Staging the Past — Steven Beller and Alice Freifeld

by Laszlo Taba

Bucur, Maria and Winfield, Nancy M., Staging the Past: The Politics of Commemoration in Hapsburg Central Europe, 1848 to the Present (2001)

Maria Bucur’s and Nancy Winfield’s Staging the Past: The Politics of Commemoration in Hapsburg Central Europe, 1848 to the Present is a collection of essays about the relationship between commemorative practices and historical memory and nationalism. They divide the book into three parts (summarized on pages 4-7). The first examines how the Hapsburg court attempted to legitimize its power by inventing traditions. The second examines local efforts to influence national identity. The third section looks at similar issues after the fall of the Hapsburg monarchy.

The second article in Bucur’s and Wingfield’s book, “Kraus’s Firework: State Consciousness Raising in the 1908 Jubilee Parade in Vienna and the Problem of Austrian Identity” by Steven Beller, discusses the Hapsburg monarchy’s failed attempts at the end of its reign to create a “strong Austro-Hungarian or Austrian identity” (46). Beller argues ironically that it was just such attempts that sabotaged state identity (47). The 1908 Jubilee parade, for instance, failed to represent the nationalities of the monarchy. Czechs refused to take part, and there were more individuals from distant provinces than from central provinces (62). Worse still, the celebrations did not acknowledge the emperor’s achievements that contributed to unification and state consciousness, including the constitution, universal suffrage, and increased literacy (66).

The ninth article, “The Cult of March 15: Sustaining the Hungarian Myth of Revolution, 1849-1999” by Alice Freifeld, follows the ways Hungarians interpreted the revolution of March 15th, 1848. Freifeld argues that “[t]he confluence of nationalism, revolution, and liberalism have been repeatedly reconfigured or torn asunder in the process.” (256) A few examples will clarify what she means. First, she describes the original revolution in 1848, when Lajos Kossuth promised a crowd in Vienna that a revolution would lead to liberal reforms in Hungary (257). After the 1867 compromise that created the dual monarchy, the meaning of March 15th changed. It came to represent Hungarian independence against disappearing into the monarchy like Poland had disappeared or becoming a minor province like Bohemia had became (263). By the 1950s, March 15th became a celebration of liberation from oppression and imperialism. In this light, Hungarian communists viewed the expulsion of fascism by the Soviet Union in 1945 as accomplishing Kossuth’s greatest wish (275).

The interesting thing about Beller’s and Freifeld’s articles is the role the elite plays. In Beller’s article, the Hapsburg crown, by failing to influence the masses, fails to save its empire. Beller’s article, then, is an example of elites failing to create or manipulate national identity. In Freifeld’s article, Kossuth, himself elite, gave meaning to the revolution, but that meaning changed in less than a generation. It seems, then, that the elite do not always have control over national identity, and, if they have control, it is fleeting. The meaning of March 15th changed many times over the 100 or so years after the revolution. That shows how difficult it can be to manipulate nationalism and nationalist identity.

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