Magazine, Vol. 2: Nationalism

National Identity and Psychology

“Opening up towards strangers requires a stable identity.”

Interview with Prof. Dr Schmidt-Denter, University of Cologne


Examining the topic of nationalism from a psychological perspective is greatly facilitated by focusing on another aspect first: The construct of national identity. Developmental psychologist Ulrich Schmidt-Denter explains the connection between national identity and isolation; which other functions identity has to fulfill and why the German national identity is distinct from other European identities.

Prof Schmidt-Denter – where does the desire to be part of a nation originate from?

Humans are social beings: Belonging to a group ensures our survival. We are programmed to depend on social connections. Identification with a group is indispensable for social coherence and is the prerequisite for solidarity and helpfulness. Nations of the Western hemisphere occupy a special role due to their comparatively high levels of democracy and applied welfare. Both of these factors are grounded in an overall feeling of solidarity within the population.

How do you explain the dissociation of some nations from other countries?

Where there is an “inside” there also exists an “outside”. Experiencing the “other” occupies a broad spectrum. It reaches from fear and threats to curiosity and fascination and extends all the way to close exchanges and symbiosis. The history of humankind is despite all wars and ferocity mainly a history of cooperation. It depends on recognising the conditions under which international exchange is advantageous and to use these terms to a political benefit.

In our everyday lives, we often use terms like national identity, patriotism and nationalism without really differentiating between them. How would you define these concepts from a psychological perspective?

National identity can be seen as a facet of social identity. The development of an “identity” is something distinguishably human, which means that everybody is looking for the answer to the question: “Who am I?”, so their individual identity. Every human being is also wondering about their social identity by asking: “Who are we?”, “What group do I belong to and which ones do I avoid?”. This mentality of belonging can derive from anything like a friend clique to a certain profession or from the patriotic feeling of being part of a nation. Viewing it from this perspective, the term is understood in a very neutral manner, it only describes the self-conscious awareness of being affiliated with a group. There is more judgement reserved for the concepts of “patriotism” and “nationalism”. Patriotism describes a positive connection to a nation. Within psychology, nationalism is used when the appraisal of one’s own nation transcends the normal realm and includes the depreciation of other nations.

In the past, your focus of study was mainly on the national identity of German citizens. What were the conclusions of your research?

My research, which was conducted between 1999 and 2015 at Cologne University, started with a broadly planned culture comparison study concentrating on individual and social identities of ten European countries: Germany and all its bordering nations. We wanted to know to what extent globalisation and Europeanisation have lead to a convergence, or if there are still distinguishable characteristics perceptible. In regard to Germany, the “coherence-hypothesis” was largely confirmed, which means Germans compare pretty much to the average European. There are only a few, but distinctive differences to neighbouring countries. The determined characteristics seem to affect Germany’s unusually large dimension of critical self-reflexion, as well as the insecure attitude towards one’s own nation.

“Germans take the last place in terms of national pride.”


This is apparent when it comes to the ways national pride and patriotism are approached. The general German opinion states that it can be problematic to be proud of your heritage. In other countries, for example, France or the United States of America, patriotism is being celebrated. Where do these differences originate from?

The above-mentioned insecurity can especially be witnessed within the only barely developed national pride. There are many globally implemented comparative studies, which all came to the overall same conclusion following the research we have conducted within Europe: Germans take the last place in terms of national pride. When observing living conditions within some of the other listed countries, it seems very unlikely that there is nothing the Germans can be proud of. The restraint can be explained through the concept and the term of patriotism becoming a taboo. Among the interviewed this created an environment of self-consciousness and fear to talk about their home in any patriotic way.

What would be a more sustainable approach in your opinion?

There is a highly controversial discussion happening in Germany regarding this question. Some other researchers are of the opinion that it solely depends on the individual’s identity. Individuals with a strong individual personality do not even require a collective identity, whereas it is needed as a “crutch” for weak individuals who are haunted by feelings of inferiority. Only the identification with a glorified nation can give them the necessary support. Empirically, this attitude was supported by the behaviour of clinically studied, extremist youth.

If applied coherently to all of the population, the so-called “compensation-hypothesis” becomes deficient in appreciating the positive effects identification with a group has on the individual. These positively impacted areas include a positive self-image as well as stable mental health. As individuals, we shape ourselves through the groups we affiliate ourselves with. It then also becomes important to us how our bond is assessed. This is why we are interested in our groups being seen in a positive light. The coherence model was able to be proven through every large study that applied it: Individuals and social identities complement each other and form an entity. Individual life satisfaction and mental stability correlate with social identification and national pride. The satisfying feeling of belonging to something is the base for a healthy and successful construction of the self. The international “World Value Study” proved this in the beginning of the 1980s and its conclusion has been reaffirmed by more recent research results.

The scientific results would also imply that the German population is on average less satisfied and mentally more unstable than other Europeans.

The results of the “Glücksforschung” (study of happiness) are pointing into that direction. International studies, referring to the “Life-Satisfaction-Scale” have been conducted regularly for decades. The relatively low, subjectively felt happiness merits of the Germans are in no proportion to the objectively pleasant living conditions. However, the Europe Cup in 2006, titled as “Sommermärchen” (summer-fairytale) has caused a change in behaviour. For once, Germans were treating their national symbols ingenuously. This led Germany to rise from 36th to the 16th happiest nation.

