Global Nationalism


Global Nationalism:  A Double Edged Sword

Nationalism as a divisive force


  • Describe the effect(s) nationalism can have on a country
  • Explain how nationalism impacted European empires in the 19th Century

In the 1800’s, nationalism became an increasingly important motivation behind events in world history.  It helped cause the downfall of Napoleon as the people in his empire, who welcomed him as a liberator turned on him, demanding independence.  Through the 19th Century, nationalism continued to influence events.

Nationalism is the idea that people of the same nation–meaning a group of people with the same language, culture and background–should live under the same government.  Through much of history, some nations were divided by political boundaries with some members living in one country, others in another.  Nationalism demanded that these people be united in one nation-state.  For the people coming together, it was a positive thing.  For empires, it is dangerous.

In American culture, we use the word ‘nation’ is a very different way.  We use it interchangeable with the world country.  In the context of world history, a nation is something very different.  Using the word in this context, the United States is not a nation in this sense because it is made of people of various cultures, with different background and even speaking different languages.  The term ‘nationalism’ takes a different meaning in the context of world history too.   We often use it to describe patriotism, or love of our country.  But in its purest meaning, nationalism is love and devotion to your nation as used in the global context.  If Americans were nationalistic in this way, American society would fragment into sub-cultures based on ethnic origin, like African-American, Anglo-American, Italian-American, Arab-American and so on.

In world history, nationalism has been a double edged sword.  It has been constructive and destructive.  For the people living divided, it led to the creation of new nation-states, such as Italy and Germany in the 1870’s.  For empires, like the Austrian, Russian and Ottoman Empires, nationalism threatened to rip them apart, which it eventually did in conjunction with World War I.


19th Century Nationalism

Three aging empires existed in Europe in the 1800’s and each had seen better days.  They struggled to maintain control of the multiple ethnic groups under their rule.  The three were the Austrian Empire, ruled by the Hapsburgs;  the Russian Empire, ruled by the Romanovs and the Ottoman Empire ruled by the Turks.


The Austrian Empire

The once powerful of the Austrian Empire used to control central Europe.  In addition to the Germanic Austrians (the Austrians are Germanic people, not a separate nationality), it controlled Slovenes, Hungarians, Germans, Czechs, Slovaks, Croats, Poles, Serbs and Italians.  By the mid-1800’s, the Empire struggled to maintain control of all of these groups, all of which wanted independence to varying degrees.  In addition, the Austrian Empire also dominated the German Confederation, a loose association of the 39 German-speaking kingdoms created by the Congress of Vienna.  The Confederation was designed to manage competition between the Austrian Empire and Prussia, the largest and most formidable of the Germanic kingdoms.

The two worked together well when the German Confederation went to war against Denmark (the Second Schleswig War) in 1864.  They stripped the desirable territories of Holstein and Schleswig from Denmark.  But Prussian Prime Minister Otto von Bismark created an argument with the Austrians over how to administer the newly acquired territories, starting a war between Prussia and Austria.  The largest reason for the conflict was Bismarck’s desire to remove Austrian influence from the Confederation, giving Prussia control over the German kingdoms.

In 1866, the Seven Weeks’ War (aka the Austro-Prussian War) began.  The Austrians were not match for the Prussian’s advanced military.  Prussia was also rapidly industrializing, giving them the advantage of the latest technology in weapons.  Their use of state-of-the-art breech-loading rifles, for instance, gave them a huge advantage over the Austrians, who were still using outdated muzzle-loading muskets.  The Prussians defeated the Austrians quickly, asserting their influence over the German kingdoms and eventually leading to the formation of the German nation-state.

After the defeat, the Austrian Empire looked weak.  The Hungarians demanded independence.  To try to maintain some control and appease these nationalist demands, Emperor Franz Joseph split the empire into two.  The Austrian Empire would remain, minus the Kingdom of Hungary, which was technically separate, with its own government, with one wrinkle:  Franz Joseph would rule both the Austrian Empire and the Kingdom of Hungary.  Because the two seemingly separate countries with tied together with the single ruler (the Dual Monarchy), they were called the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Despite his attempts to redirect nationalistic demands, the Austrians power continued to weaken for 40 more years.  An act of nationalist-motivated terrorism in Austria-Hungary was the immediate cause of World War I in 1914 and by the end of the war, it was broken into several separate nation-states:  Austria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia.  Other parts of the empire were absorbed by other countries, such as Romania, Italy and the newly created Poland.


