Nation and Commemoration

Charles Turner. The Sage Handbook of Nations and Nationalism. Editor: Gerard Delanty & Krishan Kumar. 2006. Sage Publishing.

Whether or not they have geographical extension, all human collectivities have a relationship to time. Whatever else they do, the actions of their members contribute to the creation, maintenance, alteration or destruction of that relationship. Regardless of the purpose for which a collectivity exists, part of what it means to belong to such a collectivity, to share a life in common, is defined by the manner in which the collectivity’s relationship to time is shaped. And while all collectivities have a relationship to past, present and future, students of social time may distinguish between them according to which temporal dimension is the most important. Thus at one extreme, collectivities such as the family, the school or churches may be dedicated to the transmission of an already-existing tradition of practices or belief, so that in their relationship to time the past predominates. At the other, companies or business corporations or groups of scientists are oriented primarily towards the achievement of some future goal. At some point between these extremes, political parties or interest groups may be oriented primarily towards the achievement of immediate, pragmatically defined goals or to the contingent needs or opportunities of the moment (Gurvitch 1963). If there is a politics of time it is because the temporal logic of one type of collectivity may be imposed upon the life of another with a different temporal logic. Educational institutions, for instance, geared to the transmission of an existing body of knowledge, may come under pressure to adopt a temporal orientation appropriate to businesses or bureaucracies.

One of the peculiarities of the collectivity we call the nation is that it appears from the start to obey more than one temporal logic simultaneously, that is, to face towards the past and the future in equal measure. A politics of time is a necessary rather than a contingent feature of it. This peculiarity is reflected in the scholarly literature, which is able to see the nation as both the product of forward-looking, future-oriented, modern states (Gellner 1983) and as the repository of long-lasting or primordial longings and ineradicable memories (Smith 1986). This temporal ambivalence—the nation is both modern and pre-modern—partly explains why the question ‘What is a nation?’ has continued to puzzle social scientists in a way that the questions ‘What is a family?’ or ‘What is a school?’ or ‘What is a trade union?’ have not. Indeed, at times this can appear more as an insoluble metaphysical problem, rephrased by Ernest Gellner as the unanswerable question ‘Do nations have navels?’ (Gellner 1997). An increasingly prevalent response has been to pay lip service to this question but to take seriously de Tocqueville’s remark that while all nations bear the mark of their origin, ‘the spirit of analysis has come upon nations only as they matured, by which time their origins have been obscured by time’ (Tocqueville 1945: 28). Once this is accepted, attention turns towards the more localized and detailed study of the devices through which individual nations make sense of, represent and perform their own temporal identity, and towards the variation in the extent to which nations have available to them a repository of genuinely original historical resources on which to base it. Of the means through which this temporal self-definition occurs, few have received as much recent scholarly attention as that of commemoration.

The term ‘commemoration’ refers to all those devices through which a nation recalls, marks, embodies, discusses or argues about its past, and to all those devices which are intended to create or sustain a sense of belonging or ‘we feeling’ in the individuals who belong to it, a sense of belonging which may or may not provide for a means of addressing future tasks and possibilities. Commemoration, then, includes public rituals of remembrance and individual acts of recollection, the building of monuments and dedication of places of memory, the construction of museums and the naming of streets, the visiting of such places, public debates over the meaning and significance of historical events, and the unspoken or gestural ways through which nationality is not so much represented as incorporated in the practices of everyday life. The construction of a repertoire of such devices allows the student of nationhood to gain comparative knowledge of the relationship between nation and commemoration, and to appreciate the considerable variation in the significance attached to different types of historical event, in the relationship between commemorative devices designed for domestic consumption and those directed at an international audience, and in the relationship between explicit and implicit modes of commemoration. The banal nationalism (Billig 1995) which feeds off the latter, it may be observed, is a feature of nations with settled and relatively continuous internal political histories, while spectacular public controversies over explicit acts of commemoration are a feature of nations with a less settled or more violent political past. Renan’s remark that forgetting is as important to nationhood as remembering covers both of these cases. On the one hand, nationhood may be rooted in customary ways of behaving which need no explicit articulation (the most extreme version of this is the English seventeenth-century claim about an ancient constitution which had existed since ‘time immemorial’, that is, beyond any definable and necessarily contingent beginning which would require marking (Pocock 1957)). On the other, where something is explicitly remembered something else is implicitly or explicitly forgotten.