Why is the national identity so important in this case? Does the inclusion within a family, a sports club or something similar, not achieve a similar effect?

All significant groups, which provide a common identity, have this effect. In an ideal scenario, these groups would not have to compensate for one another but instead, complement and build on top of each other. This leads to an important emotional state for stable mental health, the so-called “Kohärenzgefühl (feeling of coherence). Within empirical research, this means that the correlations are generally positive. For example, secure ties within a family would complement the positive feeling deriving from national identification.

Why is the feeling of national identity so different for Germany in comparison to other nations?

We obviously have asked ourselves the same question. Historians like to refer to earlier epochs and point out how it had always been a normal practice to self-reflect and fight over national identity issues. Back then, the overall aim was to overcome the system of feudal sectionalism and to define a nation state. Today, those interviewed within our research, said that other issues are encumbering. They named German history as a reason for their restraint, which is referring to the 12-year regime of the Nazis and the holocaust. Subsequently, we had to broaden our research approach to include the so-called “Holocaust Education”.

The doctoral candidate Silviana Stubig analyses students from the ninth grade to investigate how history classes affect the development of their identities. What effects did the classes have on the teenagers?

It turned out that learning about the “Third Reich” in comparison to other eras was perceived as overwhelming and stifling. Especially since the topic was being taught in other subjects like German, religion, the social sciences and on days of remembrance. Besides the intended distribution of knowledge, reactions like emotional strain, feelings of guilt and shame, as well as insecurity towards the own sense of national identity occurred. These unsettling “side effects” should, in my opinion, be discussed in more detail within the corresponding education and history didactic. This becomes especially important for teenagers with migration backgrounds who need more opportunities to form positive identities towards their new homes. A deterring self-display puts a strain on the process of the psychological integration and could lead to a retreat to the native identity.

The outcomes of your research have been published in “Die Nation, die sich nicht mag” in 2012. The political culture in Europe has changed noticeably since then. The nationalist trends have clearly increased in many countries. Is there a way to pinpoint the causes of this change?

Even at the beginning of our research, we assumed that we will encounter two reciprocal processes: the need for opening up and demarcate other cultures. Both aspirations are permanently a part of human motivation and behaviour and have to be constantly balanced. If the need for dissociation grows, then the feeling of being threatened and losing control is its foundation. The recent immigration crisis can be understood as an example of such a development. Erik H. Erikson, who is the pioneer of psychological identity research, fundamentally believed that opening up towards strangers requires a stable identity.

How has the feeling of national identity changed for the German population and for our European neighbours since your research was published in 2012?

The psychological and sociological research has been differentiating between varying political milieus within society for the longest time. These can, for instance, be categorised into the dimensions of “Nationalism vs. Internationalism”. In Germany, the internationalist milieu which wants to get rid of nation-states is much more pronounced than in some of our neighbouring countries – especially towards Eastern-Europe but not excluding some western nations. From the present data, I cannot fully gather if there was a significant quantitative shift between the milieus. However, it can be determined that polarisation has gained momentum and that there has been an intensified fight on opinion leadership. This process has recently increased due to the immigration crisis.

During the recent Bundestag election, the right-wing populist party AfD gathered 12.6% of the overall votes, which makes it the third strongest force within that branch of the government. Does this not point to an overall movement of the right within the population?

The question is: What do you generally understand as an indicator of a movement to the right? Party preferences are imaginable but it would be more sensible to use measurement tools which are not prone to the latest political and societal developments. Instead, using something that can capture more stable political convictions would be rational. Moreover, the least amount of surveyed AfD voters would actually admit to vote for this particular party due to its political program. Most individuals state that their vote should be understood as a protest against the established parties. This does not necessarily indicate a deep change in their personality but an acute reaction to an altered situation which is, in this case, the immigration crisis. Since the end of World War II, there have been several uprisings of parties, aiming to position themselves to the political right of the CDU. None of them were impactful nor did they have long-lasting success.

“We should resist the temptation to predict history or even attempt to allege a regularity to its course.”


In times of globalisation and the EU, global interconnectedness increases further and further and the significance of borders decreases more and more. Has the concept of a national identity not become obsolete already?

We should resist the temptation to predict history or even attempt to allege a regularity to its course. This is how Marxism or respectively, real Socialism has failed. In our study, we have found people with pro-European attitudes in every participating country, but there was no one ready to give up their national identity. Predominantly, this even applies to Germany. The only exception is a notion opposing the feeling of national pride. The proponents of this idea hope to lose their own identity, seen as a burden, by taking on a European one. This motif does not show itself in any of the other participating nations. The other EU-members are not going to help us to solve our identity issues by abandoning their national identities. Jürgen Habermas, when accepting the Staatspreis NRW, had to admit that his predictions in regard to a “post-national constellation” had not come true. According to his ideas, Germans were the sole pioneers of a global development trying to exceed the national stage. It became apparent that nobody is going to go down this path with us.


Interviewer: Eliana Berger

Translation: Laura Emely Schulze


Prof. Dr. Ulrich Schmidt-Denter
University of Cologne