The uses and abuses of victimhood nationalism in international politics

Adam Lerner

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Contemporary populist movements have inspired political pundits in various contexts to opine on the resurgence of victimhood culture, in which groups demonstrate heightened sensitivity to slights and attempt to evoke sympathy from third parties to their conflicts. Although reference to victimhood’s politics oftentimes surfaces examples of egregious microaggressions, when victimhood claims are scaled up to the realm of nationalisms, oftentimes so too are their consequences. Current literature on victimhood in international politics, though, lacks a unifying theorisation suitable for the comparative analysis of victimhood nationalisms as important identities in the international arena. This gap prevents scholarship from investigating how the severity of perceived or real suffering relates to the formation of victimhood, as well as how victimhood nationalisms legitimize the projection of grievances onto third parties, potentially sowing new conflicts. This article theorises victimhood nationalism as a powerful identity narrative with two key constitutive elements. First, drawing on the narrative identity approach, it outlines how victimhood nationalisms are constructed via narrations of perceived or real collective trauma. Second, it argues that victimhood nationalist narratives, unlike other narratives of collective trauma, break down the idealized victim–perpetrator relationship and project grievances onto otherwise uninvolved international actors, including other nation-states. The article concludes by offering comparative case studies of Slobodan Milošević’s and David Ben-Gurion’s respective invocations of victimhood nationalism to illustrate the empirical applicability of this theorization, as well as victimhood nationalism’s importance in international politics across time and space.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)62-87
Number of pages26
JournalEuropean Journal of International Relations
Issue number1
Early online date17 May 2019
Publication statusPublished - 1 Mar 2020

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