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3.6: Nationalisms Across Europe

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  • As the Napoleonic wars drew to a close for the first time in 1814, the great powers of Europe convened a gathering of monarchs and diplomats known as the Congress of Vienna, discussed in detail in the next chapter, to deal with the aftermath. That meeting lasted months, thanks in part to Napoleon’s inconvenient return from Elba and last stand at Waterloo, but in 1815 it concluded, having rewarded the victorious kingdoms with territorial gains and restored conservative monarchs to the thrones of states like Spain and France itself. Nothing could have mattered less to the diplomatic representatives present at the Congress of Vienna than the “national identity” of the people who lived in the territories that were carved up and distributed like pieces of cake to the victors - the inhabitants of northeastern Italy were now subjects of the Austrian king, the entirety of Poland was divided between Russia and Prussia, and Great Britain remained secure not only in its growing global empire, but in its possession of the entirety of Ireland.

    Thus, many of Europe's peoples found themselves without states of their own or in states squeezed between the dominant powers of the time. Among the notable examples are the Italians and the Poles. Italy had suffered from the domination of one great power or another since the Renaissance; after 1815 it was the Austrians who were in control of much of northern Italy. Poland had been partitioned among the Austrians, the Prussians, and the Russians in the eighteenth century, simply vanishing from the map in the process. Germany, of course, was not united; Prussia and Austria vied with each other for dominance of the German lands, but both were fundamentally conservative powers uninterested in “German” unification until later in the century.

    What had changed, however, was that the language of nationalism and the idea of national identity had come into its own by the late Napoleonic period. For example, German nationalism was powerful and popular after the Napoleonic wars; in 1817, just two years after the end of the Congress of Vienna, German nationalists gathered in Wartburg where Martin Luther had first translated the Bible into German, waving the black, red, and gold tricolor flag that would (over a century later) become the official flag of the German nation. Two years later, a nationalist poet murdered a conservative one, and the Austrian Empire passed laws that severely limited freedom of speech, specifically to contain and restrict the spread of nationalism. Despite this effort, and the Austrian secret police, nationalism continued to spread, culminating in a large and self-consciously nationalistic movement seeking German unity.

    The 1830s were a pivotal decade in the spread of nationalism. The Italian nationalist leader Giuseppe Mazzini founded Young Italy in 1831, calling for a “springtime of peoples” in which the people of each “nation” of Europe would topple conservative monarchs and assert their sovereignty and independence. That movement would quickly spread beyond Italy: "young" became the rallying word and idea of nationalism. In addition to Young Italy, there was a Young Germany and a Young Ireland, among others - the idea was that all people should and would eventually inhabit nations, and that this new "youthful" manner of politics would lead to peace and prosperity for everyone. The old, outdated borders abandoned, everyone would live where they were supposed to: in nations governed by their own people. Nationalists argued that war itself could be rendered obsolete. After all, if each “people” lived in “their” nation, what would be the purpose of territorial conflict? To the nationalists at the time, the emergence of nations was synonymous with a more perfect future for all.

    Central to the very concept of nationalism in this early, optimistic phase was the identity of “the people,” a term with powerful political resonance in just about every European language: das Volk, le peuple, il popolo, etc. In every case, "the people" was thought to be something more important than just "those people who happen to live here." Instead, the people were those tied to the soil, with roots reaching back centuries, and who deserve their own government. This was a profoundly romantic idea because it spoke to an essentially emotional sense of national identity - a sense of camaraderie and solidarity with individuals with whom a given person might not actually share much in common.

    When scrutinized, the “real” identity of a given “people” became more difficult to discern. For example, were the Germans people who speak German, or who lived in Central Europe, or who were Lutheran, or Catholic, or who think that their ancestors were from the same area in which they themselves were born? If united in a German nation, who would lead it - were the Prussians or the Austrians more authentically German? What of those “Germans” who lived in places like Bohemia (i.e. the Czech lands) and Poland, with their own growing senses of national identity? The nationalist movements of the first half of the nineteenth century did not need to concern themselves overmuch with these conundrums because their goals of liberation and unification were not yet achievable. When national revolutions of various kinds did occur, however, they proved difficult to overcome.

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