Staging the Past – Kraus’s Firework

In Staging the Past, Maria Bucur and Nancy Wingfield have compiled a series of essays from various authors which, each in their own way, examine the relationship between institutionalized ceremony and national identity. Using the model of the Hapsburg empire, particularly the reign of Franz Joseph, the editors have divided the book into three sections.

Section one examines the attempts by the imperial court to reinvent, or sometimes just invent, traditions as a means of building back up its power base after 1848.

Section two considers how local commemorative traditions compete with those imposed from above.

Section three examines how the symbols and traditions of the Hapsburg monarchy endured and affected the post-monarchy successor states.

Section two has probably the most interesting essay, Jeremy King’s “The Nationalization of East Central Europe”. But since several other people have already posted entries emphasizing this essay, I thought I would comment first on a different essay.

The final essay of section one is “Kraus’s Firework”, written by Steven Beller. In it, Beller examines the 50th and 60th Jubilee celebrations of Franz Joseph’s reign, which began in 1848. For both the 1898 celebration and that of 1908, the pro-monarchy newspaper Neue Freie Presse ran editorials chronicling the reign of the Emperor. Beller points out the striking similarities between the two articles: both forgive his early failures as inevitable, both applaud the same achievements, both have the same ill forebodings about a lack of unity in the realm and what might happen when Franz Joseph is no longer around. Most important in these editorials is their emphasis on Franz Joseph as the “personal bracket” to the empire. This means that after 50 years of trying to promote the state institutions and force unity on a variety of peoples, he may have succeeded in drawing loyalty to his person, but not to the lasting state.

The obvious question then becomes was this due to the incompetence of the efforts. There would seem to be something to that. Beller provides an entertaining account of the parade during the 60th Jubilee; the parade which went from a celebration of pre 1848 Germanic military might straight to the jumble of nationalities in the 1908 empire; thus completely skipping the entire reign which the Jubilee was supposed to be celebrating.

But incompetence doesn’t seem to explain it all. The enthusiasm of so many disparate peoples within the empire (especially among the peasantry), which shows up not just in Beller’s essay but in many of the other essays as well (Laurence Cole’s for example) would indicate there were some successes, even if they proved transient. So the follow up question would be whether or not such institutionalized celebrations can actually create or maintain indefinitely a national identity. Or do they merely serve to prolong a feeling that already exists. It seems like such commemorations definitely help maintain such identities, and they can certainly help them grow. But such events only seem to work right up to the point where they no longer work. If there are competing cultural, economic, religious currents at play that are working against the state imposed ceremonies, the latter are very susceptible to being overcome by the former, despite the state’s best efforts.

One Response to “Staging the Past – Kraus’s Firework”

  1. Ben says:

    Perhaps one of the biggest challenges to state sponsored ceremonies that try to emphasize an idea (such as the king or state) is to make the idea the people’s. The communists in Hungary were at a great pains to make March 15 feel as though it belonged to the people and continued a participatory tradition that had for a long time made the people feel as though the government was their own or at least call the government to be owned by the people (this by various factions, such as the liberals, socialists, and then a combination in protest to fascism). By succeeding in coopting the participatory tradition in an institutionalized form, the communists succeeded in making it meaningless to the point where it meant little by 1989 and even less after.