How did nationalism change the Italian and German states?

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Nationalistic sentiments that gained traction in the nineteenth century led to the unification of both Germany and Italy, which prior to that time had been divided into small independent city states and principalities. Unification gave both countries more power and prestige, and the for the first time, the chance to...

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Nationalistic sentiments that gained traction in the nineteenth century led to the unification of both Germany and Italy, which prior to that time had been divided into small independent city states and principalities. Unification gave both countries more power and prestige, and the for the first time, the chance to act as imperialists by acquiring control of lands overseas. After unification, Germany participated in what was known as the "Scramble for Africa" and acquired large holdings on the continent, as well as in New Guinea. Italy did not do so well in the scramble, but it ended up with a part of Ethiopia called Eritrea and holdings on the horn of Africa.

Germany especially used unification and the power that came with it to assert itself on the world stage. It defeated France in the Franco-Prussian war, gaining territory, and it challenged British control of the seas with a large naval build-up, leading ultimately to the set of alliances that ignited World War I.

In the twentieth century, nationalism and the idea that the German and Italian peoples had a different zeitgeist or world spirit than people of other nationalities contributed to the rise of fascist dictatorships in both countries. As we know, this did not have a good outcome, leading to World War II.

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The most obvious result of nationalism in the nineteenth century was that both the Italian states and the German states became unified countries. Prior to 1870 and 1871, respectively, Italy and Germany each consisted of many individual principalities. The conquest of most of Europe by Napoleon had set off a reaction in which peoples such as the Germans and Italians, who had historically only had an ethnic identity, now wished to create nation states, large European countries in which their ethnic or national group was politically unified. This was what England, France, and Spain had already achieved centuries earlier.

In the twentieth century nationalism in Germany (and to some extent in Italy) turned into fanaticism. Adolf Hitler and his National Socialist (Nazi) Party exploited the economic depression in Germany after World War I to promote a racist ideology in which the Christian Germans were considered the superior "race" and others such as Slavs and especially Jews were considered not only inferior but a threat to German hegemony and purity. Though Mussolini's Fascist Party was not overtly racist, Mussolini wished to recreate the Roman Empire and turned Italy into an aggressor state. The defeat of both Germany and Italy in World War II not only destroyed these fanatical nationalistic movements, it tended to discredit the whole idea of nationalism. Europe entered a period of unprecedented continent-wide unity which resulted in the European Union. Ironically, the country whose nationalistic thinking had years earlier become so distorted and perverted, Germany, became the economic leader of this quasi-unified Europe.

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Nationalism basically created the Italian and Germany states in the nineteenth century. Both were a patchwork of principalities and independent kingdoms prior to the mid-nineteenth century. The early nineteenth century, however, saw the rise of romantic nationalist movements, largely led by young intellectuals. They argued that German and Italian "nations," characterized by shared histories, cultures, and languages existed, and that the boundaries of the state ought to reflect these realities. One especially influential leader in Italy was Giuseppe Mazzini, whose "Young Italy" movement helped to build momentum for the creation of an Italian nation. Nationalism was a key cause of the revolutions of 1848, and though these revolutions did not end with the unification of either Germany or Italy, they helped keep these movements going. Both of these nations were unified through a process of statecraft and wars (both foreign and civil), but the leaders of the unification process, including political elites like Count Cavour and Otto von Bismarck, were motivated in no small part by a desire to harness the powerful popular forces of nationalism for their own purposes. 

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