Rise of nationalism in Europe

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The Rise of Nationalism in Europe


This chapter tries to explain the meaning of nationalism and how nationalism evolved in mankind’s history. Starting with French Revolution the nationalism spread to other parts of Europe and later on paved the way for development of modern democratic nations across the world.


Meaning of Nationalism: Nationalism is the idea of a sense of common identity and a sense of belongingness to a particular geographical area. Apart from this it is also a sense of attachment to a particular culture. It should be kept in mind that culture encompasses a variety of factors, like language, cuisine, costumes, folklores, etc.

Nation state

A nation-state was one in which the majority of its citizens, and not only its rulers, came to develop a sense of common identity and 
shared history or descent. This commonness did not exist from time immemorial; it was forged through struggles, through the actions of 
 leaders and the common people.


Plebiscite – A direct vote by which all the people of a region are asked to accept or reject a proposal

The French Revolution and the Idea of Nation

The French Revolution (1789–1799), was a period of radical social and political upheaval in France that had a lasting impact on French history and more broadly throughout the world. The absolute monarchy that had ruled France for centuries collapsed within three years. French society underwent an epic transformation, as feudal, aristocratic and religious privileges evaporated under a sustained assault from radical left-wing political groups, masses on the streets, and peasants in the countryside.[1] Old ideas about tradition and hierarchy–of monarchy, aristocracy, and religious authority–were abruptly overthrown by new Enlightenment principles of equality, citizenship and inalienable rights.

Steps taken to strengthen Nationalism in Europe

1. From the very beginning, the French revolutionaries introduced various measures and practices that could create a sense of collective identity amongst the French people. 
2. The ideas of la patrie (the fatherland) and le citoyen (the citizen) emphasized the notion of a united community enjoying equal rights under a constitution. 
3. A new French flag, the tricolour, was chosen to replace the former royal standard. 
4. The Estates General was elected by the body of active citizens and renamed the National Assembly. 
5  New hymns were composed, oaths taken and martyrs commemorated, all in the name of the nation. 
6. A centralised administrative system was put in place and it formulated uniform laws for all citizens within its territory.  
7  Internal customs duties and dues were abolished and a uniform system of weights and measures was adopted.
8. Regional dialects were discouraged and French, as it was spoken and written in Paris, became the common language of the nation. 

Effects of French Revolution on Other Countries

When the news of the events in France reached the different cities of Europe, students and other members of educated middle classes began setting up Jacobin clubs. Their activities and campaigns prepared the way for the French armies which moved into Holland, Belgium, Switzerland and much of Italy in the 1790s. With the outbreak of the revolutionary wars, the French armies began to carry the idea of nationalism abroad.

Rise and Fall of Napoleon

Napoleon Bonaparte (15 August 1769 – 5 May 1821) was a French military and political leader who rose to prominence during the latter stages of the French Revolution and its associated wars in Europe. As Napoleon I, he was Emperor of the French from 1804 to 1815. His legal reform, the Napoleonic Code, has been a major influence on many civil law jurisdictions worldwide, but he is best remembered for his role in the wars led against France by a series of coalitions, the so-called Napoleonic Wars. He established hegemony over most of continental Europe and sought to spread the ideals of the French Revolution, while consolidating an imperial monarchy which restored aspects of the deposed Ancien Régime. Due to his success in these wars, often against numerically superior enemies, he is generally regarded as one of the greatest military commanders of all time, and his campaigns are studied at military academies worldwide. Napoleon was born at Ajaccio in Corsica in a family of noble Italian ancestry which had settled Corsica in the 16th century. He trained as an artillery officer in mainland France. He rose to prominence under the French First Republic and led successful campaigns against the First and Second Coalitions arrayed against France. He led a successful invasion of the Italian peninsula. In 1799, he staged a coup d'état and installed himself as First Consul; five years later the French Senate proclaimed him emperor, following a plebiscite in his favour. In the first decade of the 19th century, the French Empire under Napoleon engaged in a series of conflicts—the Napoleonic Wars—that involved every major European power. After a streak of victories, France secured a dominant position in continental Europe, and Napoleon maintained the French sphere of influence through the formation of extensive alliances and the appointment of friends and family members to rule other European countries as French client states. The Peninsular War and 1812 French invasion of Russia marked turning points in Napoleon's fortunes. His Grande Army was badly damaged in the campaign and never fully recovered. In 1813, the Sixth Coalition defeated his forces at Leipzig; the following year the Coalition invaded France, forced Napoleon to abdicate and exiled him to the island of Elba. Less than a year later, he escaped Elba and returned to power, but was defeated at the Battle of Waterloo in June 1815. Napoleon spent the last six years of his life in confinement by the British on the island of Saint Helena. An autopsy concluded he died of stomach cancer, but there has been some debate about the cause of his death, as some scholars have speculated that he was a victim of arsenic poisoning.

