European Nationalism


What is nationalism? I think it is the mindset and ideals that came after monarchy lost it’s status as the representation of a people in many European countries. With a king or queen, royalty was the embodiment of the subjects. They represented their country, they were their country. Before, they had a sense of Queen Elizabeth I from sixteenth century, that she is the heart of England. When the political tide turned to constitutional monarchies or republics the people felt the monarchies did not truly represent the new organization created. Nationalism is the idea that stepped in to fill the void. As Benedict Anderson writes, the concept of a nation is imagined because it is a community of members that will not know or meet all other members, it is limited because it has a definite if elastic boundary where other nations begin, it is sovereign because the people involved are what give it power and authority, and it is a community in that it assumes a “horizontal comradeship” despite actual inequalities. This new concept of organization of individuals into a community based on political determinism leads to followers willing to kill, but more importantly, willing to die for the ideal. It’s as if a country, because of the new political organization, became one big family, and instead of having subjects, they are all siblings and relatives. Nationalism also seemed to take on a role of the new religion. As people turned from their Christian roots and became more secular, nationalism provided a sense of unity and an ideal to strive for.

In France you see the issue of nationalism in play from the French Revolution. All throughout the nineteenth century the various Republics that arise are trying to create this unified “Frenchness” throughout the country. Weber, Ford and Nord write about it. The issues of the periphery versus the center that come to play in Weber and Ford are all about creating a unified language, culture, system of measurement, etc, in an effort to create what it means to be “French”. This is, in essence, what nationalism is. Defining what makes a group of people similar to each other, and what makes them different from the others. The Dreyfus Affair shows worries about how the “Frenchness” is turning out. Are they becoming to feminized and weak as Forth shows? Hecht shows the concern about the place of French nationalism after World War II in terms of nuclear technology. France feels they can regain their status as one of the major nations of the world by proving themselves capable of nuclear technology. France was/is very aware of the other nations, continuously in the late nineteenth century comparing population growth and manliness.

Through the nineteenth century, Britain showed signs of nationalism through interaction and comparison with their colonial contacts. Colonizing in the nineteenth century turned from a desire for free trade to a new form of imperialism, the British expanded because it was morally right to educate and enlighten other nations. In the Victorian period, the British were also focused internally. The forays of the upper-classes into the lower classes for philanthropic reasons, the desire of Parliament to enact laws to regulate education and to an extent family life, all show how the nation, or state, was considered to be the fatherly figure that knew best how to care for his children, the citizens.

German nationalism came considerably later than France and England. Unity in Germany did not come until 1870s with Prussia. Here we see a definite creation of a German nation. Whereas before there were many separate and distinct principalities, the unification under Bismark and Prussia literally created, reluctantly at times, a unified German nation. Throughout Imperial Germany and through World War I, the German sense of nationalism was built on a unifying government and language. Various events during the early twentieth century led to a greater sense of unity, such as Zeppelin’s air ships. Of most consolidating force was the German experience in World War I. The feelings of unity and comradeship overcame political and religious boundaries leading up to the war. As the War efforts became unfruitful, feelings of nationalism declined into feelings of betrayal and into political fracturing that endured the Weimar period. The rise of the Nazis was in part due to their appeal to the sense of recapturing the essence of the Volk, the people. Feelings of national unity rose during the Nazi period. After World War II, Germany went through a period unique to any modern European nation. Division into East and West German nations led to vary different national narratives and senses of nationality. Re-unification in 1990 collapsed one national narrative and modified the remaining one.

Works Mentioned:
  1. Benedict R. O’G Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, Rev. ed. (London: Verso, 2006).
  2. Caroline C Ford, Creating the Nation in Provincial France: Religion and Political Identity in Brittany (Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 1993).
  3. Philip G Nord, The Republican Moment: Struggles for Democracy in Nineteenth-Century France (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995).
  4. Eugen Joseph Weber, Peasants into Frenchmen: The Modernization of Rural France, 1870-1914 (London: Chatto & Windus, 1977).
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