Dictionary definitions of nationalism unproblematically describe it was “feeling that people have of being loyal and proud of their country often with the belief that it is better and more important than other countries” or “an extreme form of patriotism marked by a feeling of superiority over other countries”. However, the historiographical debate surrounding this exposes the nuances in different definitions of terms such as nation and nationalism.

In the introduction to his book The Nation in History, Anthony D. Smith discusses this debate, stating “there can be no single ‘history of the nation’ or of nationalism”. Smith outlines several debates which, throughout the history of the subject, have “structured and continue to define the historiography of nationalism”. Nation he defines as “a named human population occupying a historic territory or homeland and sharing common myths and memories; a mass, public culture; a single economy; a common rights and duties for all members”.

Nationalism he defines as “an ideological movement for the attainment and maintenance of autonomy, unity, and identity on behalf of a population deemed by some of its members to constitute and actual or potential ‘nation’”.

Yet, others see nationalism through different explanatory lenses. Marxist thinking tends to position nationalism within an analysis of the “ideology, strategy, and politics of the young bourgeoisie in its efforts to rise and accumulate’. Consequently nationalism is “partly ideological, partly social, but still a unitary and autonomous phenomenon, and one traces its spread across the world in the wake of diffusing capitalism”. 

Historians Views

Benedict Anderson - Imagined Communities

For Anderson Nations are “an imagined political community…It is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion” (B. Anderson, Imagined Communities, 1983, p.6).  This view is similar to the idea of ‘diaspora nationalism’ whereby members of one nation are dispersed across the globe.  Anderson goes on to state that a common language and sporting events are important the maintenance of imagined nations.  For instance, although members of a nation do not know each other they are often brought together through the support of a national sports team, thus the nation is imagined rather than a seen.

Anthony Smith – The Ethnic Origins of Nations

Although a student of Ernest Gellner (author of Nations and Nationalism who believed nationalism was only necessary in the modern political world), Smith was an advocate of ethno-symbolist approach to nations.  Smith looked at the process by which the modern concept of nationalism was established.  Although nation is a modern concept, Smith believes that nations can be traced back to ethnic groups which existed before the development of the modern world.  These ethnicities have been in existence since the medieval period and have ‘distinctive mythology, symbolism and culture, including its association with an ancient homeland’ (Origins of Nations, p.360).  Therefore, nations are based on an ancient symbolic relation between its members.


In his Qu'est-ce qu'une nation lecture Renan explains why the traditional theories of the origins of nations are flawed.  These include: race, language, religion and geography.  For Renan nation was a spiritual and sentimental notion through which a group of peoples agrees to live in common.  He believed that nations are not eternal – they had a beginning and will have an end.  At that point Renan foresaw that European nations will eventually be replaced by what he calls the ‘European confederation’ – quite an astute observation to be made in 1882.    

Benedict Anderson

Benedict Anderson





Nationalism can be interpreted in various ways, often overlapping in thought and practice. This can be seen throughout history. Firstly, nationalism can be an ideology of a state, this will express the sense of patriotism, autonomy, independence and self-determination of the ruling party and presumably citizens. This sense of political nationalism, is arguably the most instrumental concept in shaping the modern world and global politics. Post-colonialism and the spread of liberalism have pushed ideas to the forefront. Perhaps surprisingly, globalisation has also spread the individual sovereignty of nations, this can be seen by the formation and principles of the United Nations; a collection and conglomeration of states, but all with their own sovereignty and autonomy. The fact that the idea of state nationalism is so prevalent in nearly all political systems around the world and so rarely questioned shows the impact of nationalist ideas, especially in the last century. Benedict Anderson argues it has become the "most universally legitimate value in the political life of our time."

This officialised, political nationalism links hugely to, and indeed can be seen to be the aim of, Secession/Independence Nationalism. This is the seeking of full autonomy for a nation or state from another authority. This may be desiring independence for a nation that has existed in some form in the past put is now known or governed otherwise, or simply a group who believe they should have their own nation. This form of nationalism has been very prominent through the last century, especially in the fall of colonial empires, writers like Franz Fanon expressed how European colonial rule of African and Asian subjects was no longer seen as legitimate and was undermined by hypocrisy. These feelings grew more and more into International discourse causing a collapse of the colonial system. More recently, the breakup of the USSR has also shown the influence of independence nationalism, as seen by the violent breakup of Yugoslavia.

