National Identity and Statuary: What is the Connection?

Maria Bucur and Nancy M. Wingfield. Staging the Past: The Politics in Hapsburg Central Europe, 1848 to the Present. Indiana: Purdue University Press. 2001. Pp. 112, 114.

Bucur and Wingfield’s Staging the Past is compiled with essays that address the connection between nationalism and the collective memory of a population. An appropriate question to ask ourselves is: How is this achieved?

In the essay, The Nationalization of East Central Europe, Jeremy King presents the scholastic argument that “the transformation of East Central Europe over the past two centuries from a non-national region into a national region” has in fact been a progress in the works. (p. 112) But how does nationalization occur? King’s point of departure from the traditional framework of the “primordialist view” in nationalist studies is one that assumes a more analytical approach. Instead of just assuming that people become part of the “national consciousness”, in the first half of his essay, King examines statues and their effect on nationalization. His work may be read in the same light as Brubaker, whose reexamination of nationalism has opened many doors for scholars into reconstructing a once static view.

So what’s the story behind these statues? Are they just art, or do they transcend art and imitate life? Moreover, do statues elucidate a sense of national identity? Statuary is an important vestige for the public space, especially in late nineteenth-century Bohemia. During this period in history, there was a large mixture of Germans and Czechs, especially in the Hapsburg territories of Bohemia, as was in the case of Budějovice. King writes about a particular unveiling of a statue of the Hapsburg philanthropist, Lanna. The issue concerning the statue was not whether it should or shouldn’t be unveiled to the public, but to whom Lanna should symbolize. King writes: “The Czech and German movements competed, by participating in the 1879 ceremony, to claim the dead and mute Lanna.” (p. 114) As innocuous the statue of Lanna may have been, it roused the salient national interests of two divisional populations.

So, may we concede that there is a connection between national identity and statuary? The Lanna Statue serves as an exemplary testament at how statues serve as a linkage to the national identities of people. King’s methodological approach is one that should be pressed further for uncovering the dynamic structure of nationalism and how it is perceived within the context of the nation.

-Matt Gravely

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