Historic Significance of Nationalism in Europe, 1815-1945


The 19th century and the first half of the 20thcentury was one of the most important historical periods in Europe.The historical period between 1815 and 1945 had a huge impact on themodern European economic, social and political situation. The periodis characterized by flourishing of the European powers into globaleconomic and political giants. The main issues that sparked increaseddominance and flourishing in the European powers were the growth ofimperialism and nationalism. Although nationalism in the 19thand early 20th century was very beneficial to the Europeancontinent and the world at large, they resulted into huge negativesocial, economic and political impacts, especially colonialism andarmed conflicts that escalated into global warfare. The main concernof this paper is the historical significance of nationalism in Europein the 19th and early 20th century. Perhaps themost significant impacts of nationalism in Europe, especially in the19th century was the formation of new states, mainlyGermany and Italy and their role they played in the early 20thcentury Europe. The two new states had a huge impact in the emergenceof the First and Second World War. Political reestablishment andreformation of the states, such as Austria and Britain, which alreadyexisted was also caused by the rise of nationalism. Nationalism alsoresulted into significant economic development in Europe. Theindustrial revolution and rise of economic power in Europe isattributed to among other factors, the rise of nationalism (Rajeev,2008).

Nationalism is a political ideology or belief which is characterizedby increased identification or attachment of individuals to aparticular nation. The foundation of nationalism is national identityand the desires of the individuals to protect their nation. However,nationalism is not the same as patriotism. Patriotism involves socialand personal behaviors that support the actions of a particularnation while nationalism is an ideology of being attached to aparticular nation. Before the advent of nationalism in Europe,nations did not exist. However, individuals were loyal to particularreligious or leaders. However, in the 18th century theintegration of the public sphere and economy into a national sphereresulted onto people identifying themselves with the nation. Althoughpolitical leaders played an important role in the rise ofnationalism, intellectuals, writers and artists promoted nationalism.The rise of nationalism led to development of national symbols suchas flags, national anthems and national narratives (Kramer, 2011).

One of the most important impacts of rise of nationalism in theEuropean continent was the creation of the modern states. Thewillingness of individuals in the 19th century to identifythemselves with their nations played an important role in theemergence of countries such as France, Italy and Germany.Additionally, it had a positive impact on the nations that werealready established. One of the nations that were created as aresult of growing nationalism ideologies was France. Historians haveargued that the development that resulted from the French revolutionsparked the wave of nationalism in the early 19th centuryEurope. Nationalism ideologies also played a critical role in theestablishment of the German state. Although the thought of a Germanstate can be traced to the middle ages, popular nationalism among theGermans after the Napoleon invasion in 1806 were critical in theestablishment of the Nation (Rajeev, 2008). The impacts of theinvasion created a perception that the Germans needed to be free fromforeign influence and build their own state. The success of the selfgoverned states in France and Austria motivated the Germans to buildtheir own nation. However, a move away from Austrian influenceresulted into numerous challenges in the new nation. Nationalism alsocreated resulted into the creation of an Italian state. In history,Italy consisted of fragmented small states. However, it remains verysignificant to other nations especially the king of Spain and France.The weakening monarchies influence, mainly the Napoleon and otherKings in the region resulted into attempts to create an Italiannation. The Treaty of Vienna sought to unite all the small state intoan Italian nation. However, the successful unification of the stateswas preserved by the nationalism ideas that had emerged in the early19th century. Although other nations such as Britain andRussia existed, the wave of nationalism resulted into a more cohesiveand successful nation (Rajeev, 2008).

Another important positive impact of nationalism in Europe waseconomic development, especially the industrial revolution.Nationalism ideologies ensured that the state had the power andsupport of the majority. The resultant political stability andnational identity renewed imperialistic ideologies which sparkedrapid industrial revolution in Europe. Although it has been views asan economic evil, the rise of colonial powers from Europe emerged asa result of nationalism. The establishment of unified nations withnational symbols resulted into a need to create a stronger economythat could be able to compete with other European power. Economic andsocial expansions and competition sparked imperialistic ideas. Thenationalism ideologies in Europe also created what is commonlyreferred to as the “white man’s burden” (Kramer, 2011). TheEuropeans felt that they had the obligation to spread Europeanideologies to other parts of the world. As a result, Europeansnations started spreading their national ideologies to other parts ofthe world resulting into colonialism. The linkage betweenindustrialization in Europe and the rise of nationalism in the19thand 20th century is one of the mostinteresting relationships. This is because industrialization createda new wave of nationalism, while at the same time nationalismpromoted industrial development. At the peak of Europeanindustrialization, nationalism in Europe flourished. Nationalismideas demanded a stronger government with a bigger economy and alarger army. A strong government was supported by rapid industrialdevelopment and adequate supply of essential consumer and industrialgoods and services. This resulted into imperialistic tendencies wherenations acquired colonies to provide raw materials for theirindustries and troops for their armies. By the late 19thcentury, almost all nations in the European content have acquiredcolonies in different parts of the world (Kramer, 2011).

