Skip to main content

Urban Institutions and Politics: The Modern Period


Theresa M. McBride

The nineteenth century remade cities into new and strange places that challenged conventional political and social categories. Industrialization and intensified urbanization drastically renovated the physical layout of the preindustrial city. What had been the seat of administrative, commercial, and religious power in the traditional topography of royal palaces, town halls, and church spires increasingly gave way to the geography of manufacturing, commerce, and parliamentary politics. In Vienna, like many other older cities, the old city walls were torn down during the nineteenth century, when the enemy ceased to be a foreign invader—like the Turkish armies that had menaced the Habsburg imperial capital for centuries—and came to be an enemy within—the revolutionary people who were demanding constitutional protection and political rights. With a huge tract of open land made available by the demolition of the old defense works, the face of a new city was constructed on the the Ringstrasse, the ring road that replaced the line of the old fortifications. Across a small park, the parliament building (the Reichsrat, site of the legislative assembly) directly faces the Hofburg (residence of the emperor and center of the hereditary and authoritarian monarchy), symbolizing the autocratic emperor's resistance to liberal and nationalist demands for political reform. While the centuries-old Habsburg empire managed to survive until 1918, the traditional elites increased their political power at the regional and local level. Clustered along Vienna's Ringstrasse were the institutions so cherished by nineteenth-century liberals in their struggle against the autocratic empire: constitutional government, embodied in the Reichsrat; the power of the municipal government of Vienna, expressed in the medieval Gothic style of the Rathaus; education, intellectual life, and high culture, represented by the university and the Burgtheater.

The rebuilding of Vienna in the mid- to late nineteenth century parallels the transformation of countless European cities as a result of political events and of demographic and economic pressures. Vienna, Paris, Berlin, and London were all substantially rebuilt in the course of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and absorbed millions of new residents. Suburbs were added outside the old city walls; broad boulevards cut through the old city center; new administrative and cultural buildings were constructed. And as the topography of the city changed, so did its politics.


The traditional politics of European cities was not democratic, but was based rather on the exercise of collective political power by the urban elites. The core of the elite continued into the modern period to be composed of merchants, those no longer active in business but living off their investments, and many professionals, especially lawyers. Urban political power remained firmly in the hands of this elite of upper-middle-class notables (called notables in France and Honoratioren in Germany) because of the property requirements for participating in local elections, the qualification of voters according to taxes paid, and the unpaid nature of local administrative positions such as those in city councils. The relative autonomy of urban governance, counterposed to the autocratic power of the monarchy, allowed for the evolution of a sense of citizenship and of a political identity that was focused on the city. When the French Revolution swept away the institutional structures of countless European cities after 1789, this tradition of urban governance helped to shape the development of liberal politics. By abolishing the remnants of feudalism throughout Europe, the French Revolution and Napoleonic Empire accomplished a revolution from above. To take one example, the promulgation of a Prussian constitution in 1808, after the Prussian defeat by the French, gave Prussian cities representative institutions and a degree of self-government. The result was a dramatic shift in the political climate in these cities. The urban elites became active in demanding constitutional government, economic modernization, national unification, and new forms of citizenship.

City governments often played an active role in the struggle for liberal reforms in the nineteenth century. They did so in order to perpetuate their own power and to promote the economic interests of citizens, who still made up a small percentage of the adult male population even with the beginnings of liberal constitutionalism. Through such institutions as chambers of commerce, employers' associations, and parliamentary lobbies, as well as through social and familial relationships, the economic elites who dominated urban institutions successfully influenced state policy, particularly in areas that affected them. Local politics was the chosen arena of the urban elites because politics was more loosely organized and freer of the control of landed property owners, and because informal contacts and social relationships retained their importance. Their political constituency did not reach downward toward a popular base, but instead stretched outward through the network of family, social, and business relationships that tied together the urban elites. They often resisted democratization and preferred to perpetuate the political tutelage of the urban lower classes. In this way, the nineteenth-century elites survived the transition to parliamentary government and electoral politics remarkably unscathed until the early twentieth century, despite the expansion of formal citizenship over the course of the century.