Reforms introduced by Napoleon

1. The Civil Code of 1804 – usually known as the Napoleonic Code – did away with all privileges based on birth, established equality before the law and secured the right to property.
2. This Code was exported to the regions under French control. In the Dutch Republic, in Switzerland, in Italy and Germany, Napoleon simplified administrative divisions. 
3. Napoleon abolished the feudal system and freed peasants from serfdom and manorial dues. 
4. In the towns too, guild restrictions were removed. 
5. Transport and communication systems were improved. Peasants, artisans, workers and new businessmen enjoyed a new-found freedom. Businessmen and small-scale producers of goods, in particular, began to realise that uniform laws, standardised weights and measures, and a common national currency would facilitate the movement and exchange of goods and capital from one region to another.

7. Reforms in Education: Napoleon built many new lycees, schools for boys age 10 to 16. He recognized the importance of education in producing citizens capable of filling positions in his bureaucracy and military. Although he did not create a system of mass education, education was more available to the middle class than it ever had been before. At a meeting in 1807 he declared:

The Causes and Process of Emergence of Nation States

Social and Political conditions

The Aristocracy Socially and politically, a landed aristocracy was the dominant class on the continent. The members of this class were united by a common way of life that cut across regional divisions. They owned estates in the countryside and also town-houses. They spoke French for purposes of diplomacy and in high society. Their families were often connected by ties of marriage. This powerful aristocracy was, however, numerically a small group. The majority of the population was made up of the peasantry. To the west, the bulk of the land was farmed by tenants and small owners, while in Eastern and Central Europe the pattern of landholding was characterised by vast estates which were cultivated by serfs.

New Middle Class

In Western and parts of Central Europe the growth of industrial production and trade meant the growth of towns and the emergence of commercial classes whose existence was based on production for the market. Industrialisation began in England in the second half of the eighteenth century, but in France and parts of the German states it occurred only during the nineteenth century. In its wake, new social groups came into being: a working-class population, and middle classes made up of industrialists, businessmen, professionals.

In Central and Eastern Europe these groups were smaller in number till late nineteenth century. It was among the educated, liberal middle classes that ideas of national unity following the abolition of aristocratic privileges gained popularity.

Idea of Liberal Nationalism

Ideas of national unity in early-nineteenth-century Europe were closely allied to the ideology of liberalism. The term ‘liberalism’ derives from the Latin root liber, meaning free. For the new middle classes liberalism stood for freedom for the individual and equality of all before the law. Politically, it emphasised the concept of government by consent. Since the French Revolution, liberalism had stood for the end of autocracy and clerical privileges, a constitution and representative government through parliament. Nineteenth-century liberals also stressed the inviolability of private property.

Right to Vote

Yet, equality before the law did not necessarily stand for universal suffrage. You will recall that in revolutionary France, which marked the first political experiment in liberal democracy, the right to vote and to get elected was granted exclusively to property-owning men. Men without property and all women were excluded from political rights. Only for a brief period under the Jacobins did all adult males enjoy suffrage. However, the Napoleonic Code went back to limited suffrage and reduced women to the status of a minor, subject to the authority of fathers and husbands. Throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries women and non-propertied men organised opposition movements demanding equal political rights.

