This theme focuses on how and why definitions and perceptions of regional, cultural, national, and European identity have developed and been challenged over time.
Since 1450, Europeans have understood their place in the world based on their membership in various and sometimes overlapping entities, ranging from small local groupings to fully developed nation-states and multinational organizations. Questions concerning identity have remained constant, even as shifting political, social, economic, religious, and cultural developments, such as the intensely patriotic calls for greater national unity in the 19th century, have brought new units and affiliations into being. In the early modern period, Europeans identified with language groups and political units of varying sizes, such as the Renaissance-era city-state. Early modern Europeans also identified with emerging nation-states such as a unified Spain under King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, imperial dynasties such as the Habsburg Holy Roman Empire, and the idea of a unified Christendom.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, monarchs like Louis XIV of France and Peter the Great of Russia built upon a common language and cultural identity in their respective countries to foster the development of national cultures centered around the creation of new types of institutions. In England, after a civil war and period of political experimentation, a system of government emerged where the power of the monarchy was checked by an increasingly bold Parliament. These countries also created national symbols that inspired loyalty in their subjects, though senses of national affiliation were always subject to challenges and change, and were not equally powerful across Europe. Meanwhile, the intellectual movement of the Enlightenment, coupled with French revolutionary ideals, offered a different vision of European identity based on a shared belief in reason, citizenship, and other Enlightenment values.
In the 19th century, countries like Germany, Italy, and the Kingdom of the Netherlands were unified through wars, political negotiations, and the promotion of intense feelings of national belonging. At the same time, Romantic writers and artists fostered and built upon feelings of loyalty to the nation, producing works appealing to a common language or cultural identity. However, in the multinational empires that dominated central and eastern Europe until World War I, nationalism also served as a divisive force. At the same time, regional identities based on units either greater or smaller than that of the nation-state -- e.g. Basque, Bavarian, pan-Slav, Flemish, or Irish -- remained popular and influential throughout much of Europe. And even at the height of nationalism, for many workers socialism and the international struggle of the working class competed with nationalism as a framework for identification and loyalty. Especially with the growth of mass politics and media, western Europeans could also identify as part of a larger global entity, whether "overseas France," or the British Empire and in the 20th century the British Commonwealth -- each of which was assumed to have a unique mission and position in the world.
After World War I, with the exception of the emergent Soviet Union, Europe was dominated by nation-states. In central and eastern Europe, some states were riven with conflicts, and minorities that found themselves in vulnerable positions turned to the international League of Nations for protection. During World War II, Germany sought to create a pan-European empire based on an extreme version of German national identity and power. During the second half of the 20th century, as Europeans recovered from the strain of two world wars, Western European empires fractured and transformed into new political units. As they reconciled their role in a postwar world, Europeans could now identify with larger transnational organizations, such as the European Coal and Steel Community, or the community of countries assembled under NATO or the Warsaw Pact. Europeans have increasingly identified as members of the EU, even as regional and national affiliations continue to call into question the idea of a shared European identity.
This reconception of Europe has not been without difficulties, as Britain's late entry into the European community and subsequent decision to leave the EU illustrate. Europe as a concept has been and remains complex, evolving, and subject to changed perceptions, regulations, and legal frameworks. European identities since 1450 have been a fluid concept, with overlapping and non-competing identities enduring even in the age of nation-states. As new national entities form, merge, and in some instances disappear, these developments help shape popular understanding of what it means to be European.
Students Will Be Able To:
*Language on this page is provided by the College Board.