3.16 National Unifications

The Politics of the Nineteenth Century


The most spectacular successes of the nationalist movements of the nineteenth century were in Italy and Germany, two areas with ancient regional identities but a total lack of political unity. Italy had last been united during the period of the Roman Empire, whereas Germany had never been truly united. Each term – Italy and Germany – referred to a region and a language, not a kingdom or nation, places where people spoke similar lingual dialects and had some kind of a shared history, but were divided between various kingdoms, cities, and empires. This very lack of unity was, however, a source of inspiration for the nationalists of the first half of the nineteenth century as noted previously. One of the great nationalist thinkers was an Italian, Giuseppe Mazzini, whose Young Italy movement inspired comparable movements all over Europe in the 1830s. In turn, many Germans dreamed of a united Germany that might escape the oppressive influence of censorship and oppression. Those kind of radical nationalists had their day in the Revolutions of 1848, but then saw their hopes dashed when the conservative kings of Prussia and Austria rallied their military forces and re-took power.

That being noted, in the aftermath of 1848, even kings came to accept that the popular desire for nations was too strong to resist forever, and at least in Prussia, the idea that a conservative monarch might “use” nationalism to enhance his power came to the fore. Instead of allowing a popular uprising that might permanently replace them, conservative monarchs began maneuvering to co-opt the very idea of nationalism. This was not a great, sinister master plan, but instead a series of pragmatic political calculations, usually led by high-ranking royal officials rather than the kings themselves. Through a combination of deliberate political manipulation and sheer chance, the first nation to unite under conservative leadership was Italy.

Italy had been dominated by foreign powers since about 1500, when Spain and France jostled for control and extinguished the independence of most of the Italian city-states of the Renaissance during the Italian Wars. Later, it was Austria that came to dominate in the north, adding Italian regions and cities to the Austrian Empire. The south was an essentially feudal kingdom, the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, dominated by lesser branches of first the Habsburg and then the Bourbon royal lines. In the middle was the Papal States, ruled directly by the pope and still controlling Rome as of the 1850s (after a short-lived republic in 1848 was dismantled by the French under Napoleon III). Despite the popularity of the concept of nationalism among the members of the small northern-Italian middle class, it had relatively little mass support (and less than 3% of the population was literate in the standard “Italian” language, the dialect spoken in the region of Tuscany).

The core of Italian unification was the kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia, a small kingdom consisting of a large island in the Mediterranean and a chunk of land wedged between France, Spain, and the Austrian-dominated northern Italian states. Its king, Victor Emmanuel II, was from the old royal house of Savoy, and the kingdom retained independence following the Napoleonic period because it served as a useful buffer state between the French and Austrian spheres of influence. Victor Emanuel enjoyed interfering in foreign policy and took pride in his military prowess, but he was too lazy to become involved in domestic affairs, which he left to his ministers. In turn, the most intelligent and important of his ministers was Count Camillo di Cavour (1810-1861), the true architect of Italian unification.

Disderi, Adolphe Eugène. "Victor Emmanuel II." c. 1861.
Disderi, Adolphe Eugène. “Victor Emmanuel II.” c. 1861. Wikimedia. January 31, 2009.

Cavour was determined to increase Piedmont-Sardinia’s power, and he used Italian nationalism to do it. He did not have any sentimental attachment to the concept of “Italy.” Instead, he wanted to make Piedmont-Sardinia the center of a larger, more powerful kingdom. As of the 1850s, a war (the Crimean War, described later) had torn apart the system of alliances that had been so crucial in maintaining the balance of power after the Congress of Vienna, and Cavour knew that he could play one great power off against the other to Piedmont’s benefit. His plan was to use the rivalry between France and Austria to his advantage, by having France support some kind of Italian independence from Austria in order to weaken the Habsburgs. Cavour successfully bargained with Napoleon III, the new emperor of France as of 1852, and in 1859, with French military support, Piedmont-Sardinia pushed the Austrians out of northern Italy and gained political ascendancy in the name of a new “Italian nation.” Cavour gave France the city of Nice in return for continued support in holding the Austrians in check. Out of nowhere, another figure entered the story: Giuseppe Garibaldi, an unexpected political leader who brought southern Italy into the equation. Garibaldi was an adventurer, a romantic nationalist, and a revolutionary who had spent most of his adult life as a mercenary battling in independence campaigns and wars, mostly in South America. He rushed back to Italy during the Revolutions of 1848 only to see his hopes of both a united Italy and freedom from foreign control dashed thanks to the machinations of the Austrians, the French, and the papacy.

