The Role of Nationalism in Europe During the Era of the French Revolution and the Reign of Napoleon
Nationalism, defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as: “loyalty and devotion to a nation; especially : a sense of national consciousness exalting one nation above all others and placing primary emphasis on promotion of its culture and interests as opposed to those of other nations or supranational groups,” played a highly substantial role in the course of both the French Revolution, Napoleon’s reign, and the effects upon the nation thereafter. Through matters of political equality, forms of governmental control, and the introduction of Enlightenment concepts to government, one could state the developments in nationalism the French public, monarchies, and people of other European countries helped shape Europe as it is known today.
One group particularly affected by nationalism in the era of the French Revolution were those in the middle class, or bourgeoisie, which in turn influenced nationalism in other middle classes throughout other European nation states. Before the Revolution began, the local officials, professional men, lawyers, and otherwise common people of France, or the 3rd Estate, shared the nation’s suffering in debt through their excessive taxing, in addition to their unfair representation in the Estates General. These common quandaries between the 3rd Estate and Enlightenment theories of the time led them to realize, as 98% of the French population, the nation should belong to the common people, and not to the king. This concept was supported in our third source, Nationalism in the age of the French Revolution, as the text stated that, “Everything which had been royal became national.” This thinking prompted the 3rd Estate to create the National Assembly, with the intentions of creating a government which would unite all citizens equally. Throughout the French Revolution, the National Assembly simulated various events and documents which reflected upon nationalism; these products including the storming of the Bastille, as well as the writing of the Declaration of the Rights of Man. The Storming of the Bastille was one of the first times the French people bonded together to fight for their Revolution; on this historic event, the merchant class of Paris banded together to attack the Bastille prison, which they had believed to be a government holding space for weapons. They acted as they did to demonstrate their belief regarding how the nation should be run by the people’s principles and ideas of purpose instead of King Louis XVI’s. Another example appears in Eugene Delacroix’s oil painting, “Liberty Leading the People.” The power of nationalism and the new ideas of democracy and political involvement are illustrated in a war scene during the July Revolution of 1830, where Charles X was overthrown. In the piece, a partially nude woman is holding the French flag and standing on top of fallen men, implying the power and pride, as well as the beauty, of the concepts of nationalism and democracy. Although events such as the fall of the Bastille and the July Revolution were not extremely successful or productive individually, they each built upon a message to the king: the National Constituent Assembly would not solely determine the political future of France. The Declaration of the Rights of Man similarly displays nationalism because it contains, in written form, the beliefs, principles, and purpose which government members of the middle class fought for in the storming of the Bastille; such including the government’s protection of the natural rights of men: “liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression.” The actions taken by the common French citizens led the middle classes of other nations to begin to question the control of their monarchies.
Aside from the middle class, the aristocracy and nobility of Europe was also united by their own sense of nationalism during the French Revolution. As the acts and intentions of the National Assembly became known to Louis XVI and the 1st Estate of France, they, and other kings and queens in Europe, became increasingly aware of the French Revolution’s purpose, which encompassed a war against monarchies. Before this era, monarchies had been in control of Europe, and because of such traditional mindset, the monarchies found themselves to be rightfully in full power over their country. As the French monarchy was being challenged by its citizens, other monarchies in Europe also began to feel threatened; as all monarchies wished to hold their power, they banded together to avoid defeat. One of the ways this was done was through the Declaration of Pillnitz. In this document, Emperor Leopold II of Austria, brother of Marie Antoinette and king of Prussia, Frederick William II, declared the two monarchies would intervene in France to protect the royal family and to save the power of France’s monarchy if other major European powers would also intervene. Although this Declaration was useless due to England’s lack of involvement, it demonstrates the bond which the monarchies shared during the Revolution, and how their similar principles and purposes produced their own separate nationalism.
These ideas of nationalism created as a result of events from the French Revolution are demonstrated in the first piece of artwork, the “Revolution Collage” in several parts. In the upper left hand corner, there is an image of King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette inside a birdcage, being held up by an image of the document, “The Declaration of the Rights of Man,” and the word “enlightenment.” This section of the artwork demonstrates how the French monarchy’s power was limited during the Revolution by the ideas of the people of the 3rd Estate; enlightenment ideas gave way to the formation of the “Declaration of the Rights of Man” under the foundation of the concept that all men should be held as equals under the rule of law. Sharing the top half of the piece with the caged royalty, there are portraits of Emperor Leopold II of Austria and Emperor Frederick William II of Prussia with arms extended from their frames and towards the cage. This symbolizes the bond and help the two monarchs were offering towards their French counterpart. In the bottom right hand corner of the piece, there is an image of French nobility with loaves of bread, separated from a pair of peasants who are without any food, symbolizing the oppression lower class citizens were being exposed to before the Revolution began; the oppression that started a feeling of nationalism among the French people. In the middle of the art piece are two images of men who were influenced by this nationalism, representing the entire community behind the French Revolution.
