Skip to main content

The Weakness of European Nation-States

ISSUE:  Autumn 1981

The European nation-state is a subject worn by much writing and discussion, by generations of historians, politologists, and sociologists. Its lure persists, and scholarly preoccupation with its vagaries has not abated. The reasons for this are many, but none strikes this observer as more plausible than the persistent failure of this institution to keep the promises which various revolutionary protagonists made on its behalf in the decade following 1789.

At the time of its emergence the national state promised to supersede a dynastic polity which existed to expand. “Aggrandizement is the most worthy and most gratifying occupation for a sovereign,” Louis XIV advised his son. Crown Prince Frederick of Prussia agreed in 1738 when he wrote: “Le principe permanent des princes est de s’agrandir” adding, after he had been king for more than a decade, that this end could be gained by a rich succession or by conquest. A king proved his worthiness by expanding the territory and the power of his realm. This attitude led to an unending chain of conflicts in the course of which dynasts sought to prove their fitness by wresting other patrimonies from the grip of less fortunate peers. In such a Hobbesian jungle, every king’s reign became a perpetual test of strength. Every defeat demanded immediate preparations for revenge; every victory moved within the dynastic horizon new worlds to conquer. The system knew no peace, only truce interrupting war. Dynasticism did not recognize historic, natural, or ethnic boundaries.

The nation-state by its nature promised to limit territorial ambitions to the confines of a people’s habitat. It would cease to enlist large populations in the wars of a small elite whose ambitions, values, and goals failed to relate to the common good. Once the legitimate aspirations of a people to freedom and self-government had been satisfied, eternal peace would replace eternal war.

What went wrong then, with Europe’s transit from dynastic purgatory to the paradise of nations? First, the piecemeal nature of the transit. Just as the coming of the classless society could not be engineered, if ever, through socialism in one country surrounded by enemies, so the nation-state could not emerge placid, saturated, and static in one country while fighting a hostile coalition of dynastic governments. As the case of France revealed, the rationale of the national polity had to be compromised to accommodate considerations of security. The national territory had to be protected by a cordon sanitaire of friendly states. Such a safety belt could be constructed by either exporting the revolution or by creating a ring of political satellites whose ideology then became secondary to their diplomatic alignment.

Exporting revolution turned out to be more difficult than anticipated. It presumed unanimity of views among the revolutionaries. Such harmony was only attained by unconditional suppression of political controversy. While some revolutionary national regimes in our time have gone a long way toward implementing such a policy of terror, the first attempt to impose a rigid ideology on the nation freshly emancipated from kingship failed in France. In this instance, a compromise, the resurrection of the military Roman imperator leading the nation-in-arms, resulted. To the extent that he stabilized the revolution, opposition to it abroad hardened, and the threat to national security increased. To the extent that he adulterated the libertarian tenets of the revolution, confusion spread in its ranks. It became difficult to export a revolution which had become so uncertain about its goals and purposes.

As a result, France soon ceased to nurture Jacobin Clubs in neighboring lands and turned to converting old-fashioned dynastic governments into traditional diplomatic and military allies. The homeland of revolution had chosen security over ideology. Now its victims inherited the confusion which had preceded that choice. The success of French arms suggested that the revolution was worth emulating. The burdens imposed by the conqueror aroused opposition to everything France represented. France bequeathed to her satellites varieties of her own domestic conflicts. In Spain, for instance, the French presence provoked an unprecedented national revolt, but it was on behalf of an absolute monarch. In German satellite states, such as Bavaria, Baden, and Württemberg, political battles fought between reformers and their opponents diminished their usefulness as allies.

Once again a choice had to be made. Napoleon decided to support stability against reform to guarantee the steady recruitment of auxiliaries. France’s revolution would have to be confined to France, but France would have to dominate the continent to protect that revolution. Innovation became localized, and its promise of peace was broken. War continued, no longer a contest between conflicting dynastic interests alone but on behalf of a nation in search of complete security.

In the course of this search, the expanding French presence continued to generate among other peoples those same national feelings which had constituted one major denominator of the Great Revolution. By the time the French monarchy was restored and by the time the Congress of Vienna sought to institutionalize a counter-revolutionary ideology of legitimism, the national revolutionary idea had gained a foothold among many peoples, and the legitimate victors would have to survive in a universe shaped by its aspirations.

