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From Empire to Nation State

From Empire to Nation State

Nation. State. Country. We often use these words interchangeably. Today, the idea of one person having their own independent country is widely accepted. However, that has not always been the case in world history. Even into the 20th century, many people lived under the rule of large empires.

What defines a nation? When does a country become a nation-state? How did the main form of political organization change from empire to the nation-state? To understand how the world shifted from being dominated by large empires to nation-states, we must consider these concepts and how new nation-states emerged from empires.

Difference Between a Nation-State and an Empire

To help understand the difference between a Nation-State and an Empire, it's worth considering the definition of each.

Defining an Empire

An empire is a large area of multiple peoples under the same, usually centralized, rule. A good example is the British Empire of the eighteenth century. At one time, it included much of North America, parts of Africa, and large parts of Asia.

All of the people in those different areas were distinct. They spoke different languages, had different belief systems, and may have had different ideas about what was best for their futures. However, their destinies were all united under British decision-making.

Empires vs Nation-States Map StudySmarterFig 1 - Map showing areas once under European control.

Defining a Nation-State

Defining a nation-state is a bit more complicated. We must consider what constitutes a state and a nation to understand their differences.

What is a state?

A state is a geographically defined area where a government has control. Think about the lines on a map. These lines are the borders that define what a state is. We often use the word country interchangeably with state.

Returning to our example of the British Empire, it was a state. However, it was not a nation-state. That is because it contained many nations.

What is a nation?

So then, what defines a nation?

Political scientists and historians have put forth several definitions and characteristics that make a nation. Language, religion, culture, ethnic politics, ideologies, and shared history are all factors that may help unite people into a homogeneous group.

However, many of the nations of South America speak the same language, have similar ethnicity, and share much in common culturally. So how can they be seen as different nations?

Meanwhile, a nation like the United States has a diversity of religions and races. It also has many immigrants that have different histories. Yet, it is also still considered one nation.

In a nutshell:

The nation is an abstract idea. To help you think about it, consider what national symbols, traditions, and beliefs you hold in common, celebrate, and help make you who you are and feel connected to others. These could include favorite foods, holiday traditions, patriotic songs, and supporting a national sports team.

Here is a practical definition of a nation from Benedict Anderson: "an imagined political community."1 He used the word imagined because different people in a nation do not all know each other individually. Yet, they see themselves sharing a common political destiny or a political community. The critical factor here is a shared future.

Imagine a person of your age who lives in a different city in your country. You do not know each other, and you may have very different ideas, beliefs, and backgrounds, and you may even speak different languages. However, you still see yourself as being united by a common identity as citizens. You may disagree about politics, but you see yourselves as having a shared future. That makes you part of the same nation!

When does a nation become a nation-state?

A nation-state has sovereignty over its territory, people, politics, and destiny. It is self-determined.

The majority of the contemporary nation-states today were created in the 19th and 20th centuries. They emerged from independence or unification, from an empire broken down, or from several republics forming a national unity.

The main difference between a nation-state and an empire is that a nation-state has independence and control of its future destiny. In an empire, a nation's fate is controlled under a system of vassal states.

Did you know?

While the nation-state is the dominant political organization today, some nations still have not achieved that status. For example, Palestinians can be characterized as a nation but do not have a functioning independent nation-state. The Kurds, an ethnic group that lives in the area around the borders of Syria, Turkey, and Iraq, could also be considered a distinct nation that occupies three different states.

The Nation-States and Empires' Relationship

Nation states' and empires' relationship depends on the situation and context. Sometimes the relationship was mutually supportive.

For example, Germany and Italy in the 1800s were split into several smaller independent kingdoms and city-states. However, the people in these areas saw themselves as one nation. In this context, nationalism meant calling for unification into one larger nation-state.


Identifying with one's nation and supporting its interests, including support for independence or competition against other groups.

In these cases, the difference between a nation-state and an empire may not seem obvious. However, for the different nations living in those empires, nationalism meant something very different.

It meant separating themselves from imperial rule. In essence, they came to define their identities as separate. In these cases, the relationship between nation and empire was antagonistic, and people came to desire change from empire to nation-state.

Empires vs nation-states, Gandhi, StudySmarterFig 2 - Gandhi used traditional home made clothing as a symbol of Indian culture and tradition in a show of nationalism.

Comparing Identity in Empires and Nation-States

It can be helpful to compare identity in empires and nation-states.

In an empire, people are seen first as subjects or citizens. Their identity as a different nation is deemphasized. This is tricky to define because many conquered people did not join empires by choice and racist attitudes usually meant conquered nations were not treated as equal citizens.

However, in theory, citizens of an empire would identify as united by membership in the empire.

When the transition from empire to nation-state happened, it was usually a result of people emphasizing their identity as members of distinct nations. This national identity trumped the identity of being part of an empire and led to calls for independence and a move from empire to nation-state.

Take, for example, the United States. Before independence, most citizens thought of themselves as British citizens, not as a distinct nation. However, some people began to see themselves as a distinct nation with a separate political destiny, although they still shared much in common culturally and socially with Britain.

Independence created the new nation-state of the United States of America with a new distinct identity from Britain.

Other new nation-states also emerged from independence movements in this era. However, much of the world remained ruled by large empires. After the Spanish colonies gained their independence, the more significant transition from empire to nation-state occurred in the 20th century.

