5.2C Nationalism

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Learning Objective 5.1A

Explain the intellectual and ideological context in which revolutions swept across the Atlantic world from 1750 to 1900.

Historical Development 1

Nationalism became a major force shaping the historical development of states and empires. 


Key ideas

Nationalism created new identities in which people identified themselves with nations and states.

The European Enlightenment, dissatisfaction with existing political and social systems, and the weakening of older cultural identities increased nationalism.

Nationalism first spread through the Americas and Europe before diffusing to revolutionary movements in Africa and Asia.

0, my brothers, love your Country! Our country is our Home, a house God has given us, placing therein a numerous family that loves us, and whom we love; a family with whom we sympathize more readily and whom we understand more quickly than we do others --Joseph Mazzini

One of the most powerful modern historical forces is nationalism. The vast majority of the world’s population strongly identifies with a nation-state or country. For many of us, our identity is a significant piece of our identity.

What is Nationalism?

Nationalism can be defined in two primary ways:

advocacy of or support for the political independence of a particular nation or people, or

a feeling that people have of being loyal to and proud of their country. 

At its best, nationalism has the power to push nations to achieve great things. Human societies achieved significant innovations in space exploration technologies during the Cold War competition between the United States and the Soviet Union. At its worst, nationalism leads to war and death. Both world wars of the 20th century resulted from intense nationalistic competition between European states and resulted in a global death toll that topped 100 million people globally.

Pre-nationalist identities: Before the 18th century, modern nation-states and countries did not exist. People within political boundaries did not always identify with a common culture. Often they identified with the local area in which they lived; few people would in the 13th century would have said they were German, Italian, Filipino, or Indian. They would have said they were from the village where they were born. There were no countries. Most people lived in kingdoms, fiefdoms, or tribal areas.

Modern nationalist identities: Today, most people identify with the country where they were born or live. Modern nation-states and governments resulted from the rise of nationalism in the 18th and 19th centuries. Nationalism is the joining together of people who share geographic space, religion, language, social customs, and belief systems. Modern nations and countries often have borders drawn around people who share these characteristics and identify as similar.

Nationalist movements

In the 18th century, new nationalist identities began to form. Nationalist movements increasingly broke out and resulted in the formation of new nation-states.

There were two primary types of nationalist movements. 

Movements of unification that brought similar peoples under one government and state

Movements of liberation where colonized peoples resisted foreign colonial control

The causes of early nationalist movements
  1. Enlightenment ideas: Enlightenment philosophies emphasized individual freedoms and the protection of those freedoms from the government. These ideas resulted in republican/democratic systems in portions of the Americas and Europe. These systems placed limits on government power and sought to protect some individuals’ freedoms. 
  2. Dissatisfaction with European colonial rule:  In the Americas, colonists became increasingly dissatisfied with European rule in the 18th and 19th centuries. People across the Americas began to view themselves as culturally different than their European colonizers. Later, Asians and Africans began to resist European colonial and imperial oppression.
  3. The weakening of older cultural identities: The Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment weakened Christianity’s power across Europe. The old wars of religion between Catholics and Protestants began to end. Less religious hatred allowed for the formulation of new social and cultural bonds. 
  4. Rising dissatisfaction with European monarchies: The Enlightenment ended the absolute power of European kings and queens. As people increasingly questioned monarchs power, their loyalties shifted. States increasingly were viewed as the property of people, not royalty.
The effects of early nationalist movements

Our modern world is a direct result of nationalist movements that began taking place in the 18th century. These movements resulted in the following significant events. 

  1. People developed new identities around shared cultural and geographic similarities. 
  2. New nation-states resulted from revolutions of liberation against European colonial and imperial control. 
  3. European monarchs lose absolute control as republican/democratic systems begin to emerge. 

The spread of nationalism

There were two waves of nationalist movements between 1750 and 2000.

1st wave nationalism
2nd wave nationalism
Primarily centered in Europe and the Americas
Fought back against European colonial control
Revolutions in the Americas that resulted in the creation of new nations across North America, South America, and the Caribbean
Resulted in the creation of new nation-states following the collapse of European imperialism after WW2
New states in Europe (Italy, Germany, and Balkans nationalism)
Resulted in the weakening of European political power around the world
Weakened European monarchies
Resulted in the strengthening of European political power around the world