Ethnocentric Nationalism is based on race, ethnicity and eugenics, equating a race and ethnicity to a nation. It is often linked to racism and xenophobia; a fear or hatred of foreigners. Although it can also be considered in regard to a generalised homogeny of inhabitants, for example, Ranon in 1887, describes how in France, everyone is called ethnically "French", but in Turkey, different ethnicities and groups lived side by side (although that peaceful harmony is now deteriorating). Showing that the process ethnocentric nationalism has different stages.

Cultural Nationalism bases itself on shared norms and a shared sense of national identity through ways of living and commonality with those who live similarly, it also highly emphasises the importance of history and heritage (political, social and geographical) in shaping the nation and national identity.

Religious Nationalism comes by equating the nation one lives in to a religion, and seeing the identity of that nation to be synonymous with that religion. It thus can equate members of other religions to be "outside" of the nation, and not sharing in the same identity.

Expansionist Nationalism occurs when a sense of superiority or competitiveness drives a desire of power/influence of one nation over other territories and peoples. While this may firstly bring to mind outwardly fascist regimes, like Nazi Germany, aspects from expansionist nationalism can be clearly seen in the past of any imperial nation, such as Britain or Japan. While nationalism may not always be stated as the driving force behind imperial expansion, it certainly shows a general disregard for other nations and a sense of superiority. Expansive nationalism also has a very interesting aspect in regards that it can be seen to bring about the spread of nationalism itself, particularly political nationalism, both by its own citizens but also by colonised citizens, in opposition of a colonising power. This was seen by the Napoleonic Empire which spread French dominance, the opposition to this took the form of nationalism, arguably emerging for the first time in some places, and the resulting movements can be seen to highly impact the formation of nations like Italy and Germany.  


Modern Nationalism


The British National Party was formed in 1982. An amalgamation of several different right-wing groups. Elements of the ‘Constitutional Movement’, ‘British Movement’, ‘British Democratic Party’ and the ‘New National Front’. The latter was headed by John Tyndall, who would initially lead the BNP. Tyndall, a radical nationalist, had already been involved in starting a number of similar parties. He had authored 4 books prior to the BNP’s founding and produced a magazine, ‘Spearhead’, from 1964 until his death in 2005, the themes of which were often advocating authoritarianism, racial purity (often anti-Semitism), nationalism and homophobia. Tyndall had also been imprisoned more than once for possession of fire-arms and public order offences. A year after formation, in 1983 the BNP put forward 53 candidates forward for the general election, allowing them a party broadcast on television, but only garnered around 14,000 votes nationally. Hampered by competition in the right from the National Front, and with Tyndall and other leaders imprisoned in 1986, the BNP’s already minor support declined and the party was largely dormant until the 1990’s.

Support for the National Front was waning in the early 90’s, and the BNP secured their first council seat in 1993. Their manifesto at the time (written by Tyndall) claimed a crisis in Britain and denounced the effects of liberalism. It maintained the themes of authoritarian government, advocating a radical reconstruction of the political system. It called for “order” to be achieved through a “strong executive” with “real” powers who would govern for a period “sufficiently lasting to make possible the taking on of vital long-term national development tasks”. It advocated the ‘resettlement’ of non-white immigrants, suggesting payment incentives. It also called for reform of the commonwealth, to eject several impoverished nations thus ending aid, and to re-establish white rule in several African countries. Support slowly grew throughout the decade, votes for the party in the 1992 general election were around 7,000 nationally. In 1997, this had grown to 35,000. This would continue into the new millennium with the takeover of Nick Griffin.

