The Rise of Nationalism in Europe
In 1848, Frédéric Sorrieu, a French artist, prepared a series of four prints visualising his dream of a world made up of ‘democratic and social Republics’, as he called them. The first print (Fig. 1) of the series, shows the peoples of Europe and America – men and women of all ages and social classes – marching in a long train, and offering homage to the statue of Liberty as they pass by it. As you would recall, artists of the time of the French Revolution personified Liberty as a female figure – here you can recognise the torch of Enlightenment she bears in one hand and the Charter of the Rights of Man in the other. On the earth in the foreground of the image lie the shattered remains of the symbols of absolutist institutions. In Sorrieu’s utopian vision, the peoples of the world are grouped as distinct nations, identified through their flags and national costume. Leading the procession, way past the statue of Liberty, are the United States and Switzerland, which by this time were already nation-states. France,
Absolutist – Literally, a government or system of rule that has no restraints on the power exercised. In history, the term refers to a form of monarchical government that was centralised, militarised and repressive
Utopian – A vision of a society that is so ideal that it is unlikely to actually exist
In what way do you think this print (Fig. 1) depicts a utopian vision?
identifiable by the revolutionary tricolour, has just reached the statue. She is followed by the peoples of Germany, bearing the black, red and gold flag. Interestingly, at the time when Sorrieu created this image, the German peoples did not yet exist as a united nation – the flag they carry is an expression of liberal hopes in 1848 to unify the numerous German-speaking principalities into a nation-state under a democratic constitution. Following the German peoples are the peoples of Austria, the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, Lombardy, Poland, England, Ireland, Hungary and Russia. From the heavens above, Christ, saints and angels gaze upon the scene. They have been used by the artist to symbolise fraternity among the nations of the world.
This chapter will deal with many of the issues visualised by Sorrieu in Fig. 1. During the nineteenth century, nationalism emerged as a force which brought about sweeping changes in the political and mental world of Europe. The end result of these changes was the emergence of the nation-state in place of the multi-national dynastic empires of Europe. The concept and practices of a modern state, in which a centralised power exercised sovereign control over a clearly defined territory, had been developing over a long period of time in Europe. But 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. This chapter will look at the diverse processes through which nation-states and nationalism came into being in nineteenth-century Europe.
The French Revolution and the Idea of the Nation
The first clear expression of nationalism came with the French Revolution in 1789. France, as you would remember, was a full-fledged territorial state in 1789 under the rule of an absolute monarch. The political and constitutional changes that came in the wake of the French Revolution led to the transfer of sovereignty from the monarchy to a body of French citizens. The revolution proclaimed that it was the people who would henceforth constitute the nation and shape its destiny.
From the very beginning, 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) emphasised the notion of a united community enjoying equal rights under a constitution. A new French flag, the tricolour, was chosen to replace the former royal standard. The Estates General was elected by the body of active citizens and renamed the National Assembly. New hymns were composed, oaths taken and martyrs commemorated, all in the name of the nation. A centralised administrative system was put in place and it formulated uniform laws for all citizens within its territory. Internal customs duties and dues were abolished and a uniform system of weights and measures was adopted. Regional dialects were discouraged and French, as it was spoken and written in Paris, became the common language of the nation.
The revolutionaries further declared that it was the mission and the destiny of the French nation to liberate the peoples of Europe from despotism, in other words to help other peoples of Europe to become nations.
Fig. 2 — The cover of a German almanac designed by the journalist Andreas Rebmann in 1798.
The image of the French Bastille being stormed by the revolutionary crowd has been placed next to a similar fortress meant to represent the bastion of despotic rule in the German province of Kassel. Accompanying the illustration is the slogan: ‘The people must seize their own freedom!’ Rebmann lived in the city of Mainz and was a member of a German Jacobin group.
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.
