting competitive about it. This can lead to a specific kind of nationalism, defined by a belief that one's national identity should supersede their individual identity, and that their nation is superior to others. That sort of nationalist competition is what led to conflicts like World War I. So, what does all of this have to do with ethnicity?

Countries like the United States define nationalism (the sense of belonging) in political terms. You become a citizen, you agree to abide by the tenets of the republic, and you can truly belong in the USA. However, that's rare in history. Many nation-states were founded as the geopolitical territories not just of any national community, but specifically ethnic ones. Ethnic groups built nations, based on shared ethnolinguistic traits, and created nation-states to protect that ethnic nation. That's why the Spanish live in Spain, the French in France, the English in England, and the Germans in Germany.

By creating nation-states around a specific ethnic national group, these countries defined nationalism and the sense of belonging by ethnic terms. You had to be born into the nation; you couldn't just adopt it. This was an issue because not everybody inside the geopolitical borders was actually a member of that nation-state. Nearly every country founded this way contained one major ethnic group, as well as several ethnic minorities.

Nazis enforce a boycott of Jewish stores, justified through ethnic nationalism
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Minority groups were not part of the nation, and thus it was easy to justify violence against them. They were seen as outsiders who didn't really belong, and who could threaten the stability and cultural unity of the nation. In 1915, the Ottoman Empire launched a campaign to eradicate ethnic Armenians from within its borders, seeing them as outsiders who didn't really belong. The Armenian Genocide resulted in the deaths of roughly 1.5 million people. Later, the Nazis used the same logic to incarcerate and murder Jewish families in the Holocaust. While Nazi Germany certainly took this to new heights of barbarism, they didn't invent the concept of murdering Jews. Jewish communities were treated like outsiders in almost all ethnic nations of Europe, and often the first victims of violence when tensions arose.

Ethnic Nationalism and Postcolonialism

Violent ethnic nationalism like that was seen in the 20th century against non-Han Chinese people in China, Amerindian communities in Latin America, and ethnic minorities across Eastern Europe. However, after World War II ended, the world started to change, and the concept of ethnic conflict changed with it.

Following World War II (and the subsequent beginning of the Cold War), European empires like Britain started decolonizing, or accepting the independence of their colonies. However, as the Cold War progressed, decolonization started leading to new ethnic conflicts in postcolonial countries. Why?

The issue was in how the colonies were formed. Ethnic nations in Europe were founded because of people who shared a sense of identity. Colonies in Africa were founded because Europeans divided the land and drew borders. This meant that people of different ethnic groups and no sense of political or national unity were suddenly part of the same colony. Often, each ethnic group would start its own independence war. For example, when Portugal pulled out of its African colony in Angola, it wasn't fighting one independence war against the Angolan people; it was fighting three different independence wars against the three major ethnic groups of the region.

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