How far do you agree with the view that the nineteenth century proved to be a century in which nationalism played a dual role, on one hand transforming the European state system, while on the other hand ensuring that democracy and socialism did not challenge the power of established elites?
The question in this essay refers to the nineteenth century. However the subject area really lies between 1815 and 1914. This period is defined by two important factors, firstly the end of the French revolution in 1815 and secondly, the beginning of World War 1 in 1914. The period between these two dates was one of constant tension between revolutionary movements that challenged the divine right of Kings and that of the “ancien regime” which pursued an aggressive conservatism across mainland Europe. In this essay I will discuss the dual role that nationalism played as it was used by both liberal revolutionaries and absolutist monarchs.
I will start with the basis for the period I will be discussing, that of the Vienna settlement of 1815. This settlement was imposed by the victorious powers on the French conquered territories of Europe after the defeat of Napoleon. It is here that we see the idea of nationalism and liberalism come into its own. Before the revolutionary wars, the concepts of liberalism and nationalism were known only by few, yet these wars helped spread revolutionary ideas of liberalism and nationalism far and wide across Europe, sewing a seed that the victorious powers were eager to destroy. There were many terms of the settlement, however broadly speaking the significant terms sought to ensure that the Ancien regime was restored, that the divided and weak state system was restored (although with some exception), that revolution would be repressed, that political change would be prevented and that the main powers would work together to solve disputes before they developed into conflict. This developed in what was known as the Concert of Europe. It included Russia, Austria, Prussia and a hesitant France and Britain. These powers agreed to work together to uphold the terms of the settlement and quell any uprisings.
For the most part the Concert was successful in the thirty or so years after it was founded. Liberalist movements rallied around the idea of nationalism, the idea that peoples were to no longer gave their loyalty and support to an individual monarch, but rather around a geographic area of distinctive peoples and culture. The wars of the French revolution were indeed over with by 1815, but it was too late to halt the idea of reform, the seed of revolution, liberalism and nationalism had already spread far and planted deep in the hearts of many. It was this seed, along with support from the Romantic Movement that gave Greece support in the Greek war of independence (1821). The powers successfully ensured that Greece broke free from the chains of Islamic rule of the Ottoman Empire by agreeing to help their fellow Christian neighbours. This is perhaps the only real time that the Romantic Movement had any real political success. The Concert of Europe was successful in suppressing uprisings for constitutional governments in both Spain and Italy in the years of 1820 and 1822. Crushing liberal and national forces in these two countries proved to be positive as they enhanced the Concert’s integrity by proving to the world that it had the muscle to uphold its resolutions. These successes managed to repress the role of early nationalists, as attempts by liberals were thwarted. It is a prime example of how liberal forces attempted time and time again to use nationalism to affect change against the ancien regime.
The early successes of the Concert however were met with difficulties that began in the 1850’s and continued until the end of the Concert and abandonment of the Vienna settlement. The first cracks in the armour of the Concert began in 1853 with the beginnings of the Crimean war. Russia had sought to break up the remaining Ottoman Empire in the Balkans and promoted a sense of nationalism in the Balkans, that they had a common enemy in the Turks and that they should work together to throw them out. Russia’s agenda was simple, it wanted friendly states in the area as to try and secure a port in the Mediterranean. This was the first time nationalism was promoted by an absolutist power, something which went against the spirit of the Vienna settlement. Suffice to say that the anti-nationalist powers of Austria and the rest of the Concert were not happy with Russian plans. As tensions mounted, the Concert and Russia found themselves on opposite ends of the Crimean war. For the first time the powers of the Concert turned on each other and Russia was on the receiving end. Concerned that any attempts at promoting nationalism in the Balkans would lead to the break up of the multi-ethnic Austrian lands, Austria, Britain, France and the Ottoman Empire entered a war against Russia. Russia was subsequently defeated and as a result removed herself from the Concert and commitment to uphold the Vienna settlement. The resulting problem was now that Prussia and Austria were now the only two major powers that were committed to upholding the Vienna settlement, leaving the Concert much weaker and causing Austria to loose a valuable ally, which would prove disastrous for Austria’s future security.
