In a rather limited sense, some primitive form of nationalism (a word ultimately deriving from the Latin natus-'to be born'-and emphasizing the ancient nexus between ethnicity and citizenship), perhaps only vaguely grasped, has probably existed since men organized themselves into the first city-states in the Middle East thousands of years ago. However, nationalism, as it is understood, is at considerable remove from its ancient roots. There are a a number of related, albeit distinct, elements that sustain nationalist identity and, as a corollary, are largely associated with the nationalist impulse that engulfed Europe starting in the late 18th century.
Linguistic identity: Traditionally, language (understood to include the various dialects that compose a tongue) has served to both unify the speakers and, at the same time, separate them from the non-conversant. However, this did not necessarily implicate ethnicity. (For example, the many ethnic groups of the eastern Mediterranean during the classical period spoke Greek, often as a first language, but did not consider this a socially or politically unifying factor.) In the late 18th century, however, the German philosopher Johann von Herder, who disdained multiethnic polities such as the Austro-Hungarian Empire as 'monstrosities,' encouraged the notion that language-rather than other shared social characteristics, e.g., religion-should be the primary basis for political organization.
The nation-state as a well-spring of civilization: In his 1852 essay on nationality, Giuseppe Mazzini rejected the notion of the nation-state as an extension of the dynastic interest of princes in favor of the concept of the state as an agency for the betterment of the lot of all its citizens. In effect, Mazzini saw the ethnically identified nation-state as a vehicle for the development of popular sovereignty while nonetheless recognizing the existence of a general European civilization. Thus, for Mazzini, the nation was a means to an end, rather than an end in itself. (In this he stands in sharp contrast to the nationalism of a Hitler or a Mussolini, both of whom glorified the state as the end-product of civilization and, by extension, looked disparagingly at other, supposedly less civilized populations. Arguably, the current federalization of Europe-a union of democratic states-is a reflection of Mazzini's thinking.)
Adherence to overarching principles: Like both Mazzini and von Herder, the 18th century English political thinker Viscount Bolingbroke found both an underlying moral equality of all men and the optimization of human pursuits within a polity limited by a measure of commonality. However, Bolingbroke saw that commonality in terms of popular adherence to generally accepted values.
Nationalism in Europe during the 19th and 20th centuries served as a vehicle for both unification (as in the cases of Italy and Germany, and also of Poland) and dissolution (as in the case of the post-World War I division of the Austro-Hungarian Empire into its component ethno-linguistic elements). In the case of German unification, while there were a number of political and economic considerations in the manner in which it occurred during the middle years of the 19th century, in a nutshell, unification came down to what it meant to be a German. In a speech before Confederation's diet at Frankfurt, one of the delegates (Johann Gustav Droysen) described the issue quite baldly. "We cannot conceal the fact that the whole German question is a simple alternative between Prussia and Austria. In these states German life has its positive and negative poles--in the former, all the interests which are national and reformative, in the latter, all that are dynastic and destructive. The German question is not a constitutional question, but a question of power; and the Prussian monarchy is now wholly German, while that of Austria cannot be." Thus the stage was set for the establishment of a German polity that was overwhelmingly Lutheran in religion, almost entirely German in language, and-for practical purposes-an extension of the existing Prussian state.
If German unification resulted in a polity that was little more than an expanded Prussia, its Italian counterpart was well nigh sui generis. In the middle decades of the nineteenth century, the Italian peninsula was divided into a number of states. The Kingdom of Naples-Sicily encompassed the southern portion of the peninsula (and, of course, the island of Sicily). Just to the north lay the Papal States, a polity maintained in unity, to at least some degree, by French and Austrian troops. Further to the north, Venetia (including the city of Venice) and Lombardy (including Milan) were under Austrian subjugation. To the northwest, Piedmont (a component of the liberal Kingdom of Sardinia) provided a haven to Italian nationalists. While the praxis of rule in these polities was hardly draconian in any totalitarian sense, it nonetheless did not allow for representative government beyond the municipal level, with the exception, of course, of Sardinia-Piedmont. (And, even there the ruler could infringe if he thought it beneficial to the national interest or, for that matter, himself.) More to the point, rule by foreigners, however benevolent-and, by and large, the Austrians were rather ham-fisted rather than adroit-is hardly ever welcome. Thus, in Italy, the appeal to nationalism was coterminous with an appeal for independence from foreign rule.
In sum, the guiding element in the expression of European nationalism insofar as state formation was concerned was linguistic, rather than transnational or religiously inspired. Understood in these terms, it may reasonably be argued that the ideas put forth by Bolingbroke in the last years of the 18th century were providential.