Why the nation beat the empire in the battle of 19th century ideas

A history of the 19th century tells not just of newly-formed nations, but of newly-developing nationalism.

Carving Up The World A satrirical cartoon by James Gillray, showing British Prime Minister William Pitt and the French leader Napoleon Bonaparte, carving up the world between them. Entitled 'The Plumb Pudding in Danger' - pub. 26th February 1805
Carving Up The World A satirical cartoon by James Gillray, showing British Prime Minister William Pitt and the French leader Napoleon Bonaparte, carving up the world between them. Entitled 'The Plumb Pudding in Danger' - pub. 26th February 1805 (Photo by Rischgitz/Getty Images)

My starting point is the well-known assertion that, in Western Europe at least, nations came into existence prior to the rise of nationalism and a sense of national belonging. If this process was unplanned, it cannot be described as an accident. In this narrative, it is France that has frequently occupied centre stage. From approximately the 15th century onwards, the French state actively engaged in a process of elite-led nation building, focusing its efforts on the centralisation of power and the imposition of homogeneous bureaucratic procedures. This process was continued in the post-1789 epoch by both Jacobin republicans and Bonapartists alike.

Yet the French case is far more complicated than is often acknowledged. First, the manner in which the territory of the French state had been constructed over the centuries created no strong sense of national identity. If the French increasingly developed a sense of belonging to a single patrie, the reality of pre- and indeed post-revolutionary France remained one of astonishing cultural, linguistic and regional diversity. As the historian, Graham Robb has remarked: ‘France was a vast continent that had yet to be colonised.’ Until well into the 19th century, for example, a sizeable proportion of French citizens did not speak French. Second, from the 19th century onwards, France was a nation state that increasingly – and very unusually for Europe – resembled a society of immigrants, a country that experienced large-scale immigration from Russia, Poland and Italy in particular, and more recently North Africa. Yet, as the American political theorist Michael Walzer has observed, France has not thought of itself as a pluralist society.

In response to these atypical circumstances, it was in France that a distinctive understanding of what it meant to be French and to be a French citizen emerged; and it was one, it is still widely believed, that in its pursuit of the creation of an inclusive political community made no reference to the concepts of race and ethnicity. The aspiration was to create a republican nation state with a highly distinctive and single political culture. To be French was to aspire to the universal and to rise above traditional community, religious or regional identities or determinisms. It was, in the words of the scholar Dominique Schnapper, to belong to a ‘community of citizens’. Let us recall that French was not only the language of international diplomacy but also the language of civilisation and the arts. To this, after 1789, the French added that France was the vehicle of progress and human emancipation. This familiar picture usually entailed a comparison with what was seen as the closed and racial conception of citizenship and nationality associated with Germany.

Yet, the complications of the French case also require us to look beyond the myth-making of French republican historiography. As the historian and political scientist Patrick Weil pointed out in his excellent study, How to Be French, no other democratic country has changed its nationality laws more often than France and nowhere else has the subject of nationality been the subject of such continuous political and legal confrontations. First, it was only with the incorporation of nationality into the Napoleonic Civil Code of 1803 that the law clearly spelt out what it meant to be French. A French person was someone born of a French father. The principle of jus sanguinis – ‘right of blood’ – prevailed. Yet, as France’s immigrant population expanded, this was hard to sustain. Thus, the nationality law of 1889 established birth on French territory – jus soli – as a sufficient criterion for attributing French nationality. Many considerations were brought into play here. One was the desire to treat foreign residents fairly and to accord them the same rights as French-born nationals. Another, no less important consideration, arose out of the interests of national security: as fear of another war with Germany grew, France needed all the conscript soldiers it could get. After the blood-letting of the First World War, nationality law became an instrument of demographic policy: French citizenship was now made available to an array of immigrants through either naturalisation or marriage. The advent of the Vichy regime – where legislation sanctioned the denaturalisation of French citizens – added another (sorry) chapter to this story.

Yet the French Third Republic (1870–1940) had itself maintained the barriers between French nationality and the many subjects of its empire. The law of 1889, for example, when applied to Algeria (then deemed to be a part of France), was applied to foreigners only in the sense of being Europeans. Muslims were excluded on the grounds that they were taken to be non-assimilable – incapable of embracing the values of the French national and political community. Of these values laïcité – roughly translated as secularism – was taken to be paramount. The significance of this lies in the fact that, from 1789 onwards, the French state had engaged in a vast process of seeking to assimilate the very people it deemed to be assimilable: the Bretons, Auvergnats, Savoyards, Normans, and other provincials, who made up the diverse regional mix of what the French refer to as the hexagon or metropolitan France. This was the process referred to by the historian Eugen Weber in his classic study as turning Peasants into Frenchmen.

