Mark my footsteps, my good page. Tread thou in them boldly

Symbols are used to create a national identity.  The meaning, and validity of the symbol, however depends on the observer.  Nancy Wingfield’s article in the book “Staging the Past” shows how the statue of Joseph II was controversial to the Germans and Czechs.  In Cynthia Paces’ article, she shows how the commemoration of Jan Hus and Saint Wenceslas were controversial to differing religions in Czechoslovakia.

Why were the plethora of Joseph II statues so controversial. To the Germans he was a symbol of “Germandom.” To Czechs he played the dual reminder of liberator, but also became evidence of Germany’s attempt to overpower and override their culture, language, heritage, and ethnicity.  Why are statues and other monuments such a powerful sign of national identity.  Wingfield aptly states that statues and memorials are used to “impose permanent memory on the landscape” (200).  When wrought in metal or stone, the symbol becomes tangible and real.

Paces shows how one common people can still have contention over their national symbols. Jan Hus was used by the Czech led government to honor and promote the cultural and linguistic accomplishments of  the Czech people. Yet Jan Hus was a protestant reformer, and as such, was despised by the majority of the population who were strong Catholics. In order to appease the people, the government instituted an even more grand national holiday to commemorate the old king and saint Wenceslas.  Paces asks the question, “why [are] religious figures used so frequently as symbols of secular nationalist movements?” but unfortunately fails to answer. Just like me… (class is starting in 5 minutes. I’ll answer it in a comment.)

6 Responses to “Mark my footsteps, my good page. Tread thou in them boldly”

  1. kgustin says:

    Why are religious figures used so frequently in secular national movements?

    Do you think they invoke the majority’s religious affiliation to define the whole, perhaps in an effort to draw on the political movement’s majority constinuency and their sympathy?

  2. Misha Griffith says:

    Hus meant so much to the Czech people–not just as a religious figure. First, he was a peasant who rose to prominence in fifteenth-century culture through his intellect, his persuasive rhetoric, and his hard work. Second, Hus was, as Paces pointed out, one of the leading scholars of his day and the regent of the Charles University. Only four other universities in all of Europe were older. Third, Hus worked at codifying the Czech language, although some modern scholars still dispute how much impact he really had, he spoke and wrote in Czech at a time when the power structure in the university and in most of the Czech lands was in the hands of German speakers. Fourth, Hus reached out to the middle-class and lower-class Czechs in Prague. He preached at the Bethlehem Chapel, a chapel build with private funds and controlled by a “confraternity” or voluntary association of individuals. In Cohen’s article, he revealed the role of associations and local groups in nineteenth-century politics in the Hapsburg Empire. Medieval scholars are now examining the same phenomenon in their period, and coming to some of the same conclusions. And finally, we must address Hus as the martyr. Certainly the Catholic Church would not give him this title, although they did officially apologize–in 1999– for burning him. Hus had created his own concept of devotional practice and scriptural truth; some of the inspiration came from John Wycliff of Oxford University. The pope had condemned Wycliff’s work as heretical. When Hus dared to speak truth to power at the Council of Constance in 1415, the Council charged him with holding heretical ideas and when he refused to recant, condemned him as a lapsed heretic. Hus went to Constance, knowing that this would be the most likely outcome, but grasping at the chance to convince the Council, the Pope, and the Emperor of the truth. The Czechs, then as now, embraced this concept of speaking truth to power. Although, many times they fell short, or just kept their mouths shut.
    Four years after Hus’ death, his radical followers started a revolution, and plunged the Czech lands into a bloody reprisal against the Catholic Church. They burned churches and monasteries and slew those church officials who did not leave their parishes. The Hapsburgs reversed this trend in 1620, and reintroduced the Catholic faith with a vengeance–which is why so many churches in the Czech lands are done in Baroque design.
    So the animosity of the Catholic Church towards Hus was real. And while Hus never preached the overthrow of the Catholic Church, much harm was done in his name. The goose (hus translates as goose) and the chalice (one of Hus’ reforms supposedly was to offer both wine and bread to the congregation as proper communion) became the symbols of the Hussite revolutionaries. These symbols, with the agreed-upon meanings, become short-hand icons for a much larger set of ideas.
    So it was impossible for Catholics to look at Hus as anything but the harbinger of death and destruction, while his supporters ignored the fact that Hus was a priest who challenged his pope and the church militant. Simplify history, and you can twist it just about any way you want. The Communist regime embraced Hus as a great equalizer and a crusader against the abuses of the Catholic Church and religion in general. It was the Communists who rebuilt Bethlehem Chapel (the building you now can visit in Prague) and made movies about him (I have a copy, it is remarkable). As the tour guide at the Bethlehem Chapel told me “Those Communists, they abused Jan Hus!”
    It is up to us, as historians, to look carefully at these symbols and to understand Jan Hus’ words: “Seek truth, hear truth, learn truth, love truth, adhere to truth, defend truth unto death.”

    I had better stop now, or this will turn into the first chapter of my dissertation.

  3. ammon says:

    In the case described above, definitely. The prime minister/president of Czech stated that very reason; to appease the majority of Catholics who were offended by the state sponsored Jan Hus holiday.

    I also think there is a deeper aspect to it. Although Mills might disagree that humans are symbolic in nature, and others might disagree about the beginning of humanities’ religious involvement, but I would say that humans have been deeply religious since their beginning and “symbology” (as Andrew calls it) is deeply integrated into religion. I say governments use religious symbols because religion is deeply integrated into human nature, so governments can, therefore, exploit that human-religious-symbolic connection.

    I also question whether that aboriginal group didn’t have any symbolic representations _at all_. (I tried to find the article but couldn’t)

  4. kgustin says:

    Here’s the link to the article Mills mentioned:

  5. ammon says:

    Thanks for the link. I was thinking New York Times, not New Yorker. A bit of a difference…

    Anyhow, I think these Piraha do use symbols. To me, it seemed like Mills said these people don’t remember (as with the example of the person leaving the village is no longer in existence). Remembering is central to making and keeping a symbol. That’s what a symbol is for, to help you remember something. The Piraha do remember abstract things. They use soda-tabs to ward off evil spirits. “Their only ornaments are simple necklaces made from seeds, teeth, feathers, beads, and soda-can pull-tabs, which they often get from traders who barter with the Pirahã for Brazil nuts, wood, and sorva (a rubbery sap used to make chewing gum), and which the tribe members wear to ward off evil spirits” (page 3)

    It seems to me that they do have symbols, soda-can pull-tabs, which, if not religious, at least have a supernatural (or supranatural) meaning.

    I only got through page 8, but still found nothing that makes me think this people do not have symbols. Recursion – no; counting – no; but symbols – yes.

  6. Mills says:

    And so does this mean that every nation needs its symbolic cosmology?