The Importance of National Belonging in the Development of Nation States

1 January 2017

Prior to the late 19th Century Europe consisted of many small states that lacked a sense of unity. The sentiment stirred up in the wake of the French Revolution; the idea of a sovereign people with natural rights and equality appeared attractive to many of these nations. Around this time Europe saw the emergence of Nation States encompassing a people who had a shared history, culture, language, religion and beliefs. How important this sense of national belonging was is something we shall explore by looking at events in such places as Germany, Italy and France.

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We will decide whether it was patriotism or other factors such as warfare and the rise of industry which had the biggest parts to play on the European stage. Above we have just described the common factors which contribute to making a nation; find one territory with specific boundaries and borders and fill it with these people and you would in theory have made a nation state. However the idea of national belonging is not quite so black and white, nor so easy an idea to prove.

Ernest Renan, a noted theologian seemed to realise that rules about having a shared language or shared religion were simply not realistic when taking into account minority communities and religious toleration. Instead Renan makes allowances that in some areas factors such as these would be contributory but actually in his words ‘A nation is therefore a vast solidarity, constituted by the feeling of sacrifice one has made in the past and of those that one is prepared to make in the future. Renan continues stating that it is ‘the clearly expressed desire to pursue a common life. ’

This swing towards nationalism was sparked in part by the cultural movement which followed the Enlightenment period and was known as Romanticism. An era when poetry, music and art were increasingly used to influence the nation, the movement supported ideas such as the importance of national pride giving precedence to ‘senses and emotion over reason and intellect. German artist Caspar David Friedrich captured this sentiment in his painting The Oak Tree in Snow which depicted a barren tree with new life springing from the roots symbolising a lost past with the promise of future new growth. This was particularly poignant as the Oak Tree was a symbol for German national sentiment.

Similarly in Italy the poet Ugo Foscolo wrote ‘How thou art humiliated by foreigners who have the presumption to seek to master thee! But who can depict thee better than he who is destined to see hy beauty all his life long? ’ Foscolo’s argued that tourists could not appreciate the greatness of his country, only those who could share in its history can take possession of the pride that accompanies the honour of being Italian. These two examples are interesting because at the time of their publication no Germany or Italy as we know them today yet existed so this at least proves that in the minds of those living by Romanticism values at least thought that national sentiment was desperately important.

In addition to the evidence of Romanticism championing the unification cause Germany and Italy shared some other similarities. Firstly, and perhaps most obviously we can tell from studying a ‘before and after’ map. In 1815 Italy was a collection of many smaller states some of which we know were controlled by the Austrian empire and Germany is a jigsaw of German speaking states. However by 1914 clear boundaries had been drawn and both territories are much more obviously defined.

Also both countries contained several nationalist activist groups, some public, some as secret societies who all had the same aim of achieving unity but for different reasons and with variations on the end result. In Italy the strength of opinion was such that some organisations were willing to use violence such as in the case of the Carbonari group who proclaimed ‘He alone is worthy of life who loves his country’. Revolutionary group Young Italy was also key in generating public support for the Risorgimento (Resurrection) nationalists.

Germany also contained these pressure groups and parties from both countries took part in the rebellions of 1848 and while both had some success, yet another similarity is that both were eventually beaten back in Italy by Austrian intervention and in Germany by the Prussian King Frederick William IV. The revolutions swept across much of Europe leaving thousands dead in the name of unification. This however does not necessarily mean that it was patriotism or an unqualified sense of national belonging that drove them.

Other considerations included for businessmen policies for reviving trade, students were concerned about poor job prospects and a lack of social status and peasants wanted an end to the last vestiges remaining of the medieval feudal system. For the peasants at least it is most likely this was their sole motivation as the concept of nationalism would have meant little to them in their daily struggle to feed and clothe their families. Both Germany and Italy appeared to be committed to unification and key figures helped to bring this about.

In Germany Gottfried Herder significantly influenced public opinion with his philosophical ideas about human nature. Herder placed huge importance on national language ‘Has a people anything dearer than the speech of its fathers? ’ He goes on to say that the culture of a people ‘thrives only by means of the nation’s inherited and inheritable dialect. ’ This idea is so fundamental to Herder’s beliefs that he says ‘no greater injury can be inflicted on a nation than to be robbed of her national character, the peculiarity of her spirit and her language’.

Herder however gives little consequence to the political aspects and it is possible therefore that the changes which inevitably took place in Germany were not due to his romanticism based contributions but this does tell us how strongly he felt about the importance of national sentiment. In Italy it was figures such as Count Camillo di Cavour who propelled the unification forward but his motives were much different from that of Herder. Cavour conspired with Napoleon III of France against the Austrians which resulted in several territories becoming part of Sardinia where Cavour happened to be Prime Minister.

