Staging the Past – Rural Myth and National Identity in Poland

Bucur, Maria & Nancy M. Wingfield. Staging the Past: The Politics of Commemoration in Hapsburg Central Europe, 1848 to the Present. Indiana: Purdue University Press, 2001.

In Staging the Past, Maria Bucur and Nancy Wingfield gather a collection of essays focused on the “development of nationalism from the perspective of collective memory and cultural practice.” (2) 

I think the most interesting aspect of collective memory is its nature as a contested space, subject to interpretation and manipulation.  There will always be competing interests seeking legitimacy by laying claim to historical events or figures.  It is beneficial to approach the study of nationalism from “the perspective of collective memory” because it lays bare the fluid and contested nature of nationalism, and the difficulties in controlling or directing nationalist sentiments.  All the essays in Bucur and Wingfield’s collection raise interesting points of discussion, here I’ll focus on Keely Stauter-Halsted’s article “Rural Myth and the Modern Nation: Peasant Commemorations of Polish National Holidays, 1879-1910.”  Stauter-Halsted discusses the Polish peasantry’s approach to historic commemorations and celebrations as a way to emphasize their historic sacrifices and support their “claims for a greater civic partnership with the gentry.” (159)  Through the politicization of peasant folklore, and the linking of Polish national identity to the land and consequently to the peasantry who promoted themselves “as protectors and cultivators” (162-3) of the land, the peasants were able to insert themselves as instrumental figures in Polish history.  In this process, the peasantry broke down the elite’s monopoly on Polish national identity and began the process of distributing power more broadly across the social spectrum.  This process did not occur immediately, there was significant resistance from the gentry who sought to exclude the peasantry from claiming an influential role in Polish history, and used their power in an attempt to shape a Polish national identity on their own terms and according to their own interests.  Interpretations are important to Stauter-Halsted’s article, the different ways in which Austrians, upper-class Poles, and the Polish peasantry evaluate events and commemorations are central to the struggle for the creation of a national identity or identities.  

Another interesting element that emerges in several essays is the role played by the media in ascribing meaning to events and symbols.  In the Foreword, Charles Ingrao addresses the move away from a primordialist view of nationalism and the nation, to one in which scholars agree that the “parameters of national identity” (ix) are set by elites and the media.  I think this is interesting because the articles in section two seem to question the idea that one interest group can control the formation of a national identity.  The “elites” and media certainly play a large role in the formation of this identity, but in the end it must be accepted by the masses as legitimate.  Staging the Past clarifies how commemorations, memorials, dates, and history in general has been used in attempts to create or cement a national identity; and how these attempts are subject to interpretation and manipulation.

One Response to “Staging the Past – Rural Myth and National Identity in Poland”

  1. Ben says:

    Concerning the media as a means to create national identity, this can be clearly seen in how CNN and Fox News portrayed the immigration protests in April-May 2006. While CNN attempted an inclusive portrayal focusing on the humanitarian aspect of the protests, Fox used the protests as a tool to show the “otherness” of Latin Americans by focussing on radical elements among the demonstrators (such as those who seek to return land to Mexico) and radical opponents of the demonstrators (such as the Minuteman movement and the like). Here we see one media outlet attempting to create an inclusive and diverse version of a national identity and the other seeking a narrower definition of national identity.