French Revolution and Idea of a Nation

  • The nationalism in Europe traces its origin back to the French revolution which occurred in 1789.
  • The revolution attempted to replace the then absolute monarchy in France by constitutional monarchy and setting up of a republic. The people of France, although some selected ones, had now the power to rule.
A depiction of French Revolution
A depiction of French Revolution(source:

Measures to symbolize nationalism

With the beginning of the revolution, a sense of unity rose among the French people and various socio-political measures were taken to shape the feeling of unity into a symbolic form:

  • Idea of ‘la patrie’ (the fatherland) and ‘le citoyen’ (the citizen) were emphasized.
  • A new French flag was adopted replacing the existing standard Royal flag.
  • The Estates General was elected by a body of French people and it was renamed as National Assembly. A centralized administrative system was adopted. New common hymn was composed and martyrs were glorified.
Depiction of National Assembly of France during French Revolution(source:
Depiction of National Assembly of France during French Revolution(source:


  • Rule of Law and Equality before law was applied i.e. uniform laws for all citizens of France were implemented within its defined territory.
  • French was made the common language to interact in all over France and the regional dialects of French were discouraged. French became the national language which was used by all French citizens.

Nationalism under Napoleon Bonaparte

  • Another feature of French Revolution was the growing realizations among the revolutionaries of their responsibility to spread their feeling of nationalism in other places of Europe.
  • Inspired by the revolution, the educated middle class people of Europe began setting up Jacobin Clubs in their own regions. These clubs paved the way for revolutionary armies of France to enter into Holland, Belgium, Switzerland and Italy in the decade of 1790s.
  • French ruler Napoleon Bonaparte played a major role in invading Europe and taking control of the places. Although he turned France from Democracy to monarchy, he introduced several laws which modernized France and other territories he reigned.
Napoleon Bonaparte(source: Wikipedia)
Napoleon Bonaparte(source: Wikipedia)
  • For example, the Civil Code or Napoleonic Code of 1804 discarded any privileges by birth, introduced equality before law and right to property.
  • Feudalism was discouraged and serfs were freed from their loyalty to the landlords. The businessmen, producers and peasants got freedom since they were treated as ‘free man’.
  • The traditional feudal society was turned into a modern industrialist society.

The Decline of Napoleonic Nationalism

  • For the initial period, the local people of Holland, Switzerland and cities like Milan, Brussels and Warsaw welcomed the revolutionaries into their regions for the sake of liberation.
  • The impression gradually became negative when democracy failed in France again and Napoleon became the absolute ruler.
  • Liberty was not given to local people since censorship, forceful conscription into Army and taxation were applied which were necessary to maintain the vast conquered territory.
  • The attempt to spread nationalism through aggression turned futile and failed.
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