The Russian Empire

Russian czars ruled the Russian Empire for 370 years.  In addition to Russians, the empire also ruled Ukrainians, Poles, Lithuanian, Latvians, Estonians, Finns, Jews, Romanians, Georgians, Armenians and Turks.  Like the Austrians, nationalism proved to be a thorn in the side of the czars’ iron fisted rule.  Rebellions in the middle of the 19th Century caused Czar Alexander II to institute a policy of Russification.  Intended to combat nationalism, Russification was the forced assimilation of the non-Russians—meaning  them coercing to adopt Russian culture and shed their own.  The policy backfired.

Instead of controlling nationalism, it strengthened it.  Nationalists used the policy to convince people to resist and rebel.  Through the second half of the 19th Century and at the beginning of the 20th, Russian czars had to fight harder to maintain control.  National embarrassments didn’t help either, as the rule of the czars were called into question due to the country’s lagging behind the rest of the world economically and militarily.   The erosion of the czar’s power culminated in the overthrow of Czar Nicholas II in 1917, during World War I.


The Ottoman Empire

The once mighty Ottoman Empire was called the “sick man of Europe” by the middle of the 1800’s.  The Turk’s empire was still hanging on to rule over Greeks, Slavs, Arabs, Bulgarians and Armenians.  The Turks were forced to take measures to appease the nationalist groups and try to get them to accept their rule.  In 1856, the Ottoman Empire—under pressure from the British and French—granted full citizenship to all groups under their rule.  While this may have calmed some nationalist tensions with other groups, the government angering many conservative Turks who were against the policy.  And it didn’t stop all nationalist activities from those controlled by the Turks.

One of these groups was the Armenians.  They are a large ethnic group that mostly lived within the Ottoman Empire (and in modern day Turkey).  In reaction to the Armenian’s nationalistic aspiration, the Turks persecution took action against them.  Harsh treatment of the Turks included mass deportations and widespread violence against the group.  Massacres were document from 1894—1896 and again in 1915.

The Ottoman Empire was a member of the Central Powers with Austria-Hungary and Germany in World War I.   As with the other empires of Europe, the pressures of the war was the straw that broke the camel’s back.  The Ottoman Empire broke apart as a result of the war.


Nationalism as a Unifying Force


  • Describe the effect(s) nationalism can have on a country
  • Explain how nationalism impacted European politics in the 19th Century

The Unification of the Kingdom of Italy




Before 1870, Italy didn’t exist.  Parts of it were small, independent kingdoms.  Other parts of it were controlled by the Austrian and Ottoman Empire.  Yet another section ruled by the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church.  As elsewhere in Europe, nationalism began to gain popularity with Italians.  Giuseppe Mazzini was an author who help spread Italian nationalism with his work.  For his role in popularizing the idea, he is called the Beating Heart of Italy.

One of the independent kingdoms, the Kingdom of Sardinia (also called Piedmont-Sardinia because the same king ruled both kingdoms) was in position to lead Italian unification.  It was the largest and most powerful of the Italian kingdoms.  Many Italians living there–particularly the middle class–thought Italian unification was good idea.  The foreign powers that controlled parts of Italy were in the way though, chief among them being the Austrian Empire.  King Charles Albert of Sardinia tried to fight a war to drive the Austrians Empire out of the areas they controlled, but the First War of Italian Independence was a disaster.

In 1849, Victor Emmanuel II became the king of Piedmont-Sardinia.  Italian unification picked up momentum when he appointed Count Camillo di Cavour prime minister in 1852.  Cavour was cunning politician and  used diplomacy and strategic alliances to unify northern Italy.  Cavour formed and alliance French King Napoleon III  and fought the Second War of Italian Independence against the Austrian Empire.  With French assistance, the war was a success.  The Italian province of Lombardy from the Austrians.

