Ideology and War Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

War has been a universal and almost continuous human phenomenon from the earliest days of human life.


War has been a universal and almost continuous human phenomenon from the earliest days of human life. The conduct of war until the modern era was mostly a matter for kings, emperors, chiefs, and their warriors. However, in the modern era, the Industrial Revolution, the Enlightenment, and the French Revolution (1789-1793) produced profound changes in the mobilization of populations in a political system for war. Ideas were coalesced into ideologies, which began to be used to motivate people to participate in all manner of causes. Such ideological causes seek to make great changes in the world that would be, according to some intellectual element in the ideology, “just” or “equal” or “national”–or whatever term was needed to mobilize the emotions of the masses.Ideology and warfareIdeology and warfare


Ideology is a belief structure that forms the minds of “true believers,” or ideologues. Ideology so molds their thoughts that it becomes their worldview. It also binds them with similar ideologues and organizes their emotions for action. However, since a questioning attitude about their ideology is often not a part of their thought, their views are often rigid, self-righteous, and closed. The modern world has seen many ideologies that have provided the motives for war or other acts of violence.

History of Ideology and WarfareAncient World

The explicit study of ideologies began with the Enlightenment. However, many scholars across diverse fields believe that ideologies have always existed. Historically most governments in the world until the American Revolution were kingdoms, empires, or tribal chiefdoms. Kings and emperors usually relied on warrior castes to staff their armies. These arrangements used an ideology based on a social class system to perpetuate people’s continual buying into the system. Often, these ideologies build themselves upon religious beliefs or official church teachings in order to justify their existence. One major exception occurred in the ancient Greek democracies. The citizen armies of a Greek polis City-states[city states];Greek (city-state) involved the whole male population, who accepted the ideology of the supremacy of their city-state, and they were expected to fight in its wars.

Some see religions or the justifications of autocrats, whether kings or some other kind, as ideologies. For example the Ali’i religious system of the Hawaiians functioned as an ideology. It justified the rule of the chiefs, kahunas (priests), and the kapu (taboo) system. Another example is the Seleucid Empire’s use of Hellenism, which functioned as an ideology. It justified using violence against the Jews in support of their political vision (ideology) of a Hellenistic kingdom.

Medieval World

The fastest-growing religion of the medieval age, Islam, in many ways functioned as an ideology that led followers to engage in warfare to support its expansion throughout the Arab world, and even into parts of Europe. The religion, founded by MuḥammadMuḥammad (founder of Islam)[Muhammad]Muḥammad in the early seventh century, provided a framework for many parts of its followers’ lives, from social relationships to the proper conduct and aims of warfare. The Qur՚ānQur՚ān[Quran]Qur՚ān gives instruction on, among many other things, the use of Jihad (holy war)jihad (struggle) as a means of expanding the new religion. After Muḥammad’s death in 632, warriors inspired by Islamic ideology wrested control of not only Muḥammad’s in the Arab Peninsula but also the Levant, Asia Minor, North Africa, and the Iberian Peninsula. In Europe, CharlemagneCharlemagne Charlemagne’s Capitulary of 802 (Charlemagne) capitulary (law or act) of 802 offered an ideological justification of the Holy Roman Empire, including both Popes and temporal rulers. The Crusades Crusades also relied on an ideology of warfare in order to justify the conquest of the Holy Land. The ideology put forth by Pope Urban IIUrban II (pope)[Urban 02] Urban II in 1095 in a sermon that inaugurated the Crusades;First (1095-1099) First Crusade emphasized the injustice of Islamic control of Jerusalem and, in a broader sense, provided an ideological rationale for violence through its portrayal of enemies of Christendom and its assertion of divine rewards for those who pursued violence in the name of Christ. This justification of warfare in the name of a religious ideology had a permanent effect on Christianity, and the impact of the Crusades can be seen today in the theological justifications for certain types of warfare.

