Over the last three centuries, nationalism has proven to be an evolving concept of identity and political ideology. Nationalism is revolutionary because its transformative power endures. Conceived in political upheaval and transformation, it was nourished by the Napoleonic Wars, the Industrial Revolution, and the cultural movement in arts and literature known as romanticism.
Nationalism, a Double-edged Sword
Nationalism can be exercised positively and inclusively. It was nationalism that enabled independence movements around the world. It created new nation-states and remapped the world. It inspired the British to stay calm and carry on while London sustained continued bombing attacks during World War II.
Yet nationalism can slide into xenophobia and aggression. Nationalism led to the colonization of vast expanses of territory around the world and to wars of conquest. And it was nationalism that fueled the genocidal instincts of Adolf Hitler and the devastation of the Second World War.
Nationalism—its power and its potential for good or ill— rests with the intentions of those who claim it. And it remains a palpable force today. It continues to provide hope and solace for disaffected populations today, in an age when digitalization and globalization have created general anxiety for countless people, especially in the working classes. For good and ill, nationalism offers salve to disaffected populations with wistful longings for a bygone age.
The British historian Paul Lawrence has said, “The twin phenomena of nations and nationalism have shaped the world we know today and yet they have consistently confounded attempts at systematic analysis.” The development of nationalism was so revolutionary—and so pivotal in subsequent political and revolutionary developments—that it must be addressed.
The French People and Concept of Nation
Louis XIV, the king of France, died in the year 1715. He had ruled France for seven decades and built and presided over one of the strongest and most centralized states in the world. Everyone noted the death of the king as an epic event, and most of the French people mourned his loss.
But did all Frenchmen and French women recognize that they were together in this grief? Did an 18th-century baker in Toulouse identify that he and a flower seller in Paris were united in a collective mourning? No. Louis XIV’s subjects understood their grief in relation to the king, but not—beyond immediate locations and close personal contacts— in relation to each other.
Louis XIV had ruled according to the notion that L’état c’est moi—“I am the state.” In turn, his people had no conception that they constituted a nation. Instead, French commoners defined themselves as members of their respective families, as practitioners of a certain trade or craft, as inhabitants of a certain town or village, as devout Catholics, or perhaps as secret believers of some other religious creed. But not as members of a nation.
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New Cultural Norms
Yet, three-quarters of a century later, French revolutionaries meeting near the Palace of Versailles, will declare themselves “representatives of the French nation” who constitute a national assembly. And, on behalf of that nation, they will overthrow the French king. That’s a big shift. So, how does it happen? A confluence of historical factors coalesces to make this possible.
Enlightenment philosophy will argue for a more rational, and equitable, distribution of power and society’s resources. Secondly, shared public spaces—cafes, salons, Masonic lodges—will become cultural norms and incubators for new and shared ideas. In addition, royalty will come under pressure from representative lawmaking bodies, as in England, redefining the state as a body of people, rather than as a hierarchy of the king and God, with people at the very bottom.
Same News, Same Nation
As the 18th century progressed, literacy became more widespread, and more newspapers and journals were published than at any previous time in history. The historian Benedict Anderson points out that people who read the same newspapers began to relate to one another in profoundly new ways.
No longer was proximity a prerequisite for community. All literate people who spoke or read a common language participated in a communications network that linked them with a much larger population than they would probably ever meet.
Much of the news that the French read throughout the 18th century told of war and conflict for territory and glory. Fought overwhelmingly on behalf of dynastic claims, such clashes conditioned the public to adversarial positions vis-à-vis their monarchical states. The effect was to generate growing self-awareness in the emerging public sphere.
The Birth of Nationalism
The concept of the nation also came to feature prominently in critiques of France’s Bourbon monarchy. More and more, social critics decried royal authority in the name of the nation and people’s rights.
This reached a crescendo in 1789 when the French legislative assembly, known as the Estates General, rejected the limiting parameters given to them by the French king. Instead, they declared themselves to be a ‘national assembly’.
The concept of nation was further codified in decrees the legislative body issued in August 1789 to end the social system of feudalism, which had subjected an underclass of peasantry to the hierarchical control of the nobility and crown. Now, the deputies declared, the source of all sovereignty rested in the nation.
Common Questions about the Birth of Nationalism in the 18th Century
A benefit of nationalism was that it enabled independence movements around the world, creating new nation-states and remapping the world. However, it also led to the colonization of vast expanses of territory around the world and to wars of conquest.
Firstly, enlightenment philosophy argued for a more rational, and equitable, distribution of power and society’s resources. Secondly, shared public spaces like cafes became cultural norms and incubators for new and shared ideas. Finally, royalty came under pressure from representative lawmaking bodies that redefined the state as a body of people, rather than as a hierarchy of the king and God.
In the 18th century, all literate people who spoke or read a common language participated in a communications network that linked them with a large population; and people who read the same newspapers began to relate to one another in profoundly new ways, generating growing self-awareness in the emerging public sphere.