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Keith Woodall's Lesson Notes Index

Introduction to Ancient Athens
Introduction to Ancient Rome
The Industrial Revolution



Those who study the three great revolutions - the English, the American and the French, cannot avoid trying to determine their impact on the history of the world as a whole, not only in the countries in which they took place. The following statement, made by an illiterate Greek guerilla chieftain who led his compatriots in the revolt against Turkish domination in 1821, gives an answer. "According to my judgement the French Revolution and the doings of Napoleon opened the eyes of the world. The nations knew nothing before, and the people thought that kings were gods upon the earth, and that they (the people) were bound to say that whatever they (kings) did was well done. Through this present change it is more difficult to rule people".

In this simple language the guerilla leader summarised the essence of the English, the American and the French Revolutions. The eyes of the world were opened by the Levellers, (in England) the Minutemen (in America) and the Sans-Culottes (in France) in a way that had never occurred before. Their intervention in the revolutions of their respective countries marked a profound political change. It marked the beginning, for the first time in history, of active and institutionalised mass participation in government expressed, particularly in the 19th.century by several "isms" which were to influence the course of European, and later, world history. Without doubt the three most influential were nationalism, liberalism and socialism.



Treaty of Versailles

Front cover of the Treaty of Versailles, June 1919



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Nationalism is a phenomenon of modern European history. It did not exist in a recognisable form in the Middle Ages. At that time the universality of Roman culture persisted in the Catholic Church, to which all Western Christians belonged; in the Latin language, which all educated people used and in the Holy Roman Empire (although it was by now a pale shadow of the Empire bequeathed by Charlemagne in 814). The result was that mass allegiance to a nation was unknown in the Medieval Period. Instead, most people considered themselves to be first of all Christians, secondly residents of a particular region such as Provence or Lombardy and a long way last, if at all, Frenchmen or Italians.

Three developments gradually modified these allegiances.

  1. One was the rise of vernacular literature.
  2. Another was the creation of "national" Churches with the Protestant Reformation.
  3. The third was the creation of a number of homogeneous nation-states by the year 1500, particularly England, France, Spain, Portugal and Denmark.

These developments were the foundations on which nationalism grew although it has to be noted that until the late 18th.century the nation was identified with the person of the sovereign. Martin Luther, for example, regarded "the bishops and princes" as constituting Germany while Louis XIV stated that the French nation "resided wholly in the person of the king".

Nationalism did not acquire its modern form until the 18th.century when the bourgeoisie in western Europe came to share in political power. Henceforth the nation was no longer the king, his territory and his subjects; it was now the citizen (only propertied citizens until the late 19th.century) "who inhabited a common territory, possessed a voice in their common government and were conscious of their common heritage and their common interests".- B. C. Shafer.

Modern nationalism began to take shape during the French Revolution and the Napoleonic period. In order to survive the onslaught of the ancien régimes the revolutionary leaders were forced to mobilise national armies, armies of politically conscious citizens ready to fight for la patrie. The French Revolution contributed to the development of nationalism in several other ways. It required all French citizens to speak French instead of the numerous regional dialects and stimulated the publication of French language newspapers, pamphlets and periodicals which were popularly written and helped to inculcate love of country. These developments permitted French nationalist sentiment to replace the traditional attachment to region and to religion.

This passionate identification with la nation was carried from France by the armies of the new republic to other regions of Europe during the Revolutionary War. The victorious French armies were certainly motivated by the desire to spread the message of "liberty, equality and fraternity" to the other peoples of Europe but with the passing of time these "armies of liberation" came increasingly to be considered as "armies of occupation", particularly during the period of the Napoleonic Empire. The same nationalist sentiment which had inspired the armies of the French republic also inspired the Portuguese, the Spanish and the Russians to fight with desperate courage against the armies of Napoleon's Empire. The great irony is that Napoleon's ambitions were destroyed primarily by the refusal of millions of ordinary people in Europe, especially Spanish and Russians to accept "foreign" domination.

Nationalism in Europe was reinforced by the Industrial Revolution with its new means of transport, communication and indoctrination, but as the 19th.century progressed nationalism began to change in character. It began as a humane and tolerant concept based upon ideals such as universal brotherhood rather than notions of national supremacy or cultural superiority, but by the latter part of the century nationalism had become more chauvinistic, militaristic and more xenophobic. This was primarily due to the generalised acceptance of the principles of Social Darwinism and the resounding success of Bismarck both in uniting Germany and establishing it as the great power of continental Europe by ruthless Machiavellian diplomacy and war, or, as he put it "by blood and iron".

Nationalist sentiment was strongly manifested in Europe after the Congress of Vienna of 1815 because the re-drawing of the map of post-Napoleonic Europe left millions of people either disunited or under foreign rule. This was true of the Germans, the Italians, the Belgians, the Norwegians and the numerous minority nationalities of the Habsburg and Ottoman empires. Inevitably nationalist revolts broke out in many parts of Europe. The Greeks rebelled in1821, and eventually won their independence from the Ottoman Turks. In 1830 the Belgians rebelled against the Dutch and in the same year the independent Kingdom of Belgium was founded. The Italians, after futile uprisings in 1820, 1830 and 1848 succeeded in creating a united and independent state between 1859 and 1870. The Germans under the leadership of Prussia created the German Empire (Second Reich) in 1871 after defeating Austria in 1866 and France in 1870.

Nationalism had triumphed in western Europe by 1871 but in central and eastern Europe the Habsburg, the Romanov and the Ottoman empires remained "prisons of nationalities". The inmates of these prisons, however, were becoming increasingly ungovernable as nationalist movements succeeded all around them. The rulers of these multi-national empires were fully aware of the consequences if nationalist movements within them succeeded in achieving their aims - the empires would collapse. Attempts were made to check them by playing off one minority national group against another and although in the short term this was successful, in the long term it was doomed to failure.

The first serious cracks in the structures of these empires appeared in the Ottoman controlled Balkan region. By 1878 the Serbs, the Rumanians and the Montenegrins had obtained their independence and in 1908 so did the Bulgarians.

The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary at Sarajevo in June 1914 by a young Bosnian Serb patriot was of tremendous significance. This single event propelled Europe and the world into the bloodiest war that humanity had ever experienced and the underlying motive for it was that the nationalist sentiment had gripped Europeans by the throat - millions fought for it because it appeared to them the noblest cause of all and as a consequence millions died in its name. The peace treaties which followed the war, especially the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 attempted to redraw the map of Europe taking into account this powerful nationalist force and in the name of "self determination". New states appeared - Poland, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and Albania, but this attempt to satisfy some infuriated others, especially the Germans. The victorious commander of the allied armies, General (later Marshal) Foch, understood this only too well when he stated, after examining the peace treaty imposed on Germany by the victorious allies, "This is not a peace, it is a truce for twenty years". How prophetic!.


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