Nationalism in Europe

Situation Before Revolution

In the mid-eighteenth-century Europe there were no ‘nation-states’ as we know them today. Modern day Germany, Italy and Switzerland were divided into kingdoms, duchies and cantons. Their rulers had their own autonomous territories. Diverse people lived under autocratic monarchies of Eastern and Central Europe. The people did not share a collective identity. The region was full of people from different ethnic groups who spoke different languages. The only binding factor among the people was their allegiance to a common emperor.

Causes and Process of Emergence of Nation States


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 industrial production and trade grew. This led to the growth of towns where new commercial classes emerged. The existence of this new class was based on production for the market. New social groups came into existence. A working class population and a middle class (which was composed of industrialists, businessmen and professionals) made the new social groups. It was this class which shaped the ideas of national unity.

Idea of Liberal Nationalism

Ideas of national unity in early-nineteenth-century Europe were closely allied to the ideology of liberalism. For the new middle classes; freedom for the individual and equality of all before the law were the bases of idea of liberalism. From the political perspective, the idea of liberalism emphasized the concept of government by consent. Liberalism also meant an end of autocracy and clerical privileges. Further, it meant the need of a constitution and a representative government. Inviolability of private property was also emphasized by the nineteenth century liberals.


Universal suffrage was yet to become a reality in France. During the earlier period of revolution, only property-owning men had the right to vote. For a brief period during the Jacobins, all adult males got the voting right. However, Napoleonic Code reverted to the earlier system of limited suffrage. During the rule of Napoleon, women were accorded the status of minor; subject to authority of father and husband. The struggle for voting rights for women and non-propertied men continued throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth century.

Liberalisation in Economic Sphere:

Economic liberalization was another hallmark of the Napoleonic Code. The emerging middle class was also in favour of economic liberalization. Let us take example of German-speaking regions in the first half of nineteenth century. There were 39 states in this region which were further divided into many principalities. Each principality had its own currency and its own units of measurement. If a merchant travelled from Hamburg to Nuremberg; he had to pass through 11 customs barriers and pay a custom duty of about 5% at each barrier. Custom duty had to be paid according to weight and measure. Wide difference in units of weight and measurement created further confusion. The conditions were not at all business friendly and served as obstacles to economic activities. The new commercial class was demanding a unified economic territory so that there could be unhindered movement of goods, people and capital.

In 1834, a customs union or zollverein was formed; at the initiative of Prussia and was joined by most of the German states. Tariff barriers were abolished and the number of currencies was reduced from thirty to two. Development of a railways network further enhanced mobility. This created some sort of economic nationalism which helped in strengthening the national sentiments which were growing at that time.

A New Conservatism After 1815

Napoleon was defeated in 1815 by the combined power of Britain, Russia, Prussia and Austria. After the defeat of Napoleon, European governments wanted to follow conservatism. The conservatives believed that established, traditional institutions of state and society should be preserved. They believed in preserving the monarchy, the Church, social hierarchies, property and the family. But most of them also wanted to retain the modernization which Napoleon carried out in the spheres of administration. The conservatives believed that modernization would strengthen traditional institutions. It was believed that a modern army, an efficient bureaucracy, a dynamic economy, the abolition of feudalism and serfdom could strengthen the monarchies of Europe.

The Treaty of Vienna:

The representatives of the European powers (Britain, Russia, Prussia and Austria) met at Vienna in 1815 to draw up a settlement of Europe. The Austrian Chancellor Duke Metternich was the host of the Congress. The Treaty of Vienna of 1815 was drawn up at this meeting. Its objective was to undo most of the changes which had come in Europe during the Napoleonic wars. Some of the steps taken according the Treaty of Vienna are follows:

The conservative regimes which were set up in 1815 were autocratic. They were intolerant of criticism and dissent. Most of them imposed censorship laws to control the contents in newspaper, books, plays and songs.

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