Nationalism Grows in Europe: Timeline, Events & Impact

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  • 0:02 Defining Nationalism
  • 0:40 The French Revolution…
  • 2:51 Napoleon and Nationalism
  • 4:53 A Reaction Against Nationalism
  • 5:55 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Troolin

Amy has MA degrees in History, English, and Theology. She has taught college English and religious education classes and currently works as a freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will study the growth of nationalism that took place during the French Revolution and the Napoleonic age. We will begin by defining nationalism and then explore how it developed in these critical eras.

Defining Nationalism

Nationalism is an ideology that asserts that a nation is formed by a group of people with a common identity, language, history, and set of customs. According to nationalists, loyalty to one's nation is critical, and the people of a nation must band together to promote the good of their country, to defend it, to extend its boundaries and culture, and to fulfill its destiny. Nations, nationalists further claim, must be independent and ruled by their own people, who rally around their national flags and other national symbols to increase and express their patriotism.

The French Revolution and Nationalism

These ideas might seem commonplace to modern people, but prior to the French Revolution, very few Europeans would have embraced them. In those days, Europe was ruled by dynasties that controlled large areas and contained many small states. The Holy Roman Empire, for instance, spread its influence over much of central Europe. Monarchs often held absolute power, and they expected their people to be loyal to them rather than to their nations.

Things began to change when the French Revolution crashed onto the European scene in 1789. The revolutionaries overthrew the monarch in 1792 and placed power in the hands of France's citizens (or at least some of them). They clearly defined the rights of citizens and drew up constitutions that expressed their new ruling principles.

In doing so, they developed a common identity among French people, who began to be loyal to France as a nation. The national motto 'Liberty, Fraternity, Equality!' rang out in the streets. The tricolor French flag proudly flew over French territory. Citizens turned to their legislative bodies and a central, national government for guidance rather than to a king or to a class of noblemen. Even a standard French language spread throughout the country, overtaking and replacing regional dialects.

France had become a sovereign nation, and its people grew in their national loyalty. Many of them believed that their new system was working well, and they were ready to move out into the world to bring their discoveries to others.

People in other nations looked at what was happening in France and decided that perhaps the French had the right idea. For example, clubs developed in Great Britain that adopted the ideas of the French Revolution and tried to apply them to their own country. Often, however, the rulers of other nations felt threatened by France, especially when its expansionist tendencies took a violent turn. They called on their own people to unite in opposition to the French, thus creating a nationalist rallying point at home.

Napoleon and Nationalism

The situation escalated when Napoleon Bonaparte took control of France as first consul in 1799 and as emperor in 1804. Napoleon worked hard to increase nationalistic feelings. He created the Napoleonic Code in 1804 that unified French law, getting rid of regional variations and making one set of rules for everyone. Further, Napoleon's series of stunning military victories, especially at Ulm and Austerlitz in 1805, raised French morale and made the people proud of their country. Nationalism was important to Napoleon. He needed to keep his citizens loyal to France so that he could stay in power and spread his country's influence throughout Europe.

Napoleon's aggression, however, increased the nationalistic impulses in his enemies and those he conquered. Defeated nations united around their hatred of Napoleon and his policies. Great Britain, for instance, avoided labor revolts because its people were busy backing their country's fight against the French. Austrians, stung by defeat, collectively fumed about having to give up their territories. Portugal and Russia united in defying Napoleon's orders. Spain fought back when Napoleon attempted to put his brother on the Spanish throne.

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