Urbanization promoted a sense of urban identity and local patriotism. People were proud of their cities, and rivalries between cities were frequent. Local elites tried to endow their cities with institutions and services that would serve the inhabitants well, and they implemented improvements that would give their cities distinction. A city's reputation might well be associated with its cultural institutions, such as museums, which could be the linchpins in the reconstruction of the city center. The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, the National Gallery in London, and the Alte Pinakothek in Munich, all built between 1800 and 1830, helped enhance the reputation of the cities in which they were constructed and drew tourists to the city as leisure travel increased. Although most were state museums, the attachment of the bourgeois elites to these cultural institutions could be very strong, because they represented a means to fulfill the elite's aspirations for cultural leadership and social legitimacy. Such institutions replaced early modern civic organizations like guilds, which had provided a public identity for earlier cities.

Poor relief was provided at the municipal level throughout most of the nineteenth century. With the rapid growth of cities and industrialization in the first half of the nineteenth century, demands on city agencies increased along with the growing populations of indigents from among those arriving in search of work in urban industry. Most cities sought to cut costs, and they often tried to expel poor migrants. Even as national welfare legislation took shape in the later nineteenth century, city governments retained a substantial role in the provision of poor relief and health services, such as they were. The city's role was particularly important in countries like France that emphasized a decentralized approach to social welfare.


Urbanization could be experienced as a very rapid and disorienting process in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as modern cities swelled by population growth and migration. Intense urban growth had significant implications for urban politics. Class antagonisms were sharper in the nineteenth-century cities than in the countryside and there was a widespread belief that urban crime rates were higher. Middle-class observers (our only sources for this) considered the urban poor and working people "the dangerous classes." Incidents of civil strife were interpreted by the elites as symptoms of social breakdown; under new conditions, formerly innocuous popular festivities could seem threatening, when thousands of people crowded into the narrow streets of the city. Police forces were created or expanded across Europe to replace the traditional use of the state's army to keep order. Suppressing crime and urban disorder supplied the rationale for extending the power of municipal authorities. Crowd control and regulation of popular leisure became prime concerns, along with crime fighting. Some urban elites attempted to outlaw begging.

The demands on city governments extended well beyond the need to control crime and civil strife. Local postal services, fire protection, sewers, water, streets, schools, and the administration of poor relief were all areas in which nineteenth-century cities became increasingly involved, long before national governments saw fit to do so. Berlin's first postal service was set up in 1800 by the tradesmen's guilds; messengers walked through the streets announcing themselves with handbells to collect and deliver mail. Probably because of the mail service, houses in Berlin were numbered for the first time and street names were posted at street corners.

With urbanization came the formation of an identifiable metropolitan culture by the turn of the twentieth century. This urban identity was not as strong in eastern and southern Europe where the links between the town and country remained strong because rural workers migrated seasonally to find work in industry, but maintained a political and social identity as rural people. The new urban culture did not obliterate other identities based on class, ethnicity, or gender, but it did define a common way in which city dwellers related to the city and shared patterns of leisure and consumption. A clear separation developed between urban and rural peoples. City people were considered to be typically "modern" and they viewed rural people as ignorant, narrow-minded, and suspicious. Perhaps no city underwent quite so dramatic a transformation as Berlin. What had been only a provincial capital for the Prussian kingdom reinvented itself as a major metropolis over the course of only a few decades. Between 1848 and 1905, the population of Berlin leaped from 400,000 to 2 million, developing huge suburbs around the city, which added another 1.5 million. Berlin outstripped its rivals to become, by 1920, the world's third-largest city. The dizzying pace of development in the span of a lifetime fixed the city's identity as quintessentially "modern," unfixed, and dynamic, and Berlin became synonymous with the avant-garde in the arts and with a glittering urban culture in the first quarter of the twentieth century.

