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In this lesson, we explore the competing political ideologies of conservatism and nationalism during the 19th century and discuss a few events that exemplified this clash.

Conservatism and Nationalism

Newton’s Third Law of Motion states that for every action there’s an equal and opposite reaction. While Newton’s law was meant to be applied to motion and physical mechanics, the law is often displayed in the human political world as well: any change a person or group wants to enact, there is likely a similar group opposed to such change.Arguably the most important political movement of 19th-century Europe was nationalism.

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Indeed, nationalism, or extreme pride in one’s nation, language, or ethnic and cultural heritage, was the impetus for the creation of several states in the 19th century. However, conservatives, those generally in favor of maintaining the status quo, provided significant opposition for 19th-century nationalism.

Nationalism

As I mentioned, nationalism for a single person is the pride in oneself and those who share like traits. This usually refers to all the citizens of a country, but it can also extend beyond borders to those sharing similar linguistic, ethnic, or cultural heritage. The 19th century in Europe saw an enormous growth of regional nationalism in several areas, especially in parts of Europe that were politically fragmented, such as the German or Italian-speaking states in central and southern Europe.Nationalism in Europe had two basic manifestations. The first was the type with which most people in America identify today: national pride.

Nationalism in this sense was more inclusive, championing the home country and accepting as its citizenry anyone who worked toward the greater glory of the state. The second manifestation, however, was far more exclusive, and defined a ‘nation’ not in the political and territorial sense that we do today, but rather as a homogeneous ethnic and linguistic culture.Territorial borders, thus, mattered less to these nationalists. This ethnic nationalism, when taken to its extremes, could exhibit strains of racism and prejudice against those not part of the group. In the 19th century, the first of these forms of nationalism was more prevalent in France, while the second was generally the nationalism prevalent in Germany and Italy.

Conservatism

19th-century political conservatism, on the other hand, was a reaction against these new nationalist movements and other more abstract political theories that arose out of 18th and 19th-century philosophy. Indeed, nationalism was partially a product of the Enlightenment, and political conservatives in Europe railed against Enlightenment political philosophy.

After all, things like democracy, universal voting rights, and other Enlightenment-based features of modern Western governments were viewed as politically subversive at the time. Conservatives in the 19th century were part of the political establishment and, therefore, invested in maintaining the current monarchies and constitutional monarchies of Europe.

Clashes and Examples

With these definitions in mind, let’s take a look at a few examples of how nationalism and conservatism clashed with one another in the 19th century. The event that was viewed as the biggest threat to 19th-century conservatives – largely because it scared the bejesus out of them – actually began in the last decade of the 18th century: the French Revolution. The French Revolution is an incredibly confusing period of French history, beginning with the creation of the National Assembly in 1789 and ending with the defeat of Napoleon in 1815.In the intervening period, France had multiple governments that all sought to incorporate Enlightenment ideals. These governments were often violently overthrown or suppressed, and thousands died in the turmoil, including the French King Louis XVI, who was executed in 1793.

France’s multiple democratic experiments ended when Napoleon Bonaparte became French Emperor in 1804. A strong nationalist who championed French ideals and influence, he nearly conquered Europe before being defeated by a coalition of European countries and eventually deposed.The French Revolution terrified the conservatives of Europe: if the people of France could achieve so much when they embraced Enlightenment ideals and nationalism, what could a motivated and reform-minded populace possibly achieve in their own countries? The answers were chilling, and in order to safeguard against the possibility, the powers of Europe tried to devise a system in 1815 that would stop popular nationalist movements from threatening European monarchies.This occurred at the Congress of Vienna. The chief objective of the congress was to peacefully settle the territorial disputes that arose between states in the aftermath of Napoleon’s European conquest and create a balance of power that would preclude a European conquest from ever happening again. The second most important objective to the congress was undermining liberal and nationalist movements in European countries that could undermine the traditional monarchies.

For example, in France, the Bourbon monarchy was replaced by the Congress of Vienna as the rightful rulers of France.While this settlement stymied nationalist revolutions for a time, it could not stop them forever, especially when nationalism was co-opted by the monarchies themselves. This occurred in the creation of both Germany and Italy later in the 19th century. In Germany, the state of Prussia sought to unify all German-speaking states of the former Holy Roman Empire (excluding its chief rival Austria) into one German state. Through political maneuvering and, most significantly, war with France, Prussia created the German Empire in 1871.Likewise, the Prime Minister of Sardinia-Piedmont, Camillo Benso di Cavour, wanted to create a state that unified the entire Italian peninsula. Cavour likewise used political maneuvering, such as entering the Crimean War with France and Great Britain, to gain important allies for the Italian state.

He also encouraged popular insurrection against local rulers in Italian territory, eventually leading to the creation of the Kingdom of Italy in 1861.

Lesson Summary

The fight between nationalists and conservatives dictated many of the political developments of 19th-century Europe. Nationalism and other products of the Enlightenment influenced people into thinking differently about the foundations of nation-states and the basis of political power. Conservatives, entrenched in the monarchies and establishments that had ruled Europe for centuries, were naturally inclined to oppose such radical political developments.Agreements like those made at the Congress of Vienna attempted to tamp down grassroots nationalism and other political movements.

They worked for a while, but in the end nationalism proved to be too strong a factor to be ignored. Eventually, some states like Prussia and Sardinia chose to co-opt nationalism and, as such, created nations we know today, like Germany and Italy.

Learning Outcomes

As this video lesson ends, you could realize these objectives:

  • Compare nationalism and conservatism
  • Observe and evaluate examples of each movement
  • Discuss whether or not the Congress of Vienna was successful in its aim to settle disputes over territory

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