Although the rise of nationalism was an important aspect of theEuropean history in the 19th and early 20thcentury, it has been associated with several challenges that havefaced the European society. Nationalism propelled the Europeancontinent into global powers. In the early 20th century,nations such as Britain and Germany were the leading supper power.They had economic, military and political influence throughout theworld (Kramer, 2011). This was attributed to the rise of nationalismin Europe. However, the evils associated with nationalism weakenedthe European powers, giving room for the rise of other powers such asthe United States and China. Critics of nationalism have argued thatit is inherently divisive and a precursor of conflicts. This isbecause in highlights the differences between individuals based onnationality. A very good example was the Anglo dominance in the early20th century which has spread to other parts of the world.This ideologies argued that people from Anglo nationalities are oresuperior compared to other people. Nationalism in Europe resultedinto oppressive tendencies and gives the elites the European societythe opportunity to exploit and oppress people from other nations. Forexample, nationalism and imperialistic ideas give the European powersthe right over resources in their colonies, especially in Africa. Inan attempt propagate their national agenda, colonial rulers oppressedand exploited their subjects at the benefit of their European nations(Heywood, 2000).

One of the most important negative impacts of the rise of nationalismin Europe was international conflicts. Major wars in the modernworld have been attributed to nationalism movement and ideologies.The first major war in the modern Europe was the Crimean War in themid 19th century. The war emerged as a result of conflictsbetween the Russia and Britain, France and their allies. The rise ofnationalism in Europe was associated with national symbols andvalues, among them religion. The immediate cause of the conflict wasthe rights of Christians who constituted a minority I the holy land.In the 19th century, the holy land was controlled by theOttoman Empire. Thus, the French were concerned with the rights ofCatholic Christians while Russia sought to promote the rights ofOrthodox Christian. The Russians and the French were motivated bynationalism ideologies to enter the war since the Ottoman Empire haddeclined significantly and they had the prospects of extending theirinfluence. The war resulted into more nationalism movement incentral Europe, resulting into formation of other states such asGeorgia, Armenia, Greece, Bulgaria and Ukraine among others. The wargives the societies, which were under the influence of other power inEurope to think as an independent nation. Nonetheless, the rise ofnationalism, especially in Russia has been argued to be the maincause of the Crimean War (John &amp Sinisa, 2013).

Historians have also argued that the rise of nationalism in the 19thcentury was the major cause of the First World War. The late 19thcentury was characterized by nurturing of nationalistic ideasespecially political, economic and military power and supremacy ofthe nation. The arrogance associated with nationalism was furtherperpetuated by media and literature in the period prior to the war.The political class also inflated nationalism tensions through therecomments and rhetoric. Nationalism was also characterized moralrectitude of the government, demonization of other nations andaggressive defense of the national interests (John &amp Sinisa,2013). These sentiments convinced the political class and thecitizens in Europe that the expansionism tendencies by their nationalrivals were a threat to their countries. Additionally, the nationshad developed a strong believe in their military and economicsupremacy, which assured successes in case of armed confrontationwith their rivals. For example, major powers such as Britain andGermany were accustomed to success in colonial wars. Perhaps thebelief that one’s nation was stronger and righteous compared toothers emphasis the role of nationalism in the war. The supremacy ofthe British and the growing attitudes of the Germans made warinevitable in the prevailing European conditions. The anti Germanliteratures in Britain and the conviction that Britain was determinedto deprive Germany her “place in the sun” made internationalconflict certain (John &amp Sinisa, 2013).

Similar nationalism sentiments emerged in the late 1930s, whichresulted into Second World War. The aggressiveness and attitudesagainst expansionism of other nations did not end after the FirstWorld War. The nations and allies that lost the First World War weresuffering from disgrace. Countries such as Germany found it difficultto accept defeat considering that Germany was constructed based onstrong chauvinistic nationalism. Therefore, despite the loss, Germanswere determined to claim supremacy in Europe and the world.Additionally, the Germans were humiliated by the harsh punishmentthat was inflicted on them by the Treaty of Versailles. Despite this,they were not willing to blame themselves and the inadequacies oftheir nation which resulted into failure. Rather, they startedblaming other nations and society as an impediment to the pure andsupreme German race. As a result, the German led by their Nazileaders evolved into Extreme nationalists. The jingoistic ideas ledto the rise of anti Jews sentiments with the belief that the Jewishrace was an impure race contaminating the German nation. The linkbetween extreme nationalism and the aggressiveness of the NaziGermans which was a precursor to the Second World War is very evidentin Adolf Hitler nationalistic speeches. These speeches mainly in theearly 1930s received massive support from the Germans. In Italy,similar extreme nationalism ideologies were observed especially whenthe general public supported fascist ideologies by Benito Musolini.Therefore, hatred and aggressiveness associated with nationalismculminated into the Second World War (John &amp Sinisa, 2013).


Heywood, A. (2000). Key Concepts in Politics. London:Macmillan Press.

John, A. H. &amp Sinisa M. (2013). Nationalism and war,Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Kramer, L. S. (2011). Nationalism in Europe &amp America:politics, cultures, and identities since 1775. Chapel Hill:University of North Carolina Press.

Rajeev, B. (2008). Political Theory. New York, NY. Pearson.