AndrÃ¡s Gerï¿½'. Imagined History: Chapters from Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Hungarian Symbolic Politics. Fenyo. Boulder: Social Science Monographs, 2006. 403 pp. $50.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-88033-570-6.
Reviewed by Tuska Benes (Department of History, College of William and Mary)
Published on H-German (July, 2008)
National Identity as Symbolic Politics in Hungary
Scholars of German-speaking Europe will find useful models for researching national identity in this volume, although it focuses almost exclusively on Hungary. Andras Ger?' suggests that the persistence of a Hungarian national identity from 1848 to the present can best be understood through the history of symbolic politics. In his view, the nation exists as a form of identity, a cultural and emotional center. The symbolic expression of national consciousness through monuments or cults of personality both defines the nation and creates a reality of its own--for the successful representation of identity produces a lasting conceptual structure that engages the real world of power politics. This perspective builds upon George L. Mosse's The Nationalization of the Masses: Political Symbolism and Mass Movements in Germany (1975). Ger?' is likewise responding to what he terms a "surge in symbolic politics" that followed the collapse of communism in east central Europe (p. xii).
Central to Ger?''s analysis is the idea of the nation-religion. He assumes that symbolic politics represents a secular application of religious practices. Emphasizing the relationship between the nation and religion provides a useful interpretive framework, although analysis of the pairing often remains at the level of metaphor. Ger?' shows how symbolic politics co-opted aspects of religious culture for the benefit of the nation. The cult of Lajos Kossuth, for example, celebrated the revolutionary of 1848 as a national messiah; the executed Hungarian prime minister became a martyr. Hungarian symbolic politics, Ger?' briefly concludes, nationalized the content of the Old Testament especially the notion of a chosen people and a covenant with God. Ger?' occasionally highlights moments in the social history of the relationship between nation and religion, such as the Catholic mass held at the Millennium Monument in Budapest in 1930. More attention to this context would have strengthened the idea of a nation-religion as an analytic tool.
The book more effectively addresses how symbolic politics relates to power politics. Ger?' skillfully sets the history of identity, with its attendant feelings, celebrations, and failed ambitions, in relation to the history of profane power and vested interests. He is concerned with the historical relevance of symbolic concepts. Under the Dual Monarchy, Ger?' argues, symbolic expressions and power politics existed as parallel histories, often in opposition to and denial of each other. In the 1920s, symbolic politics shaped the reality of power politics only to retreat again under communism. In the long run, the "mirage" of identity politics tends to outlast reality (p. 121). According to Ger?', earlier forms of Hungarian identity were "still around, as a mole, sleeping, taking cover, being articulated only in [the] barest outlines" after the Soviet occupation (p. 257). Ger?' intentionally omits national symbols, such as the Hungarian royal crown, that served the interest of the state. Their inclusion might have further complicated this important dynamic. Nevertheless, the interaction Ger?' traces between Realpolitik and the politics of identity provides an intriguing lens for reconceiving the highly debated relationship between ethnocultural and political-legal conceptions of nationhood in Germany.
After a discussion of core concepts, the book briefly surveys how representations of Hungarian national identity compare with the symbolism of related European nationalisms. The chapter is based on a major research project Ger?' directed at the Central European University and references France, Italy, Germany, Austria, Poland, Bohemia, and Croatia. For Ger?', parallels between Germany and Hungary are largely visual, as seen, for example, in the tricolor flags of 1848. He suggests, however, that political circumstances subjected the German nation-religion to an unusually high degree of revision. International comparison convinces Ger?' that the symbolic politics of national identity in Europe show "great variations within the same structure" (p. 30). He compares the symbolic world of national identity to a periodic table in which the preexisting structural spaces receive varying visual political content. Although structuralism facilitates comparison, this approach tends towards homogenizing different forms of nationalism.
Three major dimensions of Hungarian symbolic politics--personalities, events, and spaces--structure the book's core chapters. The chronological focus falls on the years between the Austro-Hungarian Compromise of 1867 and World War I, although some very interesting passages trace how the interwar government of Miklós Horthy and the People's Republic of Hungary exploited inherited national symbols. Kossuth and Ferenc Deák, the author of the Compromise, take center stage among nationalist cults of personality. Some of the most intriguing episodes in this section, however, surround Emperor Francis Joseph. Hungarians longed for a convergence of symbolic and actual power in a patron of the nation-religion, Ger?' argues, a Hungarian Habsburg. Until his death in 1847, Palatine Joseph, a stand-in for the king of Hungary, united in one person national content and political power. While Francis Joseph paid tribute to Hungarian symbolic politics in family, state, and national anniversaries, he could never become the object of the nation-religion. Instead, Ger?' shows, Queen Elisabeth assumed the role, emerging as a national heroine to Hungarians who believed she informally conveyed their interests to her husband.