Freedom of Access to Markets

In the economic sphere, liberalism stood for the freedom of markets and the abolition of state-imposed restrictions on the movement of goods and capital. During the nineteenth century this was a strong demand of the emerging middle classes. Let us take the example of the German-speaking regions in the first half of the nineteenth century. Napoleon’s administrative measures had created out of countless small principalities a confederation of 39 states. Each of these possessed its own currency, and weights and measures. A merchant travelling in 1833 from Hamburg to Nuremberg to sell his goods would have had to pass through 11 customs barriers and pay a customs duty of about 5 per cent at each one of them. Duties were often levied according to the weight or measurement of the goods. As each region had its own system of weights and measures, this involved time-consuming calculation. The measure of cloth, for example, was the elle which in each region stood for a different length. An elle of textile material bought in Frankfurt would get you 54.7 cm of cloth, in Mainz 55.1 cm, in Nuremberg 65.6 cm, in Freiburg 53.5 cm.

Such conditions were viewed as obstacles to economic exchange and growth by the new commercial classes, who argued for the creation of a unified economic territory allowing the unhindered movement of goods, people and capital. In 1834, a customs union or zollverein was formed at the initiative of Prussia and joined by most of the German states. The union abolished tariff barriers and reduced the number of currencies from over thirty to two. The creation of a network of railways further stimulated mobility, harnessing economic interests to national unification. A wave of economic nationalism strengthened the wider nationalist sentiments growing at the time.

A New Conservatism after 1815

Following the defeat of Napoleon in 1815, European governments were driven by a spirit of conservatism. Conservatives believed that established, traditional institutions of state and society – like the monarchy, the Church, social hierarchies, property and the family – should be preserved. Most conservatives, however, did not propose a return to the society of pre-revolutionary days. Rather, they realised, from the changes initiated by Napoleon, that modernisation could in fact strengthen traditional institutions like the monarchy. It could make state power more effective and strong. A modern army, an efficient bureaucracy, a dynamic economy, the abolition of feudalism and serfdom could strengthen the autocratic monarchies of Europe.

The Vienna Congress

In 1815, representatives of the European powers – Britain, Russia, Prussia and Austria – who had collectively defeated Napoleon, met at Vienna to draw up a settlement for Europe. The Congress was hosted by the Austrian Chancellor Duke Metternich. The delegates drew up the Treaty of Vienna of 1815 with the object of undoing most of the changes that had come about in Europe during the Napoleonic wars. The Bourbon dynasty, which had been deposed during the French Revolution, was restored to power, and France lost the territories it had annexed under Napoleon. A series of states were set up on the boundaries of France to prevent French expansion in future. Thus the kingdom of the Netherlands, which included Belgium, was set up in the north and Genoa was added to Piedmont in the south. Prussia was given important new territories on its western frontiers, while Austria was given control of northern Italy. But the German confederation of 39 states that had been set up by Napoleon was left untouched. In the east, Russia was given part of Poland while Prussia was given a portion of Saxony. The main intention was to restore the monarchies that had been overthrown by Napoleon, and create a new conservative order in Europe. Conservative regimes set up in 1815 were autocratic. They did not tolerate criticism and dissent, and sought to curb activities that questioned the legitimacy of autocratic governments. Most of them imposed censorship laws to control what was said in newspapers, books, plays and songs and reflected the ideas of liberty and freedom associated with the French Revolution.

The memory of the French Revolution nonetheless continued to inspire liberals. One of the major issues taken up by the liberal-nationalists, who criticised the new conservative order, was freedom of the press.