Following Piedmont-Sardinia’s success in pushing Austria back in the north, however, Garibaldi returned. In May 1860, Garibaldi, with a tiny force of 1,000 red-shirted volunteers (mostly townsmen from the north, including numerous under-employed professional men and students hoping to avoid their examinations) packed aboard two leaky steamships, set out to invade Sicily. Very rapidly, Garibaldi captured Palermo, the chief city of Sicily. He succeeded because he won the support of the Sicilian peasants by suspending taxes and promising to divide up the large estates and distribute the land. The landowners of Sicily, even those who were most reactionary, were forced to see that the only hope of law and order lay in protection by this radical dictator and his revolution. Their gradual and reluctant transference of allegiance to the insurrection was a decisive event and helped to make possible the next phase of Garibaldi’s astonishing conquest.

On August 18 Garibaldi crossed to mainland Italy, entering Naples. He planned an invasion of the Papal States, but Cavour convinced Napoleon III that it was necessary to block the further progress of Garibaldi’s adventurers and assured him that the position of the papacy itself (under French protection) would not be affected. Cavour threw the bulk of the Piedmontese army into the Papal States, annexing them and heading off Garibaldi. When he arrived, Garibaldi ceded his conquests to Victor Emmanuel, and Italy thus grew to encompass both Sicily and the south. Thus, in about six months, the northern conquests of Piedmont-Sardinia were united with Garibaldi’s bizarre conquest of the south. Cavour’s schemes for a Piedmontese-led united Italy had not included the south, which like most northern Italians he held in contempt. Thus, in a real sense southern Italy emerged as the unfortunate loser of the wars of unification, even more so than did Austria. Taxes had to be increased, because the war of 1859 had to be paid for, and the new Italian state needed a larger army and navy. There was also the fact that the extension of low tariffs from Piedmont to economically backward regions often completely extinguished the few local industries that existed. Nor did the new state have funds to alleviate distress or to undertake public works and infrastructure projects in the south. The rural poor became more totally dependent than ever on the local landowning class in their adjustment to the new scheme of things. Some refused to adjust and became “brigands” who rose up against the new political order almost immediately.

The restoration of order in the south required a major military operation, the so-called Bandit Wars, which over three years that cost more lives than had the wars of the unification itself. In the aftermath of the wars, the south was treated almost like a colony rather than a full-fledged part of the Italian nation, and politics in the south revolved around the growing relationship between the official Italian government and (as of the 1880s) organized crime. At the time of Cavour’s death in 1861 the new state had a population of twenty-two million but an electorate of only half a million, limited to property-owners. Politics in the new Italian state (a constitutional monarchy in which the king still had considerable power) was about patronage: getting jobs for one’s cronies and shifting the burden of taxation onto those who could least afford to pay it. In many respects, unification had amounted to the occupation of the rest of the country by the north. It would be many years before the new state would begin serve the needs and interests of the majority of its citizens.


In Prussia, it was an official similar to Cavour, but far more memorable, the chancellor Otto Von Bismarck, who was personally responsible for unifying Germany for the first time. Bismarck was ruthless, practical, and completely amoral in his service to the Prussian king. He was the inventor of Realpolitik: a political philosophy that insisted on being completely pragmatic and realistic, rather than pursuing empty goals like “glory” or pulling punches in the name of moral rectitude. He was such a pragmatist that he ended up introducing social reforms to blunt the growth of socialism, even though he was an arch-conservative (and thus detested the very idea of reform). He was from an old Prussian noble family, and he had no time for romantic nationalist drivel, yet he directly brought about German unification. He once said that “the great questions of the time are not determined by speeches and majority decisions – that was the error of 1848 – but by iron and blood.”5
After 1815, “Germany” was nothing more than the “German Confederation,” a free trade zone containing a number of independent kingdoms. German nationalism, however, was very strong, and in 1848 it culminated in the roughly year-long standoff between the elected group of self-understood German nationalist politicians in Frankfurt and the kings of Prussia and Austria (and those of the smaller German kingdoms). Despite the fact that the revolution failed to create a “Germany” in 1848, it was now clear that a German state probably would come into being at some point; the question remained, however, of whether it would be a “greater Germany” under Austrian leadership or a “smaller Germany” under Prussia.

During the eighteenth century Prussia had risen from being a fairly poor backwater in the north, lacking natural resources and remote from the centers of intellectual and cultural life farther south, to being one of the great kingdoms of Europe. That was thanks largely to its royal house, the Hohenzollerns, who relied on a combination of ruthless administrative efficiency and a relentless focus on building up Prussia’s military. Whereas the other royal houses sought to live in the style of the glorious French kings, the Hohenzollerns lived like reasonably well-off nobles, pouring state revenues into the army and insisting on brutal discipline. By the middle of the eighteenth century, Prussia was an established Great Power, part of the coalition that had defeated Napoleon, a military equal with Austria, and was poised to exert an even greater role in Central Europe.

