From the rise of Napoleon in the early 1800s to the increasingly tense politics in the run-up to the start of the First World War, nationalism has proved to be one of the defining political forces of the modern world.
Beginning in independence movements against colonial powers, nationalism has shaped the world we live in today more than is often acknowledged. It remains a powerful ideological tool today as Europe has begun to react against change and economic downturns by once again voting for parties which promise to preserve a set of values and promote a sense of nostalgic national identity.
What is nationalism?
Nationalism is based around the idea that a nation, defined by a shared group of characteristics, such as religion, culture, ethnicity, geography or language, should have the ability of self-determination and to govern itself, as well as be able to preserve and take pride in its traditions and history.
At the beginning of the 19th century, Europe’s borders were far from fixed entities, and it was largely comprised of a number of smaller states and principalities. The unification of many European nations in the face of Napoleon’s wars of expansion – and the oppressive nature of imperial conquest – led many to begin to think about the benefits of joining together with other states who had similar languages, cultural practices and traditions into bigger, more powerful entities who would be able to defend themselves against potential aggressors.
So too did those who had suffered imperial rule by politicians and kings in far away places begin to grow increasingly tired of a lack of political agency and cultural oppression.
But whilst these new theories and ideas may have been simmering below the surface, it takes a strong, charismatic leader to articulate them in a way which excites people enough to get behind them and act, whether that be through rebellion or going to the ballot box. We’ve rounded up 6 of the most important figures in 19th century nationalism, whose leadership, passion and eloquence helped incite major change.
1. Toussaint Louverture
Famous for his role in the Haitian Revolution, Louverture (whose name literally derives from the word for ‘opening’) was a believer in the principles of the French Revolution. As the French rose up against their oppressive masters, he channelled the revolutionary spirit on the island of Haiti.
The majority of the island’s population were slaves with little to no rights under colonial law and society. The uprising, led by Louverture, was bloody and brutal, but it was ultimately successful and inspired by the beginnings of French nationalism thousands of miles away, across the Atlantic Ocean.
Many now view the Haitian Revolution – which culminated in 1804 – as the most influential revolution in history, and Toussaint Louverture’s role in bringing it about cements him as one of nationalism’s earliest proponents.
2. Napoleon Bonaparte
The French Revolution of 1789 espoused values of liberté, égalité, fraternité and it was these ideals upon which Napoleon championed his own brand of early nationalism. As the supposed centre of the enlightened world, Napoleon justified his campaigns of military expansion (and of ‘natural’ French borders) on the basis that in doing so, France was also spreading its enlightened ideals.
Unsurprisingly, this came back to bite the French. The idea of nationalism they had spread, which included ideas like the right to self-determination, freedom and equality, seemed to be even further from reality for those whose right to self-determination and liberty had been taken by French conquest of their lands.
3. Simon Bolivar
Nicknamed El Libertador (the Liberator), Bolivar led much of South America to independence from Spain. After travelling to Europe as a teenager, he returned to South America and launched a campaign for independence, which ultimately succeeded.
However, Bolivar may have gained independence for the new state of Gran Colombia (comprised of modern day Venezuela, Colombia, Panama and Ecuador), but it proved difficult to keep such vast landmass and disparate territories as one body united against any potential further attacks from the Spanish or the newly independent United States.
Gran Colombia was dissolved in 1831 and broke into successor states. Today, many countries in northern South America recognise Bolivar as a national hero and use his image and memory as a rallying point for national identity and notions of independence.
4. Giuseppe Mazzini
One of the architects of Risorgimento (Italian unification), Mazzini was an Italian nationalist who believed Italy had a single identity and shared cultural traditions that should be united as a whole. Officially Italy’s reunification was completed by 1871, the year before Mazzini died, but the nationalist movement he started continued in the form of irredentism: the idea that all ethnic Italians and majority-Italian speaking areas should also be absorbed into the new nation of Italy.
Mazzini’s brand of nationalism set the stage for the idea of democracy in a republican state. The notion of cultural identity as paramount, and the belief in self-determination went on to influence many of the 20th century’s political leaders.
5. Daniel O’Connell
Daniel O’Connell, also nicknamed the Liberator, was an Irish Catholic who was a major figure in representing the Irish Catholic majority in the 19th century. Ireland had been colonised and ruled by the British for several hundred years: O’Connell’s aim was to get Britain to grant Ireland a separate Irish Parliament, regaining a degree of independence and autonomy for the Irish people, and for Catholic emancipation.
O’Connell succeeded in getting the Roman Catholic Relief Act passed in 1829: the British grew increasingly concerned about civil unrest in Ireland should they resist further. O’Connell was subsequently elected as an MP and continued to agitate for Irish Home Rule from Westminster. As time went on, he was increasingly accused of selling out as he continued to refuse to support taking up arms in the quest for independence.
Irish nationalism continued to plague the British for nearly another 100 hundred years, culminating in the Irish War of Independence (1919-21).
6. Otto von Bismarck
The mastermind of German unification in 1871, Bismarck later served as Germany’s first chancellor for another two decades. German nationalism had begun to take hold in the early 19th century, and philosophers and political thinkers found increasing reasons to justify a singular German state and identity. Prussian military successes and the War of Liberation (1813-14) also helped generate a significant sense of pride and enthusiasm for the idea.
Bismarck was the man to make this actually happen: whether unification was part of a wider master plan to expand Prussian power or based on true ideas of nationalism and a desire to unify German-speaking people remains hotly debated by historians.
Nationalism in the 19th century was born of militarism and a desire for freedom from oppression by foreign powers or empires. However, the legacy of freedom and political self-determination these men initially championed quickly disintegrated into internal nationality conflicts, disputes over borders and arguments over history which eventually helped spark the First World War.