Rise of Nationalism in Europe- a Short Overview


The term Nationalism is closely associated with the root word Nation. Since times immemorial, Nation has been described in various ways but still holding on to a common core. One such instance is the lecture delivered by a French philosopher, Ernst Renan (1823-1892) at the University of Sorbonne, where he explained a Nation as the culmination of long past of endeavours, sacrifice and devotion. A nation is truly expressed by its inhabitants. According to him, nations are the harbingers of liberty where every citizen enjoys the freedom of speech, equality and also redress the rights provided. A nation carefully directs the humanity towards a healthy progression.

The French revolution and the idea of a nation

The abstract notion of nationalism finally found its precision in the French revolution that erupted in 1789. The French revolutionaries introduced various measures and practices that could create a sense of collective identity amongst the French people.

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. A centralized administrative system was put in place which abolished internal custom duties and introduced a uniform system of weights and measures. It also encouraged French as common language of the nation.

When the news of these events reached the different corners of Europe, students and other members of educated middle class began setting up Jacobin clubs. Within no time, the conflagration spread abroad.

But soon afterwards, with the rise of Napoleon, monarchy suffered severe damages which completely destroyed democracy in France. Easing the already flared fray, the Civil Code of 1804- usually known as the Napoleon Code- did away with all the privileges based on birth, established equality before law and secured the right to property. Napoleon simplified administrative divisions, abolished feudal system and freed peasants from serfdom and manorial dues. Transport and communication systems were improved. Business and small-scale producers of goods, in particular, began to realize that uniform laws, standardized weights and measures, and a common rational currency would facilitate the movement and exchange of goods and capital from one region to another.

Unfortunately, the highly anticipating ray of hope turned gray as the new administrative arrangement failed to go hand in hand with political freedom. Increased taxation, censorship, forced conscription into the French armies required to conquer the rest of Europe, all seemed to outweigh the advantages of the administrative changes.

The making of nationalism in Europe

In the very beginning, there were no particular nation-states and eastern and Central Europe was under autocratic monarchies within the territories of which lived diverse people. They did not see themselves as sharing a collective identity or a common culture. For example the Habsburg Empire that ruled over Austria-Hungary consisted if people belonging to different ethnic groups. It included the Alpine regions- the Tyrol, Austria and the Sudetenland as well as Bohemia, where the aristocracy was predominantly German-speaking.

Amidst these unfavourable conditions, ambiguity arises about the emergence of nationalism and how it gradually came into being.

The advent of nationalism can be marked by a dominant yet small class. Aristocracy stood tall in both the fields of society and politics. The raw notion of nationalism was finally acquired from this new phenomenon which cut across regional divisions. They spoke French for the purpose of diplomacy and in high society.

In the face of growing industrialization, a yet another class of working population came into being. This class was educated, broadminded and supported ideas of national unity leading to the downfall of aristocratic class.

With this, a new definition of Nationalism crept up, which politically emphasized the concept of government by consent. This liberal Nationalism stood for freedom for the individual and quality of all before the law.

Yet, equality before the law did not necessarily stand for universal suffrage I e. the right to vote. These rights were exclusively reserved for the property-owning men. Even women were refrained from these political rights. This further relegated the status of women to minority and widened the gap between the affluent and downtrodden.

As time passed by, it was realized that a society bounded by way too many restrictions hampered a rapid progress. This idea consolidated even more in the instance of economic backdrop. One such example is of the Napoleon’s administrative measures which 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 customs barriers and pay a customs duty of about 5 percent at each one of them. Adding to the woes, even the units of measurements differed and thus making trade, a cumbersome and time consuming affair. Such obstacles to economic exchange and growth by the new commercial classes, who argued for the creation of a unified economic territory allowing unhindered movement of goods, people and capital. Hence, a wave of economic nationalism strengthened the wider nationalist sentiments growing at the time.