Historical Events and Periods

Nowhere is the thesis about the selective character of commemoration more apposite than in the commemoration of historical events. While it may be true that the weight and resonance which historical events are able to acquire varies between nations, there is no nation which does not have at least one day on which events deemed significant are marked. Proponents of the thesis of invented traditions emphasize the delay—possibly of centuries—between the event and the decision to mark it and the manipulative or hegemonic relationship between actors who make the decision and those expected to agree to participate in its marking. But the ubiquity of the practice makes it difficult to dismiss as artificial. An important task for students of nationhood is to establish correlations between type of nation and the type of event commemorated. Here some necessarily general relationships can be suggested.

First, it is not uncommon for older nations which have a history of belonging to larger geopolitical entities in late feudal or early modern Europe in which their political identity was precarious, and whose experience of modernity was accompanied by a struggle to acquire a measure of political autonomy, to attach importance to acts of heroic resistance in the face of overwhelming odds. Whether or not they are explicitly marked, dates such as September 11th for Catalonia (siege of Barcelona 1714), or June 28th for Serbia (battle of Kosovo Polye 1389), April 16th for Scotland (battle of Culloden 1746) or August 19th for Romania (battle of the Marasesti, 1917) are part of those nations’ memorial calendar. The case of modern Israel is a notable variation on this theme, the defeat at the battle of Masada in AD70 and other examples of heroic military action having acquired, for a state which sees itself as under constant siege, a memorial significance equal to that of the Holocaust (Zerubavel 1995). Note that the heroism is more important than the fact of defeat, and that the events concerned are distant enough in time to be readily discussed but sufficiently well documented—they are history rather than myth—to have contemporary resonance.

Secondly, we may observe that nations which have achieved a definitive political autonomy may mark the fact by making independence day a national holiday, and by marking historic victories rather than defeats. Poland, for instance, whose history is replete with heroic defeats—the Warsaw Uprising of 1944 being the most recent—nonetheless gives prominence to November 11th (independence day in 1918), May 3rd (the constitution of 1793) and the battles of Grunwald (defeat of the Teutonic Knights by Polish and Lithuanian forces in 1414) and Monte Cassino (defeat of the Germans in 1944). This suggests that, even if one accepts Gellner’s thesis that nations are the product of processes of rationalization and modernization which generated modern states, the events which modern states choose as markers of identity do not need to be those that define their internal political character. In the United States, for instance, whose formal political character has altered little since its inception, and whose citizens are conscious of and knowledgeable about their constitution, the primary object of collective commemoration is July 4th, the issuing of the Declaration of Independence, and not the framing of the constitution or decisive battles of the Civil War. In France, July 14th focuses the nation’s attention on a relatively insignificant historical event, the storming of the Bastille prison in Paris. In England, the one peculiarly English secular festival which is widely observed, Guy Fawkes night on November 5th, commemorates the foiling of a (Catholic!) plot to destroy the English parliament in 1605, whereas events of greater long-term political significance—such as 1688—are ignored. The choice of these events which did not definitively shape the life of a nation may perhaps be explained in functional terms. The United States constitution may be an agreed upon framework and the heart of American political identity, but it can also provide a resource for opposing sides in social conflict (over abortion or the right to bear arms). The political history of France since 1789 is one of considerable political discontinuity, the legacy of the revolution too ambivalent for the commemoration of its founding to refer to the most decisive events associated with it (Arendt 1960; Furet 1996). The ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688 may have set the seal on Britain’s character as a constitutional monarchy, but to commemorate it officially would be to presume a measure of agreement about the desirability of this form of government which does not exist. Instead, attention is focused upon events known in common and capable of suspending or neutralizing political or social discord.