As a result, the national revolution did not die with the defeat of France. The second point of this survey shows that it continued under dynastic management. For about half a century the French Revolution was followed by a large number of small-nation sequels. Ethnic groups of modest size emancipated themselves from large dynastic empires. Their efforts alone did not suffice for liberation; they became enmeshed in the continuing conflicts among the large powers, all but one (Great Britain) representing dynastic governments.

An early example was Greece, liberated by the military and naval intervention of Britain, France, and Russia, all three of whom sought to profit from Turkey’s decline, while making sure that no one benefited excessively. The new state achieved international recognition in 1831. Its affairs continued to be managed from the outside. After political enemies murdered Greece’s only indigenous head of state, Joannis Capodistrias, the protecting powers legitimized revolution by summoning Prince Otto of Bavaria to royal residence in Athens. The alien king never succeeded in establishing control over a polity whose parties were each recruited from native supporters of a different protecting power. He was finally expelled by a military revolt backed by Britain, and was succeeded by another foreigner, this time selected from Queen Victoria’s relations in Denmark.

The paradox of a national revolution instituted by a cosmopolitan dynastic settlement turned out to be the least of Greece’s burdens. Her boundaries, likewise drawn by alien interests, included only a fraction of the ethnic community and encompassed a small arid territory whose agricultural and industrial resources fell short of supporting one of the lowest living standards in Europe. To achieve its national ideal and to survive, the new state had to expand. In order to expand it was forced to arm beyond its means. The resulting instability represented a travesty of the patriotic expectations which had called Greece into being.

Similar forces produced similarly flawed national states in Serbia, Rumania, and Bulgaria, while Belgium offered a different version of a small state’s controlled emergence. Nothing more formidable than Holland and the House of Orange challenged the aspiration for independence of the southern Low Countries, yet Belgium could not have seceded from the United Netherlands without the assistance of the Concert of Europe. Acting in London in the same year (1831) in which the treaty of Adrianople legalized the Greek rebellion, the powers once again imposed a mortgage on a new state’s self-determination. They barricaded Belgium behind the wall of compulsory neutrality, and only in that sanctuary could its government exercise an anemic sovereignty, happily reinforced, in this instance, by the productivity of the oldest industrial complex on the European continent.

Finland offers still another variation of national emergence through great power dependence. Severed from Sweden in 1809 and established as a self-governing grand duchy ruled by the Czar, it benefited from continued Russo-Swedish rivalry in the Baltic. During the remainder of the 19th century, Russia watched benevolently as Finns made inroads on the social, political, and cultural hegemony exercised by the Swedish minority. Under the tutelage of St. Petersburg, they gradually became masters in their own land.

Norway’s separation from Sweden in 1905, though bloodless, also involved the great powers. Great Britain became the leading advocate of the division and successfully promoted the succession of a Danish son-in-law of Edward VII’s to the new throne. German opposition remained as ineffective as her attempt to keep France out of Morocco.

But the standard treatments of nationalism do not deal with Greece, Belgium, and Finland; they discuss Italy and Germany. These two countries shall not be forgotten, for they, too, have contributed major chapters to this chronicle of disappointments.


Italy’s founding differed little from the foregoing case histories. Her war of liberation was fought between France and Austria. Without 200,000 Frenchmen at Montebelluna, Magenta, and Solferino, there would have been no Italian king in 1860. Massimo d’Azeglio’s subsequent insistence that the Italian state would not survive unless its inhabitants were converted from provincials into Italians confirms that 1860 ended a war of dynastic conquest. It replaced several states with one, without ending historic and cultural diversity among the population.

In the case of Germany, an institutional compromise between dynasticism and nationality failed to create a lasting political order. Its weaknesses are plain to the present generation, but a century ago it enjoyed wide support and engendered unbounded confidence throughout Europe. This confidence derived from the Germans’ ability to fight and win their war of national unification without foreign assistance. It was further nurtured by Bismarck’s refusal “to urge on Prussia a course of Cavourian [centralization].” The new German constitution was not a Prussian statuto, but an “eternal” compact of union among the sovereign rulers of the German states. Finally, unification itself represented no claim on German populations which remained outside the boundaries of Bismarck’s empire. While Greece sought to extend its control over all Hellenes, while Rumania, Serbia, and Italy sought to wrest from the Austrian empire provinces inhabited by kindred populations, Germany proclaimed herself saturated. Even in the era of Wilhelmine Weltpolitik, on the eve of 1914, no serious spokesman so much as hinted that Austria’s ten or Switzerland’s two and one half million should come home to the second Reich.