Griffin sought to ‘revamp’ the party’s image. He claimed to have removed the ‘extreme’ elements from the party, and attempted to distance the party from racism. This being said the BNP’s 2001 and 2005 manifestos both retained many elements of radical reform and the rhetoric of a nation in crisis or under threat, this time blaming political correctness and corporate influence. They also retained the voluntary resettlement schemes and strongly denounce multiculturalism. The later of the two even claiming that differences between ethnic groups’ behaviour could be influenced by evolution. An agenda for strong government was also maintained during this period with the manifestos advocating the return of corporal and capital punishment, new restrictions on the media to address the spreading of ‘falsehoods’ and the removal of regulations of the police. Support for the BNP during the 2000’s, a period rocked by global terrorist attacks, rose dramatically. The BNP went from 47,000 to 152,000 to 563,000 votes in the general elections of 2001, 2005 and 2010. They attained moderate successes in local and European elections though never had a member in Parliament. In recent times the BNP have fallen into obscurity. With infighting and no longer garnering press coverage, they received under 2,000 votes in the 2015 elections, their lowest since 1987. The party failed to renew their £25 registration in 2016.

Action Française

Action Française is a French right wing political movement. The movement (and an accompanying journal) were founded by Maurice Pujo and Henri Vaugeois in 1899, as a nationalist reaction against the intervention of left-wing intellectuals. Action française became a monarchist, counter-revolutionary (objecting to the legacy of the French Revolution) and anti-democratic party. The party also supported integralism nationalism – an ideology which supports the idea of national unity and the continuation of a social hierarchy. It was subsequently dissolved in 1944 and reformed in 1947 and today it exists as an advocate of monarchist and anti-European Union sentiments, spreading its ideas through the magazine Action française 2000.  It also has a student wing, named Action française étudiante.


PEGIDA, or ‘Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West’  (Patriotische Europäer gegen die Islamisierung des Abendlandes) is a German right wing party, founded in 2014, which promotes anti-Islam politics and campaigns for greater immigration restrictions - especially on Muslims entering Europe. Similar to the French Action party, PEGIDA has opposed membership to NATO and the European Union, as well as supporting closer relations with Russia. It has spread throughout Europe with branches of the party in several European countries. PEGIDA’s first demonstrations took place on 20th October 2014, with a small turnout.  The party’s weekly Monday night demonstrations slowly gained strength and attendee numbers, peaking at the demonstration on the 8th of December 2014. A march organised for the 29th of December 2014 was cancelled.  Despite this, the movement continued to attract members throughout January 2015. The rapid growth of PEGIDA in recent years shows that nationalism within Europe is becoming more and more popular.  However, it not clear whether this nationalism is linked to individual states, or whether it is a new form which sees Western Europe as one nation.  This would make sense in light of the formation and growth of the European Union -  as predicted by Renan and noted in Making History Now and Then (D. Cannadine, pg. 178)

See Paul Lawrence, ‘Nationalism and Historical Writing’, [in], The Oxford handbook of the history of nationalism


Scottish Nationalism provides us with an example of nationalism still very much in existence in modern society and politics. Scottish nationalism is particularly associated with the issue of Scottish Independence or Scottish Devolution, over which there has been frequent debates and discussions in recent years. This was significantly exemplified by the 2014 Referendum and the victory of 56 out of 59 seats in Scotland for the Scottish National Party in the 2015 General Election. Scottish nationalism is considered to be a civic nationalism rather than an ethnic one. This means that the nation is not considered to be a specific entity due to ethnicity, race or language, but rather a non-xenophobic nationalism defending the value of a national identity.

SNP and Scottish independence

Scottish Independence has been an issue which has seen pressure put on British debate, particularly when it is under Labour Party rule, particularly in the late 1970s under James Callaghan and in 1997 when Labour returned to power.

SNP was created in 1934 when the National Party of Scotland and the Scottish Party. It is an example of liberal nationalism, the party being considered social-democratic.

There is also a movement of Scotland in Europe, demonstrating the independent role Scotland can play as an EU partner.

Debates over nationalism

Scottish Nationalism is significant when looking at Britain as a nation and how this has been treated by historians. There is historiographical discussion surrounding the topic of how ‘British’ history is often just ‘English’ history and pays little attention to the histories of Scotland, Ireland and Wales.

