Question #3

Parrila 1
Sofia Aila Parrila
Professor Ann McDougall
History 112
2 October 2015
Nationalism: A Progressive or Regressive Force in the 19th Century?
Western societies generally assume that history progresses: it moves from
“primitive,” chaotic, and violent to technologically complex, orderly, and liberal. The
democratization of government and the equality of citizens under the law characterize the
Western understanding of progress. However, in order for a country to begin this process
of radical change, the people of that country must understand themselves as a unified
entity capable of large-scale socio-political changes. Then they begin to see achieving
influence and a role in government as necessary for the actualization of their nation’s full
potential. In other words, nationalism helps drive the progression of a country, as well as
the desire for reform, change, and social liberties. But once created, a sense of pride and
identification with one’s nation is not easy to stamp out, and will eventually require an
outlet. This side of nationalism transfers straight from the engine of nation building into
that of empire—and the resulting wars and oppression. One country’s progress is often
built on another’s regression. While European nationalism was a progressive force for the
countries of Europe, when extended to other nations via imperialism, it became a
justification for atrocities that impeded the progression of the conquered regions.
Parrila 2
Nationalism is a progressive force when it is applied within a country to
implement reforms. Early nationalism in Europe facilitated the rise of liberalism. The
Revolution of 1848 in France exemplifies how a demand for progressive reforms uses
nationalistic sentiment. According to the proclamation issued by the provisional
government in Paris, an “oligarchical government [had] just been overthrown by the
heroism of the people of Paris.1” It is clear that this proclamation was crafted to trigger a
strong sense of identification with the French people and cause. Furthermore, the
Revolution of 1848 can be defined as a progressive move in French history. It protested
the conservative monarchy and celebrated “the rights, the progress, and the will2” of the
nation of France. To appease the revolution, the new monarchy abolished slavery in
France’s colonies, extended the right to vote, and helped alleviate unemployment by
creating workshops for the poor.2 These reforms were undeniably progressive as they
were built on liberal values of liberty and equality. During the same time period, in
Britain, “a common faith in the creativity and nobility of the people3” linked nationalism
and liberalism. In response to these ideologies, the government’s new voting bills
expanded suffrage to appease the middle class and grant them political power. This
heightened their sense of belonging to the nation4. Since the “benefits of self-government
[are] possible only if the people [are] united by common traditions that [transcend] class
and local interests,5” nationalism is key to the development of a nation ready for
democracy. Democratic decisions require a unified nation to make majority decisions.
The citizens must also feel identify enough with the State to participate in politics. In this
Documents of 1848 Revolution in France, website.
Revolutions of 1848, Sept. 4, slide 31.
3 Textbook, pp. 722
Textbook, pp. 745
Textbook, pp. 722
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sense, nationalism was progressive, as it drove forward liberal reforms and was essential
to the proper functioning of democracy in mid-19th century Europe.
Unfortunately, nationalism was quick to transfer over into desires of conquest of
the “supposedly inferior peoples in Africa and Asia.6” One manifestation of the direct
link between nationalism and imperialism is the concept of the “White Man’s Burden.”
This was the belief that Europeans were racially and culturally superior to other peoples
and that it was their duty to “civilize,” or to spread their culture and religion, to others.
Europeans used this ideology to justify imperialism7. Once they had convinced
themselves that Africans were uncultured savages, “half devil and half child,8” Europeans
felt a nationalistic duty to spread the wonders of their own culture for the salvation of
others. Another way nationalism was linked to the Scramble for Africa was that influence
overseas translated into prestige in Europe9. Each European nation started competing
with each other for pieces of Africa for ideological and nationalistic reasons. The French
government referred to imperialist expansion as a mission to propagate “[France’s]
language, her customs, her flag, her arms and her genius.10” Nevertheless, the only area in
which Europe truly exceeded the rest of the world was in the use of violence. Rather than
proving Europe’s ideological superiority, imperialism proved its military superiority and
its liberal and ruthless use of weaponry. In areas where local Africans objected to the
takeover of their lands, Europe turned to force, using gunboats and ground troops to
Textbook, pp. 722
Slave Trade, Rise of New Imperialism, and the ‘Scramble for Africa.’ Sept. 16-18, slides 14, 24-25
“The White Man’s Burden,” Rudyard Kipling, cited from Slave Trade, Rise of New Imperialism, and the
‘Scramble for Africa,’ Sept. 16-18, slide 25
Slave Trade, Rise of New Imperialism, and the ‘Scramble for Africa,’ Sept. 16-18, slides 26-27
Textbook, pp. 769
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massacre armies11. Nationalism was key in forming the European ideologies that fuelled
imperial conquest; this ideology claimed to be progressive but was in fact brutal,
resorting to slaughter rather than upholding liberal values.
Empire was undeniably harmful and counter-progressive for the countries Europe
subjugated. Europeans recognized that India, for example, had a rich history and culture
that did not need their interference. According to BBC reporter Michael Wood, “without
the British, India would still have taken the path to modernity12.” When the British
military takeover of India began, the country was already on the cusp of a “renaissance”
that was combining Western liberal values with the local culture13. The libraries in
Tanjore contained both European and Indian knowledge of medicine and government.
According to the European view of progress as liberal reform and technological advance,
India was progressing. It is Europe that interfered and brought war and the end of
progress. As French and English armies fought over South India, they massacred
thousands of Tamils and turned temples into forts and prison camps14. This wanton
destruction of lives and culture was characteristic of European imperial takeover.
Europeans often rationalized the destruction of holy sites by calling other religions
barbaric, and yet Charles Stuart argued that Hinduism “little [needed] the ameliorating
hand of Christianity to render its votaries a correct and moral people in a civilized
society15.” Given that this was the period European ethnocentrism and scientific racism
reached its peak, it is remarkable that Englishmen recognized the presence of morality
Slave Trade, Rise of New Imperialism, and the ‘Scramble for Africa,’ Sept. 16-18, slide 42
Michael Wood, BBC Story of India #6, video.
BBC Story of India #6, video.
BBC Story of India #6, video.
Michael Wood, BBC Story of India #6, video.
Parrila 5
and civilization in a non-Western culture. Imperialism in India demonstrates that
European nationalism was not only contrary to the liberal ideas it had promoted in
Europe, but also impeded the progress of conquered countries.
European nationalism helped Europe make progressive reforms, but resulted in
violence in Africa and India, halting progress in those regions. In the mid-19th century,
France and Great Britain tied the ideologies of nationalism and liberalism together to
fight for democratic rights, liberty, and equality. However, by the late 19th century,
Europe started to channel nationalism into authoritarian and militaristic policies.
Europeans’ sense of superiority over peoples of other cultures and the competition
European countries experienced with one another—both manifestations of nationalism—
drove the “New Imperial” expansion of the late 1800s. Imperialist violence impeded the
modernization and reform of the countries Europe conquered. Progressive developments
in history move a country closer to liberal ideals of government and civilization. But
liberty and equality can only be achieved in peace. Therefore, imperialism cannot be
progressive, and nationalism, an ideology promoting imperialism, cannot claim to have a
progressive impact worldwide.
Word Count: 1174