Despite these happy portents, the German nationstate died young. The compromise between dynastic and national institutions disintegrated as the German princes were reduced to ceremonial spear carriers at national holidays, while the king of Prussia, as German emperor, monopolized all power and glory. To the degree that a self-reliant Germany emerged with Herculean attributes, it developed instruments of national government—colonial administration, a federal navy, a new German civil code—which mark the steady growth of federal power and an irresistible march toward centralization. In the long run, the results of Bismarckian policy bore a suspicious resemblance to those of Cavour. Finally, Germany’s relative indifference toward compatriots beyond her borders did not long conceal a host of other, grander ambitions. German foreign policy, after Bismarck emphasized not saturation but a growing catalog of real and imaginary grievances. In pursuit of their redress Germany rushed headlong into a war which placed excessive burdens on the delicate balance between nationalism and dynasticism.

The nation-states emerging during the century that separated Waterloo from the outbreak of the First World War provided no clean break with the dynastic old regime. Each needed monarchic legitimacy to keep counter-revolutionary opposition at bay. At the same time, the surviving dynastic powers learned to employ measured appeals to patriotism to support their own aspirations. The Russian empire of Alexander III and Nicholas II, for instance, subscribed to Konstantin Pobedonostzev’s “bureaucratic nationalism” to justify a gospel of Russian solidarity based exclusively on devotion to the Tsar and to orthodox religion. This interlocking of interests demonstrated that neither the dynasty nor the nation but the state continued to be, as it had been since the 18th century, the measure of all things political.

And not only of things political. The third obstacle to a recognition of ethnic criteria in state formation and maintenance appeared with the industrial revolution. The production systems to which this unprecedented era in human history gave rise extended the responsibilities and functions of government. In order to preserve domestic order, it became necessary to correct dramatic inequities and sufferings associated with the transformation of every day life by industry. Population mobility and concentration posed threats to public health, which resulted in the inspection of private and the construction of public housing. The ravages of economic cycles and of factory and mine disasters resulted in mounting state controls over the productive process and increasingly elaborate fiscal policies to increase social and economic security. At the same time, the traditional functions of the state in the realm of diplomacy and defense were turned from the mere guardianship of the territory to an unprecedented concern for the preservation and extension of foreign markets and for unhindered access to raw materials. Territorial ambitions in the industrial age, as expressed by the acquisition of colonies and spheres of influence and by trade treaties and interindustrial agreements fixing marketing territories, illustrate to what extent geographic extension had become merely one of many distinctive attributes of any viable state, whether dynastic or ethnic. Ethnic homogeneity or self-determination ceased to be the ultimate aspiration of the nation-state. All sections of the globe had become accessible and intertwined, and security in this new world no longer depended solely on preserving the national homeland from hostile invasion. It also encompassed the defense of distant territories, of sea lanes used by the state’s merchant fleet, and of export markets yielding profits to the state’s merchant subjects. As in the age of absolutism, growth and expansion became the policy object of every European power, and in the first half of the 20th century war would once again become as permanent as it had been on the eve of the French Revolution.

This new martial age led to a paradoxical impasse: in the industrial era arms developed to such levels of destructiveness that they ended the role of war as a problem-solving device. But before that condition became manifest in 1945, war ravaged existing political institutions quite as thoroughly as it had between 1700 and 1763.

Monarchy became one of its prominent victims. In 1871 Napoleon Ill’s overthrow ended not only the last French experiment with monarchy; it also served notice that rulers who counted on national enthusiasm to mobilize a people for war might not survive defeat. In the case of France, at least, a vanquished nation demanded new leaders. Almost half a century elapsed until the experience was repeated. In 1917 the Romanovs suffered the fate of the Bonapartes, as did the Habsburgs and Hohenzollerns the following year, though in the latter case we shall never know whether a defeated people would indeed have sent the Kaiser packing had the victors not demanded it. Domestic preferences clearly dominated events ending the Sultanate and transformed Italy into a republic at the end of World War II.

The surviving dynastic regimes had to adapt to other raisons d’état: In the Balkans they became agents of nationalist expansionism or spokesmen of national grievances; in the Low Countries and Scandinavia they survived as democratic figureheads (most signally in Norway, where the first king had been legitimized by national referendum). Britain remains sui generis, not because the monarchical structure differs so greatly from the small kingdoms of northern and western Europe, but because the relationships with and between the non-European components of empire have persisted above and beyond dynasticism and nationalism, indicating the presence of another state interest transcending both.

