Beyond Conventional Wisdom

Cultural and Political Nationalism Revisited
  • Alain Dieckhoff
Part of the The CERI series in Comparative Politics and International Studies book series (CERI)


It has become usual in the growing literature on nationalism to contrast two conceptions of the nation. The first type is presented as a result of the fi-ee association of citizens and as a rational and voluntary political construction. This civic, contractual, elective nation is allegedly the basis of the French idea of the nation, conceptualised by the philosophers of the Enlightenment and realised by the Great Revolution. In contrast, the second type is presented as the concretisation of a historical community, the expression of an identity feeling, the reflection of a natural order. This cultural, organic, ascriptive nation is supposed to be the basis of the German idea of the nation, nurtured by romanticism and embodied by the Second Reich and the Third Reich. This dichotomy was brought out under very peculiar historical circumstances, in the 1870s, around the Alsace-Lorraine question. The German historians (Mommsen, Strauss) justified the integration of the Alsatians in the Reich with the argument that their language and customs belonged to German culture. Their French counterparts (Renan, Fustel de Coulanges) rejected such a claim and defended the right of the Alsatians to remain French if this was their political choice. Although this distinction appeared in a precise polemical and ideological context, it had tremendous intellectual appeal after the German historian Friedrich Meinecke popularised it with his distinction between the cultural nation (Kulturnation) and the political nation (Staatsnation). The former is ‘primarily based on some jointly experienced cultural heritage (language, religion…)’, while the latter is based on ‘the unifying force of a common political history and constitution’).1


Conventional Wisdom National Culture French Language Nationalist Movement German Historian 
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© Centre d’Etudes et de Recherches Internationales, Paris 2005

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  • Alain Dieckhoff

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