Nationalism in Europe

Unification of Italy

Italy also had a long history of political fragmentation. There were many dynastic states and the multi-national Habsburg Empire in Italy. During the middle of the nineteenth century, Italy was divided into seven states. Out of them, only Sardinia-Piedmont was ruled by an Italian princely house. The north was under Austrian Habsburgs, the centre was under the Pope and the southern regions were under the domination of the Bourbon kings of Spain. The Italian language had yet to acquire a common form and it still had many regional and local variations.

During the 1830s, Giuseppe Mazzini planned to put together a programme for a unitary Italian Republic. The failure of revolutionary uprisings both in 1831 and 1848 meant that the mantle now fell on Sardinia-Piedmont under its ruler King Victor Emmanuel II. The ruling elites of this region saw the possibility of economic development and political dominance through a unified Italy.

Chief Minister Cavour led the movement to unify the regions of Italy. He was neither a revolutionary nor a democrat. He was like many other wealthy and educated members of the Italian elite. He too was more fluent in French than in Italian. He made a tactful diplomatic alliance with France and thus succeeded in defeating the Austrian forces in 1859. Apart from regular troops, many armed volunteers under the leadership of Giuseppe Garibaldi joined the fray. In 1860, they marched into South Italy and the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. They succeeded in winning the support of the local peasants and drove out the Spanish rulers. Victor Emmanuel II was proclaimed king of united Italy in 1861. But a large number of the Italian population remained blissfully unaware of liberal-nationalist ideology; probably because of very high level of illiteracy.

The Strange Case of Britain

The formation of nation state in Britain did not happen because of a sudden upheaval or revolution. It was the result of a long-drawn-out process. Before the eighteenth century, there was no British nation. The British Isles were divided into different ethnicities; like English, Welsh, Scot or Irish. Each ethnic group had its own cultural and political traditions.

The English nation steadily grew in wealth, importance and power. Thus it was able to extend its influence on the other nations of the islands. The English parliament seized power from the monarchy in 1688 after a prolonged conflict. The English parliament was instrumental in forging the nation-state of Britain. The Act of Union (1707) between England and Scotland resulted in the formation of the ‘United Kingdom of Great Britain’. In this Union, England was the dominant partner and thus the British parliament was dominated by its English members.

The British identity grew at the peril of Scottish culture and political institutions. The Scottish Highlands were inhabited by the Catholic clans. They felt terrible repression whenever they attempted to assert their independence. They were forbidden to speak their Gaelic language or wear their traditional dress. Many of them were forcibly driven out of their homeland.

Ireland suffered a similar fate. It was a country deeply divided between Catholics and Protestants. The Protestants of Ireland established their dominance over the majority Catholics through the English help. There was a failed revolt led by Wolfe Tone and his United Irishmen in 1798. After that, Ireland was forcibly incorporated into the United Kingdom in 1801. The English culture was propagated forcefully to forge a new ‘British Nation’. The older nations survived only as subordinate partners in this union.

Visualizing the Nation

Artists used female figures to personify a nation. During French Revolution, artists used the female allegory to portray the ideas such as Liberty, Justice and the Republic.

In France, the nation was christened as Marianne, which is a popular Christian name for a woman. Her characteristics were drawn from those of Liberty and Republic; the red cap, the tricolor, the cockade. Her statues were erected in public squares and her images were marked on coins and stamps; to persuade the people to identify with it.

Germania became the allegory of the German nation. Germania wears a crown of oak leaves. The German oak stands for heroism.

Nationalism and Imperialism

By the last quarter of the nineteenth century, nationalism could not retain its idealistic liberal-democratic sentiment. It became a narrow creed with limited ends. The major European powers manipulated the nationalist aspirations of the subject peoples to further their own imperialist aims.

Conflict in the Balkans: Balkans was a region of geographical and ethnic variation comprising modern-day Romania, Bulgaria, Albania, Greece, Macedonia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Slovenia, Serbia and Montenegro. The inhabitants of this region were broadly known as the Slavs.

A large part of the Balkans was under the control of the Ottoman Empire. This was the period of disintegration of the Ottoman Empire and the spread of the ideas of romantic nationalism in the Balkans. These developments made this region very explosive. All through the nineteenth century, the Ottoman Empire tried to strengthen itself through modernization and internal reforms. But it could not achieve much success. Its European subject nationalities broke away from its control one by one and declared independence. The Balkans used history and national identity to claim their right of independence. While the Slavic nationalities struggled to define their identity and independence, the Balkan area became an area of intense conflict. In the process, the Balkans also became the scene of big power rivalry.

During this period, there was intense rivalry among the European powers over trade and colonies as well as naval and military might. Each power; Russia, Germany, England, Austro-Hungary; was keen on countering the hold of other powers over the Balkans, and extending its own control over the area. This led to a series of wars in the region and finally culminated in the First World War.

Meanwhile, many countries in the world which had been colonized by the European powers in the nineteenth century began to oppose imperial domination. People of different colonies developed their own variation of nationalism. The idea of ‘nation-states’ thus became a universal phenomenon.

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