The Rise of the Modern Nation-State

The rise of the modern nation-state occurred mostly in the years 1800-1900 in Europe. The French Revolution is credited with stoking the embers of nationalism that resulted in the weakening and abolishing of monarchies. In essence, nation-states were the totality of two definitions: the nation and the state. The nation was guided by the cultural similarities of the people within a geographic region while the state was underpinned by the political system that identified it. In France, the state precedes the nation while in Germany, the nation (Volk) came first before the state.

This paper focuses on the questions as to why totalitarianism arose in Germany after WWI and not in France yet both were democracies before the war. I posit that the rise of totalitarianism in Germany was the result of the bellicist theory that “war made the State and the State made war” as postulated by Tilly. Hitler was able to assert the totalitarian rule with the aim of mobilizing Nazi German to wage war and enlarge its territory. Democracy was, therefore, an impediment to the ideals of the bellicist theory and this gave rise to totalitarianism in Germany after WWI.

Methodology and Theory

The methodology which I will use is the case study of Nazism in Germany (n=2) with emphasis on nationalism which weakened the institutions of democracy and gave rise to totalitarianism. The theory that I will employ is the bellicist (political/conflict)  approach which states that nation-states formed using war will continue to wage war in order to continue as a cohesive nation-state.  A brief review of the theories under this category is important in order to justify the choice which has been made. These include the economic, conflict, Cultural, and Diffusion.

Economic Theory

Economic theories are based on Marxism and Capitalism in the rise of nation-states. Capitalism advocated for statehood since it resulted in maximizing profits in a stable nation-state. Marxism refutes the exploitation of the masses for the sake of profits but instead offered the ideal of equality in terms of economics for the citizenry (Eastwood " Dickovick, 2016). This theory is not applicable to both Germany and France which were not formed based on economic assumptions of Marxism and Capitalism. This is unlike China which arose as a nation-state based on Marxism.

Cultural Theory

The cultural theory states that cultural forces were instrumental in the formation of modern states. The citizenry favored the creation of a state based on religion and nationalism. While this theory had partial influences in the formation of the modern states of Germany and France, the linkages are weak and subject to different interpretations (Eastwood " Dickovick, 2016).  Nationalism was at its peak -during the French Revolution in France under Napoleon but fizzled out while it peaked in Germany during the Franco-Prussian War which was fought in 1870-71.

Diffusion Theory

The Diffusion theory asserts that the whole world would eventually conclude with the formation of states. The first assumption is that a state is stronger militarily over a non-state, while the second is that economic needs pushed for statehood. The last supposition is that the cultural reality led to the rise of modern states. While the cultural factor may have contributed to the formation of the German state, the same is lacking with reference to France.

Bellicist Theory

The Bellicist theory is also referred to as the conflict/political theory as posited by Charles Tilly. Statehood requires several factors such as the collection of taxes, mobilizing the populace for certain projects and authority which is centralized (Brubaker, 2010).  War is the ideal mechanism that makes available the above factors. Both Germany and France were birthed as modern states through war and needed war to maintain a strong nation-state.

The Case for the Bellicist Theory and Hypothesis

The hypothetical-deductive approach will be used which tests the theory against the case study. The case study of Nazism is the most appropriate since it is with reference to the period in the history of Germany when nationalism and totalitarianism when at the peak. The use of the case study is ideal since it is easy to undertake with regard to the huge number of case studies on Nazism. Two hypotheses will be used from the theory to test case and evaluate whether the case confirms or annuls the hypothesis.

Hypothesis1: nationalism under a totalitarian leader needs to assert control over the citizenry and to disregard the tenets of democracy

Hypothesis 2: a totalitarian regime encouraged social participation as a sign of nationalism and not democracy which led to mobilization for war


The evidence is through a case study approach. The study employs secondary data and is based on two studies. The first is by Richard Hamilton The Rise of Nazism: A Case Study and Review of Interpretations-Kiel, 1928-1933. The second case study is by David Imhoof, Sharpshooting in Gottingen: A Case Study of Cultural Integration in Weimar and Nazi Germany. The first article presents primary data of newspaper publications in Germany after WWI which increases its validity. The second article focuses on the social participation using sharpshooting clubs in preparation for waging war.

 It focuses on Kiel in post-WWI Germany which shows that nationalistic fervor in Germany grew under the National Socialist. Most of the newspaper publications openly supported Hitler and his nationalistic message. The nationalist Party disregarded the boundaries of democracy by operating a paramilitary organization to enforce their recommendations and interpretations (Hamilton, 2003, p.46). The paramilitary organization openly interfered with the meetings of opposing liberal parties. The result was that the center parties dwindled beginning 1929 and this affected democracy after WW2.

