As our series of reflections from students in HIS354 Modern Europe continues, the class is examining the rise of nationalism in the 19th century. They were asked to respond to scholar Benedict Anderson’s argument that songs can help produce the “imagined community” of the nation. For the assignment, students listened to a selection of 19th century European anthems and read about their origins. As a follow-up question, some students — like History/Social Studies Ed major Mike Vangstad (’14), whose response is presented below — also asked whether some anthems are more effective than others.
Scholars of nationalism like Benedict Anderson attach so much importance to national anthems because having a common language is one of the most vital binding elements in creating a lasting national identity. Nationalism as formed in 19th century Europe requires that a group of similar people form a coalition with each other in which personal sovereignty is given up for sovereignty of the nation. In order to create a strong bond to form this idea of a nation, tools like national anthems use language to provide a common identity for a large mass of people to form around. Having an entire populace able to recite the same song in a bellowing cheer is a very effective method of attaching complete strangers to one another in a sense of shared pride and emotion toward a common figure, the nation. Good national anthems that evoke intense feelings of patriotism thus describe important events in a nation’s history, pronounce the greatness of one’s nation, and hold one’s nation as supreme above others. They should also be easily remembered and not too difficult to sing. If only a percentage of the nation is actually capable of singing the anthem then its purpose is largely diminished. For these reasons, certain anthems can be much more effective than others. Germany and Poland provide good examples of this.
The German national anthem is one that is particularly interesting, especially when viewed from a modern point of view. While the official anthem of Germany today only uses the third verse, the first two are really the best. From its very first line the German national anthem, “Song of Germany,” is already strikingly nationalist. “Germany, Germany above everything, above everything in the world…” Portraying Germany as the best nation in the world largely sums up the idea of nationalism. In addition to this, the first stanza ends with a description of Germany’s borders that suspiciously include parts of Austria, France, the Czech Republic, and Poland. Written in 1841, this first stanza definitely served its patriotic purpose, up until Hitler’s ‘Lebensraum’ tainted its original meaning, that is. During the first half of the 19th century, the German nation was a splintered group of unaligned states. This anthem was originally designed to inspire the nation to band together as one Germany above all else. With the addition of having the best wine and women as evidenced by the second stanza, Germany’s national anthem is an effective mode of spreading national identity and patriotic fervor.
Poland’s national anthem is another interesting case. At first glance the Polish anthem, “Poland is Not Yet Lost,” is strikingly non-robust. Its first line is a gloomy one that simply states, “Poland has not yet perished, so long as we still live.” In my opinion, opening a national anthem with a statement reflecting one’s nation as being close to perishing is not a very good idea if one’s goal is to produce patriotism and nationalist fervor. Written in 1797, this anthem was originally designed to increase morale in Polish troops who just watched their nation torn into three pieces by the Third Partition, none of which contained the name of ‘Poland.’ By showing other times in which Poland was conquered and then rose up against its conquerors — such as with Sweden — the Polish national anthem attempts to show Poland’s tenacity and ability to regain its dispossessed lands. To me, however, the anthem only brings up sad memories of Poland’s trying history in which it is constantly overrun by its neighbors. Especially after WWII, during which Poland was again divvied up between Germany and Russia, I can’t help but think that this anthem forces the Polish nation to relive its broken past over and over again. While this may create a strong sense of national identity, it is done in a way that does not promote Polish strength or greatness, but rather promotes Poland’s ability to simply survive “…so long as [they] still live.”
– Mike Vangstad