Among the key themes of Romanticism, and its most enduring legacy, the cultural assertions of romantic nationalism have also been central in post-Enlightenment art and political philosophy. From its earliest stirrings, with their focus on the development of national languages and folklore, and the spiritual value of local customs and traditions, to the movements that would redraw the map of Europe and lead to calls for "self-determination" of nationalities, nationalism was one of the key issues in Romanticism, determining its roles, expressions and meanings.
From its beginnings in the late 18th century, romantic nationalism has relied upon the existence of a historical ethnic culture which meets the romantic ideal; folklore developed as a romantic nationalist concept. The Brothers Grimm were inspired by Herder's writings to create an idealized collection of tales, which they labeled as authentically German. The concept of an inherited cultural patrimony from a common origin rapidly became central to a divisive question within romantic nationalism: specifically, is a nation unified because it comes from the same genetic source, that is because of race, or is the participation in the organic nature of the "folk" culture self-fulfilling? This issue lies at the heart of disagreements which rage to this day.
Romantic nationalism formed a key strand in the philosophy of Hegel, who argued that there was a "spirit of the age" or zeitgeist that inhabited a particular people at a particular time, and that, when that people became the active determiner of history, it was simply because their cultural and political moment had come. Because of its role in the Protestant Reformation, Hegel, being a Lutheran, argued that his historical moment had seen the Zeitgeist settle on the German-speaking peoples.
In continental Europe, Romantics had embraced the French Revolution in its beginnings, then found themselves fighting the counter-Revolution in the trans-national Imperial system of Napoleon. The sense of self-determination and national consciousness that had enabled Revolutionary forces to defeat aristocratic regimes in battle became rallying points for resistance against the French Empire. In Prussia, the development of spiritual renewal as a means to engage in the struggle against Napoleon was argued by, among others, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, a disciple of Kant. The word Volkstum, or "folkhood", was coined in Germany as part of this resistance to French hegemony.
Fichte expressed the unity of language and nation in his thirteenth address "To the German Nation" in 1806:
Romantic nationalism inspired the processes whereby folk epics, retold legends and even fairy tales, published in existing dialects, were combined with a modern syntax to create a "revived" version of a language. Patriots would then learn that language and raise their children speaking that language, as part of a general program to establish a unique identity. "Landsmål", which is the foundation of modern Norwegian, is the first language to follow this program, and it was joined by modern Czech, Slovak, Finnish and later by Hebrew as nationalizing languages. The early 19th century creation of Katharevousa, a refined artificial Greek dialect consciously drew on archaising terms from Ancient Greek, the unifying cultural root, to unify a new nation of Hellenes; just as consciously Katharevousa excluded "non-Greek" vocabulary drawn from Italian and Turkish.
The linguistic processes of romantic nationalism demanded linguistic culture models. Romantic historiography was centered on biographies and produced culture heroes. The modern Italian of Risorgimento patriots like Alessandro Manzoni was based on the Tuscan dialects sanctified by Dante and Petrarch. In English, Shakespeare became an iconic figure, though not a modern linguistic model: an Englishman who formed a complete, artistically unassailable whole of surpassing excellence.
Romantic nationalism inspired the collection of folklore by such people as the Brothers Grimm. The view that fairy tales, unless contaminated from outside literary sources, were preserved in the same form over thousands of years, was not exclusive to Romantic Nationalists, but fit in well with their views that such tales expressed the primordial nature of a people. For instance, the Brothers Grimms were criticized because their first edition was insufficiently German, and they followed the advice. They rejected many tales they collected because of their similarity to tales by Charles Perrault, which they thought proved they were not truly German tales; Sleeping Beauty survived in their collection because the tale of Brynhildr convinced them that the figure of the sleeping princess was authentically German. They also altered the language used, changing each "Fee" (fairy) to an enchantress or wise woman, every prince to a king's son, every princess to a king's daughter. The work of the Brothers Grimm influenced other collectors, both inspiring them to collect tales and leading them to similarly believe that the fairy tales of a country were particularly representative of it, to the neglect of cross-cultural influence. Among those influenced were the Russian Alexander Afanasyev, the Norwegians Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe, and the Englishman Joseph Jacobs. (Later folklore studies have not borne out this belief in the preservation of folktales from time immemorial.)
The unseen and unheard Song of Roland had become a dim memory, until the antiquary Francisque Michel transcribed a worn copy in the Bodleian Library and put it into print in 1837; it was timely: French interest in the national epic revived among the Romantic generation. In Greece, the Iliad and Odyssey took on new urgency during the Greek War of Independence.
Many other "national epics," epic poetry considered to reflect the national spirit, were produced or revived under the influence of Romantic nationalism: particularly in the Russian Empire, national minorities seeking to assert their own identities in the face of Russification produced new national poetry - either out of whole cloth, or from cobbling together folk poetry, or by resurrecting older narrative poetry. Examples include the Estonian Kalevipoeg, Finnish Kalevala, Polish Pan Tadeusz, Latvian Lāčplēsis and Armenian Sasuntzi Davit by Hovhannes Tumanyan.
The epic poetry of Hungarian János Arany presents the legendary past of his nation. The Death of King Buda (1864), the first part of a projected Hun trilogy one of the best narrative poem in Hungarian literature. The other parts of the trilogy (Ildiko, and Prince Csaba) are unfinished.
After the 1870s "national romanticism", as it is more usually called, became a familiar movement in the arts. Romantic musical nationalism is exemplified by the work of Bedřich Smetana, especially the symphonic poem "Vltava". In Scandinavia and the Slavic parts of Europe especially, "national romanticism" provided a series of answers to the 19th-century search for styles that would be culturally meaningful and evocative, yet not merely historicist. When a church was built over the spot in St Petersburg where Tsar Alexander II of Russia had been assassinated, the "Church of the Savior on Blood," the natural style to use was one that best evoked traditional Russian features (illustration, left). In Finland, the reassembly of the national epic, the Kalevala, inspired paintings and murals in the National Romantic style that substituted there for the international Art Nouveau styles. The foremost proponent in Finland was Akseli Gallen-Kallela (illustration, below right).
By the turn of the century, ethnic self-determination had become an assumption held as being progressive and liberal. There were romantic nationalist movements for separation in Finland, the Kingdom of Bavaria held apart from a united Germany, and Czech and Serb nationalism continued to trouble Imperial politics. The flowering of arts which drew inspiration from national epics and song continued unabated. The Zionist movement revived Hebrew, and began immigration to Eretz Yisrael, and Welsh and Irish tongues also experienced a poetic revival.
After the First World War, a darker version of romantic nationalism was taking hold in Germany, to some extent modelling itself on British Imperialism and "the White Man's Burden". The idea was that Germans should "naturally" rule over the lesser peoples. Romantic nationalism, which had begun as a revolt against "foreign" kings and overlords, had come full circle, and was being used to make the case for a "Greater Germany" which would rule over Europe.
Because of the broad range of expressions of romantic nationalism, it is listed as a contributing factor from everything from the creation of independent states in Europe, to the rise of Nazi Germany. As an idea, if not a specific movement, it is present as an assumption in debates over nationality and nationhood even today, and many of the world's nations were created from principles drawn from romantic nationalism as their source of legitimacy.
Modern romantic nationalism in the United States, characterized by the myth of the frontier, the assertion of natural dominance over North and South America (Monroe Doctrine), and the belief that U.S.-style democracy should prevail over other cultures (e.g. Project for the New American Century), has strongly influenced American foreign policy and is influencing global conflicts, and religious, ethnic and nationalist alignments.