Elliot Fernandez

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Bismarck’s Europe and the liberal nation-state

The new system of balance of power between the different European powers was devised by German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck.
Elliot Fernández

Elliot Fernández

He has a degree in History from the Autonomous University of Barcelona (2009) and a Master's in World History from Pompeu Fabra University (2011).

17/06/2019 | Last update:

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After the period of the liberal revolutions, in the first half of the nineteenth century, Europe was headed towards the construction of a system of balance of powers between the different European powers that had as main promoter and architect the German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck.

Chancellor Otto von Bismarck
Engraving of German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck. Author: 
Evert A. Duykinck, A Portrait Gallery of Eminent Men and Women of Europe and America, with Biographies. New York: Johnson, Wilson and Company.

The objective of the German chancellor was the isolation of France and Britain as political powers of Europe, and the establishment of a permanent Pan-Germanist alliance with the Austro-Hungarian Empire, with the aim of making Germany an incontestable power to the continent.

The Establishment and Consolidation of Bourgeois States. The nation-state in the Bismarck’s system

Any phenomenon related to nationalism must be studied in its own historical context. We cannot rely on the great theoretical constructions that want to explain the national fact from a simplistic perspective. All the great currents of nineteenth-century thought gathered the national fact in their doctrine.

  • Liberalism: for liberals, power is in the hands of the people. The nation as such is what determines the government. The State is linked to the nation (the people). Thus, the nation is articulated as a State.
  • Romanticism: movement of German origin. For them the nation is the spirit of the people, the soul, what they call “volkgeist” (spirit of the people) formed by the language, their customs, traditions, history… Romanticism influenced the Catalans of the century XIX and the cultural movement of La Renaixença.
  • Marxism: nationalism for them was a controversial issue. Marx and Engels did not treat it too much in their books. Marx observed that there were a series of populations with common features. Nationalism was a historical category, which occurred at a historical moment, in the full development of capitalism. On the class struggle perspective, nationalism was a subaltern issue.
  • Lenin’s contributions: introduced the concept of self-determination, as a revolutionary element. This he did for the potential he had for the USSR.

The three great periods of nationalism in the 19th century

First stage: 1815-1848

During this period, after the Napoleonic Wars, Europe lived a few decades where the liberal revolutions of 1820, 1830 and 1848 coexisted, with the continuous attempts of the monarchies to restore the old absolutist order. The revolutions of 1830 and 1848 made the national feelings of nations emerge.

Second stage: 1850-1870

After the revolution of 1848 and the popular barricades failed, between 1850 and 1870, liberalism and nationalism became consolidated with the creation of national states.

Characteristics of the period:

  • To build a state you didn’t have to be a radical nationalist. The consolidation of the states was made from conservatism. Who led the unification of Germany and Italy was the conservative sector;
  • The revolutions of 1848 revealed the danger posed by the popular movement for the upper classes. Nationalism was built from diplomacy and war: from any environment that had nothing to do with the labour movement and the popular classes. War was the greatest instrument to benefit a few.

Third stage: 1870-1914

In the period between 1870 and 1914, two significant phenomena occurred: the strengthening of the union between the nation and the state, and the emergence of the feeling of adherence to a nation. The European states turned to more conservative positions and reinforced a patriotism closely linked to right-wing ideologies. And linked to the economic crisis of the end of the century, the states imposed protectionist trade policies.

The exaltation of national values ​​and their symbols favoured the more conservative postulates. That national exaltation led to Europeans until 1914, when the outbreak of the First World War. It was nationalism that justified imperialist policies. Colonial expansion was linked to imperialism and national pride.

As the nation-state arose, claims of national communities without state appeared. Nationalism had two derivatives. On the one hand, the reinforcement of the great nation-states and, on the other, the emergence of nationalism in stateless nations that claimed their linguistic and historical rights, raised questions such as the recognition of differential elements, autonomy and independence.

The growth of the nation-state and the elements of national cohesion

In the Old Regime, power was divided into the hands of aristocratic feudal lords, without a strong state that centralized power. With the advent of the bourgeois-liberal nation-state, this changed. Since the liberal revolutions of the nineteenth century, the territory was structured under a system of liberal government and a bourgeois state with its bureaucracy, which took responsibility for the country to function.

