Exploring the Relationship Between Nationalism and Liberalism: Case Studies from Europe

The relationship between liberalism and nationalism has been of particular importance, especially in the 21st today. Western Europe, particularly nations like Britain, France, Italy, and Germany, which were seen as champions of liberalism, are now hubs for rising nationalist movements. Liberalism and nationalism are often seen as two opposing ideologies. A nationalist government is seldom construed as ‘liberal’ in common parlance. ‘Liberal’ can mean many things. At the simplest level, there is a dichotomy between classical and modern liberalism. When one compares nationalism to liberalism, it is important to see which variant of liberalism is under comparison. The first half of this piece will attempt to compare the civic and ethnic notions of nationalism, predominantly derived from Hans Kohn’s work. The second half will look at the rising dangers of nationalism in Europe and its impact on modern liberalism with the case studies of Britain, Italy, and France.

Civic vs. Ethnic Nationalism: A Study of Hans Kohn

One of the most seminal works in comparing liberalism and nationalism is that of Hans Kohn.[1] He believed that nationalism was a worldwide phenomenon. But its connection to liberalism appeared when he distinguished between two types of nationalism- civic and ethnic. Civic (liberal) nationalism in which people were united by a sense of duty towards liberal values like citizenship, individual rights, universalism, and the rule of law. Kohn saw this as the model of nationalism prevalent in the west. Kohn believed that this notion of western nationalism was “central to liberalism and liberalism, central to it.”[2] As a Zionist, Kohn viewed the Jewish model as ‘messianic,’ a characteristic of liberal nationalism. It was based on morality and a sense of duty towards its people. As a cultural Zionist, Kohn believed that Jewish immigration must happen peacefully and in union with the sentiments of the Palestinians. An overthrow of the Palestinian people would be unacceptable. 

On the other hand, ethnic nationalism to Kohn was merely political. Ethnic nationalism was an idea propagated by the East who did not share the ‘liberal’ values of the West but sought to claim their place in a world dominated by the West.[3] In many ways, Kohn’s views can also be seen as imperialist. He believed that the western version of nationalism can be spread to the world as a ‘gift to humankind.’ With his example of World War II, Kohn took his justification a step ahead. He believed that both the Axis and Allied powers had their sense of nationalism.[4] He looked at Fascism as a type of nationalism that was irrational and failed to self-transcend, as opposed to the Allied version of nationalism which was ‘liberal’ and ‘universalist.’

Dangers of Nationalism in Europe: A Shift Away From Liberalism

Rising trends of ethnic nationalism in Europe in the 21st century are disproving most of Kohn’s assumptions of western nationalism. This section will explore three case studies of Britain, France, and Italy which were once considered to uphold liberal and universal values, but are now seeing a shift to the extreme right.


Although Britain may not technically be under Europe anymore, it still serves as an integral example to look at the resurgence of ethnic nationalism in the West. The English Civil War was the first instance of nationalist thought in Britain. Hans Kohn wrote[5] that although it was not secular nationalism, it still brought an end to the conflict between the Catholics and protestants. He wished for English nationalist qualities like national law, dignity, liberty, and individualism to inspire his cultural Zionist model. Britain’s 1998 Human Rights Act discusses the freedom of religion in the country.[6] For most of the Post WWII era, Britain was (at least on paper), a proponent of civic nationalism. However, Britain today is different.

The consequences of Brexit, in numerous ways, exhibit ethnic nationalist tendencies. Hate crimes against ethnic minorities, border restrictions, and labour market restrictions significantly rose. Individualism, equality before the law, and universalism, all of which are values of civic nationalism, have little meaning now. Britain is now heading towards a direction in which nationalism is not based on shared values, but ethnicity and interests of the native population.

Today, with Rishi Sunak and Suella Braverman taking Britain’s highest offices, its situation is ironic. Braverman, an Indian-origin British citizen, has expressed her concerns over the UK-India trade deal which will result in Indian immigrants ‘overstaying their welcome.’[7] Her other goal now is the execution of the Conservative Party’s Rwandan asylum plan for Ukrainian refugees. Whether it is immigration or foreign policy, the current Tory leadership is isolationist.


Italy is another fascinating example of a nation that has seen many shifts between civic and ethnic nationalism. Its WWII history was marked by Fascist nationalism and a non-existent sense of personal liberty. It sought to expand its influence throughout Europe. Italy’s fascist regime was autocratic and suppressed any opposing ideology, believing in its ethnonational superiority.

After the war, Italy took a turn and became a democratic republic with religious freedom, liberty, and equality. It was among the highest-performing nations in most global human freedom indices as of 2022.[8] It removed all forms of censorship that existed during the Mussolini regime in the 1948 revision of its constitution. As a part of the EU, it also encouraged free immigration, with almost 10% of the population coming from immigrant backgrounds.[9] Although it hasn’t experienced as much of a change as Britain, there is a looming fear of ethnic nationalism as its new Brothers of Italy party is now in power.

