Modern State 2.0 (the nation-state)

Note: This semester in my Western Civ classes, I tried to emphasize more about the development of the modern, centralized state. I tried to explain it in three stages, 1.0 (the confessional state), 2.0 (the nation-state), and 3.0 (the welfare state). I’m posting my slightly edited explanations here to get feedback on how accurate and helpful this history is.

Roots of the Nation-State

Recall that in Unit I, we looked at the development of the modern state, a political entity that claimed to control all its territory through a central authority, had the nobles and the church firmly under its control, and did not tolerate the existence of private armies in its territory because the central government controlled the country’s military. In the Modern State 1.0 (confessional state) model, countries generally had an official church: France was Catholic, England was Anglican, Russia was Orthodox, and so on.

I hope it’s been clear that the French Revolution opened a new era in European history. The creators of both the constitutional monarchy and the republic shared the idea that some Enlightenment thinkers (including the American revolutionaries) had proclaimed: governments drew their authority from the citizens. The wars that stemmed from the French Revolution and Napoleon’s conquest entrenched the identity of the “nation,” its citizens, and the government (state) as average people were called on to defend their nations from invaders or conquer in their name. Two great examples were the French levée en masse to defend the French Republic in the 1790s against Austria and Prussia and the German “war of liberation” against Napoleon in 1813. Thus, the French Revolution encouraged nationalism (the belief that every ethnic group should have its own state) as the new basis of  political authority, as did the Revolutions of 1848, when average people got involved in nationalist organizations. (Thanks to a student for quoting a passage in The Making of the West about German nationalism that made me aware of this trend resulting from the 1848 revolutions).

Thus, in pre-modern monarchies and confessional states (Modern State 1.0) people were often considered subjects. In the nation-state, people are considered citizens, participants in the life of the nation-state. As time went on, more states would adopt this, and the basis of many European national militaries would be citizens drafted and trained to form the reserves necessary to put huge armies on battlefields.
What Is a Nation-State?

As long as we understand how the words “nation” and “state” are used, they tell us what we need to know:

  • Remember from the explanation of nationalism that a “nation” refers not necessarily to a country but to an ethnic group or a people with a common language and culture. Therefore, as Chapter 22 begins, the German and Italian “nations” were divided among several small and medium-sized states, and the Hungarian, Czech, and Slovak “nations” were all ruled by Austria (and according to German nationalists, Austrians were Germans).
  • Just to make things more complicated, not everyone agrees on who is a member of a “nation.” Were the people of Alsace and Lorraine French or German? Were the Czechs, Serbs, Poles, and Russians part of separate “nations,” or were they all part of the greater Slavic “nation”? Different nationalists answered these questions different ways. For an explanation of how this problem persists in Italy today, see here. (Unfortunately, the article does get the timing wrong on Metternich’s famous quote about Italy being just “a geographic expression.” It was made in 1847, before Italy was a country.)
  • A state is an entity responsible for exercising political power. There are many different types of states, including empires, city-states, and nation-states.

Therefore, a nation-state combines a nation and a state. A nationalist believes that his or her particular nation must have a united, independent state, and often saw the state as the natural expression of this people’s status as a nation.
What were the characteristics of a successful nation-state in the 1800s?

Joseph LaPalombara identifies five problems that a nation must solve, and I am going to adapt them to developments in the 1800s. I have tried to state general trends here, and since people and the countries that they live in are complex, there are probably exceptions to every trend that I have referred to here.


