The Importance of National Belonging in the Development of Nation States

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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. 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 thy 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...
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