This does not, of course, rule out the possibility of an appeal to counter-memories even on these occasions, as Spillman has shown for the 1976 bicentennial celebrations in the United States (Spillman 1997). But we may still speak of a process of condensation and displacement in which politically less significant or less controversial events are the focus for or catalyst of expressions of national belonging. If we take a shared language to be central to a nation’s identity, together with the growth of mass literacy (Anderson 1981), then we may note a parallel to this in the role played by the anniversaries of the births and deaths of a national literature’s finest exponents, events whose marking serves to draw our attention to the role played by his or her writings in the nation’s awareness of itself.

We may, in addition, identify a third class of nations, largely but not exclusively those which have undergone a period of totalitarian or authoritarian rule under modern conditions, whose political history is either too painful or too complex or both for controversy-generating events which are within living memory to be suppressed, so that these come to occupy a place in a nation’s memorial landscape and its memorial calendar alongside and equal in importance to those which might provide a shared sense of belonging and inter-generational solidarity. The most notable example is the role played by the commemoration of the Holocaust in post-war Germany, but we may also add such events as the Kielce and Jedwabne pogroms and the Vistula Action of 1947 (in which Ukrainian and Lemki minorities were ethnically cleansed) in Poland, the Vietnam War in the United States, the Srebrenica massacre (which Dutch peace-keepers failed to prevent) in both Bosnia and the Netherlands, the mass disappearances under the Latin American dictatorships of the 1970s, the expulsion of ethnic Germans from Poland and Czechoslovakia in 1947, the Prague Spring of 1968 or the Hungarian uprising of 1956. It is a common feature of such events that, unlike those associated with the regular conduct of war, their commemoration and the manner of it are a matter of both internal political and international controversy (Herf 1997; Steinlauf 1997).

However, here too the events commemorated in many cases stand for a larger, more complex and ambiguous set of events making up a decisive period in a nation’s history. It is noteworthy here that since 1990 a reunited Germany commemorates the period of the destruction of European Jewry on November 8th (Kristallnacht in 1938) and January 27th (arrival of Soviet troops at Auschwitz in 1945), anniversaries of its beginning and end. Moreover, marking these dates—which frame only the second half of the Third Reich—is a means of recalling the entire period from 1933 to 1945.

Similarly, the events marked in post-communist societies are often a shorthand for commemorative energies directed at the entire period (40 or 70 years) of communist rule. If we agree that a nation’s commemorative practices create, sustain, alter or destroy its relationship to its own temporality, we may note here an important difference between Germany’s response to fascism and the responses of Eastern European nations to communism. The post-war division of Germany can be said to have suspended nationhood, with the commemoration of the past being subordinate to the future-oriented projects of economic renewal in the West and ‘building socialism’ in the East. By contrast, the circumstance of post-communism in Eastern Europe is such that commemoration is not a mere adjunct to nation-building but central to it. That circumstance is a postcolonial one in which commemorative activity directed at events of national significance (activity which was forbidden by regimes which deployed their own commemorative practices governed, in many cases, by a rhetoric of international solidarity rather than national pride) becomes a source as well as a symbol of national belonging. It is also one in which post-communism implies a ‘return to Europe’ and to the values associated with it, and here there is a significant difference between post-fascist Germany and post-communist Eastern Europe. In the latter, commemorative activity may be directed not only towards the period of communist rule but towards a preceding period in which, it is claimed, the nation embodied—albeit briefly—the values it seeks to aspire to today. Communism, then, instead of being an ineradicable burden, can be seen as a historical parenthesis. This hermeneutics, in which a liberal and/or democratic tradition is recovered from within a largely non-liberal or non-democratic political history, itself has a tradition among liberal intellectuals in Eastern Europe (Mishkova 2004). By contrast, this aspect of national commemoration, in which a historical period preceding that of totalitarianism is called upon to act as a focus of shared national sentiment, appeared to be unavailable to a reunited Germany. Karl-Heinz Bohrer’s liberal-conservative argument ‘Why we are not a nation and why we should become one’ (Bohrer 1991), in which a national tradition predating national socialism is held to be recoverable, is forced to exist alongside the widespread popularity within Germany of theses concerning the rootedness of national socialism in long-term developments in preexisting German culture, and the consequent unavoidability of a presentist and future-directed temporal orientation (Eley 2000).