In part, this was achieved through the building of roads and railways and the general improvement of communications (including the press) after 1870. Urbanisation also had a significant impact. Military conscription – extended to three years in 1913 – also played an important role. The army was the school of the fatherland. But at the heart of this process of nation-building was the republican school system and the republican school teacher (the hussards noirs of republican legend). Free and compulsory, it was the school – and, chiefly, the village school – that was to be the principal site of integration, the place where a national ethos was to be inculcated and a shared public identity forged. Enormous efforts were also made to republicanise public space through the choice of street names, the building of public monuments, the use of emblems (not least the tricolour flag), and to republicanise national memory through the commemoration of well-chosen key events and indeed the writing of a new national history. Much can be learned from the history of the imagery used on the humble postage stamp. The first steps were also taken towards the creation of a welfare state.

Here, the story is more complex than has sometimes been told. First, the separation between church and state was not as stark as republican ideology might have us believe. And, of course, the church had its own national story to tell and its own monuments to build (for example, the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, begun in the 1870s). Second, the republican state was far from averse to clothing itself in the paraphernalia of the pre-revolution monarchy. Presidents not only opened flower shows but no tour of the country was complete without alms for the poor and kind words for the sick. And, third, in its newly-created empire, the republic operated in a very different, and less inclusive, way. The republic also faced a growing working-class movement that, in theory at least, was committed to an ideology of anti-patriotism. However, as the rallying to the nation associated with the declaration of war in 1914 and the subsequent sacrifices demonstrated, the republic enjoyed overwhelming public support and gave ample proof of its extraordinary capacity for integration. It has been only more recently that this integrationist model has fallen into difficulty.

Yet France is an outlier in any story that is told about state, nation and empire in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Despite the association of the 19th century with the rise of the nation state, the predominant political form remained empire. Indeed, even as late as 1900 it was not unreasonable (despite the fate of the Spanish Empire) to believe that the future would resemble a world of empires. The expansion of the United States to the Pacific Ocean combined with the precipitous growth of its economy and population appeared to prove the point. As the historian, Dominic Lieven has remarked, ‘the geopolitical basis for the age of imperialism was the conviction that continental-scale territory and resources were essential for any truly great power.’ Yet all these empires – as the British conflict over Ireland illustrated – were potentially threatened by the springtime of nations. Issues about race and ethnicity (and religion) could not be ignored; and, to refer to Lieven again, the challenges faced in turning Croats, Romanians and Serbs into Austro-Hungarians were far greater than those associated with turning ‘peasants into Frenchmen’. As the survival rate of polyglot and multi-confessional empires looked to be declining, the task was to transform empires into compact and functioning political nations. We catch a glimpse of the scale of the problems faced when we consider that, in 1500, the tsar presided over a homogenous Russian population; by 1900, imperial expansion meant that only 44 per cent of the subjects of the Russian Empire were Russian. The harsh facts of Russian geography, climate, and a largely rural population – memorably detailed in Astolphe de Custine’s La Russie en 1839 – added to the enormity of the undertaking. However, if we confine our attention to only the Russian, German, and Austro-Hungarian cases, we can see that there were numerous similarities between the strategies pursued by these empires and those employed by the French state to produce its own republican citizenry.

Here we might pause to consider how one empire successfully generated a sense of identity and belonging before the birth of modern nationalism and the modern nation state. As the historian Peter Wilson has written, the Holy Roman Empire was ‘never a unitary state with a homogeneous population, but instead a patchwork of lands and peoples under an uneven and changing jurisdiction’. Nevertheless, the inhabitants of the empire had a sense of shared identity, however minimal. Latin served as a universal language transcending vernacular dialects. The Roman Catholic religion provided a common belief system and a common language to address political issues. People, and especially political elites, travelled and migrated across the empire, sometimes to debate, sometimes to fight a common enemy. Institutions such as monastic orders as well as the church itself spread across borders.

For all that, Wilson readily acknowledges that, from as early as the 9th century, efforts, however perfunctory, were made to distinguish between tribes and peoples. Language was seen as an important distinguishing mark, as were common descent and (usually martial) origins. The Franks sought to emphasise their distinctiveness through their law codes but this, Wilson affirms, did no more than ‘confirm the lasting sense of the Empire as inhabited by a variety of peoples, rather than as an exclusive, superior people standing apart and above those they ruled’. Unlike its monarchical counterparts, the Holy Roman Empire did not use language, culture and (later) religion to distinguish between loyal subjects and suspect foreigners.

From this, Wilson concludes that there was nothing inevitable about ‘building multiple, distinct ‘national’ identities around notions of language, culture and ethnicity’. Yet, over time and for a wide variety of reasons – Wilson cites the development of cartography from the 15th century onwards, for example – the empire came increasingly to be seen as a barrier to the kinds of movements of national unification that emerged in post-1815 Europe. It also greatly contributed to the difficulty of defining the German nation. And so, it is erroneously believed, when the Holy Roman Empire ceased to exist with the abdication of Francis II in 1806, its passing was not much mourned.

Crucially, at this juncture, Napoleon Bonaparte failed to realise his own imperial ambitions and Europe was left with the troublesome matter of redrawing its national and imperial boundaries, a process that condemned it to war for much of the next 130 years or more. If all states – including even little Belgium – embraced what they saw as the financial, military and political imperatives of creating empires beyond Europe, they also had to build a set of structures that would guarantee their survival at home. Invariably, this took the form of seeking to modernise administrative and political institutions, combined with the attempted creation of a sense of loyalty among their subjects and citizens that would transcend linguistic and religious divisions (both of which were of growing importance as determinants of national identity).

