Encyclopedia of Romantic Nationalism in Europe

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Background notes on European nationalisms

  • Historical background and contextEurope (general)
  • Author:
    Leerssen, Joep
  • Cultural Field:
  • Text:

    The full development of national movements in Europe, from Pasquale Paoli’s campaigns for Corsican autonomy (1755) to the adoption of Wilson’s “Fourteen Points” programme at the Paris Peace Conference (1918-19), cannot be encompassed here and must emerge from the totality of the articles in this Encyclopedia. Even that totality will not present a complete picture, since the political and social history of national movements, so well covered by a vast existing body of historical research, is here subordinated to the need to highlight the comparatively neglected cultural and intellectual history of nationalism. In contrast to that cultural/intellectual history of nationalism, which is transnationally entangled, political and social events and developments tend to be more country-specific, and background information on these contexts are here given under the individual national (“cultural community”) rubrics.

    Some general points of terminological and typological clarification are, however, in order. Romantic Nationalism, as analysed, mapped and documented in this Encyclopedia, developed concurrently and in interaction with other ideologies of national empowerment and other types of “flavours” of nationalism. Some of these parallel “sibling” types of nationalisms (which repeatedly are referred to as operative presences in a good few of the Encyclopedia’s articles) are here briefly characterized and the terminology to identify them is briefly explained.

    Enlightenment Patriotism

    Patriotism has a longer conceptual history than Nationalism. Although the two words have become semantically conflated in later years (both connoting love of the fatherland, and a willingness to manifest that love of the fatherland in one’s social actions or political stance), it would be anachronistic to invest 18th-century usage of Patriotism with post-hoc nationalistic connotations. Conversely, the ongoing legacy of 18th-century Patriotism can be seen, and must be analysed, as a distinct presence in 19th-century developments.

    The “love of country” invoked by Enlightenment thinkers was a Ciceronian civic virtue and was invoked as an alternative to the duty of fidelity to one’s prince. A Patriot, in the Enlightenment decades, was an anti-aristocrat, someone opposing arbitrary government and hereditary privilege, and advocating the empowerment of the nation-at-large (that is to say, the bourgeoisie) against royal and aristocratic prerogative. Patriots are, accordingly, the self-appellation of all anti-aristocratic reformers and insurgents of the Age of the Democratic Revolutions.

    The anti-aristocratic stance of Enlightenment Patriotism also had a moral component: as the aristocracy was habitually charged with self-serving corruption and vices such as arrogance and presumption, so too the middle classes were credited with work-ethic virtues like honesty, reliability, modesty and with “family virtues” such as filial piety and conjugal fidelity. These virtues were aligned with the civic virtues of Classical Republicanism as outlined by Cicero in his De officiis: integrity, service to the common good, social responsibility. A number of initiatives were undertaken in the Enlightenment decades with the express aim to benefit the public good: the creation of public hospitals, canals and harbours, educational and literacy projects. Such civic philanthropy was considered a manifestation of “Patriotism”, i.e. a selfless commitment to the public good.

    Enlightenment Patriotism was not abolished by the rise of Romanticism or Romantic Nationalism. Many cultural nationalists in the 19th century were the direct heirs and continuators of this Enlightenment Patriotism. Especially those in societies with a late-developing public sphere or civic society, the stimulation of literacy through reading rooms or the printing of school textbooks can (and has) rightly been called a manifestation of Patriotism in the original, Enlightenment sense of the word, notwithstanding the fact that in the new century it also had a national consciousness-raising function. Only gradually, in the course of the century, do we see that the “public good” on whose behalf Patriots exert themselves, becomes an ethnic constituency rather than a societal concept.

    Further points of overlap and osmosis between Patriotism and Nationalism are [a] the fact that many national movements, especially in the first half of the century, take on board the social-emancipatory agenda of popular empowerment against aristocratic prerogative, and [b] the rhetorical usage of the phraseology of “love of the fatherland” which lexically remains constant even though semantically and ideologically it shifts its meaning. Romantic Nationalists also retrospectively adopted and appropriated Enlightenment Patriots as their direct inspiration and forerunners, re-evaluated their stance and discourse in a more nationalist frame of reference and invested them posthumously with a nationalistic reputation.

    Reichspatriotismus (Imperial Patriotism, Crown Patriotism)

    While royal power and Patriotism, Prince and fatherland, were if anything antagonistic political ideals in the Enlightenment decades, a hybridization of the two occurs from the late 18th century onwards, when German political commentators begin to use the notion of Reichspatriotismus. The “Imperial Patriotism” was set off against a civic Patriotism in that it was considered to be located in the empowerment of the individual to lie in a selfless, high-minded and mutually cooperative loyalty to the common good as embodied and institutionalized in the Imperial institutions.

