The continuous rise of the Serbian state in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is often described as a typical example of the Piedmont‐style of national unification. The conventional historiography emphasises the role popular nationalism has played in this process, making little if any distinctions between the forms of Serbian nationalisms within and outside of the Serbian state. This article challenges such interpretations and argues that the formation and expansion of Serbia had less to do with society‐wide national aspirations and much more with the internal elite politics within the Serbian state. Moreover, the paper makes a case that, rather than being a driving force of national unification, the expansionist nationalism was a by‐product of the state development. This argument is articulated further through the comparison of the different nationalist trajectories in Serbia and among the ethnic Serbian populations in Bosnia and Herzegovina.