Modern World

Although ideologies have been present in human history ever since societies first took shape, their explicit articulation truly began in the revolutions of the late eighteenth century. Both the American and French revolutions produced statements that could be said to have formed an ideology for their movements. Both of these ideologies proved to be persuasive enough to convince people to voluntarily risk, and even lose, their lives in their defense. Specifically, the American and French revolutions share a rejection of monarchy and, by extension, Autocracyautocracy as a form of government. Taking the place of autocracy was Modernismmodernism, that is, political ordering that uses human political engineering to create a political system. The effect is to transfer loyalty from the person of the autocrat (usually a king) to the nation and/or a national ideology. The success of these revolutions brought about, for the first time, the study of ideologies.

The first use of the term “ideology” was by Antoine-Louis-Claude Destutt de Tracy, Antoine-Louis-ClaudeDestutt de Tracy, Antoine-Louis-ClaudeDestutt de Tracy (1754-1836) in his Traité de la volonté (1815, in Éléments d’idéologie IV et V; A Treatise on Political Economy, 1817). His ideas were rejected as impractical by Napoleon INapoleon I (Bonaparte)[Napoleon 01] Napoleon Bonaparte but were translated into English by Jefferson, ThomasJefferson, Thomas Thomas Jefferson. In 1845, Marx, KarlMarx, Karl Karl Marx (1818-1883) and Engels, FriedrichEngels, Friedrich Friedrich Engels (1820-1895) wrote Deutsche Ideologie, Die (Marx) German Ideology, The (Marx) Die deutsche Ideologie (1845-1846; The German Ideology, 1938), in which they disagreed with Destutt de Tracy, who had defined “ideology” as the “science of ideas.” Instead, Marx and Engels saw ideology as a fabrication by some group (ruling or commercial or other) to justify themselves. Disagreement over the very definition of ideology has grown ever since. For social scientists and especially political scientists, there is no single agreed-upon definition of ideology. There are, however, features of ideologies that are identifiable, and there are also clearly identifiable macro- and micro-ideologies.

Modern, explicitly stated ideologies are often political, materialistic, action-oriented, simple-minded, and mass-oriented. Politically, ideologies use selected sets of political ideas. They use ideas in ways that are simplistic, limited, and closed because they are seeking to move the hearts and minds of the masses to undertake action. In contrast to political philosophies, which teach understanding, ideologies incite to action.

The materialistic aspect of many ideologies arises from their vision of the present and near future. Ideologies often offer followers a hope for material improvements in life that are seen as attainable within a lifetime. Such ideologies promise that political evils will be overcome and replaced with a brave new world of peace and plenty. Ideologies also give solidarity to their followers. Political parties and movements come to a common identity from the ideas they hold, which creates an “ism.” Nazism, communism, socialism, fascism, and other political philosophies that define factions or parties are known by their political idea sets. Nationalism seeks to enlist all the people of a political system into its fold.

Ideologies are also action-oriented because they seek to mobilize people into joining the “cause.” There is some evil to be ended (global warming, saving the environment, ending poverty, or any number of others), which requires actions that are in line with the specific steps that must be followed to attain the goal. This leads to the creation of organizations that may be political, cultural, civic, economic, social, or even religious in order to put into action steps to reach the common purpose.

The simplistic nature of ideologies is found in the way in which ideas are combined that may or may not be fully coherent. Intellectual rigor is not required for true believers who follow ideologies. As a consequence, symbol manipulation (which is very close to Propagandapropaganda) enables the leaders of ideology-driven parties to gain support for vague or undetermined goals.

Mass mobilization to achieve the goals of the ideology is the final feature of ideologies. Quite often the mobilization is pitched in terms of war. The ideology uses affective language (language that appeals to emotions) to invite people to join the struggle, the battle, the crusade, the jihad, or even the war. The propagandists of ideologies use simple ideas with significant emotional appeal to mobilize the masses. This joining of people allows opportunities for personal expression to arise.