This topic is covered by David Cannadine in Making History Now and Then who states that for a long time in written histories “the nation whose history they recounted and whose identity they helped to proclaim was England” (pg 176)

Cannadine also argues that the increase in Scottish nationalism (along with Welsh Nationalism and troubles in Ireland) “gave a great impetus to non-English (and sometimes Anglophobic) historical studies in these nations” (pg 181)

A 1999 Radio 4 ‘In Our Time’ episode covered ideas of the nation state. In this episode the idea of the British State vs British Nation was covered. Andrew Marr was one of the guests on the show and he claimed that today people in Scotland are increasingly taught that they are Scottish as opposed to British, perhaps demonstrating the existing nationalism in Scotland as an independent state. During the episode it was also explained that England has been an imperial power within the isles before it was an imperial power in the wider world. The UK has always been predominantly run by English people and they have always been able to identify with the monarchy, the subjects of the crown and the rulers of the empire. This reiterates the idea of the history of ‘Britain’ being, in reality, the history of ‘England’.


Taiwanese nationalism is an example of different ideas, origins and practises of nationalism and how they interact and interplay in a very complicated global political situation.

Firstly, a fundamentalist nationalist current has long existed in Taiwan, which favours pure and simple independence from China and is convinced that Taiwanese culture does not belong to Chinese culture. So here we see nationalism forming from a supposed cultural identity and the seeking of political independence from an overarching power. The opposition of the People's Republic of China and of a large part of the international community to independence accentuates these divisions. However, Taiwanese nationalism doesn’t always express itself in terms of independence, indeed in recent polls a constant, high proportional of people consider themselves both Taiwanese and Chinese. Indeed most Taiwanese nationalists call for a more noted and established Taiwanese political and/or cultural identity, without necessarily independence.

Whilst division with China and hopes for independence could be seen to come from Taiwan's geographical isolation or past occupation by Japan, in reality the origin of this political nationalism is largely regarded to have come with the Chinese civil war and the division of China into the Peoples' Republic of China (PRC) and the Republic of China (ROC). In 1949, Chaing, leader of the ousted ROC government moved his regime to Taiwan. The Taiwanese welcomed them as liberators from the Japanese, but quickly resented the regime, resulting in a more identifiable Taiwanese identity and movement for independence. The continued presence and rule of the Republic of China means there is now also a long lasting element of Chinese nationalism which weaves into Taiwanese nationalism.

However, Chaing's son began a process of "Taiwanisation" and political liberalisation, thus more political demands emerged, and in 1989 an opposition to the KMT (Republic of China) party was established. But the clear priority was not a split from China, but rather democratisation to make the political system more representative of the Taiwanese people.


Nationalism in the French and American Revolutions

An interesting example of civic nationalism to consider is that of revolutions throughout history. Particular examples of this are the French and American Revolutions as they were largely based on similar values and were contemporaneous events, each a part of the numerous Atlantic Revolutions which occurred in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Nationalism can be seen as a cause of the American Revolution as there was a clear desire in a substantial part of the population to form a nation independent from Britain. The oppression from Britain in the form of heavy taxing and restricted rights compared to those of British citizens caused tension in the colonies resulting in an increase of American Identity.

In the same way, the French Revolution can be in seen to have been the result in part of a will to create a new nation. Moreover, the idea of the citizen throughout the French Revolution could be seen to owe its development to nationalist sentiments as it was a move away from the division of France into regions where the only linking factor was loyalty to the king. This new system would be made up of citizens of the nation of France.

It is clear, therefore, that the two revolutions were not only as a result of nationalism, but also caused nationalist sentiments themselves. This can be seen as the aim of the revolutions was the creation of a new nation under new rule, allowing the members of their respective populations to gain a sense of nationalism as they were now conscious of their new national identity.

In both countries the aim was to move away from the rule of monarchy, one the oppressive monarchical system of their own country, the other the dominion of an overseas monarchy. Therefore nationalism can be seen as a cause of both these revolutions as they both required a sense of nationalism in the population to invoke change.

Further similarities between the two revolutions were their philosophical or ideological inspirations. A key example of this is the idea of the Rights of Man, recognizing “equal individual citizenship, and collective sovereignty of the people”. This was achieved in the French Revolution through the National Assembly issuing the ‘Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen’ on August 26th 1789, which also aimed to “affirm the principles of the new state”, further instilling a sense of nationalism into the French people.