The variety of types of event which can secure a nation’s identity, in particular the availability of both uncontroversial and controversial events as foci of national attention, reminds us that what we call a national tradition—regardless of the extent to which we can say that it is invented—may consist in an extended argument that a nation conducts with itself about the goods internal to that tradition (MacIntyre 1981) or in extreme cases about whether there is such a tradition at all. Indeed, it is rare that a nation may be said to construct a past for itself in accordance with an already-existing agreement about what those goods consist in.


If all nations mark significant events in their past, they all draw upon a repertoire of memorial devices through which to do so. There is some connection between type of event and type of device, although the empirical variety of the devices suggests caution. The device chosen may reflect the internal life of the nation, its current international status, and its prevailing political aesthetic as much as the nature of the event itself, a fact testified to by the considerable historical variation in choice of memorial device: the monument, the museum, the cemetery, the history textbook, the ceremonial may all be markers of the same event.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the case of monuments to political violence. In the case of war memorials, it is an oft-noted fact that in Western and Central Europe before World War I, memorials to previous conflicts would have had a predominantly figurative, heroic and/or religious character (the Völker-schlachtdenkmal in Leipzig erected in 1913 on the centenary of Napoleon’s defeat there is a fine example), and that while officers might be mentioned by name, regular soldiers would not be. World War I saw a change in this practice, the names of the dead appearing side by side regardless of rank (Lacqueur 1994; Koselleck 1979) and memorials being erected in small communities and taking on a less military character, either through the use of non-military motifs (such as the mother and child in the villages of northern France) or through the adoption of abstract rather than figurative modes of representation. Here the Cenotaph in London’s Whitehall is the most obvious example (Homberger 1976; Winter 1995). The tombs of the unknown—and unranked—soldier in the capital cities of major combatant countries should also be mentioned here. These examples have been interpreted as evidence of a democratization of European political culture and a hesitancy about linking warfare and heroism, just as the use of heroic and gargantuan statuary in the Soviet memorials to World War II may be said to have reflected the survival of a militaristic ethos within a non-democratic political culture. Yet while this may be true, we may also extend the thesis that more contingent factors influence choice of memorial object and observe that in northern France after World War I abstract designs—in particular the obelisk—were often chosen not because they expressed a particular political hermeneutics but because they were the cheapest option from a repertoire of standard designs for local communities operating under financial constraint.

Monuments—and, we may add, street names—are among a nation’s most tangible and enduring means for focusing its members’ attention on matters of historical significance. However, it may be noted that if a nation’s relationship with its past is a matter of interpretation and is therefore mediated through devices such as monuments, then its relationship with those monuments themselves is mediated through human action. Monuments provide occasions for national reflection both before and after they are erected, and more importantly, become recognized sites for organized or spontaneous memorial performances.

Yet the relationship between these two forms of mediation presents one of the more intractable problems for students of nation and commemoration. On the one hand, it may be suggested that the ceremonial performances which are repeated annually and which populate a nation’s calendar are more significant to the nation’s temporal orientation than the sites at which they occur, that nationality enacted is more robust than nationality represented. For the monument, which is a permanent physical reminder of a nation’s past and which can foster a community of the living and the dead, can also become a mundane feature of the urban scene: ‘there is nothing as invisible as a monument’ (Musil 1990). On the other hand, while ritual memorial performances which take place at such monuments may generate more intense communal sentiments than the monument in its muteness can, they, unlike the monument, may evaporate once the performance is over. From a technical point of view this indifference of both the monument—permanent but unnoticed—and the ritual performance—intense but then forgotten—suggests a number of things.