Revolutionary ideologies in the modern world have created a variety of wars. This is especially the case for the ideologies of Liberalismliberalism and Socialismsocialism. The nineteenth century wars of liberation in Mexico and South America were driven by varieties of liberalism that battled against autocratic rule. A number of the revolutions in Europe in the nineteenth century, especially those of 1848, were also revolutionary, their violence aimed at ending ancient forms of rule.

Nationalism–one Nationalismof the most potent ideologies of the modern world–has been the source of numerous conflicts. In the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as various groups of people in Europe abandoned autocratic forms of government that had ruled for centuries, the mobilization of the masses into nations led–in the case of the French–to a bloody Reign of Terror, then to wars to maintain the Republic, and then to wars to spread the ideology of the revolution, all in the name of the ideology of “liberty, equality, and fraternity.” The ideology was a combination of both nationalism and Universalismuniversalism. The revolutionaries and their Napoleonic successor saw themselves as bearers of a universal gift of freedom for all people. The conservative counterrevolution was ultimately successful, instituting a peace designed by the prevailing autocratic powers.

During the Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815),Fichte, Johann GottliebFichte, Johann GottliebAddresses to the German Nation (Fichte) Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762-1814) delivered his Reden an die deutsche Nation (1808; Addresses to the German Nation, 1922) becoming the father of German Nationalism;German nationalism. He also propounded the idea of the closed economic state in Der gescholossene Handelsstadt (1800; the closed commercial state), presenting a theory of economic autarchy, or isolationism. If each nation developed its own economy in isolation, reasoned Fichte, the absence of economic conflicts would bring peace. The vision of isolationism as an application of nationalism was ideological but ultimately ineffective in preventing war.

Nationalism in the nineteenth and especially the twentieth century has been the cause of war. Both the Nazi PartyNazis and the FascismFascists used it to justify imperialism as territorial expansion. German chancellor Hitler, AdolfHitler, AdolfAdolf Hitler asserted the Germans’ need for ExpansionismLebensraum Lebensraum (“living room,” or room to expand the nation), which justified removal of inferior nations (Slavs, Gypsies, Jews, and others). The idea had been proposed in 1897 by Ratzel, FriedrichRatzel, Friedrich Friedrich Ratzel and developed by others before Hitler’s rise to power. The racism of the Nazi ideology was used to wage war against “inferior” people.

For Italian dictator Mussolini, BenitoMussolini, BenitoBenito Mussolini, expansion was a nationalist goal that would restore Italy to its ancient, glorious past. A new Roman Empire was to be created that would allow for the cultural superiority of Italians, as inheritors of the Romans, to be expressed. The conquest of EthiopiaEthiopia by the Italian Fascists was an action for spreading Italian nationalism.

The key element that Nazi and Fascist ideologies inherited from their autocratic predecessors was Militarismmilitarism. The glorification of war was hailed as something necessary for the preservation of the state. War was not just a pragmatic instrument of policy but an end in itself. The rise of Nazi and Fascist dictators was due in part to their successful mobilization of the population through militarism. The state would not accept defeat, and scapegoats (Jews, for example) were offered to explain national difficulties. Military aggression appealed to a population suffering from the worldwide Great Depression;and militarism[militarism]depression, offering a promise of victories to come that would change the present and usher in a glorious future.

Democratic governments have also been nationalistic and have engaged in wars of expansion. The United States’ wars with Great Britain (the War of 1812), Mexico (1846-1848), and Spain (1898), as well as its Indian Wars and the Philippine-American War (1899-1902), were conducted as nationalistic campaigns, often with a dose of racism. Other countries have also engaged in nationalistic conflicts; the several wars between India and Pakistan, for example, have had nationalistic ideologies at their base.

