The nation-state developed fairly recently. Prior to the 1500s, in Europe, the nation-state as we know it did not exist. Back then, most people did not consider themselves part of a nation; they rarely left their village and knew little of the larger world. If anything, people were more likely to identify themselves with their region or local lord. At the same time, the rulers of states frequently had little control over their countries. Instead, local feudal lords had a great deal of power, and kings often had to depend on the goodwill of their subordinates to rule. Laws and practices varied a great deal from one part of the country to another. The timeline on page 65 explains some key events that led to the rise of the nation-state.

In the early modern era, a number of monarchs began to consolidate power by weakening the feudal nobles and allying themselves with the emerging commercial classes. This difficult process sometimes required violence. The consolidation of power also took a long time. Kings and queens worked to bring all the people of their territories under unified rule. Not surprisingly, then, the birth of the nation-state also saw the first rumblings of nationalism, as monarchs encouraged their subjects to feel loyalty toward the newly established nations. The modern, integrated nation-state became clearly established in most of Europe during the nineteenth century.

Example: Russia is a great example of consolidation of power by monarchs. Throughout most of the medieval era, what became Russia was a minor principality centered on the city of Moscow. Over the course of a few hundred years, the rulers of Moscow took over more land, eventually expanding to cover much of what is now Russia. This expansion came through a mix of diplomacy and war. When Ivan IV—also known as Ivan the Terrible—came of age and assumed the throne in 1547, he was crowned the first czar. He proceeded to devastate the nobility by means of a secret police and gained the loyalty of commercial classes by giving them positions in a new state bureaucracy. These actions led to the deaths of thousands.


Time Frame

Major Event

Pre-1500sMost people lived in small villages; they paid tithes to feudal landlords, didn’t travel, and cared little for anything beyond the village.
1485Henry VII wins the War of the Roses in England, begins the Tudor dynasty, and starts the development of the English nation-state.
1492Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella finish taking back all of Spain from the Muslims; the era of Spain as a global power begins.
1547–1584 Ivan the Terrible rules Russia; he unifies the government and creates the first Russian nation-state.
1638–1715Louis XIV of France creates an absolute monarchy; France emerges as the dominant power in Europe.
1648Peace of Westphalia cements the legal status of the nation-state as sovereign.
1789The French Revolution begins; it creates the modern French nation-state and sparks nationalism around Europe.
1871Unification of Italy and Germany is complete.
1919Treaty of Versailles ends World War I; it breaks up several multinational empires and creates many new nation-states.
1945The United Nations forms.

The Thirty Years’ War and the Peace of Westphalia

The Thirty Years’ War, fought throughout central Europe from 1618–1648 between Protestants and Catholics, laid the legal foundation for the nation-state. The war involved many nations of Europe, including many small German states, the Austrian Empire, Sweden, France, and Spain. Despite a brutal war, the Catholics were unable to overturn Protestantism. The treaty that ended the war, called the Peace of Westphalia, decreed that the sovereign ruler of a state had power over all elements of both the nation and the state, including religion. Thus, the modern idea of a sovereign state was born.


Centralization, or the process by which law- and policymaking become centrally located, helped spur the development of nation-states. Final power rested with the central government, which made the laws and practices more uniform across the country. A single centralized authority, rather than many diverse local authorities, allowed nation-states to quickly develop their economies. Merchants could trade throughout the nation without worrying about local taxes and regulations. Also, the nation-state was much stronger militarily than the feudal state. Rulers were able to create national armies, which were not dependent on the nobility. The armies could receive consistent training so that all units could work well together. In many cases, the newly emerging nation-states dominated the older forms of political organization.

Example: In the eighteenth century, nobles held most of the power in Poland. The monarch was very weak. As a result, Poland could not defeat its powerful neighbors Austria, Prussia, and Russia. These three centralized nation-states partitioned Poland on three different occasions—1772, 1793, and 1795—eventually eliminating Poland until 1918, when a new Republic of Poland formed.

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