Prasanna K Choudhary


1648.The Thirty Years’ (1618-1648) European War ended in the Treaty of Westphalia. In this devaststing war, fought in the background of the Reformation, the Pope, the Spanish and Austrian Habsburgs and Catholic German princes rallied under the banner of Catholicism, and battled against the Protestant countries – Bohemia, Denmark, Sweden, the Republic of The Netherlands and a number of German Protestant states. Germany was the principal battle area and the main object of plunder and territorial claims.

The specific feature of this war was the role of France – the rulers of Catholic France supported the Protestant camp, thereby taking their rivalry with the Habsburgs beyond the bounds of religion. The Treaty sealed the dismemberment of Germany ( The Vienna Congress of 1815, after the fall of Napoleon, did not alter the arrangement. (1)

This Westphalian Peace, as is widely believed, heralded the system of nation-states in Europe. However, this peace should be understood in the sense of Orwellian doublespeak. The Westphalian system ushered in a new series of national wars for hegemony in Europe and in colonies – and through a number of local wars, Napoleanic campaign, Franco-Prussian war (1870-71), this process went on upto the two world wars in the twentieth century, and even beyond that upto the present time.

In the form of nation-states, the emerging bourgeoisie of Europe finally realised its long-cherished goal of sovereignty. It replaced the medieval, feudal organisation of political authority based on hierarchical religious order. The old order was a great hindrance in the development of new relations of production, and in the process of getting rid of this order, a few transitional forms of sovereignty too emerged, particularly in periods of absolute monarchies.

These tumultuous developments were going on in Europe for more than a century. Long before Westphalia, the famous formula governing the peace of Augsburg (1555) was cujus regio, ejus religio ( the lord of each territory will settle the religion of the land where he is landlord ). Later on, the Doctrine of Toleration, which ended the Christian Catholic domination, was confirmed (by the ex-Protestant Henry 4 ) in 1598 by the Edict of Nantes, marking the end of that epoch of domination of politics by Religion, which is said to begin with the Emperor Constantine’s Edict of Milan of 313. ( The Holy Roman Empire was formally disbanded in 1806. ) (2)

In the process of the development of nation-states, the ideology of nationalism took its strong roots. Nation was defined as a community having a common language, a spatial continuity of territory, a shared history, a cultural integrating identity founded on an biological continuity of blood relations, and as a result of all these characteristics, a common psychological make-up. Sovereignty based on religious hierarchies was replaced by national sovereignty. In other words, national sovereignty replaced papal suzerainty.

Nationalism provided the European bourgeoisie a strong ideological basis for organising and protecting its domestic ( national ) market and for establishing its economic-political-cultural hegemony over other countries and colonies in the name of furthering ‘national interests’. Alongwith nation-state came the concept of an abstract ‘nation-people’ having common interests and aspirations, always ready to sacrifice everything in the interests of, and for the glory and pride of the nation. In this way, the internal dissensions and discords, confrontations and conflicts within a nation were pushed into the background, and from time-to-time, in the hegemonic interests of the bourgeoisie, the imaginary nation-people were mobilised in real battles as a pro-active force. Nation-state became one of the symbols of the new, modern age.

As a whole, after the decline of feudalism in Europe, the modern era is identified by following characteristics – the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, Newtonian ( scientific ) revolution, manufacturing, and later on, the industrial revolution, world trade and colonization, urbanization and city life, nation-states, rise of secular ideologies, violent popular revolutions and republicanism, prose writing and development of novels, in particular.

The rise of nationalism in Europe proved to be quite devastating for the small countries of Europe. Imre Szabo’s work ‘The State Policy of Modern Europe’ chronicles in detail hundreds of bloody wars fought in Europe from the beginning of the sixteenth century to the middle of the nineteenth century. These wars were accompanied with loot and arson, mayhem and massacres. The small nations of Europe became victims of arbitrary divisions and dismemberment at the hands of the hegemonic powers of Europe. Here the case of Poland will suffice for an example.

There was no country in Europe where there were not different nationalities under the same government. ” It was a natural consequence of the confused and slow-working historical development through which Europe had passed during the last thousand years that almost every great nation had parted with some outlying portions of its own body, which had become seperated from the national life, and in most cases participated in the national life of some other people so much so that they do not wish to rejoin their own main stock. The Highland Gaels and the Welsh were undoubtedly of different nationalities to what the English are, although nobody would give to these remnants of people long gone by the title of nations any more than to the Celtic inhabitants of Britanny in France. Moreover, no state boundary coincided with the natural boundary of nationality, that of language. There were plenty of French-speaking people out of France, same as there were plenty of people of German language out of Germany. A sizeable population of Switzerland consisted of French and German-speaking people. ” In Poland alongwith the Poles ( the chief constituent of the Polish population ), there were Lithuanians in the northern provinces on the Baltic, ‘White Russians’ in the south and the east, and the ‘Little Russians’ in the southern provinces. It can be easily assumed from the afore-mentioned facts that the ‘theory of nations and nationalities provided a powerful weapon in the hands of the dominant powers of Europe in order to intervene in different countries. In the name of ‘nationality principle’ and of pan-slavism, Russia used to spread its hands across the entire eastern Europe, becoming self-proclaimed defender of Serbs, Croats, Ruthenes, Slovaks, Czechs and other remnants of bygone Slavonic peoples in Turkey, Hungary and Germany.

Poland was partitioned in 1772, 1793 and 1795 between Russia, Prussia and Austria. ” The way in which this partition was brought about, is particularly interesting. There was at that time, already an enlightened ‘public opinion’ in Europe. There was that kind of public opinion which has been created by the influence of Diderot, Voltaire, Rousseau, and other French writers of the eighteenth century. The Russian Czarina Catherine II had made an elaborate arrangement for the ‘celebrity endorsement’ of Poland’s partition. She always knew that it was important to have public opinion on one’s side. …. The court of Catherine II was made the headquarters of the enlightened men of the day, especially the Frenchmen; the most enlightened principle was professed by the Empress, and so well did she succeed in deceiving them that Voltaire and many others sang the praise of the ‘semiramis of the North’, and proclaimed Russia the most progressive country in the world, the home of liberal principles, the champion of religious toleration.

The principle of nationality, endorsed by Enlightenment and put into practice by Russia, Prussia and Austria, resulted in the annihilation of Poland. There was no outcry at all in Europe, and indeed, people were astonished at this only, that Russia should have the generosity of giving such a large slice of the territory to Austria and Prussia. ….” (3)

French historian Fernand Braudel later commented on that period in the following words,” The autocratic Catherine was thought liberal in France because she had ‘ The Marriage of Figaro ‘ staged in Russia before it was authorized by Louis XVI. We should be less gullible. In reality, Catherine’s government was socially retrograde; it consolidated the power of the nobility and worsened the condition of the serfs. ” (4)

To be continued ….


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