While there have been wars justified by religion, the Arab-Israeli warsArab-Israeli wars have been spurred by many factors, including religion (Judaism versus Islam), territorialism (Israel versus Palestine), ethnic rivalries (Jews versus Arabs), and nationalism (Zionism vs. Palestinian Nationalism). The rise of Islamic JihadIslamic Jihadists–who are advocates of an ideological version of Islam Salafism(Salafism), whether of the Wahhābī type or the Iranian Hezbollah(Hezbollah)–has produced a religious ideology that, in the case of the WahhābīsmWahhābī Ikhwan movementIkhwan movement, inspired many to fight battles for King ibn Saud. Modern Salafism, espoused by Bin Laden, OsamaBin Laden, OsamaOsama Bin Laden and others, advocates the use of Terrorism;Salafismterrorism in order to achieve its goal of global conquest for Islam as well as a reactionary return to what it holds to be the purity of Islam during the age of Moḥammad and his companions.

In the twentieth century, the post-World War II decades of decolonization have been interpreted as nationalistic wars. The Mau Mau Rebellion (1952-1956)Mau Mau movement in Kenya (1952-1957) and other anticolonial uprisings were nationalistic. During the Cold War, the ideological struggle between Soviet Union;communismSoviet and China;communismChinese communism and the democracies of the West usually played out in areas of the Third World such as Africa, South Asia, and Latin America, where nationalistic groups, whether communist or democratic in their orientation, engaged in proxy wars for their ideological champions.

A Nazi poster touts the benefits of euthansia: It says, “This is what this person suffering from hereditary defects costs the Community of Germans during his lifetime. Fellow Citizen, that is your money, too.” The banner’s largest message touts a future “New People” (neues Volk).

The Communismcommunist regimes practiced the revolutionary variety of socialism. The use of violence, both by the ancien régime against revolutionary collaborators and by the revolutionaries to eliminate members of the old order, caused the deaths of millions. The communists waged “class warfare” against their opponents–the wealthy classes, aristocrats, and religious. In the case of the Chinese communists the poor peasants were mobilized to support the liquidation of the Chinese property owners, who were often peasants themselves who happened to own their farms.

Among the collaborators killed by Stalin, JosephStalin, JosephJoseph Stalin (1878-1953), who succeeded Vladimir Ilyich Lenin (1870-1924), were Anarchismanarchists and other libertarians. While advocates of the use of violence, most were not organized to wage war because they adhered to the theory of Karl Marx that Capitalism;Marx oncapitalism caused wars and that with the end of capitalism there would be an end to the state and to wars. The state itself was the cause of wars for anarchists.

The list of ideologies ranges widely, from economic ideologies of capitalism and socialism, to political ideologies such as communism, fascism, and liberalism, to other types of ideologies such as racism, environmentalism, pacifism, and many more.

While all are ideologies and share ideological characteristics, they also can, under the right conditions, condone violence in some form or other to gain the political changes they seek.Ideology and warfare

Books and Articles
  • Baradat, Leon P. Political Ideologies: Their Origins and Impact. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 2006. Explores the evolution of ideology over three hundred years and looks at how it plays out in politics, society, economy, and military contexts.
  • Carlton, Eric. War and Ideology. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1990. A theoretical exploration of why political ideologies so often find expression in warfare.
  • Cassels, Alan. Ideology and International Relations in the Modern World. London: Routledge, 1996. Looks at ideologies in the modern world and how they interact on an international basis.
  • Kohn, Hans. Nationalism: Its Meaning and History. New York: Van Nostrand, 1965. Looks at how nationalism has shaped ideology in the modern world.
  • Losurdo, Domenico. Heidegger and the Ideology of War: Community, Death, and the West. Amherst, N.Y.: Humanity Books, 2001. A focused study of an ideology that was formed to serve a national will.
  • Vincent, Andrew. Modern Political Ideologies. London: Wiley-Blackwell, 2008. Vincent’s work is an introductory study of world ideologies over the past two hundred years.

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