Positive and Negative Effects of Nationalism in 19th Century Europe

While nationalism in nineteenth century Europe may seem like an unpredictable beast, deeming it as a ‘double-edged sword’ and characterizing it as something that produced both favorable and unfavorable results may not be an appropriate classification. It is simple and nearly intuitive to segregate the effects of nationalism as ‘constructive’ and ‘destructive’. However, it is important to note that the ‘destructive’ results are not necessarily unfavorable. In fact, they can be considered successes in many cases. In positive and negative effects of nationalism essay we will discuss nationalism in nineteenth century Europe, effects that were found in various countries, as well as the undeniable benefits of the ‘constructive’ and ‘destructive’ effects.

Nationalism, a force that transformed Europe, revitalized people with a devotion to their own nation, calling them to identify with the interests of their national group and to advocate for the creation of nation-groups which supported those interests. Instead of monarchical rule, or foreign administration, nationalism promoted independence with its newly formed national governments.

Following the French Revolution, France paved the nationalist way and inspired people all over Europe, with values of liberty, equality and fraternity. Although Napoleon Bonaparte instituted a form of monarchy, he introduced the ideals of nationalism and equality. These avant garde ideals swept through Europe, catalyzing many revolutions as countries rebelled to gain independence. Through nationalist ideals paired with forceful acculturation, France was able to reach linguistic unification by compelling minorities to speak only French, consolidating the various sectors.

As nationalist ideologies pervaded Europe, Italy and Germany later followed suit, ultimately leading to the creation of new states. Though Germany boasted more linguistic unification than Italy, they each were experienced nationalist sentiment fueled by foreign occupation. In Germany, Otto von Bismarck was a major instigator in shrewdly and powerfully shifting Germany from the duopoly of power between Austria and Prussia to a unified German Empire. Following their respective unifications, Italy and Germany grew to be colossal forces in Europe. Specifically, Germany, with its large economy and over a hundred million people, posed as competition to the largest nations in Europe. In the second phase of the Industrial Revolution, where industries focused more upon the individuals, the white goods, electricity, chemical and refining revolutions swept through Europe. Throughout, Germany was a driving force as the technological advances boomed in Europe. Italy and Germany stand as classic ‘constructive’ cases of nationalism, whereby large scale aggrandizement took place, allowing people from politically disjunctive and culturally diverse backgrounds to be united along geographic and linguistic lines.

On the other end of the spectrum in the ‘destructive’ realm, nationalism was a key factor in the dissolution of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires, and later the Russian Empire. These empires were long lasting dynasties who, over the centuries, had organically acquired land through conquest, war and inheritance. As such, they were massive conglomerates of variegated backgrounds, languages, and peoples, filled with minorities agitating for independence and freedom. Suddenly, as nationalist ideologies to disembody empires along linguistic, religious and ethnic lines entered the scene, the empires relinquished significant power and key regions of land. The Ottoman Empire, at its height, included regions of Turkey, Bulgaria, Greece, Romania, Jordan, Romania, and portions of Africa. Now, considered the ‘Sick Man’ of Europe, it desperately attempted to acculturate the people and enforce various reforms, hanging onto the appeal of dynastic relations and shared historical experience or religious affiliation. However with numerous revolutions and revolts in Poland, Lithuania, Belgium, Hungary, and other countries, attempts for acculturation, though successful in France, were met with strong resistance and ultimately, the outmoded empires disintegrated.

The fall of a monumental empire, however alarming as it may seem, is not necessarily an unfavorable outcome. Though the various empires boasted massive populations and legacies that spanned centuries, these numbers did not equate to success; neither did the dissolution of the empires equate to failure. The ‘constructive’ result of nationalism only seems to occur under certain circumstances, whether it be through shared language or forced acculturation, as was the case in Italy, Germany, and France. However, when that formula is not perfectly reached, the outcome will probably veer more on the ‘destructive’ side. Yet though this might seem destructive for the large empires, in the eyes of the smaller nations that emerged from the uprisings against the empires, it was an undeniably favorable outcome. Yes, it marked the end of the Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian and Russian Empires, but it also hailed the birth of the nation-states of Greece, Serbia, Poland, Romania, Bulgaria and many more.

At the very heart of nationalism was an ideological impetus of national identity, a replacement of monarchies, and a solidarity through shared history, linguistic ties, and ethnic similarities; this was achieved either by uniting various regional states, in the cases of Germany and Italy, or by the birth of new nations from minorities fighting for independence. For what right did the Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian and Russian Empires even have to wield their iron fist on all the minorities? The fall of these empires and the ostensibly ‘destructive’ situations truly encapsulate the spirit of nationalism. In the transformation of nationalism in nineteenth century Europe, the benefits and favorable outcomes far outweighed the unfavorable outcomes which were merely the growth pains of improvement and evolvement.  

11 February 2023
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