Since a sense of nationalism had already developed in the French citizens during their country’s revolution, Napoleon’s reign ultimately heightened/ added to this sentiment. This nationalism began with the military success of Napoleon; by 1797, he had taken Austria out of the war started in the revolution and had Italy and Switzerland under France’s control. As seen in the map, the “French Empire at its Greatest Extent, c. 1810,”Napoleon began collecting European countries and either putting them under his control or becoming allied with them; a true visual representation of the amount of control under Napoleon helps one understand the consequences of the French Revolution and Napoleon. As the map shows, Austria was allied to France, and the entirety of Italy was either under French control, or was already deemed to be part of the French empire. Why would the French people turn to a controlling despot from the previous absolute monarchy? According to a quote from Robespierre in our third source, Nationalism in the age of the French Revolution, “… It is in wartime that the people forget the deliberations which crucially concern their civil and political rights, and shift their attention… to the generals and ministers of the executive power.” Because the French people were overwhelmed with nationalism after Napoleon found success during their wartime, they allowed themselves to be controlled by a dictator. By achieving peace with France’s enemies in 1799, Napoleon restored confidence in the French people. As Napoleon brought France a relative amount of peace, he also restored Catholicism, and gave the historically uniting religion back to the people, though he supported freedom of religion. Napoleon established equality among all citizens in the law, and set uniform weights and measures. This security of peace in the French citizens’ home nation, unity in a common practice, and practice of the principles they had long fought for encouraged nationalism among the people of France. With Napoleon’s Empire at its height, as illustrated in the “French Empire at its Greatest Extent,” the French people’s allegiance to their country only grew stronger, in a wider spectrum.
Napoleon’s reign also sparked nationalism in other nations across Europe, though through entirely opposite means. While French citizens generally approved of the success Napoleon brought to their nation, other countries resented his control. As he conquered, Napoleon forced the other countries and ethnic groups to conform to French culture. He forced other states to reorganize themselves; although there had been unsteadiness between the citizens and their monarchies from the time of the French Revolution, the two classes had been unified to an extent by the threat of Napoleon. As France began to celebrate its culture, the other nations recognized the importance of celebrating their own; they understandably were very opposed to the French culture Napoleon’s dominion was pushing on them. Specifically, Spain fought for this independence from Napoleon’s control through their Guerrilla attacks toward France’s communication, killing straggling soldiers, as well as destroying isolating units.
The different kinds of nationalism that were sparked from Napoleon’s reign are represented in the second piece of art, “Nationalism from Napoleon,” in two parts, one part being the view of acceptance from the French people, the other being the resentment felt by other European countries. On the top half, there is an image of Napoleon in front of a silhouette of France. Next to it are several images in white frames symbolizing points that influenced nationalism in the French public: a map of Europe, representing Napoleon’s military success; the word equality, representing the equal rights he gave to the people; and a Catholic-style portrait of Jesus Christ, representing his action of bringing the historic Catholic tradition back to the French people. The bottom half of the art piece contains another portrait of Napoleon, with him pulling on a rope that binds four European countries, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, and Germany, to his control. This symbolizes the force Napoleon placed on Europe to conform to French culture, and the resistance to this forced nationalism that said European countries felt.
After Napoleon was removed from power and the Congress of Vienna began to restore Europe to its past state prior to Napoleon’s reign, nationalism continued to take hold in the European world. In the Austrian and Russian empires, the idea of a multi-nationalist state was rejected, and in smaller countries like Italy and Germany, keeping ethnic groups in the same political units, rather than dividing them into smaller ones, was valued.
As illustrated in the new values and actions taken toward societal equality, a new vision regarding government types, and the revival of Enlightenment ideals, it is only fair to say nationalism reshaped the entire course of European history. Without the French revolution, the reign of Napoleon in Europe, and the aftermath of the various events during the era of the post-revolution, modern Europe simply would not be the way it is now without the role and development of nationalism in such a fashion.