It happened so for several reasons:

  • For economic reasons;
  • To unite a new political, social and economic reality;
  • To exercise control of:
    • The Administration. The State was operational when it generated an effective administration. And it created jobs;
    • The Teaching. The State ensured a culture for all;
    • The Police. The new states create new police systems. The state unifies the police. The state has a monopoly on violence;
    • The Army. It was the representation of the nation. National Prestige. Public opinion concept.

The Bismarck’s Alliance System

Map of the alliances in Europe that led to the First World War
Map of alliances in Europe during the First World War

After the unification of Germany, Chancellor Otto von Bismarck became the arbiter of European international politics during the 70s and 80s of the nineteenth century. His main objective was to maintain the hegemony of Germany in Europe, which involved diplomatic isolation of France, its potential enemy, as well as maintaining good relations with Britain, without interfering with its colonial empire, which was the top priority for the English.

To meet Bismarck’s objectives, a series of alliances with Austria-Hungary and Russia should be established to prevent these countries from understanding each other with France.

First stage: 1871-1878 (the first Bismarck system)

The first stage of the “Bismarck system” of alliances begins with the so-called “ League of the Three Emperors ” (1872) because it was signed by the Emperor of Austria Franz Joseph I, that of Germany William I, and the Russian Tsar Alexander IIThe objective of the alliance was to isolate France so that it could not attack Germany. But the alliance was broken by the rivalry between Russia and Austria over the dispute over the control of the Balkans. In 1875 the crisis broke out when Russia annexed Bulgaria. To avoid a major conflict, the Congress of Berlin was held (1878), chaired by Bismarck. In Berlin it was agreed:

  • Armenia should remain under the control of the Ottoman Empire.
  • Bosnia-Herzegovina was placed under the control of Austria-Hungary.
  • Serbia, Montenegro and Greece gained territory, and the Principality of Bulgaria was created, sacrificing the Ottoman Empire.
  • Cyprus was placed under British control.
  • The treaty assured France and Italy the possibility of occupying Tunisia and Tripolitania (Libya).

Second stage: 1879-1883 (the second system)

During this period, Bismarck launched the second alliance system, which went through several phases:

The Double Alliance (1879)

The Double Alliance was secretly signed by Austria and Germany. Germany pledged to help Austria get in the Balkans, and Austria pledged to fight alongside Germany against France.

The Triple Alliance (1882)

The Triple Alliance was quite important, as it was the first time that Italy, Germany and Austria allied again. Italy wanted to get the territory of Albania.

Third stage: 1884-1914 (the third system)

During this third stage, there are three strategic alliances:

The Reinsurance Treaty (1887)

With the Reinsurance Treaty, the alliance of the 3 emperors was again achieved and was the work of Bismarck. The 3 empires promised to be neutral in the case:

  • War between France and Germany;
  • War between Austria and the Balkans;
  • With Russia and the Balkans.

The Second alliance

The alliance between Austria, Germany and Italy was renewed again in 1902.

The Scramble for Africa

At the Berlin Conference (1884-85), it was achieved between France and Germany that the area to the north of a line formed by the intersection of the 14th meridian and Miltou was designated French, that to the south being German, later called German Cameroon.

As the result of the First Moroccan crisis (1905), at the Algeciras Conference (1906), Morocco was given as a protectorate to Spain and France. Peace was achieved but German ambitions, after intense diplomatic efforts because Morocco wasn’t controlled by the rival, are now diminished.

From 1890 to 1914, the alliances were changed. All nations distrusted each other, which caused a climate of tension. All began to arm themselves. This was the prelude to the First World War, where two alliances will be formed:

  • The Central States: Germany, Austria and Italy.
  • The Allied States: France, England and Russia.

Great Britain: rise and decline of the Victorian era

The monarchs of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries are:

In the nineteenth century, the main actor in British politics was Queen Victoria. Since his reign this period has been known as “the Victorian era.” A time of great economic prosperity for the United Kingdom, of proper functioning of the institutions, of the creation of a common moral conscience, of a feeling of security in the nation, and of patriotic pride in the Empire.

The economic bases of Victorian hegemony and the beginnings of its fall

In the 19th century, Great Britain was the first industrialized country in the world. Britain experienced a spectacular economic start in the 19th century. In 1851 the First Universal exhibition was held in London, with buildings as significant as the Crystal Palace. With the Universal Exhibition, it was inaugurated the era of Britain as a prosperous nation.

The Crystal Palace built on the occasion of the First Universal Exhibition in London in 1851
The Crystal Palace, built on the occasion of the First Universal Exhibition in London in 1851.

