Conservative Nationalism

Liberty, equality and fraternity - sounds pretty good, right? Well, not everyone welcomed the spread of liberal and revolutionary ideas in the 18th and 19th Centuries. For conservative nationalists, liberal ideas brought chaos and upheaval to society, which could be a barrier to economic progress. They believed instead that nation states could achieve harmony and stability by staying true to their traditions; this is Conservative Nationalism. Let's find out more!

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Table of contents

    Conservatism and Nationalism

    Conservative nationalism promotes the maintenance of national identity through appealing to the shared national culture and identity of the state's citizens. Conservative nationalists view the nation as an organic development and suggest that social harmony and cohesion can be achieved through the maintenance and promotion of a shared national culture.

    The Organic State Theory suggests that nations and their governments organically develop over generations, making them naturally occurring. This principle is central to the conservative ideology, and it distinguishes it from the civic view of society adopted in Liberalism

    Conservative nationalism contrasts with liberal civil nationalism, which emphasises citizenship of the state and civic participation as the basis of national identity. Conservative nationalism sees national identity as deriving from a shared ethnic or regional identity and a common national language.

    National Identity

    For conservative nationalists, the identity of a nation and its citizens is rooted in its traditions. Therefore, the identity of the individual is linked to the history of the nation to which they belong. In contrast to the individualism promoted by Liberalism, nationalist conservatives shun individual identity in favour of a collective, historically-rooted society.

    As a result, conservative nationalist thinkers assume that the best way to further the well-being of each individual in society is through the collective effort to preserve traditions and historical cultural practices. Conservative nationalist thinkers see this preservation of national identity as essential to achieving harmony and cohesion within society, which in turn creates the basis for economic prosperity and advancement.

    Unity and Order

    Conservative nationalism emphasises unity and order in society. Some conservative nationalists promote unity by creating a sense of nostalgia for the former glory, power or dominance - real or perceived - of the nation. Large public celebrations around anniversaries of military victories often include elaborate ceremonial and symbolism and are designed to create a sense of unity and order.

    Unity for conservative nationalists is also understood along cultural, and sometimes, ethnic, lines. It is little surprise, then, that conservative nationalists oppose immigration and argue for tightly-controlled borders. Those foreign nationals who do migrate into the nation are expected to go through a process of cultural assimilation. Conservative nationalists also have a disdain for supranational political bodies such as the EU, believing that they undermine national unity by threatening the distinctiveness of individual nations.

    The Organic State

    During the nineteenth century, as liberal revolutions were sweeping across Europe, the Enlightenment Movement framed the nation-state as a rationally constructed, modern venture. For conservative nationalists, however, this was an argument which would breed chaos and disillusionment. For them, the state was an organic, natural entity, emerging out of centuries of tradition. For conservative nationalists, it is history and antiquity that gives nation states legitimacy, not the rational organisation of the state.

    The Enlightenment, also known as the Age of Reason, is associated with the classical liberal movement of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It was focused on using scientific reason to achieve the progress of human society and promoted liberal democracy as the ideal form of state governance.

    Conservative Nationalism 19th Century

    The 19th Century was the age of liberalism in the West. In Great Britain, the Liberal Party (founded in 1859) pushed for Reforms which saw the abolition of slavery throughout the British Empire by 1833. Throughout the late 18th and early 10th century, various revolutions took place across Europe, intending to overthrow despotic and stagnant monarchies in favour of liberal democratic republics. In 1871, the Third French Republic was established after the demise of the Second French Empire. All the while, free-market capitalism was changing the landscape of Europe and, across the Atlantic, an independent United States was becoming increasingly wealthy and influential.

    Conservative Nationalism Seal of the French Third Republic StudySmarter

    Conservative nationalism developed in opposition to the spread of liberal ideas about how society should be organised. In reality, many of the great states and empires of Europe (the Russian Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Ottoman Empire) had been multi-ethnic and multi-confessional (containing many religious groups). But under the old order, unity within these state structures had been maintained by popular allegiance to ethnic or religious leaders who in turn demonstrated allegiance to the state's authority - the monarch.

    By the 19th Century, however, it was clear that popular uprisings meant that these traditional hierarchies and allegiances could no longer maintain social order. The Enlightenment emphasis on historical and scientific enquiry had created an interest in the historical origin of national and ethnic groups, forming the ideological basis of nationalism. Many revolutionary movements combined liberal concepts of justice and political representation with nationalist ideals of self-determination and the unique destiny of peoples.

    Conservative nationalists sought to prevent social upheaval in their own states by emphasising nationalist ideas and de-emphasising liberal ones. To the ideology of nationalism, conservative nationalists added nostalgia for the pre-Enlightenment past, using historical victories and national myths as powerful symbols to unite the citizenry and inspire a common sense of purpose.

    Conservative Nationalist Thinkers

    Many Conservative Nationalist thinkers have been very important in developing Conservative Nationalism. Some of the thinkers you should know if your exams are Johann Gottfried von Herder, Otto von Bismark, and Charles Maurras.

    Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744 - 1803)

    Herder is considered by many to be the father of cultural or romantic nationalism. He argued that each nation possessed a unique Volksgeist, or 'national spirit' which remained constant throughout history. He also wrote extensively about folkloric traditions and language as a way of forming a national identity over generations.

    Romantic nationalism: a form of nationalism in which the state justifies its power and authority by virtue of being an organic entity, which has developed over generations to rule over a specific area and people. This argument is usually made using emotive language and through appeal to the nation's unique historical destiny.