As Cavour worked on uniting northern Italy, he also lent support to nationalists rebelling in southern Italy.  Leading the rebellion was Giuseppe Garibaldi, who headed a small army of Italian nationalists called the Red Shirts.  From Sicily, the Red Shirts marched north, uniting the southern Italian kingdoms.  Cavour got Garibaldi to agree to unite the southern areas with the kingdom Piedmont-Sardinia built, forming the kingdom of Italy in 1861, ruled by King Victor Emmanuel II.

The Kingdom of Italy was not complete yet.  It allied with Prussia in the Austro-Prussian War in 1866 (which the Italians call the Third War of Italian Independence), annexing the northern province of Venetia.  Then, in 1870, the French, who were being defeated in the Franco-Prussian War, were forced to remove their troops from the Papal States, protecting the area of central Italy controlled by the Pope.  This allowed the Kingdom of Italy to incorporate the area, unifying the rest of the Italians in the new Italian nation-state.


The Unification of Germany

German Unification animated

In 1815, what would become Germany was 39 separate kingdoms.  They sometimes worked together in the Germany Confederation, which had been created by the Congress of Vienna.  The Confederation was dominated by the Austrian Empire dominated this organization, through Prussia competed for influence.  Prussia was the largest and most powerful of these kingdoms and, just as elsewhere in Europe, German nationalism began to spread in the mid-1800’s.

In 1861, Wilhelm I became the king of Prussia.  He appointed Junker Otto von Bismarck as his prime minister.  Bismark was a shrewd and powerful politician.  Bismark was a very aggressive man and his nature was central to way in which he did his job.  He practiced tough, power-politics with no room for idealism—an idea called “realpolitik.” He did away with the Prussian parliament so he could do things his way.  He claimed that the “issues of the day will be decided… by blood and iron,” by which he meant though military might and even war.  And the issue of the day was the expansion of Prussian power, ultimately resulting in the unification of Germany.

Bismark recognized that wars caused a rise in nationalism.  He used wars to strategically increase German nationalism and eliminate Prussia’s rivals for power.  The first of these wars was in 1864, when Bismarck led an alliance with the Austria Empire in a war against Denmark (called the Second Schleswig War). The quick victory caused a spike in German nationalism.

Bismark and Prussia’s wartime ally, the Austrian Empire, found themselves at odds over how to administer the territory they had won from Denmark.  In 1866, this erupted into the Seven Week’s War (sometimes called the Austro-Prussian War).  The cause of the war was a rouse.  Bismarck—realizing the Austria stood in the way of German unification—tricked the Austrians into declaring war on Prussia (because it always looks better to the rest of the world if you are forced to fight a war to defend yourself versus starting a war).  Bismark knew this was his opportunity to remove Austrian influence from the German Confederation.

Despite most people’s expectations, the upstart Prussians easily won the Seven Week’s War due to their superior military—better in both training and equipment.  The Prussians annexed the German kingdoms that fought with Austria and the resulting peace disbanded the Austrian-dominated German Confederation, replacing it with the North German Confederation, dominated by Prussia and fully excluded Austria.

In 1867, Bismarck again used a war to increase German nationalism and complete German unification.  Bismark tricked the French into declaring war of Prussia in 1870, starting the Franco-Prussian War.  The remaining, independent German kingdoms allied with Prussia against the French.  The Prussians again achieved a quick victory due it their superior military.  At the war’s conclusion in 1871, Germany had been unified, creating the German Reich, or Empire.  It’s ruler was Kaiser Wilhelm I (the title being a derivative of Caesar, like the czar in Russia).  Bismark was appointed Chancellor.


The Results of 19th Century Nationalism

The 1815 Congress of Vienna created a balance of power that kept peace.  The wars of the mid-1800’s upset this balance.  Britain and Germany were now clearly the most powerful countries, militarily and economically.  France was a tier below them, never fully recovering after Napoleon’s defeat.  Under France, Austria and Russia were lagging far behind as they tried to keep their difficult empires under control.
With the Congress of Vienna’s balance now completely ruined, Europe was put on a path that would eventually lead to a major conflict engulfing the whole continent.

Global History & Geography 10

Before: Industrial Revolution

After: Age of Imperialism



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