Why was it the first economic power?

  • Britain enjoyed a central position, economically speaking.
  • It was the world dominant economy. The period between 1800 and 1870 was a stage of constant price increases. England was favoured by politics of free trade. All commercial exchanges were favourable.
  • Britain was the main financial centre in the world, where capitals were generated.
  • From Britain came the inventions that made possible the industrial revolution in Europe. All European industrialists went there to copy or buy this new technology.
  • Its manufactured products had no competition in quality or price.
  • Britain was the great stimulator of world trade. Within the most relevant actors, there were the commercial agents, as the British commercial companies.

But the economic crisis of the late nineteenth century meant for Britain that other countries also entered the economic scene. To the point that a new world power emerged, the United States of America. Its position became very evident since 1917.

Victorian England, a society of classes and social commotions

Photograph of Queen Victoria
Photograph of Queen Victoria

Britain was the country that had more social transformations throughout the nineteenth century. They coincided in the same period:

  • Changes in the rural world, which is slowly disappearing;
  • The Chartism, political movement which produced a social insurrection, and which did not turn for very little into a revolution;
  • The 1848 Public Health Act and the 1871 Trade Union Act improved the living conditions of the British people and their working conditions. The law was achieved thanks to union pressure from British workers. There were many legal strikes.

Great Britain as a paradigm of the liberal political regime

Britain was the model of the liberal system in the 19th century. A country that built its political system on the base of the Glorious Revolution of the seventeenth century.

The main political institutions are:

  • Parliament: medieval tradition. It is composed by two cameras, that of the Commons and that of the Lords, in a bicameral system. The House of Commons acquired greater importance during the 19th century;
  • Cabinet or Government: chaired by a Prime Minister, responsible for a ministerial team;
  • Opposition: institutional characteristic. Criticism with the government and representing its alternative. The figure of the head of the opposition is created.
  • Political parties: representation of the government or the opposition. Organization that brings together supporters of a position and their representatives.
  • Monarchy: represented by Queen Victoria, with a conciliatory political institutional role. It does not govern. The king became the depositary of the nation, the icon of Great Britain.

Through the political reforms in 1867 (Reform Act), and in 1884 (Representation of the People Act), the electoral body widened. The lower middle classes could now vote. The bipartite party system (Whigs and Tories) broke down in 1900, when the Labour Party (English socialism) first entered the Parliament.

Foreign and Colonial Policy

Britain was the great power of the nineteenth century and acted as the world’s policeman. He dominated the international scene thanks to his naval force, commerce and imperialism (colonial possessions throughout the world). His empire was a source of national pride.

British Empire
The British Empire as in 1920

Naval force

The British Navy, the Royal Navy, was the most important in the world. He had practically world’s dominion. It was the first in readiness and know-how. Besides, being part of this military body was a prestigious motive among British citizens. The Navy ensured the British presence in strategic places all around the world, and this meant that Britain had territorial enclaves spread all over the Earth that assured its world prominence. As if that were not enough, the Navy assured the country the control of the seas and their trade routes.

British diplomacy

Diplomatic intervention without military commitment. Britain intervened in all conflicts, but never engaged in any of them.


Commercial policy connected to political power. Great Britain opted for free trade, which was the policy that best served British interest.


Imperialism was developed by economic interests and political strategy. There was a need to create a strong national pride.

The triumph of Victorian values

Victorian age highlights certain social values: strict moral, exaggerated puritanism and hypocrisy. It is also characterized by being an elitist moral and full of appearances. Its values ​​are aimed at the upper classes but it aspires to influence the popular classes, as it is said: “the people, if they want to ascend socially, must improve their appearance.”

Victorian moral was used to control people and to eliminate behaviours considered “heterodox.” Thus, the religion was used to instil a sickly puritanism, with a perpetual feeling of obligation, respect for God and the sense of duty.

The family was also used as an element of social stability. When the worker lived miserably, the family environment was key. Family was locked in the house in which the man was the important element.

It was a masculine culture. Values ​​of intelligence, business… Women did not need to study, read… Cult of domestic work in the hands of women. The work took a religious dimension. Laziness was seen as a vice and wasting time was immoral. Work dignified only man. Persons working could aspire to better living conditions.

The question of Ireland

Ireland was Britain’s most serious problem. The Irish conflict lasted throughout the nineteenth century and part of the twentieth century, reaching today by the unresolved issue of Northern Ireland.