Within the wide swathe of territory that came under his control, Napoleon set about introducing many of the reforms that he had already introduced in France. Through a return to monarchy Napoleon had, no doubt, destroyed democracy in France, but in the administrative field he had incorporated revolutionary principles in order to make the whole system more rational and efficient. 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. This Code was exported to the regions under French control. In the Dutch Republic, in Switzerland, in Italy and Germany, Napoleon simplified administrative divisions, abolished the feudal system and freed peasants from serfdom and manorial dues. In the towns too, guild restrictions were removed. Transport and communication systems were improved. Peasants, artisans, workers and new businessmen
Fig. 4 — The Planting of Tree of Liberty in Zweibrücken, Germany.
The subject of this colour print by the German painter Karl Kaspar Fritz is the occupation of the town of Zweibrücken by the French armies. French soldiers, recognisable by their blue, white and red uniforms, have been portrayed as oppressors as they seize a peasant’s cart (left), harass some young women (centre foreground) and force a peasant down to his knees. The plaque being affixed to the Tree of Liberty carries a German inscription which in translation reads: ‘Take freedom and equality from us, the model of humanity.’ This is a sarcastic reference to the claim of the French as being liberators who opposed monarchy in the territories they entered.
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.
However, in the areas conquered, the reactions of the local populations to French rule were mixed. Initially, in many places such as Holland and Switzerland, as well as in certain cities like Brussels, Mainz, Milan and Warsaw, the French armies were welcomed as harbingers of liberty. But the initial enthusiasm soon turned to hostility, as it became clear that the new administrative arrangements did not 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.
Fig. 5 — The courier of Rhineland loses all that he has on his way home from Leipzig.
Napoleon here is represented as a postman on his way back to France after he lost the battle of Leipzig in 1813. Each letter dropping out of his bag bears the names of the territories he lost.
The Making of Nationalism in Europe
If you look at the map of mid-eighteenth-century Europe you will find that there were no ‘nation-states’ as we know them today.
What we know today as Germany, Italy and Switzerland were divided into kingdoms, duchies and cantons whose rulers had their autonomous territories. Eastern and Central Europe were under autocratic monarchies within the territories of which lived diverse peoples. They did not see themselves as sharing a collective identity or a common culture. Often, they even spoke different languages and belonged to different ethnic groups. The Habsburg Empire that ruled over Austria-Hungary, for example, was a patchwork of many different regions and peoples. It included the Alpine regions
– the Tyrol, Austria and the Sudetenland – as well as Bohemia, where the aristocracy was predominantly German-speaking. It also included the Italian-speaking provinces of Lombardy and Venetia. In Hungary, half of the population spoke Magyar while the other half spoke a variety of dialects. In Galicia, the aristocracy spoke Polish. Besides these three dominant groups, there also lived within the boundaries of the empire, a mass of subject peasant peoples – Bohemians and Slovaks to the north, Slovenes in Carniola, Croats to the south, and Roumans to the east in Transylvania. Such differences did not easily promote a sense of political unity. The only tie binding these diverse groups together was a common allegiance to the emperor.
How did nationalism and the idea of the nation-state emerge?
Some important dates
Napoleon invades Italy; Napoleonic wars begin.
Fall of Napoleon; the Vienna Peace Settlement.
Greek struggle for independence begins.
Revolutions in Europe; artisans, industrial workers and peasants revolt against economic hardships; middle classes demand constitutions and representative governments; Italians, Germans, Magyars, Poles, Czechs, etc. demand nation-states.
Unification of Italy.
Unification of Germany.
Slav nationalism gathers force in the Habsburg and Ottoman Empires.
2.1 The Aristocracy and the New Middle Class
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.
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.
2.2 What did Liberal Nationalism Stand for?
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.
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.
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.
Economists began to think in terms of the national economy. They talked of how the nation could develop and what economic measures could help forge this nation together.
Friedrich List, Professor of Economics at the University of Tübingen in Germany, wrote in 1834:
‘The aim of the zollverein is to bind the Germans economically into a nation. It will strengthen the nation materially as much by protecting its interests externally as by stimulating its internal productivity. It ought to awaken and raise national sentiment through a fusion of individual and provincial interests. The German people have realised that a free economic system is the only means to engender national feeling.’