  • What it means (if it works): Citizens of a nation-state see themselves as members of the larger national community, governed by a single state. This means that their local and regional (and often even religious) identities must either be the same as their national identity or they must be less important. For example, the dominant form of Polish nationalism was identified with Catholicism, which meant that a true Pole was a Catholic. The dominant form of French national identity, on the other hand, tended to be secular, meaning that religion should be private and not brought into public. In some ways, you can argue that the standard religious confession of Modern State 1.0 is replaced by nationalist identity in Modern State 2.0 (this is my synthesis of others’ arguments).
  • How states tried to accomplish it in the 1800s: public education to produce patriotic citizens and spread a certain version of national culture, Russification of non-Russian ethnic minorities living in Russia, grand projects in capital cities to produce national pride
  • Problems that states encountered: anarchists who believed in self-governing communities and rejected national governments, socialists who believed that workers identities should be based on their class, nationalists who believed that their state did not reflect their nationality and wished to have independence (like Polish nationalists in territory ruled by Russia, Prussia, or Austria)


  • What it means (if it works): Citizens of a nation-state see the government itself and its actions as having proper, legitimate authority. In the 1800s, political power would increasingly be seen as coming from the citizens, not from royal blood and by the grace of God apart from the people. This could be justified in a secular way (without reference to God) or with some reference to God (that power coming from the people was God’s will, as often seen in American political culture).
  • How states tried to accomplish it in the 1800s: writing constitutions that allowed for representation and citizens’ rights, expanding the number of people that can vote, public education
  • Problems that states encountered: Russian liberals and radicals that rejected the tsarist claims to absolute monarchy, nationalists who believed that their state did not reflect their nationality and wished to have independence, anarchists and socialists


  • What it means (if it works): The central government of a nation-state enforces its will throughout its whole domain. You may recall that penetration was a major goal of Modern State 1.0, as these states attempted to establish their unquestioned power over nobles, localities, the church, and other groups within their states. Nation-states had even greater tools at their disposal to accomplish this goal.
  • How states tried to accomplish it in the 1800s: bureaucracies to enforce laws that regulated working and living conditions in the industrial cities, public education that sometimes displaced the role of religious groups in providing education
  • Problems that states encountered: ethnic minorities and anarchists that rejected the authority of the central government, churches that resisted governments that wished to take away their traditional roles


  • What it means (if it works): Citizens see themselves as having appropriate input in the making of policy at the national and local levels. LaPalombara names “national legislatures,” bureaucracies open to citizen input, “the birth, growth, and regulation of political parties,” and local and regional governments as institutions that can allow for citizen participation in policymaking.
  • How states tried to accomplish it in the 1800s: writing constitutions that allowed for representation and citizens’ rights, expanding the number of people that could vote
  • Problems that states encountered: Russian liberals and radicals demanded the end of Russian absolutism, ethnic minorities and anarchists that rejected the authority of the central government


  • What it means (if it works): Citizens see the rules that govern the economy specifically and the distribution of valued things in general as fair.
  • How states tried to accomplish it in the 1800s: While classical liberals favored less government regulation of the economy as the surest path to prosperity and progress, governments in the 1800s tended to regulate working and living conditions in the cities in at least some of the ways that workers’ organizations and progressive liberals advocated. Governments also tended to promote industrial development and imperialism to create strong economies and powerful militaries. Part of the goal of public elementary education was to produce educated citizens who could contribute to the economic development of a nation.
  • Problems that states encountered: socialist and anarchist criticisms of unfair economic systems, debates over the proper economic policies

Notice that public education was one of the strategies that states used to address many of these areas. Public education was one of the most important means of spreading nationalism, which often started among elites and was then spread to the population at large by public education. An Italian political, Massimo d’Azeglio, stated the problem acutely: “We have made Italy. Now we have to make Italians.” One answer to this problem was to educate the citizenry through public education (Hunt et al. 714-715; Telegraph, Economist, and Britannica articles below).

Some nations were more successful at the building of strong nation-states than others. Germany, France, and Britain built world powers, while Austria, Russia, and Italy had much more difficulty in these five areas.



Hunt et al.., The Making of the West

Kagan, Ozment, and Turner, The Western Heritage

I have not read Joseph LaPalombara’s book Politics within Nations, but instead excerpts from it in online materials for a course at American Public University called Government and Security in the Middle East, which I took in the summer of 2011. I could not recall or find the name of the instructor. (Links to an external site.) (Links to an external site.) (Links to an external site.)



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