Furthermore, both were inspired by ideas of the Enlightenment, particularly shown in Rousseau and Voltaire’s work causing “those under the thumb of monarchies to begin to recognise the inequality inherent in such systems”. Similarly, it must be noted that “in the wake of the Enlightenment, people began to take pride in serving the country rather than the king” reiterating the notion of a growth in nationalism. Enlightenment ideas are also significant in assessing the similarities between the revolutions as they “shaped the American Revolution and the success of it went on to also inspire the French as well”, demonstrating the direct influence growth in American nationalism had on the French.

Exploring these two revolutions is helpful in looking at nationalism throughout history and the relationship between the nationalism of various countries. Although the situation in France and America did differ, largely in their desired outcomes (America wanted independence from an overseas monarch whereas France wanted a change to their own system of rule), the involvement of nationalism in their respective revolutions was very similar and important to examine.

Serbian Nationalism

The initial form of Serbian nationalism was a struggle for national independence in a region constantly battled over. Ottomans had ruled the area (with a few gaps) since the battle of Kosovo in the 14th Century. The independence movement was undertaken between 1804 and 1835, when the Serbian monarchy was recognised and a national constitution implemented.

The desire for a Serbian nation arose from a number of factors. Primarily against the unpopular Ottoman rule, the occupiers heavily taxed the population, and heroic anti-Ottoman rhetoric surrounded the memory of the battle of Kosovo. Another driving factor was the remembrance of a certain level of autonomy when the Austro-Hungarians took the area from Ottomans between 1718 and 1739. During this period some Serbians were also conscripted into military service where they were exposed to Enlightenment thinking. The neighbouring Russian state had undergone a massive reformation starting under Peter the Great. The Serbian Orthodox church also influenced the sense of identity that Serbians felt. One important figure, Domitrije ‘Dositej’ Obradovic, trained as monk in the 18th century and was later the first minister of education in Serbia. He encouraged education in Serbian and translated many works into Serbian.

In 1804, after recent tax rises and the ‘Slaughter of the Dukes’ where hundreds of prominent Serbs were executed by Ottoman ‘Janissaries’. The first Serbian uprising was led by Dorde ‘Karadorde’ Petrovic, a force of 25,000 strong besieged and captured Belgrade (the capital) until 1813 when it was brutally recaptured by Ottoman forces. Resentment and conflict continued. Two years later a rival of Karadorde, Milos Obrenovic, managed to negotiate both the title of the Prince of Serbia (by assassinating Karadorde) and eventual autonomy with the declining Ottoman Empire.

Nationalism in the region transformed in the late 19th century as many developed a desire for a wider Serbian speaking Yugoslav nation. This would affect world peace when a member of the pro-Yugoslav group, Young Bosnia, assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914. After the War, Yugoslavia was formed. There was however considerable dissent from various groups, such as Bosnians, Slovenian and Croatians, who rejected the unification. The Nazis invaded Yugoslavia in 1939, and Serbian Nationalists by the name of ‘Chetniks’ fought both against the Nazis, and communist partisans. The Chetniks ideology took on a resentment of, and massacred, Bosnian Muslims. Communists partisans took control of Yugoslavia and nationalism was repressed until the second half of the century.

Division in Yugoslavia remained, with the nation and even the governing communist party split between the many republics of Yugoslavia. Serbian nationalists who were spread between the republics believed that they were underrepresented in the country. The Serbian President, good at stirring nationalist sentiment, managed to secure a majority of the influence in governing Yugoslavia, as well as attaining a Serbian majority in the Yugoslav Army. Croatia and Slovenia declared independence in the early 90’s to the dismay of Serbian nationalists who still believed in the idea of greater Serbia, some seceded from their republics. There followed a bloody series of wars in the region in which there were mass genocides and war crimes. The conflicts did not end until 2001.



