Characteristics of 19th century Nation States

The 19th century saw many key developments in political science. It was a period of fertile intellectual discussion about various forms of government and their merits and demerits. It was a time when many societies were coming out of agrarian economies and embracing industrialization. On the political front, imperialism still held sway as the dominant geo-political formation, even as older forms of monarchies and principalities continued to exist. In the flux created by new industrial methods of production, warfare and administration, the idea of ‘nationalism’ came to fore. With Europe as its epicentre, nationalism was mooted as the collective geo-political representation of a race (ethnicity) of people. Another feature of most modern nation-states is their capitalist orientation, although it was less pronounced in the 19th century. (Cottam & Cottam, 2001)

The modern state is defined by a few key characteristics: contiguous territory, salaried bureaucrats, common administration, representative government, etc. It is fair to claim that this model of governance has prevailed ever since its development in the mid-19th century. While the French Revolution was the initial spark which promoted the idea of nationalism, the concept has evolved and adapted in the ensuing decades. But one clear marker of the modern nation-state is its resolute opposition to traditional forms of authority. At the same time some nationalisms have followed an authoritarian path. Usually, this is witnessed in countries where religious conservatism is prevalent. (Gilbert & Helleiner, 1999)

Another defining feature of nation-states is the shared bonds of language and culture among citizens. New technologies of communication have somewhat helped in consolidating national identities. But the challenge of many nation-states today is in accommodating diversity of thought, language and culture in political discourse. Political scientists talk of in and out groups with reference to national minorities. There has been a painful history of conflict as fledgling nations were developing their national identity. The conflict between Muslims and Greeks & Jews and Christians in the final years of the Ottoman Empire (present day Turkey), are cases in point. The strife between Han Chinese and the Manchu ethic group is another painful episode of nation formation. In Western Europe, the widespread ostracism of Jews was a major problem. (Ersoy et. al, 2010) The tragic event of the holocaust goes on to show how ethnic conflict can escalate in magnitude. Migration is reality that constantly reshapes demography and globalization is the prime mover of this phenomenon.

In the 19th century, imperialism was scaling down from its peak and new forms of economic organization were being adopted. Bureaucracy assumed a renewed significance at this time. It is the bureaucracy which managed administrative functions, including taxation, education, etc. Even at this early stage of the evolution of nation-states, the role of technology came to be recognized. The stronger and more advanced nations inevitably possessed better technology in their disposal. Many nations in Western Europe would qualify under these criteria. In the 19th century, strong states are also associated with a strong military. Hence much of the technological inventions were employed in the area of fortifying defence and enhance methods of aggression. Unfortunately this had led to a highly tense and surcharged geo-political atmosphere. The seeds of the two World Wars of the early 20th century were sown in the fervent nationalisms that were born in the preceding century. (Preece, 1998)

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