    Reichspatriotismus as formulated in these terms is a zombie ideology. The commentators use the phrase, not to describe an actual political agenda or position, but to deplore an erstwhile Imperial solidarity whose disappearance they bewail. Reichspatriotismus descibes something that was supposed to have existed long ago – mainly in the municipal/imperial institutional frameworks of the 16th century. The word itself cannot be traced back to that period: it only comes into fashion some 200 years after the thing it is designed to evoke. Even so, the phrase, anachronistic and vaguely-allusive though it is, has gained currency among some historians of early-modern Germany over the last 150 years.

    The wistful fata morgana of a once and future Reichspatriotismus, evoked in the 1770 and 1780s, foundered in the events of 1790-1815. The word becomes a rarity until historians pick it up again after 1880. However, there is room to suspect a vestigial afterlife of the ideology in Restoration monarchies, picking up force between 1815 and 1880. The restored post-Waterloo monarchs do not simply pick up where the pre-Valmy Enlightened Absolutists left off. Their power is now, to some extent at least, based on cultural, Romantic notions of dynastic charisma and historicist permanence, and they project themselves as a paternalistic focusing point for a national community.  This new, Romanticized and historicist notion of the monarch as embodiment of the national community and its historical permanence is operative in varying degrees of intensity in different European countries. The Danish helstat or “complete realm” invoked, not only Patriotic notions of kærlighed til fædrelandet, but also a Kongekærlighed or “love of the King”. The younger, mid-century generation of post-Napoleonic monarchs (“Romantics on the throne”, like Ludwig I of Bavaria, Willem II of the Netherlands, Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia, Albert the British Prince Consort, Elisabeth “Sissi” Empress of Austria, Louis-Philippe) intensify this royal, monarchist appropriation of Romantic Nationalism. Their love of national/traditional dress is a tell-tale indicator; it starts with the notorious kilt-wearing George IV on his visit to Edinburgh, culminates in the fancy dress uniforms of the newly-instated Balkan monarchs, but affects Denmark-ruled Iceland, Friesland/Netherlands and Russia as well.

    Reichspatriotismus was most strongly explicit in the notion of the Habsburg Vielvölkerstaat; but most monarchies with ethnic diversity within their borders cultivated a similar policy, with the monarch as the charismatic object of his subjects’ national and cultural loyalty, and royal pageantry as a festive expression of national identity. This Encyclopedia identifies this monarchically-focused cultural nationalism as Reichspatriotismus (rendered into English as “Crown Patriotism”).

    Loss of empire: from heteronomy to rump nationalism

    Since the 18th century (France’s loss of Quebec, Britain’s loss of its American colonies, and Spain’s defeats at the hands of Bolívar), the loss of empire appears to be causally correlated with the growth of national sentiment in the “mother country”. The repeated iterations of the decolonizing process appear to have exercised repeated stimuli on nationalist sentiment (albeit inflected by the distinctive ideological and cultural climate of the different decades). These historical iterations begin in the later 19th century (the curb on Portuguese colonial rule as a result of the British Ultimatum of 1890; the 1898 crisis in Spain; Dutch sentiment during the Second Boer War of 1899-1902); they reoccur in the mid-20th century – British and Dutch reactions to the independence of India and Indonesia in 1947 and 1949; French reactions to the loss of Indochina (1954) and Algerian independence (1962).

    To some effect this may be a general response to calamitous losses of territory or defeats – witness similar effects in Poland after the Partitions, 1831, and 1862, France after 1871 and Germany after 1918; though not so in Denmark after 1864, where nationalism was tempered rather than inflamed by the defeat. Be that as it may, the “loss of empire” effect was at work, not only in relation to European empires’ colonial possessions overseas, but also to their intra-European realms. Domestically, national movements in the provincial peripheries broke away from the common project: the Belgian secession affecting the Netherlands post-1830; the territorial losses (Balkans, Egypt, Libya) and Arab nationalism eroding the Ottoman Empire; Basque and Catalan nationalisms affecting Spain; “Celtic” nationalisms (Ireland and, to a lesser extent, Scotland and Wales) affecting Britain (and Protestant Ulster); the non-German populations in the Habsburg Empire and the non-Russian populations in the Romanov Empire’s western provinces.

    Empires had been in principle been multi-ethnic, or ethnically unspecific; they  considered their constituent nations, territories and provinces to be harmoniously united under, and transcended by, the  Imperial aegis. While a dominant core population and heartland had traditionally been the Empire’s priviliged default (English in Britain, Castilian in Spain, Turkish in the Ottoman realm, Austrian-German in the Habsburg Empire, Muscovite in Russia), the non-dominant regions, ethnicities or millets had traditionally enjoyed a certain amount of heteronomy (recognized subsidiary government structures and legal traditions). Faced with a diminishing  engagement from the non-dominant provinces and ethnicities, the post-imperial states show a tendency towards “rump nationalism”, constricting their sense of national identity around the specific culture of the former default heartlands. The cultivation of culture in post-imperial Britain becomes more English, the Spain of the “1898 Generation” more Castilian, post-Ausgleich Austria more Austrian-German. Conversely, the “rump-nationalist” revocation of imperial heteronomies (the abolition of various fueros in the Spanish regions, the Magyarization of post-1862 Hungary, the Russification policies of Alexander III’s reign, French language centralism in the post-1871 Troisième République; Danish language policies in Schleswig-Holstein) could drive regions towards a more emphatic assertion of their distinctness.


