What social conditions promoted popular nationalism in the late 19th century?

ben.wilko1 By ben.wilko1, 23rd Jan 2013 | Follow this author | RSS Feed
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An essay about the strengthening presence of nationalism in 19th century Europe

What social conditions promoted popular nationalism in the late 19th century?

Nationalism as we know it today is an invention of modern times; it is an attitude, an ideology imagined by the people who perceive themselves as part of a particular group (Anderson, 1983, p.6). The nineteenth century saw many changes in social structures brought about by the turbulence in the latter years of the previous century and in turn by the end of the nineteenth century, new patterns of identification and belonging to a nation would emerge. This essay will explore the social conditions that promoted popular nationalism in nineteenth century Europe, which is held to be the birth place of this concept.
When analysing nationalism, it is important to realise that it appears in different forms. On one hand, civic nationalism is the suggestion of nationalism that is not necessarily defined by racial backgrounds. Civic nationalism denotes the convergence of people with a common sentiment, united under the principles of a mutual history and belief. Conversely, there is the more radical ethnic nationalism. This concept stresses the importance of ethnicity and is “exclusionary according to perceived differences” (Marx, 2005, p134). Darwin’s theories about evolution are misapplied to people and places, where those of other races can be seen as inferior. Therefore those of foreign descent were not seen as part of a nation because of their bloodline. The materialization of this particular principle could possibly be seen as the birth of the modern idea of Xenophobia. The term nationalism emerged as a result of a change in the social hierarchy. Consequently, although absolutism was not the cause of a rise in nationalist sentiment, it was the challenges to absolutist authority that paved the way for the notion of nationalism to take hold of Europe.
It could be argued that before the French Revolution, true “nations” did not exist as such, merely absolutist territorial states in which the people were only united under their sovereign. It was indeed, in part, the French Revolution of 1789-1799 that lead to the birth of nationalism, as it drew the masses of the state into politics. The role of the absolute monarch with Divine Right was diminished, making way for the concept that the state should be run with consent from “the people”. This newly democratic France adopted an ideology of civic or “liberal” nationalism. The sentiments of nationalist France spread rapidly throughout Europe as countries fostered national symbols such as national anthems and flags which had gained a much more substantial meaning.
As the effects of the French Revolution spread into central Europe, ethnic nationalism developed. In parts of central Europe, nationalism in the form of Pan-Germanism appeared. The idea was to build a nation out of the territories of ethnic Germans and German speaking states. However “Germany’s inability to integrate and absorb its diverse communities” (Gregor, Roemer, & Roseman 2006, p 1.) gave a foundation on which an ultra nationalist sentiment emerged.
Also during the 1860s, the Kingdom of Italy was undergoing a movement of “irredentism”: an Italian ideology of ethnic nationalism in which the belief was that all ethnic Italian peoples should be unified. This movement was different than that of the German one in that it was not focussed on expansion, merely the reclamation of territory lost to Austrian rule. Although both technically examples of ethnic nationalism, the differences between the two unifications are clear. Whereas the German unification under Prussia was lead from the top, by Bismarck and can be seen as more of an expansionist movement, the Italian unification was a revolt of the people.
On a social level popular nationalism was a result of collective problems between and within states. Nationalism filled a void that had developed in society as people began to find the changes of modern life unsettling. Previous religious beliefs had been undermined by the Renaissance and then the discoveries of the Enlightenment. Furthermore with a lack of absolute rule that had previously bound them, peoples of a state required a “nation” under which they could be united, albeit as just a symbolic idea. This new idea of nationalism creates a way in which explanations and solutions for social problems can arise. A widespread desire for a strengthened economy brought the desire for united nation states, as Merriman states “many German businessmen believed that the creation of a “Germany” would eliminate some trade barriers” (2004,p654).
Nineteenth century urbanisation undermined traditional society. Post feudal immigration allowed for the integration of cultural areas forging wider communities. The spread of primary education allowed states that were trying to foster national identities to promote the ideals of that nation from an early age. Coupled with military conscription and the pride that was bestowed in those who fought for their nation and what it represented, nationalism developed into a form of social engineering. As stated before, the state should be run with consent from the nation, but the state can utilize the ideas of nationalism to influence the people of the nation, just as Bismarck influenced the Prussians to fight for a greater Germany under Prussia.

Nationalism refers to a form of culture; it is a type of collectivism emphasizing the prominence of a specific nation. It is my firm belief that popular nationalism in the late nineteenth century was brought about by the undermining of the previous absolutist society and the ideals that the French Revolution challenged and supported. Social unrest and hostilities between nations also promoted the sentiments that allowed both ethnic and civic nationalism to flourish throughout Europe.
• Anderson, B. (1983).Imagined communities : reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism London : Verso
• Gregor. N, Roemer. H, & Roseman. M. (2006). Introduction. In N. Gregor, N. Roemer, H. M. Roseman (Eds.). German History from the Margins. (pp. 1-26). Bloomington: Indiana University Press .
• Marx, A. (2005). Faith in Nation : Exclusionary Origins of Nationalism . New York: Oxford University Press, Incorporated.
• Merriman, J (2004) A History of Modern Europe (2nd ed.). London: W.W. Norton & Company


19Th Century, Europe, French Revolution, Nationalism, Social Conditions

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Student of German studies with a passion for languages

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author avatar Sivaramakrishnan A
23rd Jan 2013 (#)

Insightful about European, mainly German, nationalism. Hopefully, we are moving away from seeing each other as different - that will unite the world and ensure peace. It is better to unite people than divide them on various permutations and combinations - siva

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