Ireland was annexed in 1801 to the English Crown, with the Act of Union. The island thus lost its Dublin Parliament. From now on, Ireland suffered a triple subordination:

  • Politics: dependence on the British Crown. Elimination of all own political rights;
  • Economic: Irish farmers were under the control of English landowners;
  • Religious: the religion of the immense population of Irish was the Catholic, however the official church from 1801 on became the Anglican. The Catholic peasants went on to pay taxes to the Anglican church.

At the time that Ireland was under the subordination of the British Crown, the earliest nationalist movement in Europe began to be originated. A movement that exerted great influence on the other European nationalist movements, and that had at the core of its ideology religious offence (Irish population of Catholic majority subordinated to the official Anglican Protestant religion).

The Irish nationalist movement had its strength in the Catholic clergy. The first Irish nationalist leader was Daniel O’Connell, through his Catholic association. O’Connell is considered the father of the Irish nationalist movement in the 1830s.

Daniel O'Connell defending the repeal of the Union Act 1844
Daniel O’Connell, defending the repeal of the Act of Union in 1844

The struggles of the first Irish nationalists achieved in 1829 the access to the British Parliament to Irish Catholic deputies.

What these Irish deputies intended was to repeal the Union Act of 1801, and return political rights to Ireland. In the 1840s, O’Connell’s message was increasingly moderate. Also, during these years, more radical nationalist movements appeared.

In 1845 the economic crisis in Ireland, caused by the “potato crisis”, produced a devastating famine. The greatest part of Irish died or emigrated to the United States and England, where it was strong demand for labour supply derived by English industrialization. Irish nationalists blamed Britain for the situation in which the Irish people found themselves.

The revolutions of 1848 also echoed in Ireland. The nationalist movement rose in tone and bet from now on the armed struggles. In 1858 the Irish Republican Brotherhood was founded in Dublin. In parallel, Irish immigrants in the United States founded an American branch to financially help the Irish nationalist cause, which was increasingly important also in cities. The social base of nationalism was the Catholic Church. As of the middle of the 19th century, attacks on English interests in Ireland and sometime in England begin to occur. Actions that generated repression as British response, repression that led to more Irish actions.

In 1869, it was achieved that the Irish did not have to pay taxes to the Anglican Church. The parliamentary strategy involved obtaining deputies to send them to the English Parliament, and there exposing the problems of the Irish through propaganda, the very long speeches… Direct action was also chosen through attacks. The most important politician of this period was Charles S. Parnell (died in 1891 at age 45).

In these years, the English Prime Minister was William E. Gladstone. The prime minister himself was aware that Ireland needed a political solution. This was stated with the famous Home Rule that attempted to offer autonomy for Ireland, but that was not approved. The political situation became polarized since the 1880s. The “Home Rule” never succeeded. In 1912, it was finally voted with many nuances, but it was too late.

There were important sectors of Ireland that raised the country’s independence. But Ireland was not homogeneous, and in the north there was a sector of Protestants proud of being English. When the prime minister raised autonomy for Ireland, the north began to mobilize against it. The Northern Irish, contrary to any autonomy or independence, opted for armed struggle.

In 1891 Parnell dies. It was a moment of change. Irish nationalism was interested in recovering the Gaelic language and culture. The most radical independence sector was organizing. In 1905, Arthur Griffith created a new organization, Sinn Féin, that proposed the independence of Ireland, and the absolute separation of England. It was a minority but powerful movement.

Image of Dublin during the Easter Revolution of 1916
The Central Post Office, Dublin, during the Easter Revolt of 1916

World War I (1914-1918) was a fundamental event for Ireland. England’s war against Germany was the best occasion for the Irish to go against England and find help among the Germans. In 1916, the events of the Easter Rising of Dublin were produced.  In 1916 Sinn Féin prepared an insurrection in Dublin. Ireland rebelled. The scheme failed because the British detected contacts between Irish and Germans ahead of time. When at Easter 1916 the revolt failed, its leaders were arrested, tried and sentenced to death.

Sinn Féin became a very important movement from this moment. The Irish struggle continued until in 1922 (Anglo-Irish Treaty), when the establishment of the Irish Free State was achieved, and the separation with Northern Ireland established at the end of the Irish War of Independence.

All articles of the course: Late modern History in Europe (19th and 20th Centuries)

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