Nationalism first came to prominence in the Western world during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. With roots in the Enlightenment, nationalism was proliferated during the French Revolution of 1789 and elsewhere by those who opposed absolutism, seeking the replacement of kings by nations as the source of all legal and political authority. The revolutionaries sought, for example, to bring about a constitutional, legal regime with a national assembly dedicated to representing the citizens of the nation, thereby overthrowing absolutism and the idea of a hierarchical society of privileges based upon birth.
The idea of the legitimacy of the nation was spread around Europe via the Revolutionary and Napoleonic French armies, who both took their ideology with them, as well as provoking "nationalist" reactions to the French conquests. Although following Napoléon's defeat in 1815 the absolute monarchies were restored around Europe, republican nationalism had already penetrated much of the Continent, and for the next half century there were repeated outbreaks of violence in support of popular nationalism. At this stage, many of the nationalists thought of each other as allies, that the fight against absolutism was one that needed to be fought by the many nations and peoples together. Secret societies of democratic, nationalist opposition, such as Young Italy, Young Germany, and Young Ireland, were affiliated with one another in the quest to overthrow absolutism. Wars and revolutions were fought both to overthrow an absolutist order and to bring about some kind of representative liberal assembly, and at the same time to create individual nation-states, either through the unification of numerous smaller states (such as Italy and Germany) or via the breakup of larger empires (such as Austria-Hungary). During the first half of the nineteenth century, nationalism was primarily supported by the educated middle classes and associated with the economic doctrines of liberalism.
The reaction to invasion during the Napoleonic period sowed the seeds for the type of nationalism that would become more common later in the nineteenth century, when constitutional monarchies and republics had replaced absolute monarchies in most of the European nations. Once absolutism ceased to be the enemy, the common cause of the nationalists disappeared and nation-states found their principal rivals in one another. National leaders concentrated on solidifying their position both with respect to their own populations and with other nations through the championship of their own nation's virtues, often relative to those of other nations.
In each nation-state, national identities were encouraged and developed by national school systems and the proliferation of the symbolism of each nation through flags, anthems, or monuments. Historians such as Jules Michelet (1798–1874) in France, musicians such as Frédéric Chopin (1810–1849) or Giuseppe Verdi (1813–1901), and poets and writers from all over Europe, convinced of their political mission, encouraged national awareness and gave the weight of their popularity and of their academically recognized publications to their nation's glory. Wars involving the conscription of the common citizens used nationalist rhetoric to motivate their soldiers to fight, and many wars were fought in the name of the defense of nations and of national honor and glory, culminating in Europe in World Wars I and II.
At this stage, nationalism became associated with more right-wing, populist parties who sought to promote their own national cultural values and to increase the power and glory of their nation, often at the expense of other nations or of immigrants, at least rhetorically. This kind of populist nationalism can be understood as more than just patriotism, which is a sentiment of loyalty to the nation to which one belongs, because it includes the beliefs that one's own nation has a higher calling and greater value than other nations.
Nationalism was also a key motivating factor in European imperialist expansion throughout the nineteenth century. However, this very imperialist expansion provoked a nationalist reaction throughout much of the rest of the world. Nationalist ideas of independence were brought by the colonizers, and the occupation and rule by the imperial powers led to the anti-imperial national independence movements. From the principle of self-determination found in Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points and used as a basis for the post–World War I international settlement came the theory to support the numerous twentieth-century wars of national liberation both from colonial powers and from larger states composed of more than one "nation."
The twentieth century saw innumerable conflicts in which nationalism was a motivating factor, and at the same time it saw the solidification of the system of nation-states as the primary form of social organization throughout the world. The United Nations became the primary international body, and nationhood became the goal of any group seeking to increase its political power.
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