If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

READ: Ethnic Nationalism

The article below uses “Three Close Reads”. If you want to learn more about this strategy, click here.

First read: preview and skimming for gist

Before you read the article, you should skim it first. The skim should be very quick and give you the gist (general idea) of what the article is about. You should be looking at the title, author, headings, pictures, and opening sentences of paragraphs for the gist.

Second read: key ideas and understanding content

Now that you’ve skimmed the article, you should preview the questions you will be answering. These questions will help you get a better understanding of the concepts and arguments that are presented in the article. Keep in mind that when you read the article, it is a good idea to write down any vocab you see in the article that is unfamiliar to you.
By the end of the second close read, you should be able to answer the following questions:
  1. How does the author define ethnicity?
  2. Why was ethnic nationalism such a threat to the Ottoman and Hapsburg Empires?
  3. How did nationalist ideas spread to Greek communities?
  4. What was the dark side of ethnic nationalism?

Third read: evaluating and corroborating

Finally, here are some questions that will help you focus on why this article matters and how it connects to other content you’ve studied.
At the end of the third read, you should be able to respond to these questions:
  1. Use the evidence from this article, and others you have read, to answer this question: Does nationalism liberate people, or does it oppress them? Or neither? Or both?
  2. Throughout this unit, we have seen people adopt new identities—from being British to being American, from being Ottoman subjects to being Greek citizens, etc. What does this flexibility suggest about the nature of our identities as members of communities?
Now that you know what to look for, it’s time to read! Remember to return to these questions once you’ve finished reading.

Ethnic Nationalism

Painting of a crowd of soldiers rushing across the landscape as a building burns in the background and one soldiers carries an Italian flag.
By Trevor Getz
Nationalism emerged as the aspiration of a people for a state. In the French Revolution, nationalists felt that the community as a whole should be represented in government. In many multi-ethnic empires, however, nationalism soon took a different form. Members of an ethnic group embraced nationalism as a movement for independence from the larger empire.

Ethnic nationalism

The emergence of the nation-state was one of the most fundamental transformations of the modern age. Nation-states are states (or legal countries) whose citizens believe themselves to be a nation (a united and sovereign people). There are many different kinds of nation-states in the world today. Some are religious and others are secular. Some large and others small. Some are very democratic and others much less so. These states replaced kingdoms, empires, and caliphates throughout the world over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. They may not be the final political form we humans create. Perhaps we will end up with one world government. Perhaps territorial states themselves will disappear. But for now, the nation-state is the world's dominant political structure.
Nationalism emerged as a tool for political change in the eighteenth century. In places like the Spanish colonies in the Americas, it was used by Creoles to overthrow the rule of overseas empires. In France, it acted to unite people of different social classes and identities to overthrow the monarchy. But in some parts of Europe, nationalism acted as a tool for different groups of people living in vast, multi-ethnic empires to fight for their independence as an "ethnicity." We call this kind of nationalism, "ethnic nationalism." It was particularly a feature of the mid-nineteenth century.
Before we look at some specific examples, we must begin by saying that "ethnicity" is a fuzzy word. People believe they are members of an ethnicity or ethnic group by genetics or descent. They believe that they share a common ancestry. This may be true to some degree. But often ethnicities include people of quite wide backgrounds. Even more often, people of two different ethnicities share a great deal of ancestry. In reality, belonging to an ethnic group is more often a mix of ancestry with a shared language, culture, and heritage. Ethnicity is somewhat real and somewhat "imagined." People often don't even think of themselves as being members of an ethnic group until they face a shared threat. Or they begin to think of themselves as being members of an ethnic group when they see an opportunity to benefit from this association.