First, it suggests that central to the effectiveness of commemorative performance is its regular and repetitious character: the power of commemoration then consists less in the effectiveness of the ritual actions which support it, than in their place on a calendar; secondly, it makes all the more notable monuments that can command sustained attention throughout the year—Maya Lin’s Vietnam memorial in Washington is the most notable example here—and commemorative acts which, though they take place only once, are themselves subsequently remembered. Examples here include the burial or, more spectacularly, reburial of a nation’s political or literary figures (such as Stalin in 1953, Churchill in 1965, the reburial of Sikorski in Poland in 1993 and of Imre Nagy in Hungary in 1991, the funeral of Sartre in 1979); the marking of centennials or bicentennials of a nation’s founding, (Spillman 1997) or ceremonies of international reconciliation (Helmut Kohl and François Mitterrand at Verdun in 1984; Kohl and Ronald Reagan at Bitburg in 1985). Thirdly, there are spontaneous gestures which break with ritual expectations, such as German Chancellor Willy Brandt falling to his knees at the monument to the Warsaw Ghetto fighters in 1970, a commemorative gesture which was itself commemorated in the photograph which continues to be reproduced in numerous works on German nationhood and the Holocaust.

However, if we accept the thesis that nationality enacted is as robust as nationality represented, then we may push this claim further and suggest that officially sanctioned commemoration may be no more important as a marker of national identity than the myriad forms of non-political practice, both formal and informal, which make up a national life. Examples of non-political ritual with an overtly commemorative character include the visiting of graveyards on All Souls Day in some Catholic countries (such as Poland or Mexico), an observance which generates almost universal national participation. But such practices need not be directed towards specific events in the past for us to call them commemorative: the Tour de France in France or the Grand National in England; St George’s Day in Catalonia, on which everyone is expected to give a book and a rose, are examples. The reason for this is that as well as speaking of representational memory operating at the level of overt national symbolism and ceremonial practice, we may also speak of embodied memory operating at the level of inherited or implicitly transmitted ways of acting (Bergson 1988; Connerton 1989). Whether or not we refer to it as ‘collective amnesia’ (Billig 1995: 38), there is as much a memory of how to do something and continue doing it, as a memory of what happened in the past, and we may observe that those marks of national distinction which remain most peculiar to an individual nation may be those which are most opaque to outsiders, and reside not so much in the visible building blocks of national identity—the ceremonial which is now readily observable by visitors and which on occasion is driven by the logic of tourism, the national museum, the showpiece cemetery, the names of streets—but in its interstices, in its seen but unnoticed features such as the rhythms of everyday speech (Milosz 1968) or in the nuances of bodily gesture (Mauss 1979 [1930]; Connerton 1989; Scarry 1985). And we may add that a nation’s identity, its temporal continuity, becomes looser when it forgets how to carry out these routine practices or when they fall into neglect.

Organization and the Politics of Commemoration

This important observation about the tacit or habitual forms of commemoration has proved difficult to translate into sound generalizations about, say, nationally specific modes of bodily comportment, and it remains a matter of marginal or speculative concern in the scholarly literature, which tends to focus on the more spectacular or overt forms of commemorative practice. Yet even here there is often a reluctance to acknowledge the fact that whether it generates common sentiment or social discord, explicit commemoration is something which does not happen without an accompanying agent or agents. It is always organized in some way, and not always by public or official bodies. Particularly in cases of individual monuments or new museums, or anniversary celebrations, we may speak of a commemorative entrepreneurialism in which an organizational nucleus of actors drives a memorial project forward and seeks to draw peripheral actors in. Robert Musil gave a memorable account of a doomed version of such a project in his comic masterpiece The Man Without Qualities (Musil 1995 [1940]); a more cynical account of such projects can be found in Norman Finkelstein’s The Holocaust Industry (Finkelstein 2003). But these extreme cases only serve to remind us of the importance of the more mundane fact that many of a nation’s more potent symbols, particularly those directed at its origins, may have been established long after such origins could be said to have occurred, and that they are, moreover, the product of complex relationships between central government, regional authorities, civil society associations, business people and intellectuals, an organizational network or ‘cultural centre’ in which there may be only a marginal place for political actors (Spillman 1997). Such an organizational perspective provides an important methodological counterweight to the view that sees invented traditions as merely a modern version of bread and circuses, the product of a hegemonic strategy on the part of the rulers of modern nation-states keen to provide collective compensation for the socially divisive effects of modernization.