Britain was the most rapidly industrializing area of Europe in the nineteenth century, and British cities faced the challenge of meeting new urban needs early on. Reform legislation in the 1830s opened cities to control by middle-class elements, and this furthered on expansion of urban government functions, including the police. The London sewer system, established in 1848, was generally regarded as the model of an integrated sewer system, and Glasgow became the first city to harness a natural resource in this way by bringing highland water to its citizens in 1859. But the supply of new services did not transform urban politics in the early Victorian years. Local government in both England and Scotland were characterized by administrative confusion: the number of parochial boards (dominated by local property owners) with responsibilities for sewerage, water supply, public works, transportation, schools, housing, and welfare multiplied, their overlapping jurisdictions creating a chaos of private interests and weak public authority. Order was imposed on this welter of conflicting responsibilities by the creation of popularly elected county councils around the turn of the twentieth century. The largest cities of England, Scotland, and Wales became largely self-administering, with wide powers over police and education. The industrial city of Glasgow earned a reputation for dynamic government with effective action against urban overcrowding, slum clearance, and the early municipalization of water and gas supplies, but such municipal activism came late to London until the long overdue unification of municipal administration in the elected body of the London County Council in 1888.

By the end of the nineteenth century, frustrated by the poor quality of private services available or provoked by public health crises, such as periodic outbreaks of cholera (known to be spread by infected water supplies), urban administrations across Europe were pushed to expand their authority over previously unregulated spheres of urban life. Urban governments had to expand to meet the demands arising from their control over public utilities and the appropriation of public services for their citizens. Believing that municipalization of its water supply would provide higher quality and lower cost than the market, the French city of Lyon finally municipalized its water in 1900. Even though the city paid a yearly compensation to the private water company and increased the size of its workforce, it was turning a profit within two years. By 1904, nearly 2,000 English cities had municipalized their waterworks, 152 their gasworks, and 118 their tram systems. After an Italian law in 1903 that permitted municipalization of public services, most major cities in southern and central Italy started running their own trams and water and electricity boards. Local government expanded further into the lives of its citizens. Until World War I, municipal governments had a far greater impact on the daily lives of city dwellers than did the central government. Cities not only took over the provision of water and gas, but implemented universal schooling, police and fire protection, and welfare services, and built streets, sewers, and housing.

As the functions of municipal government expanded, control of city hall was jealously guarded by the urban elites. For the most part, increasing democratization as a result of the extension of the suffrage by the end of the nineteenth century and in the aftermath of World War I, mass politics, and ideological conflict emerged at the national level. Local politics could be a refuge in which the political ambitions of the urban elite still could be fulfilled. While there was some change of the social composition of French city councils, for example, with the increase in representatives from the middle and lower-middle classes, the urban elites continued to dominate city councils through the 1920s and 1930s. In spite of the reform in 1884, which mandated the free election of French mayors, the majority of city councils continued to be made up of professional men and important merchants. No industrial worker was elected mayor even of an industrial city until the interwar period. Enormous political power was vested in the mayor, who exercised extensive authority as the registrar of births, marriages, and deaths; as judicial officer entitled to prosecute breaches of the law; and as president of the local council, as well as the agent of the state for implementing national laws. In this "regime of the elected mayor," which extended into the 1950s in France, political parties of all persuasions, including reformist strains of socialism, focused on control of local government in their political tactics. In other countries, like Spain, where national politics were less democratic, local politics could be more dynamic. Thus antidynastic parties began to establish populist urban political machines that took over city governments and disrupted old patterns of patronage after the turn of the century. From the late nineteenth century onward, city governments in many industrial regions were increasingly captured by socialist or (after World War I) communist majorities. In Germany, no local city councils were dominated by the Social Democratic Party until 1918, when universal suffrage led to the sharing of power by liberals and socialists. The resultant control of urban administrations provided key power bases for the parties, even when they were excluded at the national level. Reformist city governments characteristically sought to expand urban social welfare and housing efforts to secure their political power.