Italy’s new Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni is a poster child of far-right thought. She is known to exhibit many of Mussolini’s policies, viewing him as an inspiration.[10] Her government now intends on having a zero-tolerance approach to immigration and overturn Italy’s just soli citizenship policy.[11] Her opposition to non-Christian immigrants and asylum seekers. Meloni is also known to propagate conspiracy theories like her opposition to Sorosian globalism and belief in the resurgence of the Karlegi Plan.[12] Although it has been less than a month since her election, it is an important factor showing a shift in Europe’s political thinking.


France’s rise in ultranationalism came as a shock to the continent. The values of the French revolution were not just the western but global epitome of civic nationalism in the modern world. Before and even shortly after the French revolution, France had its brand of ethnonationalism under Napoleon Bonaparte. If Kohn’s understanding is that the ideal model of civic nationalism involves imparting western ‘liberal’ values to the world, then France is a brilliant example. Through its many imperial conquests in Africa, Indochina, and the Caribbean, France sought to impose its brand of nationalism. Even its style of civic nationalism today seems hypocritical. For example, the French model of secularism is based on the notion of not having any religious expression in public. Of course, this has led to widespread protests with the introduction of the hijab ban, with many ethnic minorities interpreting this policy as an act of aggression.

France under Macron has been ultra-centrist. But ethnic nationalism has reared its head in many other ways. 2022 was a year that almost set France down a far-right spiral with Marine Le Pen closely losing to Macron. Her vote share this time was larger than any that the National Rally has had, with a 41% share.[13] According to French election laws, Macron can only stand for elections again five years after the end of his current term. One can infer that there is a strong chance for Le Pen to be elected the next time.

La Pen’s views are as radical as any European far-right candidate. Apart from strong support for the hijab ban, her ethnonationalism tendencies are reflected in social policies. Her policy proposals ahead of the 2022 general election were that immigrants cannot avail of many social services unless they have been employed in France for over five years, distancing from the European Union and NATO, restrained free trade practices, ethnic French interests over immigrant French interests, and ending jus soli rights.[14] Again, in this case, ethnic nationalism will prevail over nationalism for shared values.

Can Liberalism and Nationalism Reconcile?

Instead of looking at the question as a matter of liberalism vs. nationalism, this article tried to argue that even liberal nations have some nationalism embedded. Through the case studies, the essay posits that the debate now is between the civic and ethnic notions of nationalism. Taking inspiration from Kohn’s work, this piece aimed to critique his claims on civic nationalism. Despite clearly highlighting the consequences of ethnic nationalism, it is important to see that civic nationalism, if applied wrongly, can be equally problematic. The notion of civic nationalism is often seen as synonymous with imperialism. British and French colonialism till the 20th century, and US efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, are some examples. Assuming that the western concept of liberalism can be applied universally, has yielded disastrous results.

Discussing the subject further would help arrive at a more effective conclusion if the West had consistently upheld its version of civic nationalism. But its efforts to bring its value to the East have only further fuelled Kohn’s earlier claim that the East’s version of nationalism seeks to secure its place in the world. Paradoxically, the rise of far-right parties in Europe has diminished any differences between civic and ethnic nationalism. As long as the world finds itself in this situation, neither does the East-West axis of nationalism play a significant role nor do any attempts to reconcile liberalism and nationalism…

[1] Craig Calhoun, “Inventing the Opposition of Ethnic and Civic Nationalism.,” in Nations Matter (Routledge, 2007).

[2] Ibid, p 118.

[3] Ibid. p 118.

[4] Ibid. p 133

[5] Ibid, p 133.

[6] Liberty, “The Human Rights Act,” Liberty, 2020,

[7] Rachel Hall, “Suella Braverman: Five Controversial Statements from UK Home Secretary,” The Guardian, October 26, 2022,

[8] “Italy: Freedom in the World 2022 Country Report,” Freedom House, 2022,

[9] “Italy Immigration Statistics 1960-2020,”, n.d.,

[10] Agencies, “As a Teenage Activist, Giorgia Meloni Had Once Praised Mussolini – Times of India,” The Times of India, September 27, 2022,

[11] Nick Squires, “Giorgia Meloni: Heiress to Italy’s Fascists to Become the Country’s First Female Leader,” The Telegraph, June 19, 2021,

[12] Martino Mazzonis, “The Poisonous Roots of the Great Replacement Theory,” Reset DOC, May 25, 2022,

[13] Le Monde, “Macron Wins French Presidential Election,” Le, April 24, 2022,

[14] Elaine Ganley, “Le Pen’s Far-Right Vision: Retooling France at Home, Abroad,” AP News, April 22, 2022,

Aakrith Harikumar

Aakrith Harikumar is an undergraduate student at the Jindal School of International Affairs. His research interests include International Security, Strategic Studies, and Economic Diplomacy.

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