Advances in literacy and communication, often propelled by Protestant missionaries, also played a role in increasing cohesion, as languages became “a powerful new basis for expanding and delimiting national boundaries and for communication within the national group so defined.” Linguistic commonality also promoted commerce tying together towns and the countryside, and helped state bureaucracies expand and deepen their links with the population in their jurisdiction.
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The fourth factor in McNeill’s account of the rise of ethnic-political unity was military modernization. As in Rome and Greece, participation in the armed forces forged solidarity between citizens of European national groups, melting them together like no other experience could. And new military technology made national governments more capable of maintaining their borders, suppressing uprisings, repelling invasions, and cultivating commerce. The military primacy of Napoleonic France made other budding nations look to replicate its success. Ultimately, however, the military might of the 19th-century European nation-state would “undermine its own social basis” by producing a world not of states but of empires, and later of wars so devastating that they significantly reduced the prestige of the ethno-nationalist ideal.
Perhaps the most familiar chapter of McNeill’s story, at least in today’s political environment, is the rise of globalization that occurred after the world wars of the first half of the 20th century—the “accelerated mingling of diverse peoples within state boundaries that we everywhere witness in our own time, and specifically since World War I.” His key insight is to frame this rise of polyethnicity over the past century not as a new development, but as “a return to normal,” at least “as far as Western European nations are concerned.”
The most important reason for the pivot away from nationalism was ideological. The destruction of the First World War and the genocidal imperialism of the Second World War (which paradoxically included high levels of ethnic mixing in the form of Nazi slave labor) effectively discredited nationalism among European elites. This contributed to the creation of new international structures, like the European Union, that facilitated cooperation, immigration, and the fading of ethnic boundaries between nation-states. Another ideological spillover effect from the ethnic horrors of the war was that subnational ethnic identities gained renewed prestige.
As with the rise of nationalism in the 19th century, its decline in the second half of the 20th also had a strong demographic component. The enormous number of casualties from the war created a labor imbalance in Europe, which caused emigrations of large populations of people looking for work from southern European countries to wealthier northern ones. The Soviet Union also saw substantial internal relocation under Stalinism. And in the longer run, declining birth rates in Western countries, fueled by birth control, economics, and changing social norms, created a demand for more labor, and rising birth rates in the Middle East and global South provided the supply.