The Revolutionaries

During the years following 1815, the fear of repression drove many liberal-nationalists underground. Secret societies sprang up in many European states to train revolutionaries and spread their ideas. To be revolutionary at this time meant a commitment to oppose monarchical forms that had been established after the Vienna Congress, and to fight for liberty and freedom. Most of these revolutionaries also saw the creation of nation-states as a necessary part of this struggle for freedom.

One such individual was the Italian revolutionary Giuseppe Mazzini. Born in Genoa in 1807, he became a member of the secret society of the Carbonari. As a young man of 24, he was sent into exile in 1831 for attempting a revolution in Liguria. He subsequently founded two more underground societies, first, Young Italy in Marseilles, and then, Young Europe in Berne, whose members were like-minded young men from Poland, France, Italy and the German states. Mazzini believed that God had intended nations to be the natural units of mankind. So Italy could not continue to be a patchwork of small states and kingdoms. It had to be forged into a single unified republic within a wider alliance of nations. This unification alone could be the basis of Italian liberty. Following his model, secret societies were set up in Germany, France, Switzerland and Poland. Mazzini’s relentless opposition to monarchy and his vision of democratic republics frightened the conservatives. Metternich described him as ‘the most dangerous enemy of our social order’.

The Age of Revolutions: 1830-1848

As conservative regimes tried to consolidate their power, liberalism and nationalism came to be increasingly associated with revolution in many regions of Europe such as the Italian and German states, the provinces of the Ottoman Empire, Ireland and Poland. These revolutions were led by the liberal-nationalists belonging to the educated middle-class elite, among whom were professors, schoolteachers, clerks and members of the commercial middle classes. The first upheaval took place in France in July 1830. The Bourbon kings who had been restored to power during the conservative reaction after 1815, were now overthrown by liberal revolutionaries who installed a constitutional monarchy with Louis Philippe at its head.

Greek War of Independence

An event that mobilised nationalist feelings among the educated elite across Europe was the Greek war of independence. Greece had been part of the Ottoman Empire since the fifteenth century. The growth of revolutionary nationalism in Europe sparked off a struggle for independence amongst the Greeks which began in 1821. Nationalists in Greece got support from other Greeks living in exile and also from many West Europeans who had sympathies for ancient Greek culture. Poets and artists lauded Greece as the cradle of European civilisation and mobilised public opinion to support its struggle against a Muslim empire. The English poet Lord Byron organised funds and later went to fight in the war, where he died of fever in 1824. Finally, the Treaty of Constantinople of 1832 recognised Greece as an independent nation.

The Romantic Imagination and National Feeling

Culture played an important role in creating the idea of the nation: art and poetry, stories and music helped express and shape nationalist feelings. Romantic artists and poets generally criticised the glorification of reason and science and focused instead on emotions, intuition and mystical feelings. Their effort was to create a sense of a shared collective heritage, a common cultural past, as the basis of a nation. Other Romantics such as the German philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1803) claimed that true German culture was to be discovered among the common people – das volk. It was through folk songs, folk poetry and folk dances that the true spirit of the nation (volksgeist) was popularised. So collecting and recording these forms of folk culture was essential to the project of nation-building. The emphasis on vernacular language and the collection of local folklore was not just to recover an ancient national spirit, but also to carry the modern nationalist message to large audiences who were mostly illiterate. This was especially so in the case of Poland, which had been partitioned at the end of the eighteenth century by the Great Powers – Russia, Prussia and Austria. Even though Poland no longer existed as an independent territory, national feelings were kept alive through music and language. Karol Kurpinski, for example, celebrated the national struggle through his operas and music, turning folk dances like the polonaise and mazurka into nationalist symbols.

Role of Language

Language too played an important role in developing nationalist sentiments. After Russian occupation, the Polish language was forced out of schools and the Russian language was imposed everywhere. In 1831, an armed rebellion against Russian rule took place which was ultimately crushed. Following this, many members of the clergy in Poland began to use language as a weapon of national resistance. Polish was used for Church gatherings and all religious instruction. As a result, a large number of priests and bishops were put in jail or sent to Siberia by the Russian authorities as punishment for their refusal to preach in Russian. The use of Polish came to be seen as a symbol of the struggle against Russian dominance.

