Studies conducted in Britain (n = 88) and Germany (n = 128) used a questionnaire with an experimental manipulation to examine the effects of national identification, type of comparison (intergroup or temporal) and specificity of comparison (specific or non-specific) on trait descriptions of national identity. Both differentiation between the subject and object of comparison and the absolute stereotype of the national ingroup (i.e. the national autostereotype) were measured. Regression analyses found that high identification was associated with greater ingroup bias and an overall more positive autostereotype; that specific temporal comparison with a shameful past (slavery for the British and the Nazi era for the German sample) predicted greater differentiation from the present than non-specific comparisons with ‘the past’ in general; and that specific comparisons with the Americans or a shameful history precipitated greater differentiation and (in the British sample) a departure of the autostereotype from a control condition that entailed no comparison. We argue that our approach can contribute to a more holistic social identity analysis of nationality. Future research should distinguish the effects of context from those of identification, show an awareness of the potential differences between specific and non-specific comparisons, and examine a greater variety of temporal comparison targets. Copyright © 2006 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.