In this video from Finding Your Roots, Tina Fey learns about an ancestor who fought to free Greece from four centuries of Ottoman rule. The resource helps students understand the rise of nationalism in Europe in the 19th century.
The War of Greek Independence was not an isolated event; in fact, the Greeks’ efforts to free themselves from Ottoman rule were part of a much broader series of political changes influenced by an ideology called nationalism, which swept across Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries. Nationalism is the idea that a nation—a group of people with a shared history, culture, or language—is entitled to self-rule in an independent state.
Before the rise of nationalism, most Europeans lived in large, multiethnic states, such as the Austrian, Russian, and Ottoman Empires, or much smaller states within ethnically similar regions. Monarchs or religious leaders whose legitimacy often derived from claims to a divine right ruled these states. But the revolutions in America and France in the late 18th century demonstrated that a state could instead derive its legitimacy from the consent of its citizens. The idea of a nation-state, a country with a unified national identity and clear territorial boundaries, was thus popularized and inspired nationalist movements across the world. As nationalism spread, nation-states emerged from the decline of larger empires and the unification of smaller states.
Ironically, the Ottoman political system enabled the Greeks to maintain the national identity necessary to establish a nation-state. The Ottomans, as Muslims, considered Jews and Christians fellow “People of the Book” because of their shared belief in the Hebrew Bible. Although Christians and Jews were treated as inferiors and not given the same rights as Muslim Ottomans, they were allowed to practice their faith as part of the millet system, which provided separate courts and laws for religious minorities and thus allowed Jews and Christians to operate more or less autonomously. Early in the Ottoman Empire, the Orthodox Church was established as a millet and was given control over all Christians regardless of ethnicity or language. Since the church hierarchy was Greek and all services conducted in Greek, the Greek people were able to preserve their culture, religious traditions, and language—in other words, their distinct Greek identity.
The Greek elite had a prominent role in Ottoman political and economic affairs and many were able to send their children to study in the West. During the students’ time in western Europe, they encountered new political ideas, including nationalism, which they shared with their compatriots in Greece. This gave rise to modern Greek nationalism, and in 1821 the War of Greek Independence broke out.
Nationalism is still an influential ideology today. Kurdish, Basque, Tibetan, and Chechen nationalist movements have had an enormous impact on international politics, and new states like South Sudan continue to show the appeal of the nation-state as a form of government.
• What is nationalism? How did Europe change after nationalism became a popular political ideology? Use evidence from the background essay to support your answer. • What caused the Greek War of Independence? Use evidence from the video and the background essay to support your answer. • In the video, Henry Louis Gates references a painting called “The Chios Massacre” by Edward Delacroix. Does Delacroix sympathize with the Greeks or the Turks? How can you tell?
• This resource is well-suited for units on the Ottoman Empire, the Enlightenment, and the Age of Revolutions. • Before watching the video, haves students compare a map of Europe c. 1800 and one from the past decade. Have students do a quick write on what they notice about the differences between the two maps. Review student responses tell them that today they will be learning about nationalism, one of the ideologies that shaped the modern world. • After watching the video, have students read the background essay and answer the discussion questions in small groups. Then conduct a whole class discussion on nationalism and its effect on European politics. • At the end of class, provide students with an exit ticket asking them to define nationalism and describe the effect it had on 19th century Europe.