Ethnic nationalism in the Ottoman Empire

The Ottoman Empire, as we have already seen, was one of the most multi-ethnic states around in the nineteenth century. The Empire's core was a Turkish-speaking population. The Empire also included Greeks and Slavic communities such as Serbs, Armenians, and Azers in Central Europe, Arabs, and Kurds. The sultan's subjects included both Sunni and Shia Muslims, as well as Orthodox, Coptic, and Catholic Christians, and Jews. Ottoman rule of these many distinct communities was often tolerant. But at the same time, the Ottomans held them out as separate and somewhat inferior. Through much of the late eighteenth century, these groups were among the people who wanted reform or changes in the way the Ottoman Empire functioned. But as ideas of nationalism spread along the trade routes from the Atlantic Ocean zone, they began to think more of themselves as distinct nations deserving their own state.
One of the earliest major nationalist challenges to Ottoman rule occurred in Greece. It was at the southern tip of the Ottoman-ruled Balkan Peninsula. In the 1820s, Greece was facing something of an economic recession. Young Greek men travelled into central and western Europe looking for work. There, they encountered the new ideas about nationalism. On their return, they called for a Greece that could rule itself, instead of being under Ottoman rule. Soon they had idealistic liberals around Europe proclaiming them as potential liberators of the Greek people from oppressive Ottoman rule.
But there was also a darker side to this new Greek ethnic nationalism. Greece was at the time quite multi-ethnic itself. It had Muslim, Jewish, and Orthodox Christian communities. But the young returning men began to argue for a "pure" form of Greek identity. They argued that Greeks had to embrace Orthodox Christianity and the Greek language. They even argued that Greeks should look a certain way—neither like Turks nor like northern Europeans. They attacked Ottoman administrative offices and military. But they also attacked mosques and even Jewish synagogues.
By 1830, Greece had won its independence. Ottoman suppression was often quite forceful. But it was not a match for the mobilizing power of ethnic nationalism. Ethnic nationalism also spread to other parts of the Ottoman Empire during this era. In particular, it spread to the Balkan Peninsula, but it was not generally successful until much later.
Drawing of several people pointing toward a map of Greece’s navy and islands while holding the Greek flag.
Celebration of the “New Greece” after independence. By Macedonian Heritage, public domain.

Ethnic nationalism in the Habsburg Empire

To the north of the Balkan Peninsula, much of central Europe was under the rule of the German Habsburg dynasty. This multi-ethnic empire included Germans in Austria and neighboring territories. It also included Italians, Ukrainians, Poles, Romanians, Croats, Serbs, Czechs, Hungarians, and others.
The Habsburg Empire was involved in the Napoleonic Wars. Nationalism emerged among minority groups at that time. In 1848, there were uprisings across Europe. These uprisings were perhaps most important in stimulating ethnic nationalism. During these liberal revolutions, large groups of Hungarians declared their independence. At the least, they demanded self-rule. Meanwhile, the Czech city of Prague also rose in revolt against the empire. Both of these movements were ultimately unsuccessful. But they called for an end to empire partly through the language of ethnic nationalism. They also called for independent Hungarian and Czech nations. Ironically, this may have helped lead to their defeat. Minorities within Hungary, especially Germans and Croats, feared an independent Hungarian nation-state, and preferred to stay within the multi-ethnic Habsburg Empire instead.
Map of the Habsburg Empire divided by majority ethnic group in each region in 1910.
Ethnic map of the Habsburg Empire. ByAndrei nacu, public domain.
These revolts also helped fuel Italian and German nationalism. These movements eventually succeeded. They created independent states. At the time, both Germany and Italy were divided into many small principalities and territories. The Habsburgs controlled some of these in southern Germany and northern Italy. As a result, Italians and Germans who rose up in 1848 in these territories were partly fighting for independence against Habsburg rule. But the bigger fight was to try to unify their different small states into two big states.
To do this, both the German and the Italian nationalists had to elevate their sense of themselves as "nations," or ethnicities. In reality, both states were multi-ethnic, just like most countries in the world. Italians spoke almost a dozen distinct dialects. Each dialect couldn't necessarily be understood by other Italians. Germans were also widely separated culturally. But nationalists in both communities began to try to create a sense of unity through newspapers, books, and symbols. Ironically, they eventually both decided to choose kings as symbols. In Germany, this was the prince of the state of Prussia, Wilhelm I, who was seen as a logical king of all Germany. In Italy, it was King Victor Emmanuel II of Sardinia-Piedmont. The German and Italian nationalists each believed that these figures could help unite people in separate states into a sense of being a German or an Italian "nation." So, while the French Revolution dethroned a king, German and Italian nationalism created kings! In 1871, both Germany and Italy succeeded in becoming states. Both now had a compelling form of ethnic nationalism.
It had helped to unify people in different small principalities into all believing they were members of the same "ethnicity" or nation. But there was a price. From the moment of unification, in Germany especially, there was suspicion of those who were perceived as being not fully culturally members of the German ethnicity. This excluded the Roma people, and the Jewish population. This attitude would come to have a deep impact in the future.
Author bio
Trevor Getz is Professor of African and world History at San Francisco State University. He has written or edited eleven books, including the award-winning graphic history Abina and the Important Men, and co-produced several prize-winning documentaries. He is also the author of A Primer for Teaching African History, which explores questions about how we should teach the history of Africa in high school and university classes.

Want to join the conversation?