Nationalism in all parts of Europe surged in the 19th century, the centuries old multinational states of the Ottoman Empire and Austria-Hungary broke apart and by the end of the century this jingoism culminated in World War I.

How come?

As always in history it's multiple causes acting simultaneously and causes leading to other causes. I want to know how and why nationalism rose everywhere.

Can it be claimed that it started with the Greek war for independence and that the effect and success of creating a small nation-state for the first time (Kingdom of Greece) fueled the others in their nationalism? And did this originate from a "fault" on the Ottoman side?

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    One can argue any number of claims. But here I would point to the French revolution, the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars, and the social causes of the revolution.
    – o.m.
    Commented Nov 8, 2016 at 15:49
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    I agree with this comment...Napoleon started the whole "rationalization" process. Ironically Napoleon wasn't even French... Commented Nov 8, 2016 at 16:30
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    Zeitgeist- national movements in different countries are often inspired each other as they fought similar causes, often against the same or similar enemy.
    – Greg
    Commented Nov 8, 2016 at 17:20
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    Hitler wasn't German either. Very odd all these "nationalists" who end up being from out of town. Stalin was another one... Commented Nov 8, 2016 at 17:24

2 Answers 2


Who protects your daily security? Who does your loyalty belong to?

Initially (in the middle ages), the answer was your local nobleman, and, through him, via the duke and/or kind, to the Holy Roman Emperor.

Someone had to provide peace, and the choice was limited: whoever has won military control over your area most recently. As long as they did not interfere with your religious life and did not assess too much taxes, it was okay.

One's ethnicity was a private matter - like religion today.

The French revolution offered a practical implementation of what was spelled out by the thinkers of the Enlightenment - that "someone" is not really necessary, We The People can handle our peace ourselves.

This meant that you don't have to chose your suzerain from the existing list, you join forces with your neighbors and create a better country.

Napoleon's military successes illustrated that idea: you do not have to be lead by blue blood.

Why change?

Trade was growing in importance (industrial revolution &c), and, thus, infrastructure (roads &c) became critical.

Thus replacing one's loyalty to some remote potentate who didn't even speak your language with a someone local makes a lot of sense.

Why nationalism?

Printing press made books cheap, so literacy started to make sense even for lower classes. Printing in vernacular languages was a response to that. Thus the European society transformed itself from "educated people communicate in Latin, especially long distance" to "people read and write in a local language". This lead to an intellectual fragmentation of Europe:

Across Europe, the increasing cultural self-awareness of its peoples led to the rise of proto-nationalism, accelerated by the flowering of the European vernacular languages to the detriment of Latin's status as lingua franca.

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    I think you've got as good a handle as any. I think dramatic increases in trade, communications, etc. created a fertile ground for new connections between people that permitted the establishment of supra-tribal loyalties. But I can't prove it.
    – MCW
    Commented Nov 8, 2016 at 18:35
  • I plead absent minded professor . Somewhat late but sincere.
    – MCW
    Commented Nov 8, 2016 at 20:21
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    Nice, but I can't up vote more than once. :) Commented Nov 8, 2016 at 21:58
  • To clarify, this statement held true with Napoleon: whoever has won military control over your area most recently /quote. The only difference with Napoleon was lack of noble blood. But he had control of the military, so that was the only important thing.
    – James Haug
    Commented Sep 18, 2017 at 12:25

It was in large part due to the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars.

First, France had a revolution that led to the composition of the national anthem, La Marseillaise, that started French national feeling.

Napoleon's invasion of Germany, and the creation of the Conferation of the Rhine consolidated a bunch of "church" holdings into far fewer "states" that later formed the basis of German nationalism.

The creation of the Duchy of Warsaw led to a (temporary) resurgence of Polish nationalism.

The invasion of Russia and ultimate defeat of Napoleon stirred up Russian national feeling, as outlined in "War and Peace. To perhaps a lesser extent, this was true in Austria and Prussia as well.

Napoleon's invasion of Italy supported the continued consolidation of much of that country into a few power blocs (e.g. the Papal States, Naples-Sicily, etc.), mostly united against the "outsider."

Although he crowned himself Emperor, Napoleon had piggybacked on the French Revolution, and he was basically a "revolutionary" in the sense that he was a "leader" with non-royal blood. That paved the way for "similar" leaders like Greece's Rigas Feraios or Hungary's Lajos Kossuth.

Admittedly, these examples were from western Europe in the first half of the nineteenth century, but they set examples for eastern Europe, and in the second half of the century.

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