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.  


What Is Nationalism?

Main idea

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

Nationalism is loyalty and devotion to a nation. Nationalist movements are political struggles by a group for independent statehood (having a country of their own) or autonomy (self-government over one’s people) within a nation or empire.

A nation can be

  • a country, or
  • a large group of people united by common ancestry, history, or culture that may not control their own political system or live scattered across multiple countries.

Pre-nationalist identities: Before the 18th century, nation-states and countries did not exist. People that lived under a ruler did not necessarily share a common culture. The strongest power held an area of land until a new stronger power snatched it away. Most people identified with the local area in which they lived. No one in the 13th century would have said they were German, Italian, or Filipino.

Modern nationalist identities: Nationalism led people to begin identifying with the nations (countries). New national identities were created around commonalities like shared geographic space, religion, language, social customs, and similar belief systems. Modern national identities are also closely related to citizenship, and the rights that being a member of a country provides. American colonists felt that they had the right to representation in the British parliament because they were British. When they did not get it, they revolted and set up a new government that guaranteed the right to political representation.

Potential benefits of nationalism

  • Competition between nations can lead to innovation: Competition between the Americans and Russians during the Cold War launched humans into space flight and led to the moon landing (find a political movement).
  • Nationalism can unite historically oppressed groups: When the British colonized New Zealand, they pushed the indigenous Maori aside and stole their lands. However, since the 19th century, Maori nationalism has advocated for increased social and political recognition in New Zealand.

Potential dangers of nationalism

  • Extreme nationalism leads to conflict: Extreme nationalism can lead nations to believe they are superior to others, resulting in war. Militant nationalism was a leading factor in the outbreak of both world wars and a combined death toll that topped 100 million people globally.

Nationalist Movements

Main idea

Eighteenth and nineteenth-century nationalist movements led to the creation of new states across the Americas and Europe.

The formation of new national identities led to a variety of nationalist movements.

Eighteenth and nineteenth-century nationalist movements include:

Movements of unification that put culturally similar peoples together to create new states: 

  • Italian unification

  • German unification

Movements to break from European control and create new states: 

  • The Amerian Revolution

  • The Haitian Revolution

  • The Latin American Revolutions

Movements of liberation against oppressive forces: 

  • The French Revolution

  • Balkans nationalism

  • Indigenous nationalism

Movements against oppressive political power:

  • The French Revolution

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

1st wave nationalism (1750 -1900)
2nd wave nationalism (20th century)
Primarily centered in Europe and the Americas
Centered in Africa and Asia during decolonization after WWII
Europeans and European ancestry lead movements
Africans and Asians lead the movements
Strengthened western power in Africa and Asia
Weakened western power in Africa and Asia
Comparing 1st and 2nd Wave Nationalism

The causes of early nationalist movements

The following were important causes for the nationalist movements above.

Enlightenment ideas: Enlightenment ideas emphasized individual freedoms and the protection of those freedoms from the government. Liberty and freedom became the commonality around which people across the Americas rallied to break away from their colonizers. The French also overthrew their monarchy and executed their king in the name of liberty against absolute monarchy.

The weakening of older cultural identities: As people increasingly moved to new locations across oceans or from rural to urban areas, old cultural attachments faded. In the Americas, colonists began to view themselves as culturally different from Europeans. At the same time, indigenous communities in the Americas saw their communities destroyed as they were forced off their lands and onto reservations.

Dissatisfaction with European colonial rule:  People in the Americas became increasingly dissatisfied with European governments. In Eastern Europe, various groups in the Balkans sought freedom from the control of the Ottoman Empire and the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Dissatisfaction with European monarchies: Before the 18th century, most monarchs considered the state their personal property for the benefit and glory of their family. The Enlightenment led people to question this arrangement. The state was increasingly viewed as belonging to the people, not royalty. French King Louis XVI was one of Europe’s last absolute monarchs when the people revolted, took control of the government, and executed him in 1789.

The effects of early nationalist movements

The modern western world is a direct result of first-wave nationalist movements.

Significant impacts included:

  • The Americas gained its political independence.

  • The absolute monarchies in Europe ended.

  • Western governing systems became increasingly democratic.

  • Individual rights expanded like speech freedoms expanded.

  • Italy and Germany formed by unifying the various Italian and German kingdoms together.

Click through the image below to explore how nationalism was depicted in 19th-century art.