    Reichpatriotismus or Crown Patriotism could, on the other hand, easily ally itself to the regionalist movements that emerged from the mid-19th century onwards. Such movements would evoke, cherish and cultivate the distinct culture of peripheral parts of the country without attaching challenges to the sovereignty of the state to them, contenting themselves with an acknowledgement and appreciation of their local colour within the framework of the existing state, and its political structures. The subsidiary Scottish nationalism of Walter Scott was a template: Scott vindicated the cultural and historical autonomy of Scotland while accommodating this into the multicultural imperial framework of the United Kingdom. Similarly, the cultivating of culture among Welsh Romantic Nationalists remained regionalist in its political aspirations for a long time, content to see its heritage and distinctiveness established within a British framework. A similar regionalism distinguishes the Occitan movement in France from its Catalan sibling South of the Pyrenees, where calls for political autonomy developed into a politically more radical direction. Galicia, on the other hand, bought into a Greater-Spanish Crown Patriotism more readily, and remained a regional rather than a national movement for most of the 19th and 20th century.

    Regionalism may from this point of view be characterized as a cultivation of culture (or what in Miroslav Hroch’s terms would be a “Phase A”) that does not use culture as a politically mobilizing agency except for subsidiary rights within the existing state. Precisely which conditions may propel a regionalist movement into a national one, is complex; but the presence of an effective Crown Patriotism combined with a certain degree of ethnolinguistic familiarity (Frisian-Dutch, Occitan-French, Tyrolean-Austrian), seems to take the wind out the sails of nationalist radicalization, and to channel cultural consciousness-raising within rather than against the existing state.

    Religious nationalism

    In monarchies with a state church, from Georgia to England, the charisma of the king had historically had religious connotations; Czarist Russia is an obvious instance. Some historical hero-figures received religious canonicity and a national-cum-religious veneration as national saints: Joan of Arc, Aleksandr Nevskij; a parallel development is noticeable for Protestant reformers like John Hus in the Czech lands and Luther in Germany. In Protestant countries, the vernacular hymnal repertoire could and did often inform public occasions of a national nature, e.g. war commemorations, or Royal weddings and funerals. As a result, religious songs could come to carry a national meaning (Onward, Christian Soldiers, Ein Feste Burg ist unser Gott, or the Dutch Wilt heden nu treden), while the moral values of Protestantism (honesty, individual responsibility, integrity) were also cultivated and ethnotypically self-applied as national character traits. Conversely, the Roman Catholic church resisted national movements (which it saw as a challenge to the authority of the Pope as a European sovereign) by fostering ultramontanist movements in many countries where a Catholic population stood at odds with the state (Poland, France, Britain, the Netherlands, England, the Prussian Rhineland, Lithuania, and many East/Central-European borderlands with a Uniate/Orthodox mixture). (The role of religion in Jewish nationalism and Zionism is sui generis.)


    The ethnolinguistic underpinning of 19th-century national thought often sought to unite language groups dispersed into various dialect communities and in different countries. In cases where the taxonomic distinction between “a language” and “a dialect” was unclear, the ethnic group could be defined by a very wide definition of the language or even language family. German nationalism tended as a matter of course to embrace Schwyzerdütsch and Plattdeutsch, and thence could also include Netherlandic (Flemish and Dutch) and even Jutland-Danish in its ambitions. Pan-Slavism transcended the problematic taxonomy of its variants into a Pan-Slavic outlook (albeit with different orientations: Austro-Slavic, Russophile, and Illyrian or South-Slavic). Celticism grew out of a cross-border solidarity gesture between Breton and Welsh cultural activists, Latinist Pan-Romance initiatives out of a similar cross-border collaboration between Occitan and Catalan intellectuals. Turanism was an attempt to derive certain non-Indo-European nations from a common tribal origin, and inspired a type of ethnonationalism among both Hungarians and Turks. Elsewhere, national events transcending the boundaries of a single state include Greater Netherlandism and Scandinavism. These macronational aggregates (in which context Jewish nationalism may also be mentioned) have been given their own rubrics in the Encyclopedia.

