Nationalism became the most powerful force for change in the 1800s. The nationalist influence spread through Europe and America, creating and breaking up countries. In Europe, it eliminated the balance of power set up by the Congress of Vienna, affecting the lives of millions. Empires used to be made up of many different people – now, nationalist led the people to be free and govern themselves.

  • Nationalism: A Force for Unity or Disunity

    Nationalism started efforts to create nation-states. These nationalists were not loyal to kings, but to people like them, with similar backgrounds and cultures. These nationalists believed that people of one ancestry should be united. However, other conservatives believed that nationalism was a force for disunity.

    Soon, authoritarian leaders also began to see nationalism as a powerful force they could manipulate. They began to use the nationalist feelings for their advantage, building nation-states where they held power.


Types of Nationalist Movements







Merging of politically different put culturally similar lands.

19th century Germany
19th century Italy


Culturally distinct group resists being added to a state and tries to break free

Greeks in the Ottoman Empire
French-speaking Canadians


Culturally distinct groups form a new state by having a single culture.

The United States


  • Nationalism Shakes Aging Empires

    Three of the oldest empires – Austrian Empire, Russian Empire, and Ottoman Empire – had a large amount of ethnic groups. When nationalism emerged in the 19th century, the ethnic unrest forced these empires to collapse.

    • The Breakup of the Austrian Empire
      • The Austrian Empire included the Slovenes, Hungarians, Germans, Czechs, Slovaks, Croats, Poles, Serbs and Italians. Prussia defeated Austria in 1866. With this victory, Prussia began to rule over the North German Confederation, a group of Prussia and 21 other German political units. Under the pressure of the Hungarians, Emperor of Austria split his empire in half, declaring Austria and Hungary as separate states, both ruled by him. This new empire is called Austria-Hungary. Nationalism continued to weaken this empire until they completely split after World War I.
    • The Russian Empire Crumbles
      • Nationalism also helped destroy Russian czars which had ruled for 370 years. The czar ruled over the Russians, Ukrainians, Poles, and other small groups. Each group had its own culture.
      • The ruling Romanov dynasty tried to maintain control, starting “Russification”, forcing Russian culture upon all people. However, this policy ended up actually making ethnic nationalist feelings stronger and weakened Russia. This weak empire could not withstand WWI and the communist revolution, forcing the czar to give up his power in 1917.
    • The Ottoman Empire Weakens
      • The Turks ruled the Ottoman Empire, presiding over Greeks, Slavs, Arabs, Bulgarians, and Armenians. Under pressure from the British and French, the Ottomans decided to grant equal citizenship to all people in 1856. This measure angered conservative Turks who wanted to preserve the past. This new tension led to several incidents: in one, the Ottomans massacred and deported Armenians. Like Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire broke apart after World War I.
  • Case Study: Cavour Unites Italy

    Nationalism not only destroyed empires, it also built new ones. Italy was formed as a result of the nationalism. From 1815 to 1848, fewer Italians were willing to live with foreign rule.

    • Cavour Leads Italian Unification
      • The Italian nationalists got their leadership from Piedmont-Sardinia, the largest Italian state. The kingdom had a constitution ever since 1848, making them seem like the ideal choice to be unified under.
      • In 1852, Sardinia’s king, Victor Emmanuel decided to expand Piedmont-Sardinia. He used diplomacy and alliances to gain control of northern Italy.
      • Austria was the primary obstacle to the Sardinian takeover of northern Italy. He allied with Napoleon III of France, and their combined power quickly crushed the Austrians. Sardinia succeeded in taking over all of northern Italy except Venetia.
    • Garbaldi Brings Unity
      • While Victor Emmanuel (Cavour) was uniting northern Italy, he also secretly helped nationalist rebels in southern Italy. An army of southern Italian nationalists were led by Giuseppe Garibaldi to victory. These men always wore bright red shirts, becoming known as the Red Shirts. They captured Sicily.
      • After Sicily, Garibaldi and his men marched north and eventually agreed to unite the southern areas with Piedmont-Sardinia. Emmanuel met Garibaldi in Naples, and Garibaldi willingly gave the Sardinian king his power.
      • In 1866, Venetia joined Italy. In 1870, the forces took over the “Papal States”. Rome came under Italian control, eventually becoming the capital of Italy. However, the pope continued to govern “Vatican City”.
  • Case Study: Bismarck Unites Germany

    Germany achieved unity in the mid-1800s. Starting in 1815, 39 German states joined into a German Confederation, dominated by the Austrian Empire. However, Prussia wanted to take over all the German states.

    • Prussia Leads German Unification
      • Prussia had a mainly German population, leading nationalism to unify Prussia. Meanwhile, most people were being torn apart in Austria-Hungary. Also, Prussia’s army was the strongest in Central Europe. In 1848, Berlin rioters forced a constitutional convention to write a constitution, starting the people on the path to unification.
    • Bismarck Takes Control
      • In 1861, Wilhelm I gained control of the throne.
  • A Shift in Power

    The 1815 Congress of Vienna had created 5 great powers who were equal in strength: Britain, France, Russia, Austria, Prussia. However, the wars in the mid-1800s strengthened Prussia, who joined with other states to form Germany.

    By 1871, Britain and Germany were both extremely powerful military and economically. Austria and Russia were far behind. France was in the middle.