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Advent of Liberalism in Europe

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Advent of Liberalism in Europe - Lesson Summary

During the mid-18 th century, Europe was divided into several small kingdoms and principalities. The concept of nation states did not exist at all. People with diverse ethnic groups lived in eastern and central Europe.

The prominent empires in Europe were the autocratic Ottoman Empire that ruled over eastern and central Europe, and Greece and the Habsburg Empire that ruled over Austria-Hungary. People residing in the Habsburg Empire spoke different dialects and did not share a collective past. The difference in cultural background and the desire to use the ideas of the French Revolution led people towards a common goal –nationalism. During the 19 th century, the landed aristocracy was a small but influential class in Europe and dominated both the social and political spheres.

Members of this class, in Europe, were connected to each other because of their similar way of life and inter-marriages. They owned large estates in the country side and town houses.

French was a common language spoken by them for diplomacy and high society. A majority of the European population was made up of peasants and serfs. In western Europe, most of the land was tilled by tenants and small owners, while in central and eastern Europe, estates were cultivated by serfs. With industrialisation in the late 18 th and 19 th centuries, new social groups came into existence i.e. the working class and the middle class.

The middle class had a free-thinking liberal mindset and the ideas of nationalism led them towards bridging the gap between aristocracy and other classes. They wanted to end the autocratic rule and form a national government of the people. The word liberalism traces its roots to the Latin word ‘liber,’ meaning free. The concept of liberalism was born in the middle class.

The middle class believed in the need for freedom and equality of all individuals before law. Although liberalism popularised the idea of a people’s government, the right to vote or suffrage was not extended to all citizens. In France, women were given the status of a minor and subjugated to the authority of men.

Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, women and non-propertied men organised protests and movements demanding equal rights. Liberalism implied freedom of markets, and free movement of goods and capital. The Napoleonic Code, though revolutionary for its time, was unable to address the growing needs of the industrialists.

In 1834, a customs union, or ‘Zollverein,’ was formed at the initiative of Prussia and joined by most of the German states. This union eliminated tariff barriers and reduced the number of currencies from over 30, to 2. A railway network was initiated, which enhanced mobility and communication between the economies. 

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