Alfers, Robert. "Map of the Holy Roman Empire, 1789."
Alfers, Robert. “Map of the Holy Roman Empire, 1789.” June 8, 2008. Wikimedia. November 30, 2018.

Otto Von Bismarck was an inheritor of these Prussian traditions, a Prussian conservative who served in various diplomatic posts in the Prussian kingdom before being promoted to chancellor by the Prussian King Wilhelm I. Bismarck did not have a master plan to unify Germany. His goal was always to maintain or, preferably, increase Prussia’s power (in that sense, he was a lot like Cavour in Piedmont-Sardinia). He became highly skilled at manipulating nationalist passions to inflame popular support for Prussian wars, but he was, personally, deeply skeptical about a “national spirit” animating the need for unification. Bismarck achieved German unification through war. He egged Austria on in a conflict over control of a region in northwestern Germany, recently seized from Denmark, and succeeded in getting the Austrians to declare war on Prussia. Prussia’s modernized and well-trained army smashed the Austrians in a few months in 1866. Significantly, however, Bismarck convinced the Prussian king not to order a march on Vienna and the occupation of Austria itself; the goal for Bismarck had been to knock Austria out of contention as the possible governing power of Germany, not to try to conquer and control it. Conquest of Austria, he thought, would just lead to more headaches for Prussia since the Austrians would resent the Prussian takeover. This decision – not to conquer Austria when Prussia could have – was a perfect example of Realpolitik: a bloodless, realistic, coldly calculating approach to achieving greater political power without succumbing to some kind of ill-considered quest for “glory.” After defeating Austria, Bismarck essentially tricked France into going to war. Bismarck had toyed with Napoleon III, ignoring French demands for territory if it came to war between Austria and Prussia. In the aftermath of the war itself, the Spanish throne suddenly became available because of a coup, and Bismarck sponsored a Prussian candidate related to the former Spanish ruling line, none other than the Bourbons of France. Even though Napoleon III was not a Bourbon, this was a direct attack on France’s sphere of influence. Napoleon III was infuriated – Bismarck even humiliated Napoleon by leaking a memo to the press in which Napoleon’s machinations for territory before the Austro-Prussian War were revealed.

Feeling both threatened and belittled, Napoleon insisted that France declare war on Prussia. The ensuing Franco-Prussian War was short and sweet for Prussia; it started in late 1870 and was over by early 1871. Napoleon III foolishly led the French army into battle personally (sick with the flu and without an ounce of his famous uncle’s tactical expertise) and was subsequently captured in the field. French forces were poorly led and could not stand up to Prussian training and tactics, and every important engagement was won by the Prussians as a result. In one fell swoop, the myth of French military supremacy, a legacy from the first Napoleon, was destroyed, and Europeans were confronted with the fact that a new military power had asserted its strength in its stead.

In the aftermath of the Prussian victory, a new German empire was declared at Versailles, with Wilhelm I taking the title of Kaiser (emperor) of the German Reich (empire). The various smaller German kingdoms renounced their independence and pledged themselves to the newborn state in the process. France lost two important eastern regions, Alsace and Lorraine, and had to pay a considerable war indemnity, inspiring an enormous amount of resentment among the French. The German Empire became a constitutional monarchy in which all men over 25 could vote for representatives in the Reichstag, the parliament, but an unelected federal council held considerable power and the emperor held more. Thus, even though Germany was a constitutional monarchy, it was hardly the liberal vision of a democratic state.

In one of the more bizarre historical episodes of the time, the city of Paris refused to concede defeat and fought on against the Prussians for a short while before the Prussians simply fell back and handed off the issue to the hastily-declared Third Republic of France (Napoleon III went into exile). Paris declared itself an independent city-state organized along socialist lines, the “Paris Commune,” and for a few months (from March through late May) the French army besieged the communards in the capital. In the end, a French army stormed the city and approximately 20,000 communards were executed.

While Italian unification had redrawn the map of Europe and disturbed the balance of power at least somewhat, German unification utterly destroyed it. Germany was not just Prussia, it was Prussia and most of the rest of what once had been the Holy Roman Empire. It had a large population, a rapidly industrializing, wealthy economy, and proven military might. The period after German unification, from 1871 until the start of World War I in 1914, was one in which the European great powers jockeyed for position, built up their respective military strength, and scrambled to seize territory overseas before their rivals did. Long gone were the days of the Congress System and a balance of power based on the desire for peace.

Kgberger. "Map of the German Reich, 1871 – 1918."
Kgberger. “Map of the German Reich, 1871 – 1918.” July 6, 2009. Wikimedia. July 6, 2009.