    How transitory all human structures are... The plant blossoms, and fades... language itself, that bond of mankind, becomes antiquated: and shall a political constitution, shall a system of government... endure forever?1

    Herder was writing during a period when the principles of the French Revolution, and its calls for liberty, equality and fraternity, were gaining wider acceptance in European societies. Herder, by contrast, argued that universal values were unacceptable, and denied the distinctiveness of national cultures. He believed that each national ethnic culture possessed its own set of moral values and that these values were legitimate even if they differed greatly from the moral values of other national groups. For instance, Herder could argue that slavery was acceptable for one society but unacceptable for another and that to force a national group to change their way of life was to deny them their Volksgeist - their unique national identity.

    Otto von Bismarck (1815 - 1898)

    The mastermind behind German Unification in 1871, Otto von Bismarck served as the first Chancellor of the German Republic from 1871 to 1890. During this time, Bismarck used the historical culture of Prussia to unite German citizens and develop the Volksgeist (national spirit). Bismarck believed the new, unified Germany had developed organically from the traditions and culture of the Prussian Empire. In a speech delivered in 1862, Bismarck stated that

    "The great questions of the day will not be settled by means of speeches and majority decisions but by iron and blood."

    Like Herder, Bismarck resented the notion of the modern nation-state. Instead, the fate of each nation should be decided by its historical character and strength. Bismarck's view of the organic German state, combined with his commitment to a strong German Republic, led to the establishment of the German Colonial League in 1882. Over the next five years, the German Empire colonised Togo, the Cameroons, German East Africa (Tanzania) and South West Africa (Namibia).

    Conservative Nationalism Photograph of Otto von Bismarck in 1886 StudySmarterOtto von Bismarck pictured in his study during his time as the Chancellor of the German Republic, 1886, Wikimedia Commons

    Charles Maurras (1868 - 1952)

    A French author and philosopher, Charles Maurras can also be seen to have developed his nationalist theories from the works of Romantic Nationalists such as Herder. Maurras saw the need to return to the Catholic traditions of the French Monarchy, which had been overthrown during the French Revolution of 1789 and then dissolved after the formation of the Third Republic in 1871.

    As a Monarchist, he held a disdain for the claims made by Liberals regarding human rationality and democratic values. A vocal anti-Semite, Maurras was a supporter of the Nazi-installed Vichy Regime which ruled part of France from 1940 to 1944. In 1944, Maurras was arrested and spent eight years in prison.

    Conservative Nationalism Today

    In Europe, populist politicians advocating for strong borders and ethnic nationalism have risen to prominence. In Russia, Vladimir Putin's 18-year presidency has been aimed at returning Russia to its former imperial glory. Putin has justified the Russian invasion of Ukraine along ethnic nationalist lines, claiming that Ukraine has historically been an organic part of the Russian nation. Other administrations, such as that of Victor Orban's in Hungary, have appealed to a historic national identity to counteract liberal movements which promote free speech and LBTQIA+ rights.

    Difference between Traditional and National Conservatism

    The key distinction between traditional and national conservatism is their conception of the state, and how individuals are included. For traditional conservatives, the authority of the monarchy was the foundation of the state. As an elitist ideology, it largely viewed the existence of the labouring classes through a hierarchical structure, which placed them under the control of a monarch by virtue of the divine right of kings.

    Conservative Nationalism Johann Gottfried von Herder Statue StudySmarterA statue of Johann Gottfried von Herder, erected in Weimar, Germany, 1848, Wikimedia Commons

    With the wave of liberal nationalism that swept over the European continent in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, however, it became apparent that the 'divine right of kings' was no longer sufficient. Conservative nationalists developed the concept of romantic nationalism, which was centred on the cultural and historical ties (such as folklore and the commemoration of historical military victories) which contributed to national identity.

    Although never undermining the concept of monarchical rule, conservative nationalism aimed to develop cultural bonds between the elites and the lower classes. It aimed to create a national identity that was grounded in more than just the 'divine right' of the monarch.

    Conservative Nationalism - Key takeaways

    • Conservative nationalism emerged in the late eighteenth century to counteract the Liberal Revolutions across Europe following the French Revolution of 1789.
    • It was rooted in national identity, unity and order, and the organic state.
    • During the 19th Century, another wave of liberal revolutions and reforms occurred throughout Europe in response statesmen adopted the romantic of Johann Gottfried von Herder.
    • These ideas were adopted by the German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, who unified Germany using the cultural history of the Prussian Empire and argued in favour of monarchy over democracy.
    • In the twentieth century, Charles Maurras brought conservative nationalist ideals to France through his philosophy and writing, in which he advocated for a return to its monarchical and catholic past.
    • The key difference between traditional and national conservatism is grounded in different concepts of national identity.


    1. Johann Gottfried von Herder, Ideas on the Philosophy of Human History, 1792.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Conservative Nationalism

    What is Nationalist Conservativism?

    Nationalist Conservatism is a form of Conservatism which subscribes to the Organic State Theory, whilst expressing that national identity is rooted in a shared history, language, and culture

    What are conservatism beliefs?

    Conservative nationalism is a branch of nationalism that is sceptical of liberal nationalism. Whilst liberal nationalists believe in a nation of individuals bound by civic rights and duties, conservative nationalists believe the state is legitimised by its organic development to rule over a certain group of individuals

    What is the difference between traditional and national conservatism? 

    The key difference between Traditional and National Conservatism is grounded in national identity. Whereas Traditional Conservatives used the 'Divine Right of Kings' to justify the state's existence, National Conservatives portrayed the state as an organic body in which every individual was collectively and culturally rooted

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Which of these does Conservative Nationalism promote?

    What did Charles Maurrass wish to return to French society?

     Which two key thinkers believe in conservative nationalism?


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