Anniversaries are the main events Ger?' addresses within Hungarian symbolic politics. He traces how March 15, the day the 1848 Revolution began in Pest, triumphed as the nation's birthday. Significant attention is likewise paid to two anniversaries that fell within a century of each other. In 1896, Hungarians commemorated the arrival a thousand years earlier of the Hungarian tribes in the Carpathian Basin and their subsequent occupation of the homeland. In 2000, the nation feted the pope's coronation of Saint Stephen at Esztergom on Christmas Day in 1000, a date that marked the symbolic foundation of the Hungarian state. With characteristic wit and remarkable detail, Ger?' compares how the dates were set for celebrating these events, the actual proceedings, and the broader political contexts of the anniversaries. If "the king was the protagonist" of the celebrations in 1896, he writes, in 2000-01, "it was the crown without a head" (p. 170). Ger?''s analysis evaluates the earlier anniversary more positively for its more substantial commitment to developing Budapest's architecture and strengthening civil society.
The Millennium Monument is the main national space examined in the book's third section. In admirable detail Ger?' analyzes the three trends that came together in 1896 to produce the so-called altar of the nation: the founding of a capital city, the desire to represent the nation's glory, and artists' actual designs for the statues. As in other chapters, numerous excerpts from primary sources adorn the interpretation, providing a useful resource for English speakers. Ger?' shows how rivalry with Vienna as the imperial capital enabled Budapest to emerge more forcefully as a national center. The Millennium Monument, according to Ger?', served as "an open-air, secular temple, the permanent scene of the practice of the nation-religion" (p. 212). He documents how subsequent Hungarian governments claimed the right to shape the nation-religion at the altar. Even the communist regime endeavored to transform the altar in its own image, holding May Day celebrations there against a backdrop of red drapes and portraits. Activities of the 1930s and early 1940s unfortunately receive short shrift here, as in other sections.
The two concluding chapters explore the transformation of Hungarian symbolic politics into fixed conceptual structures. Ger?' seeks to identify the implications of the nation-religion's successfully proselytizing to converts. The politician and political theorist Istvan Bibó is Ger?''s first case study. Bibó, he argues, translated symbolic politics into a structure of concepts with which to interpret key periods in Hungarian history. His analysis imposed an imagined history onto the real world, resulting in contradictions and an oversimplified past. This note of caution encapsulates an important lesson of the book.
As symbolic politics coalesced into a conceptual structure, its greatest impact, Ger?' suggests, was on Jews. He ends his study by analyzing the extent to which Hungarian Jews could be assimilated into the symbolic constitution of the national consciousness of the late nineteenth century. In his view, a particular Hungarian emphasis on the "conciliation of interests" fostered a belief in the possibility of an indivisible political nation based on freedom (p. 246). Modern antisemitism was supposedly less prominent in Hungary because both the Habsburgs and the state's other nationalities assumed the role of an internal enemy. Nevertheless, Ger?' argues, a conceptual narrowing of the Hungarian national consciousness on racial and ethnic lines produced discriminatory legislation against Jews in the early twentieth century. By the 1930s, a national consciousness based on racialism became official policy and excluded a segment of the Hungarian population from the national community. This development represents an extreme case of the way that Ger?' sees the symbolic world of national consciousness involved in dictating the reality of power politics.
Ger?' offers readers a plausible model of how the nation as an imagined identity engages the real world of politics and history. A sacred aura and the secularized trappings of religion enabled Hungarian national identity to withstand, resist, and eventually persevere over a succession of regimes that sought to co-opt or silence its proponents. This is a "history of identity" rather than a social history, as Ger?' reminds readers (p. 243). Concepts and symbolic practices are its main actors. While illuminating, this perspective also accounts for some of the book's shortcomings. Do religious references alone explain the proselytizing power of national identity among different groups of Christian Hungarians? How did the constituencies amenable to Hungarian national identity develop through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries? As a structural analysis of Hungarian symbolic politics, however, this book successfully achieves the goals it sets for itself. Students of German nationalism will benefit from its example and find a useful reference for the comparative history of identity politics.
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Tuska Benes. Review of Gerï¿½', AndrÃ¡s, Imagined History: Chapters from Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Hungarian Symbolic Politics.
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