    Conspiratory nationalism, exiles, émigrés

    Under repressive regimes, associations were strictly guarded and mistrusted. This mistrust was exacerbated by the role of “Clubs” and in the radicalization of the French Revolution, and the conspiracy theories that saw the dark influence of Illuminati, Freemasons, Jews, or Jesuits behind sinister plots to overthrow the state order. (Even the 1814 Norwegian Constitution, which for its time was remarkably liberal, forbade Jews and Jesuits the right of residence.) Conversely, many associations were the forum of critical or subversive opinion-making, even if their ostensible aim was merely moral, cultural or philanthropic (or even athletic); and in some cases, government mistrust and cryptopolitical dissimulation reinforced each other. The German Tugendbund (1808-10) and the Russian Decembrists (1816-25; they called themselves the “Union of Salvation, or of the Faithful and True Sons of the Fatherland”) proved a prototype for many semi-conspiratorial reform societies, which in the course of the century and in certain countries often allied themselves with separatist nationalism. Behind the Tugendbund-style moralistic names of “virtue-lovers”, “knowledge-lovers”, and “friendly association”, the Polish Philaret and Philomath student societies or the Greek Filiki Eteireia were dedicated to a national overthrow of imperial tyranny. Often such societies used masonic-hermetic rituals such as swearing-in ceremonies and secrecy bans; that pattern was copied from the Filiki Eteireia to the Irish Republican Brotherhood.

    The fact that freedom of association was by no means a given, forced even purely cultural or moral, non-subversive associations into private obscurity, which in turn fed into the suspicion with which they might be viewed by the authorities. In many cases, cultural aims did indeed serve as a cover for, or stepping stone towards, political activism and even armed struggle or terrorism, in various intermediary gradations. These gradations range from choral or sports societies to German Burschenschaften by way of the Italian Carbonari to the 1893 IMRO (Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization).

    National activists were often banished or driven into exile following government crackdowns, and as a result often conducted their activities from places outside their country of origin. This would not qualify as “diaspora nationalism” in the strict sense, in that the extraterritorial condiction affected individuals, or small highly-educated coteries of cultural activists, rather than entire economically-driven migrant communities; but throughout the century many cities across Europe, from Tbilisi, Odessa and Istanbul to Vienna, Paris and London, attracted wandering activists from many directions, and the condition of exile characterizes the lives of many Romantic nationalists, from Garibaldi to Rakovski and from Blanco White to Mickiewicz and Faik Konica.

    Word Count: 2837

    Joan of Arc (Saint)

    Garibaldi, Giuseppe

    Albert (Prince of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha)

    Orange-Nassau, William II (King of the Netherlands)

    Frederick William IV (King of Prussia)

    Hus, Jan

    Luther, Martin

    Ludwig I (King of Bavaria)

    Mickiewicz, Adam

    Rakovski, Georgi Stojkov

    Blanco White, Joseph

    Konica, Faik

    Paoli, Pasquale

    Partitioned nationalism, exile, insurrections : Poland

    A Spanish state in the 19th century

    Dress, design : Introductory survey essay

    Dress, design : Dutch and Frisian

    Dress, design : Icelandic

    Notes on early Jewish nationalism

    Rome, the Papacy, and Catholic Ultramontanism

    Culture, Cultivation, and Romantic Nationalism

    Portugal in the 19th century: Background notes

    A note on Corsica

    Protestant Reformation monument

    King George IV in highland dress (1829)

    Onwards, Christian Soldiers 1902

  • Article version:
  • Berger, Stefan; Miller, Alexei (eds.) (2015). Nationalizing empires (Budapest: CEU Press)

    Breuilly, John (1994). Nationalism and the state (2nd ed.; Chicago: U of Chicago P)

    Hroch, Miroslav (1968). Die Vorkämpfer der nationalen Bewegung bei den kleinen Völkern Europas: Eine vergleichende Analyse zur gesellschaftlichen Schichtung der patriotischen Gruppen (Prague: UP Karlova)

    Hroch, Miroslav (2000). In the national interest: Demands and goals of European national movements of the nineteenth century: A comparative perspective (Prague: Charles UP)

    Hroch, Miroslav (2015). European nations: Explaining their formation (London: Verso)

    Leerssen, Joep (2008). National thought in Europe (2nd ed.; Amsterdam: Amsterdam UP)

    Thiesse, Anne-Marie (1999). La création des identités nationales (Paris: Seuil)

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    All articles in the Encyclopedia of Romantic Nationalism in Europe edited by Joep Leerssen are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at https://www.spinnet.eu.

    © the author and SPIN. Cite as follows (or as adapted to your stylesheet of choice): Leerssen, Joep, 2019. "Background notes on European nationalisms", Encyclopedia of Romantic Nationalism in Europe, ed. Joep Leerssen (electronic version; Amsterdam: Study Platform on Interlocking Nationalisms, https://ernie.uva.nl/), article version, last changed 19-06-2019, consulted 26-02-2020.