Popular Revolt Caused by Hunger, Hardship

The 1830s were years of great economic hardship in Europe. The first half of the nineteenth century saw an enormous increase in population all over Europe. In most countries there were more seekers of jobs than employment. Population from rural areas migrated to the cities to live in overcrowded slums. Small producers in towns were often faced with stiff competition from imports of cheap machine-made goods from England, where industrialization was more advanced than on the continent. This was especially so in textile production, which was carried out mainly in homes or small workshops and was only partly mechanised. In those regions of Europe where the aristocracy still enjoyed power, peasants struggled under the burden of feudal dues and obligations. The rise of food prices or a year of bad harvest led to widespread pauperism in town and country. The year 1848 was one such year. Food shortages and widespread unemployment brought the population of Paris out on the roads. Barricades were erected and Louis Philippe was forced to flee. A National Assembly proclaimed a Republic, granted suffrage to all adult males above 21, and guaranteed the right to work. National workshops to provide employment were set up. Earlier, in 1845, weavers in Silesia had led a revolt against contractors who supplied them raw material and gave them orders for finished textiles but drastically reduced their payments.

The Revolution of the Liberals

Parallel to the revolts of the poor a revolution led by the educated middle classes was also under way. Events of February 1848 in France had brought about the abdication of the monarch and a republic based on universal male suffrage had been proclaimed. In other parts of Europe where independent nation-states did not yet exist – such as Germany, Italy, Poland, the Austro-Hungarian Empire – men and women of the liberal middle classes combined their demands for constitutionalism with national unification. They took advantage of the growing popular unrest to push their demands for the creation of a nation-state on parliamentary principles – a constitution, freedom of the press and freedom of association. In the German regions a large number of political associations came together in the city of Frankfurt and decided to vote for an all-German National Assembly. These associations had members from middle-class professionals, businessmen and prosperous artisans On 18 May 1848, 831 elected representatives marched in a festive procession to take their places in the Frankfurt parliament convened in the Church of St Paul. They drafted a constitution for a German nation to be headed by a monarchy subject to a parliament. When the deputies offered the crown on these terms to Friedrich Wilhelm IV, King of Prussia, he rejected it and joined other monarchs to oppose the elected assembly. While the opposition of the aristocracy and military became stronger, the social basis of parliament eroded. The parliament was dominated by the middle classes who resisted the demands of workers and artisans and consequently lost their support. In the end troops were called in and the assembly was forced to disband.

Women’s Status

The issue of extending political rights to women was a controversial one within the liberal movement, in which large numbers of women had participated actively over

Final Outcome

Though conservative forces were able to suppress liberal movements in 1848, they could not restore the old order. Monarchs were beginning to realise that the cycles of revolution and repression could only be ended by granting concessions to the liberal-nationalist revolutionaries. Hence, in the years after 1848, the autocratic monarchies of Central and Eastern Europe began to introduce the changes that had already taken place in Western Europe before 1815. Thus serfdom and bonded labour were abolished both in the Habsburg dominions and in Russia. The Habsburg rulers granted more autonomy to the Hungarians in 1867.

The Making of Germany and Italy

Unification of Germany

German revolutions of 1848 and the Frankfurt Parliament

The widespread–mainly German–revolutions of 1848–49 sought unification of Germany under a single constitution. The revolutionaries pressured various state governments, particularly those in the Rhineland, for a parliamentary assembly that would have the responsibility to draft a constitution. Ultimately, many of the left-wing revolutionaries hoped this constitution would establish universal male suffrage, a permanent national parliament and a unified Germany, possibly under the leadership of the Prussian king, as Prussia was the strongest of the German states, as well as the largest in geographic size.

German Unification under Bismark