After World War I, the depression and political turmoil produced further changes in urban politics. In theory, fascism in Italy and in Germany espoused a strong, centralized state. This could mean the nationalization of public services and the usurpation of local authority. In Italy in the 1920s, the imposition of fascist governance introduced powerful, appointed local leaders to implement state policies in the regions. Benito Mussolini (1883–1945) dissolved local councils and dismissed elected mayors in 1926; regional authority was assumed by the prefect, who was often a member of the old ruling elite of property owners rather than of the middle classes. In effect, the fascist "reform" simply meant that the provincial nobility regained control of local government. In Germany in the early 1930s, Nazism took local government very seriously, building a political movement out of the economic distress of the middling and lower middle classes by promoting economic revival and vigorous leadership. The Nazi electoral surge between 1930 and 1933 and the Nazi seizure of power were accomplished to a large extent at the local level. However, after 1933 the Nazification of local government brought cities under the direct control of the central authority: Hitler's second-in-command Josef Goebbels (1897–1945) was given the title of Gauleiter (district leader) for Berlin even before the Nazis came to power there. In both Italy and Germany, the fascist era resulted in generally greater centralization of public authority, even though fascists used local politics to come to power.

World War II accelerated the process by which the central government took on previous municipal functions. Under postwar governments, the central government played the major role in rebuilding after the destruction of the war, removing decrepit structures and constructing new housing, building new avenues and squares, installing the infrastructure to provide for public health and transportation, and many other amenities. Housing has remained perhaps the greatest challenge for governments in the twentieth century. In the postwar era, the provision of adequate housing was too great a burden for local governments and was increasingly taken on by national governments. In Britain, subsidized housing provided fully a third of all housing stock by 1939. In France few cities rushed in to provide public housing, in spite of the need, before the national government assumed responsibility for the construction of public housing. Migration and urbanization have been dramatic features of postwar life in capitalist Western Europe, and the older urban centers have been ringed by public housing or new working-class suburbs. Growth of the urban population generated even faster increases in the demand for housing and other services.

Where national governments were unresponsive to the needs, municipal governments had to assume responsibility. Reformist local governments emerged in France in the 1920s, especially in the urban "red belt" of working-class suburbs that ringed Paris and other cities in France, and in Germany in the Weimar period after 1918, when political power passed from the upper middle classes to the newly enfranchised citizenry at large. After World War II, reform became the agenda of both Christian Democrats and the Social Democratic Party in Germany, spurred by the process of de-Nazification and the need to construct safeguards against the weaknesses of the Weimar government. But political and administrative reform took second place to the extraordinary physical reconstruction of German cities after the destruction of the war.

In Italy, with its long history of city-states, political reform was more likely to be achieved on the local level in the postwar era. For example, the central Italian city of Bologna became a showpiece of reformist local government in the 1950s and 1960s, earning a wide reputation for efficiency and honest administration. Building schools and housing, providing better street lighting, public transportation, and new sewers, the communist-dominated city council avoided budget deficits, in the same era when the Italian national government was monopolized by the Christian Democrats, who directed an increasingly corrupt system of political patronage. Thus, political reform and the objectives of the Italian left were realized on the local level while remaining blocked at the national level.


The economic miracle experienced by Western Europe since 1950 revived the cities of London, Paris, and Vienna. These cities remained at the center of their country's national lives as the hubs of service and commercial economies and the centers of vast transportation networks. But at the same time, urban politics and urban governments were transformed by the expansion of suburbs, which changed the very nature of city life. The effects of suburbanization seem to defy attempts at a unified administrative structure for city governance. European cities experienced a widening gulf between an "inner" city and an "outer" one, as the challenge of controlling growth and providing basic services to the spreading "conurbations" have foundered on deep social, racial, and economic divisions.

