Let’s start by defining nationalism. It’s difficult to give a conclusive definition, because nationalism has taken different forms and the meaning has evolved over the years. In general, it is the emergence of group identity based upon a shared sense of history, cultural, ethnic, or linguistic ties. In the eyes of nationalists, loyalty to and pursuing the interests of the nation are more important than anything else. By the 19th century, nationalism became a truly global phenomenon with nationalist movements all across the world. These movements generally fell into one of three main categories.
The first were the revolutionary independence campaigns which cast off the rule of an empire in favor of establishing self-rule. The United States began this trend by breaking from Great Britain in the American Revolutionary War which ended in 1783. Haiti was next with a successful insurrection against French rule in 1804. The declining powers of Spain and Portugal allowed almost the entirety of their South and Central America domains to break free from colonial rule.
The Ottoman Empire was another power in the midst of a major downturn in fortunes. Greece succeeded in gaining independence after an 8-year struggle in 1829 and much of the Balkans was lost by the dawn of the 20th century. Elsewhere, Belgium seceded from the Netherlands after a successful uprising in 1830.
The next category were the hegemonic unification movements. In other words, a dominant state forcibly brought other states of the same language and culture together into one large nation-state. The unification of the Italian peninsula was a gradual process which began in 1848 and saw the Kingdom of Sardinia become the Kingdom of Italy by 1861. By 1870 the modern borders of Italy had been established.
Otto von Bismarck was one of the most accomplished statesmen in history. He was a Prussian minister and the chief architect of German unification from 1864-1871. Bismarck utilized realpolitik, politics based on power and pragmatism rather than ideology, to maneuver Prussia into favorable diplomatic positions. Three successful wars were waged in 1864, 1866, and 1870-1871 against Denmark, Austria, and France. Each had the same characteristics: a diplomatically isolated enemy, a short but decisive campaign, and limited objectives. In 1871 his work was completed with victory over France and the birth of the German Empire.
Another category was the gradual evolution towards autonomy seen in the British dominions of Australia, Canada, and New Zealand. The 1839 Durham Report recommended uniting Upper and Lower Canada into one entity and granting more local autonomy. Similar policies took place in Australia and New Zealand, paving the way to establishing independent nations in the 20th century. There was another major nationalist movement of the 19th century which falls into its very own category.
Japan experienced a dramatic transformation from an isolated collection of feudal domains to a modern centralized state in the name of the Meiji emperor. In 1853, a naval expedition led by American Commodore Matthew Perry arrived in Edo Bay to demand access to trade rights and access to Japanese ports. The Japanese were alarmed by the superiority of the American ships and agreed to end a long period of self-imposed isolation. The arrival of Perry’s ships sparked a nationalist movement which ultimately toppled the Tokugawa and established a strong centralized government in 1868. The slogan sonnō jōi, meaning “Revere the emperor and expel the barbarians”, was a rallying call for national unity against the threat of foreign invasion. The Meiji Restoration was a period of rapid modernization and political consolidation that saw Japan emerge as a major power with a growing sphere of influence in Asia.
As we have seen, there were multiple factors which underpinned nationalist movements in the 18th and 19th centuries. From this collective identity stemmed other concepts which were prevalent in the period, namely patriotism and imperialism. Patriotism is often used interchangeably with nationalism and the two certainly appear to overlap a great deal. The difference boils down to patriotism being an affection for one’s country based upon values while nationalism can be seen as the idea of national self-sufficiency, and sometimes, superiority over other nations. Prominent 19th century patriots included Simon Bolivar and Guiseppe Garibaldi. Both were accomplished military commanders; Bolivar led much of Latin America to freedom from Spain while Garibaldi was one of the main driving forces of Italian unification. Nationalism did not only liberate or unify people of the same heritage, it also led to aggressive expansion. This is where imperialism comes in.
Imperialism is almost as old as history itself; the domination of one people by another has many examples across the ages. 19th-century imperialism differed from the past centuries as key developments allowed powers to dominate distant parts of the globe and extract wealth with a ruthless efficiency. This was made possible by technological innovations in communication, transport, manufacturing, and of course firepower. The telegraph made it possible to communicate across vast distances, steam power cut sea journeys dramatically, and railroads opened up inland trade like never before. The industrial revolution dramatically increased the production capacity of modern nations by utilizing the power of machinery. Finally, developments in weapons, particularly the Maxim machine gun, gave the world’s major powers an insurmountable edge over the rest of the world. Superior military technology meant much larger armies or navies could be vanquished with ease. China was perhaps the best example of this.
China was the most lucrative trading hub in the world at the time. Because of the demand for Chinese goods, other countries ran up large trading deficits. Britain in particular had a great fondness for tea but a strong desire to redress the balance of trade. They did this by flooding the Chinese market with high-grade opium. This generated enormous profits at a high human cost, and when the local officials tried to clamp down on the practice, British gunboats arrived. The Royal Navy’s huge advantage in firepower forced the Chinese to hand over ports and pay compensation. A second war broke out in 1856 with the French siding with the British against Qing China. Further concessions were granted to not only Britain and France, but also Russia and the United States. This eventually resulted in a Chinese nationalist uprising at the turn of the century, the Boxer Rebellion. This rebellion was ultimately suppressed by an alliance of European powers, the United States, and Japan.
Imperialism differed from earlier colonialism in that it didn’t involve large-scale settlement or even direct day-to-day control over conquered regions. It was preferable to run the empire indirectly through a compliant local ruler. For example, the British made extensive use of local princes to administer India. In all, only around 20,000 British troops and officials were stationed in India in the latter half of the 1800s. Resentment over British rule fueled a growing Indian nationalist movement that would eventually bring independence in 1947.
Imperialism was motivated by economic factors—lucrative trade goods and raw materials needed for industry. Diplomatic considerations also came into play as the major powers competed with one another to control key strategic points and resources. There were also racial and religious motivations for dominating other parts of the world. Imperial powers saw themselves as bringing civilization to the less technologically advanced and therefore inferior peoples of the world. The pace of conquests quickened towards the end of the century as breakthroughs in medical technology negated the threat of malaria and opened Africa up to plunder.
The Scramble for Africa was a period of conquest in which the major powers of Europe invaded and occupied the majority of the continent from 1881-1914. Newcomers Germany and Italy got in on the act and even Belgium gobbled up a portion of African land. The atrocities committed in the name of Leopold II in the Congo were exceptionally brutal even for the time, with estimated deaths running as high as 10 million. The relentless drive for territory and resources came at a high price for those caught in the middle. In the following century, nationalism would take an even more divisive and destructive turn, but that’s a discussion for a different lesson.
To review, nationalism took several forms in the 18th and 19th centuries. It was a strong unifying force which brought people of a shared identity together under a centralized government. It was also a source of conflict as most of these nations were formed through warfare. Rivalries between industrialized nations saw large swathes of the world conquered and plundered and set the stage for the most destructive wars in history.
Ok, before we go, let’s look at a couple of review questions.
1. The nationalist movement to form Germany was an example of which of the following?
A. Evolution towards autonomy
B. Revolutionary independence
C. Hegemonic unification
D. None of these
The correct answer is C, hegemonic unification.
2. What prompted the Meiji Restoration in Japan?
A. The threat of foreign powers
B. Religious conversion
C. An alliance with Britain
D. War with China
The correct answer is A, the threat of foreign powers.
That’s all for this review of nationalism! Thanks for watching, and happy studying!