From History to Memory

The fact that the selection of examples of memorial practice we have passed in review here is by no means comprehensive—we have said nothing for example about commemoration in the ancient or medieval world or in non-literate societies (Coleman 1992; Vansina 1965), in all of which commemorative activity played a central role in the maintenance of temporal coherence—may tempt us to believe in a universal human need for memory, such that, for instance, the commemoration of events of significance to modern nations may be seen as the secular functional equivalent of practices with a religious character. However, such a thesis sits uneasily with the geographical and historical variation in those practices, and with the more important fact that modern secular forms of commemoration presuppose the past’s pastness in a way in which religious forms of commemoration do not. The event which is commemorated in secular modern nations belongs to history and the commemoration of it both presupposes this pastness and can exist alongside the construction of an historical argument about it. Regardless of the extent to which those nations may seek to define themselves in terms of a specific religious confession, particularly where church and state are not separated, and regardless of clerical involvement in secular commemorative practice, the practice itself remains secular. By contrast, the historical veracity of the events of, say, the last supper or of Christ’s passion remains beyond discussion for adherents of the Christian faith. In religious commemorative acts—such as the liturgy—past and present are not first separate and then ‘brought together’. Modern secular, as opposed to ancient or medieval memories, are enacted in societies which have history—and the irrevocable sundering of past and present—at their centre.

If we put the matter like this we can make sense of the upsurge which has occurred in the past two decades of both popular and scholarly interest in commemoration, an interest which suggests something about the changing character of modern industrial societies in which nationhood now resides. This approach is exemplified by Nora’s ‘realms of memory’ project in France (Nora 1996 [1984]), begun in the late 1970s, in which the historical-cum-progressive character of modern societies necessarily generates radical discontinuities between past and present, and militates against the unproblematic, quasi-natural transmission of a national memory. ‘Realms’ or ‘Places’ of memory then refers to all those aspects of French national life which act as anchors of identity in the face of a history that constantly threatens to erode or transform it. We may suggest, however, an extension of this thesis, based on Max Weber’s thesis of the ineradicability of the human search for meaning, and say that in the twentieth century modern societies have been shaped by a temporality defined not merely by history, but by historical progress, in which history is not only a matter of collective fate or inescapable change but something to be made. History is linked with an improvement of the human condition, and has meaning as well as direction. This type of historicism was subscribed to by both liberalism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and by Leninism in the twentieth, and the Cold War which ended in 1991 may be interpreted as a struggle over the meaning which history could have. In the 1970s in the West doubts had already set in about the steering capacities of modern states and about their capacity to derive political legitimacy from history-making; simultaneously in the communist bloc, the growth of dissident movements called into question historicism in its Leninist version. The melancholia which followed the collapse of communism has been accompanied in the West by a readiness to explore sources of meaning unconnected with the pursuit of future prosperity. In Eastern Europe, the partially imported character of capitalism and democracy means that they contribute only partially to the rebirth of post-communist nations. Those nations’ identities are grounded not only in economic or political achievement, but in the practices through which views of the national past are either corrected or made a matter of public controversy.


While the flood of individual studies of nation and commemoration shows no sign of abating, methodological questions of the sort hinted at here remain. Students of history, for instance, have often found it difficult to combine an interest in empirical historical truth and a sensitivity to issues in the philosophy of history. It may be that the field of commemoration, which has attracted historians as much as if not more than sociologists, and in which the material itself provides a direct stimulation to reflection on history’s shape and meaning, provides an opportunity to transcend this distinction or to render it less stark. Yet frequently in studies of memory and the politics of memory, the lure of the archive remains. This has produced many thorough pieces of work about individual cases, but there is still work to be done in order to connect this material with the longstanding and sophisticated literature on cultural transmission, ritual, tradition and the philosophy of history, in order that the broader significance of commemoration for contemporary societies remains in focus. In addition, while intellectuals and scholars, wary of references to ‘national character’ focus upon the more overt and well-documented relationships between nation and commemoration, there is a need less for the synopsis of controversies and debates surrounding the efforts of some nations to come to terms with the past, than for a critical hermeneutics of commemoration as part of a broader ethnography of nationhood. Such a hermeneutics would accord due weight to the aesthetics of public commemoration, an aesthetics in which embodied and habitual memory was given its place alongside that of representational memory.