The prime minister of Piedmont, Camillo Cavour, was the first to take full advantage of the changed international situation. With the aid of France, which had always wanted to remove Austrian influence in the Italian peninsular, Cavour announced the unification of Italy and with the aid of a short French alliance, defeated Austrian attempts to reverse it. Nationalism proved to be a powerful tool. Finally after many attempts, the liberal reformists had gained their first real victory, proving the importance of nationalism and changing the face of the European state system.
With the defeat of Austria, Prussia saw the opportunity to unify the remaining German states into one large German empire. Yet for Prussia to achieve her ambitions she had to remove Austrian dominance over Germany and in 1866 went to war with the weakened Austria. The result was the defeat of Austria in a blinding 7 week war. Prussia felt the benefit as a dramatic power shift swung in the favour of Prussia. Four years later Prussian ambitions for the rest of Germany lead it into conflict with France. Bismarck seized this opportunity, he declared that the war with France was nationalistic and in defence of all German peoples. France was concerned about having a powerful united Germany right on her doorstep, yet despite French intervention, Prussia defeated France and subsequently united the remaining German states. Bismarck did something that was not done before, he used what was the tool of liberals, nationalism, to sure up his own authority. Bismarck was an imaginative man; he was wiling to use the new methods of nationalism in order to help the old structure of absolutism. He knew that Prussia would undergo change in this new era and was quoted as saying “If revolution there is to be, let us rather undertake it then undergo it” (Prince Otto Von Bismarck, Modern history review, Feb 2004, page 27). He consolidated German nationalism by identifying groups such as Catholics and Socialists as enemies of the German state, as he feared their revolutionary ideas which threatened to pose a serious threat to his rule.
While the states of Europe were developing, the societies within Europe were experiencing radical reform. The industrial revolution in England many years earlier had only reached the fringes of Europe, yet during the later years of the 19th Century, Europe was undergoing a second industrial revolution which saw the spread of new technologies and wealth. The consequence of this new wealth meant the rise of two previously unknown types of peoples, the working class and the middle class. The middle classes had been a principle force in pressuring for constitutional change in England and Holland in the 17th Century and France, Italy, Greece and Germany in the 18th Century. It was mainly the middle class that demanded liberal change and democratic reforms, thus forming the backbone of the liberal movements. The working class were ore concerned with Social welfare demands and the redistribution of wealth. The result was the rise of the socialists and liberals that came to represent the demands of these two new classes. Different countries reacted differently to these pressures. In England, Holland, Sweden, Norway, France and Italy, the regimes liberalised their political systems and introduced some social welfare measures. In Germany some social welfare reforms were introduced to appease the demands of the working class. Repression of the middle classes and an aggressive foreign policy helped distract the rest from social reforms at home. Austria and Russia ignored the demands of the new classes which in turn enraged them and fuelled the revolutionary and nationalistic forces.
The resulting atmosphere of the late 19th Century was therefore one soured international relations. The nations were bitter towards each other and each had its own different agenda. Russia and Austria concerned with ensuring their own survival as absolutist rulers, England concerned with its international territories, Germany with an aggressive foreign policy, and the remaining states with promoting and consolidating liberal freedoms and reforms. The early promise of a Unified Europe, with the Convert giving us hope that Europe could some how be united in common interest, was lost. There was now little chance of genuine co-operation as the idea of a European Union seemed more distant than ever before.
Nationalism does appear to play a dual role in Europe, yet I can’t fully agree with the fact that it truly did. It is true that Prussia did use Nationalism to sure up its own absolutist agenda. However this is the only real case that would support that it played a dual role. In many countries such as England, Holland, France, Italy and Greece, nationalism was used by the liberals to affect very real liberal reform and change the state system. The rest of Europe either adopted liberal reform or repressed it. Germany is the only example of an absolutist power using nationalism in order to rally support. Therefore it seems a bold statement to suggest that nationalism played a dual role when the balance of nationalism was firmly with the liberal reformists and not the old order.