National identity is a curious, and fundamentally artificial, construct. According to Benedict Anderson the nation is nothing more than an ‘imagined community’ built upon the conceit that no one in a nation can know everyone else within it yet they still irrationally perceive the nation as a unified community. This idea of the nation can be seen in the ways nations choose to portray their own history. By looking at who nations immortalise in marble and bronze in city centres, we can see how national identity has developed in different regions. At odds are the intangible, cultural form of identity and the more physical, often militaristic versions.
Whilst travelling through Eastern Europe in the summer of 2015, I noticed something interesting about how in particular Slavic countries have chosen to represent their national history. In the centre of the main square of Krakow, surrounded by overpriced restaurants, an impressive cathedral, and eager leafleteers stands a huge monument to Adam Mickiewicz (1798-1855). This was a figure completely unfamiliar to me but that in itself was not unsurprising. Despite my Polish ancestry, I would struggle with anything but the broadest sweeps of Polish history. However it turned out Mickiewicz was not the general or politician one might expect to find commemorated in a major European city, but a poet.
Mickiewicz is an artist rarely studied in Britain, but of great national significance to Poland as a Romantic Poet of the nineteenth century. Perhaps Mickiewicz’s most famed work is the epic poem ‘Pan Tadeusz’. The poem takes place in 1811, documenting a turning point in Polish history where the region had been partitioned between Russian, Prussian, and Austrian armed forces and thus erased from the political map of Europe. Of such national importance is Mickiewicz’s poem that it is compulsory reading for all schoolchildren.
Key to Anderson’s understanding of the nation is the development of ‘print capitalism’, the dominance of a single localised vernacular in print media that, in the early modern period, replaced Latin as the language of choice. The uniformity of a single language spoken by all citizens, not just the intellectual elite, served to foster the idea of the imagined community – the nation.
For Poland, Mickiewicz’s epic poem written in Polish represented this shift and thus built the foundations upon which a fledgling nation-state could be built. This is why his statue is the most prominent in Krakow, and why across Eastern Europe tourists are presented with similar representations of national history.
For example, in the central square of Ljubljana, the most prominent monument is to nineteenth century Slovenian poet France Prešeren who enjoys a similar position in the Slovenian national psyche as Mickiewicz to the Polish.
In a similar vein the largest statue in Split, Croatia is of the tenth century bishop Grgur Ninski. Whilst representing a very different figure to Mickiewicz or Preseren, Ninski pioneered church services in the Croation language over Latin and therefore made similar advances in the development of a singular national print language, if eight centuries prior to the romantic poets.
Poland, Slovenia, Croatia and many other Eastern European nations have not been independent politically for millennia. Instead they have been variously conquered, divided or occupied by neighbouring European powers. As such, these national identities did not manifest in tangible forms such as political or military success. Rather identity was confined to language and thus it is the poets who are venerated for keeping alive the idea of the nation. By continuing to write in the Polish language, Mickiewicz ensured the idea of Poland could survive and outlast the occupying forces.
When you compare these forms of national commemoration to other European nations that have existed uninterrupted for over a thousands years, such as France, Russia, and England, there is a stark contrast. In the most important public squares and spaces in London it is not poets but military commanders that are commemorated. The victor of Trafalgar, Horatio Nelson, rules atop a fifty-metre-high column over Trafalgar Square. The Duke of Wellington parades outside the Stock Exchange. Oliver Cromwell stands resolute defending the Parliament he once led through Civil War.
Britain’s great romantic poets are not commemorated in nearly the same pomp. Even Shakespeare is relegated to a modest memorial in Leicester Square. It is the uninterrupted nature of Britain (and previously England) as a political entity that ensures that national identity has manifested in tangible, political forms, not the cultural realm.
This reality of public history is a reality of our present. Is it not the case that Britain attempts to cling to it’s long-gone global power in increasingly desperate displays? After all why in the twenty-first century does a tiny island in the North Atlantic rub shoulders with America, China and Russia at the Security Council? Britain imagines it’s national identity as one of continuing tangible power. A history built on statesmen and generals. Perhaps it would be of enormous benefit not only to our national psyche but also future generations if greater focus was instead placed upon Shelley, Milton, and Chaucer in both our public spaces, collective consciousness and the history classroom.
Each imagined community is shaped by its citizens and how they chose to represent themselves throughout history. Nations that have survived centuries of invasions through a resilience of language are, to me, all the richer for it and can look upon their heroes in marble and bronze with pride. Literary giants in a medium of blood-stained generals and repressive kings.