Europe's major cities were marked by increasing social polarization and a tidal wave of political terrorism and civil unrest in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. Migration into Europe from outside the prosperous capitalist western states revived the urban elites' fear of the "dangerous classes" who inhabit the working-class suburbs and inner-city neighborhoods. At the end of the twentieth century, the immigrant and working-class populations continue to live at the outskirts of the city, marginalized by de-industrialization, high unemployment, social and racial differences, and the high rents of the New Europe. These suburbs are seen as tinderboxes, ready to explode and ungovernable, as demoralized, unemployed youths loiter and form gangs. The marginalization of these urban populations jeopardizes political solutions to urban problems. The prosperity of postwar Europe has remade European cities, and the urban nature of life in the New Europe has lent a particular immediacy to the problems of urban society.

See alsoThe Liberal State; Fascism and Nazism (in this volume);Police (volume 3); and other articles in this section.


Allen, William Sheridan. The Nazi Seizure of Power: The Experience of a SingleGerman Town, 1930–1935. New York, 1973.

Anderson, Michael. Family Structure in Nineteenth-Century Lancashire. Cambridge, U.K., 1971.

Blanning, T. C. W. "The Commercialization and Sacralization of European Culture in the Nineteenth Century." Oxford Illustrated History of Modern Europe. Edited by T. C. W. Blanning. Oxford and New York, 1996. Pages 120–147.

Cohen, William B. Urban Government and the Rise of the French City: Five Municipalities in the Nineteenth Century. New York, 1998.

Fritzsche, Peter. Reading Berlin, 1900. Cambridge, Mass., 1996.

Garside, P. L. "London and the Home Counties." The Cambridge Social History ofBritain, 1750–1950. Edited by F. M. L. Thompson. Volume 1. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1990. Pages 471–539.

Ginsborg, Paul. A History of Contemporary Italy: Society and Politics, 1943–1988. London and New York, 1990.

Hohenberg, Paul M., and Lynn Hollen Lees. The Making of Urban Europe, 1000–1950. Cambridge, Mass., 1985.

Lees, Andrew. "Historical Perspectives on Cities in Modern Germany: Recent Literature." Journal of Urban History 5, no. 4 (August 1979): 411–446.

Magraw, Roger. France, 1815–1914: The Bourgeois Century. New York, 1986.

McKibbin, Ross. Classes and Cultures: England, 1918–1951. Oxford and New York, 1998.

Porter, Roy. London: A Social History. Cambridge, Mass., 1995.

Read, Anthony, and David Fisher. Berlin Rising: Biography of a City. New York, 1994.

Schorske, Carl E. Fin-de-Siècle Vienna: Politics and Culture. New York, 1980.

Sheehan, James J. "Liberalism and the City in Nineteenth-Century Germany." Past and Present 51 (May 1971): 116–137.

Smout, T. C. "Scotland, 1850–1950." The Cambridge Social History of Britain,1750–1950. Edited by F. M. L. Thompson. Volume 1. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1990. Pages 209–280.

Thompson, F. M. L. "Town and City." The Cambridge Social History of Britain,1750–1950. Edited by F. M. L. Thompson. Volume 1. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1990. Pages 1–86.

Walker, Mack. German Home Towns: Community, State, and General Estate, 1648–1871. Ithaca, N.Y., 1971.

Waller, Phillip J. Town, City, and Nation: England, 1850–1914. Oxford, U.K., and New York, 1983.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Urban Institutions and Politics: The Modern Period." Encyclopedia of European Social History. . 19 Jan. 2019 <>.

"Urban Institutions and Politics: The Modern Period." Encyclopedia of European Social History. . (January 19, 2019).

"Urban Institutions and Politics: The Modern Period." Encyclopedia of European Social History. . Retrieved January 19, 2019 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.