The seeds of French nationalism were sown in the Hundred Years War, when the territory of what would become France was ravaged by English invaders. The later stages of the war in particular, during which the locals rid French soil of the hated invaders, produced a great national icon in the person of Joan of Arc. It was during the course of the French Revolution, however, that nationalism as it is commonly understood in the modern era first emerged.
Before 1789, the concept of loyalty in Europe was commonly understood as one that bound subjects to a sovereign – typically a monarch. When the French Revolution erupted and the monarchy fell, to be replaced by a Republic, France’s monarchic neighbors understandably felt threatened by the bad example to their own subjects. So they invaded France from all sides in order to nip the Revolution in the bud, and restore the French monarchy.
By 1792, foreign armies were pushing into France from all sides: from the Lowlands to the northeast; across the Rhine to the east; from what is now Italy in the southeast; British-backed insurrections on the Mediterranean coast; and Spanish armies crossing the Pyrenees to the southwest. The situation seemed hopeless for the Revolutionary government, particularly as most experienced military officers had left the country as emigres, many of whom now fought in the invaders’ ranks.
Republican France responded by introducing mass conscription, known as the levee en masse, which put the entire French population at the disposal of the war effort. The French army grew from about 645,000 in 1793, to over 1,500,000 by 1794. Significantly, the new mass armies were mobilized not as subjects fighting in the name of a monarch – by then the monarchy had been abolished and the king had been guillotined – but as citizens fighting for France itself, as a nation.
The new relationship of citizen to nation was captured in a new revolutionary song, La Marseillaise, which would go on to become France’s national anthem. The song did not extol a monarch or military commander, but was instead a patriotic call to mobilize all citizens to fight for the nation, and repel foreign invaders. Its opening lyrics, “Arise, children of the Fatherland – the day of glory has arrived!” was a fighting cry in which France itself, as a nation, was a sacred object to be defended.
The newly conscripted French armies were poorly trained when compared to the professional armies of the invaders. However, their morale was high, because they were fired up by revolutionary zeal, and especially the zeal of French nationalism. French commanders successfully tapped into the nationalist passions of their soldiers, and adapted to make best use of their forces’ edge in morale.
What do you do when you have many poorly trained but highly motivated soldiers? You make a virtue out of necessity. French military doctrine was changed to emphasize attacks by massed troops in dense columns. That required relatively little training, and when such columns were thrown at vulnerable points in enemy battle lines, they could overwhelm and break them with sheer mass. As a result, a series of stunning French victories were won, radically changing the war. France went from hard pressed and on the edge of defeat in 1792, to victorious on all fronts, and on the offensive, fighting deep in enemy territory instead of on French soil.
Before long, French soldiers were tramping the length and breadth of Europe, and wherever French armies marched, French Revolutionary ideals and ideas marched with them. Nationalism in particular was an idea that readily caught on, and stayed even after the French armies had been beaten back into France. Much of Europe’s history – and that of the world, for that matter – has revolved around nationalist struggles ever since.