I have a pet theory that we owe the very notion of the modern nation-state to England. The English, possibly partially because they were (and are) an island nation, developed a fundamental cohesiveness over an extensive area before many of today’s current nation-states were even imagined as such.
My blame-England-for-this-mess notion starts with the fact that the English monarchy was quite aggressive in its pursuit of territory in what is today France, with the English king at various times holding titular –and sometimes even actual– domains on the continent.
According to my little theory, the different French-speaking areas of northwest Europe –faced with aggression from such a large population settled over a large, unified area full of natural resources– were forced to combine their resources and focus their aims, uniting politically what was already similar culturally. Only by unified action could the French martial the resources and armies –and maintain a united front– against such a beef-eating foe.
Thus, thanks also to Joan Of Arc for arriving to provide the necessary symbol at the right moment in history, the French did indeed begin to come together as one people, the different provinces eventually uniting under a single monarch and becoming one of the largest countries in Europe.
Of course, just a bit later (and undercutting my beloved theory), Spain will be uniting for different reasons and in a different way. Instead of the bloody English, the Spanish were feeling crowded by the Moslem empire occupying the southern part of the Iberian Peninsula. The Spanish basically marry their way to nation-state status– well, I suppose their armies had a little something to do with their reconquista of the peninsula in the late 1400s.
So anyway, as my pet theory goes from here, once you’ve got the powerhouses of England, France, and Spain bullying the block– the other peoples of Europe then had little choice but to unite into large conglomerations in order to be able to hold their own on the world stage– that, or they could settle for “buffer-state” status.
How does my theory explain Russia? Easy. The Russians were the only people who wanted Russia! Spill blood for Siberia? Ah, no thanks… we were looking for something more along the lines of the Rhineland.
Not only was self-defense a motivation for super-sizing to nation-state dimensions, but there was an allure to the nation-state– the sparkling prestige of all the power and glory these new, unified peoples were seizing for themselves.
And too, there was this new thing, colonization… Not a bad racket to get into by appearances. So, of course, the other areas besides England, France, and Spain decided they a wanted a piece of that might-makes-righter action. Admittedly, Portugal was doing pretty well in that area already, thanks to its naval prowess (is that a pun? prow?)– but the inhabitants of the Italian peninsula were craving a bit more respect and not content to sit on the sidelines of history– and dear God but the Germans were antsy spectating as the world was partitioned outside their 39 separate German states.
Plus, after 1800 or so, you have the Napoleonic shock, in which the unified nation-state of France showed just how easily it could run over these smaller countries– even ones that were part of enormous old fashioned “empires.” Napoleon directly killed one empire, the Holy Roman Empire, and I contend that he indirectly led to the death of the Hapsburg Empire by inspiring the later rebellions of the different ethnicities over which the Hapsburgs ruled. And I doubt Napoleon’s activities and propaganda helped stabilize the already shaky Ottoman Empire, which lost Greece soon after Napoleon took his second and final bow from the world stage.
So that’s my “How England Made The Nation-State” theory. It stands on toothpicks for legs, but I like it :)