From Empire to Nation-State in the 20th century

The ideas of the Enlightenment, democracy, and self-determination that influenced independence and the move from empire to a nation-state spread worldwide and led to more people calling for their sovereignty to pass from vassal-state to nation-state.


The right to choose their destiny for a group of people, usually through their independent and democratic governments, but not exclusively.

Comparing a map of Europe in 1914 to a map of Europe today is an excellent illustration of how the ideas of self-determination and the transition from empire nation-state as the best form of political organization became triumphant. Many new states were created after the First World War as the people there desired to move from empire to nation-state.

In many other cases, especially in Africa and Asia, economic grievances caused by industrialization, inequality, and capitalist exploitation of natural resources also contributed to calls for independence and nations wanting to control their own resources and political and economic destinies.

Empires vs Nation-States, transition pre WWI, StudySmarterFig 3 - Map of Europe before WW1

Empires vs Nation-States, transition post WWI, StudySmarterFig 4 - Map of Europe in 2008

Exam Tip!

Exam questions often ask about the concepts' change in continuity. Maps are an excellent way to help visualize change, especially when considering how the world shifted in a social and political organization from empire to nation-state.

Case Study: China, from Empire to Nation-State

An interesting case study for the transition from empire to the nation-state is that of China. Imperial powers carved out spheres of influence and trade within China in the 19th century.

Empires vs Nation-states, China From Empire to Nation State. Cartoon showing world leaders carving China up as a cake. StudySmarterFig 5 - Cartoon showing European powers and Japan carving up China like a pie.

By the 1920s, there were two competing nationalist movements in China: the Nationalist Party led by Chiang Kai-Shek and the Chinese Communist Party led by Mao Zedong. Both sought to unify China as one nation-state and engaged in a civil war over their competing visions.

After taking power in 1949, Mao's government often used the rhetoric of nationalism as part of its propaganda appeals to the Chinese people.

The Chinese Civil War and the rise of Mao's China are complex and involve multiple factors. However, its history going from empire to nation-state is an illustrative example to compare identity in empires and nation-states, to see how European imperialism affected the rest of the world, and how nationalism could be used to support independence and national unity.


China is just one example, with others such as Vietnam and Angola, where nationalism and struggles for national liberation combined with political ideologies and the larger context of the Cold War.

Empires vs Nation-States - Key Takeaways

  • An empire is an area of diverse peoples under control by a single government.
  • A nation is a group of people who identify with each other and believe they have a shared political destiny.
  • Nationalism is an ideological belief that emphasizes support for one's nation.
  • Nationalism emerged as a significant force worldwide in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It promoted the unification of some nations in new nation-states, promoted imperial expansion by some nation-states, and led to the rise of independence movements where people wanted to transition from empire to nation-state.

1. Benedict Anderson. Imagined Communities. 2006.

2. Rudyard Kipling. "The White Man's Burden." 1898.


  1. Fig 1 - World map showing areas under European control (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:European_Empires.svg) by Rafy (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Rafy), licensed under CC-BY-3.0 (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:CC-BY-3.0)
  2. Fig 3 - Map of Europe before WW1 (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Europe_1914_(pre-WW1),_coloured_and_labelled.svg) by Wikkiwonkk (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Wikkiwonkk) licensed under CC-BY-SA-4.0 (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:CC-BY-SA-4.0)

Frequently Asked Questions about From Empire to Nation State

An empire is a large area containing multiple peoples or nations under the control of one authority. A nation-state is a nation or group of people that have their own independent government.

Two examples of nation-states are China and France. Both are geographically defined areas under a government controlled by people in that area.

Empires usually contained numerous nations under their control. People who wanted independence wanted to have their own nation-states rather than be part of the empire.

It is possible for a nation-state to have an empire, such as the nation-state of France having the French Empire, however, the empire as a whole cannot be a nation-state because the peoples under colonial control do not have control over their own government.

There are no formal empires today. However, some countries such as the United States, Russia, Israel and China exert influence or control over geographical areas in ways that are similar to an empire. Some places that were formally part of the British Empire remain nominally part of the British Commonwealth of Nations where they recognize the British Monarch as the symbolic head of state but have independent governments.

Final From Empire to Nation State Quiz


What best defines an empire?

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An area where the people who live there have control over their own government.

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What best defines a nation?

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An area where there are multiple peoples under the control of one.

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What best defines a nation state?

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An area where the people who live there have control over their own government.

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Which of the following could be supported by nationalism?

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Unifying into one singe state.

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What best defines self-determination?

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The idea that a group of people should have control over their own destiny.

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Which of the following describes how the world transitioned from empires to nation states?

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People in empires came to see themselves as distinct nations and wanted their own governments.

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Which of the following could best be considered a nation?

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Two groups of people who speak the same language and have the same culture but want to have two separate and different governments.

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Is it possible for a nation to exist without a nation state?

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Yes. Peoples such as the Kurds or Palestinians are nations that exist today but do not have their own nation state.

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What factors helped promote nationalism and the transition from empires to nation states in the 19th and 20th centuries?

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Factors included the spread of Enlightenment ideas, ideas of self determination, and industrialization creating winners and losers.

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What best describes the transition of China from empire to nation state?

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China became a nation state when it became independent from Japanese control at the end of World War Two.

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