A new conservatism after 1815

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 delegates drew up the Treaty of Vienna of 1815 which undid the changes brought about in by Napoleon. Thus, the whole of Europe was dipped back into the sea of autocracies.

The Revolutionaries

But this autocracy could not survive for long, as secret societies began to spring up in many European states to train revolutionaries and spread their ideas. The revolutionaries with the agenda of equality and freedom saw nationalism as the suitable light-bearer.

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. At the tender age 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.


Even though revolutionary activities had started surfacing gradually during the conservatism era itself, the real note-worthy upheaval against it occurred 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. “When France sneezes,’ Metternich once remarked,’ the rest of Europe catches cold.’

An event that mobilized nationalist feelings among the educated elite across Europe was the Greek war of independence.

Romanticism and nationalism

Nationalism found it significance not just in the sentiments of war and territorial expansion but also in art and culture. According to a well known German philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1803), the true German culture was to be discovered in the common people through folk songs, folk poetry and folk dances that projected the true spirit of a nation.

Language also played a very important role in developing nationalist feelings. After Russian occupation, the Polish language was forced out of schools and the Russian language was imposed everywhere. Shaken by this disaster, the Polish people began to use language as a weapon of national resistance. Polish was used for Church gatherings and all religious instruction. Thus language generated oneness among the people.


The whole of the Europe witnessed one of its great revolts in the hands of weavers of Silesia who led an opposition against contractors who supplied them raw material and gave them orders for finished textiles but drastically reduced their payments.

This was followed by the unprecedented epidemic that drove thousands of people on the road without food and unemployment.

Resurgence of another form of Nationalism:

The revolutions in 1848 had led to the abdication of the monarch and pushed their demands for the creation of a nation-state on parliamentary principles- a constitution, freedom of the press and freedom of association.

Unluckily, this too turned out to be a failure with dominance by the middle classes who resisted the demands of workers and artisans and consequently lost their support. At last, troops were called in and the assembly was forced to disband.

In the course of these events, women were badly neglected. Even in the revolution promised freedom, women were still deprived of their basic right to vote. When the Frankfurt parliament convened in the Church of St Paul, women were admitted only as observers to stand in the visitors’ gallery.


Germany- Can the Army be the Architect of a Nation?

Nationalism which once ignited and led towards the direction of liberty and equality through the unification of different regions into a nation-state governed by an elected parliament was crushed badly after 1848. The monarchy and the military, supported by the large landowners (called Junkers) of Prussia, under then shrewd Chief Minister Otto von Bismarck, were able to bring down Austria, Denmark and France and complete the process of unification.

Italy unified

For long, Italy too was untouched from the wave of nationalism gathering about. But, eventually, during the 1830s, Giuseppe Mazzini took the initiative by forming a secret society called Young Italy for the dissemination of his goals.

The failures of the uprisings of 1831 and 1848, mounted the hopes of Nationalism on the shoulders of Sardinia-Piedmont under its ruler King Victor Emmanuel II. Chief Minister Cavour tactfully forged an alliance with France and thus, succeeded in defeating the Austrian forces in 1859. In 1860, theymarched into South Italy and the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies and succeeded in winning the support of the local peasants in order to drive out the Spanish rulers.


Nation is a single word for representing a humungous group of people who by one or other facts are bound together. Nation was conferred an order of high respect and was thus portrayed as female figures. She was regarded as the nurturer of her children that is the people. Apart from this, nationalism driven sentiments of liberty, justice.etc also acquired female personification as allegories.


After facing numerous ups and downs, nationalist tension finally resurrected in the area called the Balkans. Balkans successfully overthrew the Ottoman Empire which had ruled it for a very long period.

But soon after it, the now independent Balkan states yearned for more land and started fighting amongst themselves. These resulted in a series of war and finally the First World War.


Thus, we conclude that wherein Nationalism inspired and motivated thousands of states, at the same time, nationalism turned self-interest and lust of power led to severe fall of mankind.

Integra Wingates Hellsing

Post Author: mark

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