Nationalism, Sparked in 1800s, Is Relatively Recent Phenomenon in World History Resulting from Decolonization

A personal sense of identity from nationhood — something beyond tribe, religion, ethnicity, locality, region — did not really emerge as a dominant theme in world history until the 19th century. Most people before the 1800s did not identify strongly with the nation-state and support its interests to the exclusion or detriment of the interests of other nations. They mostly felt an identity and loyalty to what they could see and experience on the local level. They knew they owed taxes to the local lord or to the local town. Local officials, local government or a sheriff enforced order, the laws and metted out justice, and there was some degree of self-government, self-determination, at least by nobility or property owners. Beyond that, the concept of a national source of power was too far removed for most people to understand.

The few areas of the world where nationalism existed before the 1800s were in places where people were ruled by strong central governments:

the Roman Empire in Europe (that fell apart before 500 A.D.).

certain dynasties in China (the Han, Tang, and Qing);

empires in India, such as the Maurya (322 to 187 BC) and the Gupta (319 to 540 A.D.).

One could argue, I suppose, that the American revolution was the first expression of nationalism, but it was more of a rebellion against British nationalism, colonialism and imperialism, and a demand for local self-determination and local control. It was an act of patriotism more than nationalism — a willingness to sacrifice, risk, devotion to and vigorous support for certain ideals and for one’s country. Remember that one third of colonists were not patriots but British loyalists; the revolution divided the country into American patriots and British loyalists.

Remember that a second third of colonists were neutral; and a final third — the most passionate — favored independence. Remember that the first system of government after the revolution was the Articles of Confederation, which were hardly nationalist at all. The first truly national constitution was not adopted until 1789, and a truly American identity did not develop until well into the 19th century.

Nationalism arose first in Europe in the 19th century, because Europe industrialized first. With industrialization came transportation and communications systems, the development of urban areas and cities, a sense of common purpose and unity. When a network of trains and communications developed, a sense of nationhood strengthened.

The French Revolution in 1789 created a strong sense of national identity. This grew and peaked with the conquests of Napoleon. As he marched through Europe, he not only spread French nationalism, he also inadvertently spread nationalism among other peoples, especially those who were conquered. Nationalism caused people to unite in common goals, to identify common experiences, to develop a sense of pride, to overthrow oppressive forces, and to establish self-government. They also united for economic advancement and civic improvements.

On the negative side, nationalism over time undermined and ultimately destroyed large, multi-ethnic empires, such as the Ottoman Empire, the Austria-Hungarian Empire, and ultimately the British Empire. It caused peoples to compete for power and dominance, prompted violence, created revolutions and wars of conquest. So, as a result of emerging nationalism, the 19th century in Europe was full of wars and revolutions. Ultimately, it led to World War I.

Drill Deeper:

Patriotism vs. nationalism

Below are the major 19th century nationalistic events in Europe, of which we will post much more.

1804: Napoleon establishes first French Empire.

1804-1815: Napoleonic wars, culminating in his defeat at the Battle of Waterloo.

1814-15: Congress of Vienna.

1821-1830: Greek Independence from Ottoman Empire.

1830: Revolutions in France, Belgium, Poland and Italy (the last two were unsuccessful).

1848: Revolutions in Paris (establishing the French Republic); Hungary, Italy, Prussia, Austria.

1853-1856: Crimean War between Russians and Ottomans, Britain and France. The first modern war.

1860: Danish War.

1866: Austrio-Prussian War

1870: Franco-Prussian War

1871: German Unification

1867-1918 Austria-Hungarian Empire

Decolonization and Nationalism Triumphant: Crash Course World History #40

“Europeans spent several centuries sailing around the world creating empires, despite the fact that most of the places they conquered were perfectly happy to carry on alone. After World War II, most of these empires collapsed. This is the story of those collapses. In most places, the end of empire was not orderly, and violence often ensued. While India was a (sort of) shining example of non-violent change, in places like The Congo, Egypt, Rwanda, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, things didn’t go smoothly at all.”

Resources: The Columbia History of the 20th Century

Transcript of this lecture.



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