Zionism is an alternative example of nationalism and is similar to the notion of stateless nationalism outlined by Anderson in Imagined Communities.  Political Zionism was founded by Theodor Herzl, an Austro-Hungarian Journalist and political activist, in 1896.  Although an Atheist, Herzl believed in forming a Jewish homeland in Palestine.  The ideals of Zionist Nationalism were outlined in Herzl’s Der Judenstaat (1896) and spread leading to the formation of the World Zionist Organisation who held their first conference in Basle in 1897.  Zionists believe that the worlds Jews are entitled to a homeland in the Middle East.  This belief led to mass migration towards Jerusalem throughout the twentieth century; although it can be argued that this migration was also the result of increased anti-Semitic persecution within Europe.  Israel was formed as a result of the UN partition plan in 1947– which divided the area surrounding Jerusalem into area of Arab and Zionist control, as well as zones of influence controlled by Western powers.  The partition saw the end of the British Mandate in Palestine and the declaration of the state of Israel under David Ben-Gurion.  Zionism is a significant example of nationalism as it is based upon a nation of people, in this case both religious and ethnic Jews, rather than an area of land or a common race or language.  Therefore, it demonstrates how nations are formed and highlights the fact that one ‘nation’ can be spread across the world whilst its members still feel a close relation to each other regardless of where and who they are.

Hindu nationalism

Religious nationalism equates the nation one lives in, to a religion and seeing the identity of that nation to be synonymous with that religion. In the case of Hindu nationalism, the nation in question is of course India. The ideology of Hindu nationalism, rather than loyalty to the state or region, seeks communalism of Hindus, that is to say the commonality of the Hindu majority to be spread across the nation, usually showing racism against other religions, particularly Islam.

In the past quarter of a century, the Hindu nationalism movement has moved from the fringes to the centre of mainstream Indian political discourse and "has become most powerful cluster of political and cultural organisations in the country". Some believe this is down to organisational and political nous of groups like the RSS, and the spread of ideas which portray Hindu-Muslim antagonism to be morally correct and progressive. Others believe that it is more down to history and culture; that the use of the "traditional" religion which was created in India, and now is practised by roughly 80% of the population, expresses a love and loyalty for India. Another viewpoint is that Hindu nationalism reflects a general trend with many nations in recent years, whereby democracy and the parliamentarian system has led to the opportunity for right-wing, conservative views to come to the forefront, driven by opposition to over-liberalisation, or a fear of "foreign" or "alien" influence and a desire to increase India's global status, especially following their economic rise and acquisition of nuclear weapons. Hindu nationalism also could be seen to have a post-colonial aspect, since being liberated from British control and domination, Hindu nationalism could be seen by many as a means of finding a historical and cultural national identity.

Kenyan Nationalism

Arose mainly in the context of Kenyans seeking independence from the British Empire. In 1941, the Allies announced their principles towards their colonies in the Atlantic Charter; it promised self-determination and non-aggression. Many (including the young Nelson Mandela) believed it gave Africans a sense of entitlement to rights and stronger claims to democracy and self-determination. These demands grew with the establishment of the UN in 1945 and the Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, the principles of both opposed colonial dominion, and both were therefore used as clear arguments against it by many colonial subjects, like Kenyans. In response to these rising feelings, the British Governor of Kenya wanted to halt the right of individuals and NGOs to petition, highlighting that presumably abuses of power were occurring. The “Land Freedom Army” or “Mau Mau” was formed, mainly by the Kikuyu ethnicity, in resistance to British rule, and caused a jungle based guerrilla war with the British from 1952 to 56. In response the British launched a “state of emergency” in order to create a legal precedent for their extreme violence and oppression that was to follow, this included collective punishments, uncharged arrests, beatings, killings and the creation of internment camps. The Mau Mau movement was broken by 1956, but the state of emergency remained until 1960. Over the next few years, growing international pressure and news of what was happening led to the British working with African and white settler leaders to plan the country’s transition to independence. A constitution was produced in 1963 that provided for the creation of a bicameral legislature with elections held that May. The Kenya African National Union won majorities in both houses and selected its leader, Kenyatta, who had been released from prison in 1961, to be the first prime minister of the new nation.

Further Reading

Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities (1991)

Anthony D. Smith, The Nation in History (2000)

David Cannadine, Making History Now and Then (2000)

David Ludden, Contesting the Nation (1996)

Report: Europe Rediscovers Nationalism, Stratfor Analysis, 18, Jan. 2015.

Stefan Berger, Apologias for the nation-state in Western Europe since 1800 [in], Writing national histories: Western Europe since 1800