In Russia, this was secured in part through the ruthlessness of Romanov rule – frequently experienced by the ever-unfortunate Poland – but serfdom was abolished and genuine attempts were made to improve education and welfare services for Russia’s impoverished masses. Administrative structures, if still inadequate, were modernised and communications across the vast empty spaces of Russia improved (most notably through the construction of the trans-Siberian railway). Economic growth was encouraged, and not without considerable success in the years after 1880. At the same time, an enormous effort was made to Russify the population, especially after the assassination of Alexander II in 1881. As in France, education was to play a crucial role, especially in the Ukraine where virtually all publications in Ukrainian were banned. To this was added the mystical aura of holy Russia as the defender of the orthodox faith, a unique civilisation that must remain true to its Slavophile traditions and values. For all the support this autocratic vision received from the Orthodox Church, it failed (unlike its French equivalent) to convince its increasingly Westernised elite.

The challenges faced by the Austrian Empire were no less daunting, even if, like their Russian counterparts and rivals, they showed themselves well aware of the utility of symbols, flags, military orders and other imperial regalia to foster loyalty to the regime. The relentless conservatism (and repression) of the Metternich years did little to foster subject loyalty but, in later years, administrative centralisation was combined with educational reform (and the widespread teaching of the German language). Feudalism was abolished and what bore a resemblance to a liberal empire was put in place. Mandatory primary education was introduced, as was military conscription, in 1868. As in France, compulsory accident and health insurance was established. The state also funded massive investment in the railway and postal systems. 1875 saw the creation of the empire’s first university in 50 years. Impressive public buildings – many of them theatres and concert halls – popped up all over the place. Intriguingly, an enormous effort was made to sell the Habsburg dynasty as a force for unity and, not for the last time, a pretty princess, the 16-year-old Elisabeth of Bavaria, was brought into a royal family to add a bit of lustre. Universal suffrage was introduced in 1907. As in Russia, the ideologists of empire asserted that the social, political and cultural interests of its component parts were best served within the imperial fold. This was also taken to be true for Bosnia-Herzegovina, Austro-Hungary’s sole colony after 1878, where, like the Russian tsar and the French president, the Austrian emperor proved only too willing to embrace Austria-Hungary’s new civilising mission in Europe. None of this did much to diminish the culture wars that would eventually take Austria-Hungary to the edge of disintegration.

With the proclamation of the imperial constitution in 1871, the king of Prussia became the German kaiser. Not only did the new constitution say little about the role of the kaiser but one of the most striking features of the new order was the weakness of central authority. The German Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, set out to rectify this, and he (and his successors) did so in a way that his French republican enemies would have recognised: most obviously, he established the political primacy of Prussia but, no less importantly, he declared war on the Catholic Church on the grounds that it was a major domestic hindrance to national consolidation. Germanisation was the order of the day, the use of languages other than German being prohibited in schools as early 1872. If this was true in Prussia’s Polish and Lithuanian provinces, it applied also to Alsace, arguably Germany’s first colony, where German became the sole official language and which was administered by an imported Prussian bureaucracy. Colonisation programmes were introduced in the eastern provinces. Most famously of all, Bismarck introduced a raft of social legislation in the 1880s designed to cement the loyalty of German workers to the Hohenzollern monarchy. Like his Austrian and French counterparts, Kaiser Wilhelm II also played his part. Always attentive to his outward appearance, he travelled across the empire, opened hospitals, christened ships, visited factories and observed parades. The aim, as the historian Christopher Clark has written, was to ‘charismatise’ the monarchy, to affirm the imperial monarchy as the ultimate guarantor of the unity of the empire and to assert that ‘God had established him in this exalted office in order to fulfil God’s plan for the German nation.’ The reality of course was that the implementation of this plan fell to the German army and navy, with disastrous results, but both institutions played a key role in forging national pride and belonging in the years prior to 1914. If the French republic honoured its heroes in Paris’s Panthéon, the German Reich did so in Berlin’s Avenue of Victory.

What might be our conclusions? Two stand out. As we have seen, if only in brief outline, there were marked similarities in the empire and nation-building strategies pursued in imperial Russia, Austria and Germany and republican France. Second, if in the French case there is ample evidence to suggest that the republic successfully created and used national sentiment to bolster popular support of the regime, the strategies pursued in Russia, Austria-Hungary and Germany appear to have been less successful. Of course, the challenges faced by these three regimes were arguably far greater than those that confronted France. Moreover, it was not the failure to create a unified political culture and a sense of belonging that destroyed these empires but war and their defeat.

This essay originally appeared under the title State, Nation and Empire in Modern Europe, in Nation, State and Empire: Perspectives from the Engelsberg Seminar, Axess, in collaboration with Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson Foundation, 2017.


Jeremy Jennings