In Europe, however, the fall of empires and the banishment or assassination of monarchs (begun in Portugal between 1908 and 1910) resulted in the creation of successor states which embraced national dogma to justify their existence.


In extenuation of a moment in history during which many peoples were tempted into executing fatal leaps to ethnic liberty, one should remember 1918—19 for the frenzied time it was. The end of war is the worst time for making peace, and the fate of the many boundaries drawn at the Paris Conference proves this.

But first one must consider the effect which the war itself had on the small nation states founded in the 19th century. This kind of reflection brings one to the fourth defect of the ethnic state model, its ineffectiveness. Born weak, most nation states found survival difficult. Before it blossomed into Yugoslavia, Serbia was overrun and occupied. Rumania suffered the same fate in 1916. Belgian neutrality, buttressed by a multi-power guarantee, turned out to be a rampart easily vaulted at Liege by Major-General Erich Ludendorff’s Second Division. In the wake of this disaster, Belgium, less than one quarter the size of Virginia, began to crack like a large multinational empire. Demoralized by the experience of the German occupation, the delicate solidarity of Flemings and Walloons disintegrated. Next even powerful Germany, shaken to its foundation by defeat in 1918, experienced a profound crisis of self-esteem and national cohesion. In a memorandum treating the consequences of rejecting the treaty of Versailles, Matthias Erzberger warned that German states would sign separate treaties of peace, and that “the Allies [would] attach the individual states to themselves by bonds so firm that a German national state will cease to exist.”

This discouraging experience provided by nation-states in crisis prompted, however, no general reassessment of their soundness. With the coming of peace, new states validated by the actual or presumed presence of a common linguistic identity emerged in unprecedented profusion. Some of these, the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia, and Esthonia, for instance, proved too weak to survive. Their fate confirmed even more dramatically than had their 19th-century predecessors, that the virtue of ethnic identity proved no weapon against the demands of a resurgent Russian empire which had been transformed from a dynastic into an ideological state.

The larger of the 1919 creations, such as Poland and Czechoslovakia, indicate a respect for the doctrines of national self-determination sensibly modified by pragmatic considerations of security but inflated by a perverse attachment to dynastic precedents. As a result, both became new states which claimed to represent nations, but which were, in fact, nothing more than reduced replicas of preceding multi-national empires.

Like Belgium, Czechoslovakia represented an assumption that its core population composed of Czechs and Slovaks would harmonize; subsequent events have called this into question. In addition, the founders of Czechoslovakia asked recognition of the new state as heir of the kingdom of Bohemia, while “in the south, where no historic boundary existed” they postulated “a natural boundary based on the Danube and Ipel’ rivers in order to make Slovakia economically viable and strategically defensible.” These pragmatic modifications helped add to a population of 8,760,000 Czechslovaks, 3,123,000 Germans, and 745,000 Magyars.

The Poland of 1919 also contained ethnic minorities in excess of one third of the population, whose inclusion was justified by the quest for the historic boundaries of the dynastic kingdom partitioned in the 18th century. The peace had created a Poland only 65 per cent Polish and involved in continuous border feuds with all its neighbors. The resulting agenda of conflict included the contest with Russia over parts of the Ukraine and Bielorussia, irreconcilable differences with Germany involving the corridor to the Baltic between Pomerania and East Prussia, and a state of undeclared war with Lithuania, whose ancient capital, Vilna, Poland had annexed.

The Polish boundary controversy with Germany, apart from providing the technical immediate cause for World War II, reflects in a fifth way on the vulnerability and ineffectiveness of the state based on national loyalties. It calls into question the stability of these loyalties. Recent examination of the referendum returns from areas contested by the two states reflects that Polish allegiance to the new Polish state could not be taken for granted. In some districts of East Prussia Polish populations opted for Germany. Since these groups were predominantly Protestant, their religion has generally been accepted as an explanation for their deviation from the presumed national norm. But results from the controversial Upper Silesian vote in 1921, so much closer than the numerical preponderance of Poles would have led one to expect, have recently prompted a more dispassionate analysis of national allegiance among ethnic Poles. This reassessment indicates that Poles native to the area, who had before 1914 migrated to work places in the West German Ruhr, voted overwhelmingly for Germany. Many members of the Silesian Polish middle class, comparing the uncertain future of their new nation-state with the record of their German experience, often decided that the latter, despite some unpleasant aspects, inspired more confidence.