The newspaper was the primary source of political indoctrination in areas that fell vacant after the liberal center parties became insignificant. Headlines such as “On Sunday; Vote! The Fatherland expects that everyone will do one’s duty and vote for the Right” were based on the duty (Pflicht) not only to the state but to the totalitarian leader leading it (Hamilton, 2003, p.48). The article debunks the myth that the depressed economy was the major factor that led to the rise of Nazism. France also experienced economic depression but did not result in Nationalistic groups arising as the case in Germany.

The second case study postulates that the Nationalist Party under Hitler encouraged the society at that time which was defined by the social participation of cultural activities based on gender and race, not a democracy (Imhoof, 2005, p. 462). It was at the local level that political indoctrination took place. The shooting clubs that sprung in Germany after WWI availed the Socialist Party the opportunity to spread its message based on social participation. This laid the foundation for mass mobilization and recruitment into the army.

The sharp-shooting clubs also allowed Nazi Germany to rebuild an army based on paramilitary training. The Versailles Treaty had reduced the German military significantly. The military sports (werhsport) was part of the traditional German culture that was based on guns (Imhoof, 2005, p. 464). These sports became the substitute for the military exercise of the army and played the important role in the mobilization of recruits who had already received paramilitary training.


The first article answers the first hypothesis in several ways. It fits within the bellicist theory of the centralized authority and state coercion. While the fourth estate plays an important role in the democratic process, it is open to state interference. When the media is coerced to lean towards one political position, democracy evolves to pseudo-democracy based on party control of the media (Grieder, 2012, p.2).  In Nazi Germany, the Socialist Party worked with the newspapers to undermine democracy under the totalitarian rule of Hitler. Thus the first hypothesis is answered within this article.

The hypothesis is also answered within the second pillar of the bellicist theory that the state exists to mobilize the populace for certain projects. With this regard, the mobilization for war under Hitler fits within the bellicist theory. The Social Nationalist also used paramilitary organizations to enforce their recommendations which involved attacking parties perceived as being liberal. Lepage (2009, p. 21) asserts that the Hitler youth (Jugend der NSDAP) were mobilized to serve the cause of the Fatherland and who operated above the law and supports the answer to the hypothesis.

The second article answers the hypothesis with regard to the tenet of mobilization. Statehood, as defined by the bellicist theory requires the state to mobilize the citizenry for certain purposes. By mobilizing citizenry to participate in sharpshooting sports, it was preparing the nation for war. The citizenry was being prepared for war through paramilitary exercises based on the German culture of guns as a past time. Social participation discouraged democracy and this contributed to the decline of democracy while strengthening totalitarianism.

It also answers the hypothesis within the bellicist theory that “war made the state and the state makes war” by mobilizing for war (Brubaker, 2010). The Nationalist Party overshadowed the state and its democratic institutions using propaganda that was preparing Germany for war (Mühlenfeld, 20120, p.169). Although German had signed the Versailles Peace Treaty, it was actively preparing for war through social participation. Imhoof (2005, p. 468) asserts that the single fraternal bond of the volk (people) took precedence over democracy in order to achieve the goal of waging war.


This paper has shown that the rise of nationalism and totalitarianism in post-WWI Germany occurred simultaneously with the decline of democracy in Germany. Even though most assumptions for the rise of totalitarianism in Germany have been focused on the economic depression after WWI, this is debunked since the same conditions were present in France. While France retained the democratic institutions, Germany became a totalitarian state. Since Germany rose as a modern nation-state based on the bellicist theory, it needed to continue making war in order to survive as a state.

This research has managed to raise the question of the role of the media. This is with regard to state coercion and also as independent stakeholders in the society. The majority of the newspapers in Nazi Germany worked with the Nazi party under indirect coercion. They still maintained their independence but worked under the unwritten rule of cooperation with the state in order to achieve the goals of the state. This calls for future research to interrogate the dynamics between the state and the media in the transition period from democracy to totalitarianism.


Brubaker, R. (2010). Charles Tilly as a Theorist of Nationalism. The American Sociologist, 41(4), 375–381.

Eastwood, J " Dickovick, J., T. (2016). Comparative Politics: Integrating Theories, Methods, and Cases (2ed). New York: Oxford University Press.

Grieder, P. (2012). German Democratic Republic. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Hamilton, R. (2003). The Rise of Nazism: A Case Study and Review of Interpretations: Kiel, 1928-1933. German Studies Review, 26(1), 43-62. doi:10.2307/1432901

Imhoof, D. (2005). Sharpshooting in Göttingen: A Case Study of Cultural Integration in Weimar and Nazi Germany. German History, 23(4), 460-493.

Lepage, J.-D. (2009). Hitler Youth, 1922-1945: An illustrated history.  N.C: McFarland " Co.

Mühlenfeld, D. (2010). Between State and Party: Position and Function of the Gau Propaganda Leader in National Socialist Leadership. German History, 28(2), 167-192

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