Readings for September 27: Maria Bucur and Nancy Wingfield’s Staging the Past

Posted by Misha Griffith

Some commemorations are created in stone, and are meant to last. Others, like parades and public speeches, are fleeting events that are only preserved in written accounts and images. In their collection of essays on the politics of commemoration in the Hapsburg era and beyond, Bucur and Wingfield gathered specialists to comment on a wide variety of commemorations in the various Central European countries over a one hundred and fifty year span. Central to their work were the issues of “collective memory and cultural practices. We engage these issues in order to underscore how nationalism is translated from ideology into shared cultural practice.”(2)
In truth, this examination is not about what is remembered, but how the memories are expressed and to some extent, how they are privileged. In Alice Freifeld’s article “The Cult of March 15,” she is able to track how the celebration of the Hungarian Revolution of March 15, 1848 was alternatively assiduously ignored or boisterously celebrated, depending on who was in charge. Groups such as the Socialists found the holiday “facilitated the didactic purpose of inculcating a new intelligentsia with the tenets of their mission….” Steve Beller, in his article “Kraus’s Fireworks” pointed out that even a three hour parade to honor Franz Joseph’s sixtieth year had everything to say about Austria and her ethnic composition, but almost nothing about the state or about the Emperor himself. “Scattered Graves, Ordered Cemeteries,” Melissa Bokovoy’s article on the Serbian wars of National Liberation demonstrated the tie created by the leaders of the twentieth century Serb forces with those Serbs who died at Kosovo Polje in 1389. Endless references made in speeches and engraved on memorials to the avengers of the Serbian Nation. And while the sentiments were distinctively nationalistic, the memorials themselves harkened back to ancient Serbian folk traditions.
The wide variety of incidences examined in this book leaves the reader to ponder about the very nature of memory. The examples showed collective memory is a plastic entity easily shaped by those who wish to use it for noble or less than noble causes. Yet it is a powerful force, able to motivate the population of a nation.
I do have a bone to pick with Cynthia Paces. In her introduction to her article “Religious Heroes for a Secular State” she described Jan Hus as an early Protestant. Here she is trapped in a nationalist memory: one crafted in the sixteenth century by the Protestant apologist John Fox, who was desperate to list martyrs to bolster the new Protestant churches, and the other crafted by the Czech Nationalists hoping to distinguish Hus as preceding Martin Luther in Reformation thought. The Dean of Hussite Theology at the Charles University and the American historian Howard Kaminsky both hold that Hus never intended to create a separate church, but only to end a handful of errors he observed in church practices. The Hussite Revolution sprang up four years after Hus’ death and he could not be held responsible for their excesses. Pope John Paul II issued an official apology for the burning of Jan Hus in December of 1999, and the Czech Republic still celebrates July 6 as a national holiday.

Comments are closed.