Giuseppe Garibaldi was a respected military commander throughout this period of war whose notable success was motivated by his vision of a united Italy. Unification of both countries was hardly plain sailing and problems arose for various reasons. Italy perhaps suffered because the reason for the unification had been more political than sentimental. Massimo d’Azeglio, a pro nationalist is believed to have said ‘We have made Italy, now we have to make Italians. ’ The death of Camillo di Cavour regardless of his motives was described as ‘the architect of national unity’ and his death in 1861 was a definitive blow to the cause.

Germany’s problems centralized around regional rivalries with people confused as to whether they first belonged to their region or their country, this was certainly the case with some Bavarians. It has commonly been supposed that all of the events leading to unification of countries such as Germany and Italy and the revolutions that shook Europe were triggered in France by the revolution of 1789-1799 as can be seen in this statement; ‘The French Revolution completed the nation which became one and indivisible’.

Many in France had sought an end to an absolute monarchy and what was deemed an autocratic domination by the French government. Instead they hoped for a shift towards modernity where all men would be equal under the law and have no special privileges simply because one happened to be born aristocratic or have an elitist position in society. The end of feudalism and the ‘ancien’ (old) regime gave way to new ideas summarised once more by Ernest Renan ‘It is France’s glory to have proclaimed, through the French Revolution, that a nation exists by itself …

The principle of nationhood is ours’. It would be reasonable then to suppose that France had enjoyed great success in providing a patriotic example that other countries hoped to follow and yet once again we find resistance and also some contradictions. While some supported unity for political reasons such as in the case of the Leon Gambetta, a French statesman who supported republicanism, he said in a letter to the leader of the Breton armed forces in 1870 ‘I beg you to forget that you are Bretons, and to remember only that you are French.

While a novelist later in 1884 remarked ‘the word patrie signifies nothing and stirs nothing. It exists no more in local speech than in local hearts. ’ It is hard to assimilate all the opinions and motivations for why the French either supported or rejected the idea of national belonging but it does seem that the more urbanised areas, under the direction of intellectuals, students and politicians for their own agendas were more in favour of being ‘Frenchmen’ than those who resided in more isolated, rural communities occupied mostly by peasant farmers who wanted peace not war.

Peasant farmers in particular were to suffer greatly when we consider how the rise of industry commonly termed as the industrial revolution were to affect national feelings. While the ending of feudalism had allowed some peasantry to buy small patches of land, for others, some who were affected by the enclosure laws could find themselves as landless labourers unable to grow their food or gather fuel from common land.

In Britain the Chartism movement of 1839 sought to represent all workers who found themselves in a piteous position uniting opinion against social injustice. We are bowed down under a load of taxes … our traders are trembling on the verge of bankruptcy, our workmen are starving, capital brings no profit and labour no remuneration. ’ Chartists and their Parisian counter parts the Artisans identified themselves as socialists. Obviously this was a time of great economic change and awareness of class distinctions at the time of the industrial boom was growing. Karl Marx was a German radical whose notion of Socialism was closely linked to that of Communism which he and his colleague Frederick Engels was active in promoting.

Marx was particularly concerned about the struggle of society with relevance to these class distinctions. He highlighted in his ‘The Communist Manifesto’ ‘The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles’ Marx states that the working class (proletariat) and the new middle class (bourgeoisie) are fighting these ‘class struggles’ over the means of production.

He claims that the bourgeoisie exploits the proletariat and was motivated by ‘naked self-interest. He goes on to say however that the lower bourgeoisie class will also suffer as the higher middle class overtake them too. ‘Partly because their diminutive capital does not suffice for the scale on which modern industry is carried on… their specialised skill is rendered worthless by new methods of production. ’ Marx’s conclusion being that eventually the middle classes and the working class would find themselves in much the same situation and have more in common.

This therefore was the significant factor pointing towards nationalism and not the sense of national belonging or sentiment itself. Having considered the factors which were successful in bringing about unification it appears that political reasons had the greater impact. Cavour enjoyed success in Italy through negotiations which involved war and gaining new territory. Herder in Germany relied on sentimental and romanticism theories but Germany encountered difficulties in rallying the nation who were confused about their regional or national identity.

Educated French sectors of society were enthusiastic but failed to significantly influence the peasantry while radicals like Marx renounced any importance of the idea of national belonging. Still it is impossible to ignore that there were many individuals such as Foscolo, Friedrich and Garibaldi who shared a united vision of a united country but it is unlikely that their sense of national belonging was the major significant factor in the development of nation states.

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