In many ways, the histories of Great Britain and Russia were always exceptional in the context of nineteenth-century European politics. Neither underwent revolutionary upheavals, and neither had much difficulty suppressing nationalist movements from within their respective empires. And yet, the two countries were in many ways polar opposites: Britain was an advanced industrial economy with a liberal constitution and a monarchy whose real political power declined over time, while Russia was an overwhelmingly agricultural – even feudal – economy with a powerful, autocratic head of state: the Tsar. The modernizing trends that changed much of the rest of Europe over the course of the century had the least impact on Russia of any of the major states. Tsar Alexander I, who ruled from 1801 – 1825, was present at the Congress of Vienna. He was intensely conservative and had a powerful attraction to Orthodox Christian mysticism. In turn, he sincerely believed that he had a mission from God to maintain the sacred order of monarchy, nobility, and clergy. In this, he was influenced by timing: he became Tsar shortly after Napoleon seized power in France. To Alexander, the French Revolution was not just a bad idea or a threat to his personal power, it was an unholy abomination, a perversion of the proper order of society as it had been ordained from on high. Ultimately, it was the Russians who defeated Napoleon’s armies in 1812, thanks largely to the winter and their brilliant tactical decision to camp out and wait for the French to run out of supplies. Alexander sat in a position of great power at the Congress of Vienna because of the strength of his armies and the prestige he had earned chasing the French forces back to France and aiding in their defeat in 1814 and 1815.

In 1815, Russia, along with Austria and Prussia (and, technically, the restored French monarchy), formed the Holy Alliance that vowed to crush attempts to overthrow the social and political order with force. For Austria, this was a pragmatic gesture because the Habsburgs had to the most to lose in the face of nationalism. For Prussia, it was a way to cement their great power status and to be treated as an equal by the other members of the anti-Napoleonic coalition. For Russia and for Alexander, however, it was nothing less than a true holy mission that had to happen regardless of any practical benefits. Russia did indeed intervene to crush rebellions over the course of the next few decades, most importantly in 1848 when it decimated the Hungarian Revolution and returned Hungary to the Austrians.

Alexander I died in 1825 and his death promptly set off the Decembrist Uprising (noted previously). Not only was the uprising crushed, but Alexander’s younger brother and heir Nicholas I took a personal hand in interrogating its organizers. Nicholas was much less of a mystic than his brother had been, but he was equally trenchant in his opposition to any loosening of the Russian social order. He went on to rule for decades (r. 1825 – 1855), and during that time he did everything in his power to champion the conservative cause. As noted earlier, not only was he a staunch supporter of the Holy Alliance, but he formed the world’s first modern secret police force, The Third Section. Nicholas declared his three principles of government in 1832: autocracy, orthodoxy, and nationality, the last of the three in service to the idea of Russian supremacy over its enormous empire (and the other ethnic groups present in it).

Not only were the Tsars of the nineteenth century arch-conservatives, the vast majority of the Russian population had no interest in political change. They were among the poorest, least educated, and most oppressed in Europe: the Russian serfs. The Russian Orthodox Church was closely tied to the government and preached total obedience to the authority of the Tsar. For that tiny sliver of educated society that could read and had access to foreign books, even to discuss politics at all, let alone advocate reform of any kind, was a punishable crime, with thousands exiled to Siberia for the crime of having made an off-hand remark about politics or owning a book describing a political concept originating in the West.

These people, almost all of whom were nobles, formed the Russian intelligentsia: a small class of educated and very self-consciously cultured people who were at the forefront of Russian literature and artistic creation. They were the ones who began modern Russian literature itself in this period, producing great Russian novelists like Turgenev, Dostoevsky, and Chekhov. The themes of their art dealt with both the thorny political issues of their time and a kind of ongoing spiritual quest to understand the Russian “soul,” something that was usually identified with both nature and the mystical qualities of the Russian Orthodox Church. The problem with being a member of the intelligentsia in Russia, however, was that reading or discussing anything to do with politics was itself sufficient cause for arrest and exile to Siberia. Many of the great novelists spent at least part of their lives in Siberia as a result; even Dostoevsky, who ended up being a deeply conservative thinker who was hostile to radical, or even disruptive, politics, spent part of his life in exile. To be an intellectual was almost the equivalent of being a criminal in the eyes of the state. It was a short step for intellectuals to simply act like criminals. It was in large part thanks to the police apparatus that matured under Nicholas I’s rule that this phenomenon occurred. That being noted, a momentous event occurred late in Nicholas’s reign unrelated to Tsarist autocracy per se: the destruction of the Congress System created at the Congress of Vienna, thanks to the Crimean War.


  1. Otto von Bismarck, “Blood and Iron Speech,” 1862, at German History in Documents and Images, http://ghdi.ghi-dc.org/sub_document.cfm?document_id=250. image


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PPSC HIS 1320: Western Civilization: 1650-Present by Wayne Artis, Sarah Clay, and Kim Fujikawa is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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