If one adds to this discovery of variables in the formation of new states the phenomenon of Alsace-Lorraine, where more than 1½ million indigenous Germans displayed no sorrow when they were returned to French control following their homeland’s defeat in 1918, one has moved one step closer to recognizing that in Europe loyalty to the nation may have been an historic force far less compelling than our forebears thought and many of our contemporaries continue to assume.

The watershed of 1918—19 added new obstacles to the advance of the doctrine of national self-determination. The treaty of Trianon transferred Transylvania from Hungarian to Rumanian control, because close to 60 per cent of its population was Rumanian. This settlement also transferred close to a million Magyars to Rumania. The bulk of this minority lived in the eastern corner of the region, quite some distance from the new boundary with Hungary. The inequity was therefore difficult to correct. The Vienna awards of 1940 attempted to mitigate the problem by returning more than half the area to Hungary. In the process, 1,250,000 Rumanians, one half of the population affected, were forced to become Hungarian subjects once more. This example reveals what few peacemakers had considered at the time of the liquidation of Austria-Hungary, that the population of multinational empires had not separated into hermetic ethnic compartments. Transylvania by no means offered the only example of such ethnic intermingling. The Banat of Temesvár, ceded to Yugoslavia, contained stretches where ethnic composition varied from village to village. Towns like the Slovak capital of Bratislava, the ancient coronation site of Magyar kings, contained at the beginning of the 20th century 65,000 souls of whom 33,000 were German, 20,000 Magyar and only 11,000 Slovak. Establishing ethnic states under such conditions was impossible. Was it necessary? If Germans, Magyars, and Slovaks could exist peacefully in such a city, did the erection of national boundaries between them serve a constructive purpose? Should one have chosen in 1919 the expedient of the 1940’s: large population transfers to create units of greater ethnic uniformity, uprooting thousands from the homes of their ancestors to settle them in unaccustomed surroundings among strangers with whom they had nothing in common but their language?

The answer even to that question cannot be an unqualified Yes or No. Rumanian Germans, resettled in Germany during World War II, soon began drifting back to their Transylvanian homes after the conflict’s end. Home meant more to them than nationality. Their children, on the other hand, are now migrating to the Federal Republic, whose prosperity appears to constitute a magnet outdrawing either.

What then must one conclude? The national revolutions during the 19th century loosened the bonds of dynastic loyalty but failed to destroy them. National states emerged camouflaged by dynastic fronts. Dynastic interests enlisted national enthusiasm to preserve the state. The new states shaped by this compromise were too weak to enjoy meaningful sovereignty, or as in the unique case of Germany, they represented too large an aggregate of power to make total unification possible. Thus they survived either at the sufferance of powerful neighbors or they did not survive. Economic and technological change added to national rivalries, and the uncertainties of an age of continuous war once again called into question the efficacy of ethnic bonds in preserving the national state.

Germany has been redivided among Austrians, capitalists, workers, and peasants. Belgium’s new federalism and Holland’s recent commitment to European integration illustrate other alternatives emanating from the disappointments chronicled in this essay. A recent study of Austrian national consciousness (as distinguished from the common German sense of identity) reveals that the state’s survival is understood by many of its most influential and articulate citizens to depend solely on continued prosperity. In Eastern Europe small national satellites trailing in the wake of superpower interest continue to constitute the norm. In Yugoslavia ideological dictatorship is expected to bridge chasms of tribal hostility. Only at the edges of the continent, in Portugal, Italy, and Norway, have national solutions in form and substance survived reasonably unchanged, but rarely unchallenged, since their inception. Two of these countries, Norway and Italy, also suffered foreign occupation and depended for their restoration on allies or conquerors. In the west, Spain has teetered on the edge of civil war since the early 19th century and fallen over the cliff at least twice.

Even France, the mother of the Great Revolution, provides less a model of successful nation-building than her dogged adherence to the political and cultural ideals of the nation-state would suggest. Eugen Weber’s recent brilliant study reveals that d’Azeglio’s advice also might have applied to France for an entire century after the fall of Napoleon.

Ultimately the modern state survives “through demonstrating effectiveness.” This means that it must govern equitably and protect its subjects from invasion and economic disaster. Nation-states have been as unable to satisfy these requirements as have been their dynastic precursors. For this reason the national solution may be doomed to a brief walk-on part in human history. The quest for the Utopia of effective government continues, and to the extent that we can only guess what threats to human existence lie ahead, we cannot know where it will lead.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading