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‘The world is made of stories, not atoms’ – Muriel Rukeyser
The role played by anniversaries and national commemorative days in the construction of national narratives can often be overlooked or taken for granted in the study of political legitimacy. Often expressed in relation to past conflict or collective trauma, many historians assert that national commemorations provide both an outlet for grief as well as always being political. This has led to many critical political theorists to conclude that history is an inherently political form of knowledge. What mainstream history overlooks in this respect is the reality that such ‘knowledge’ is itself ‘situated’. That is, knowledge always articulates ‘the perspectives of certain cultures, thereby marginalising others’. Following from such framework, this essay will seek to evalute the role that national commemorative days play in the construction and contestation of national narratives. By using the theoretical lenses of Benedict Anderson’s conception of nations as ‘Imagined Communities’ and Homi Bhabha’s notion of historical narratives, this essay will use the case studies of Russia, Northern Ireland, and Australia, to offer a comparative perspective on the narrative power embodied in national days of commemoration.
A clear correlation between national commemorative days and the construction of national narratives can be exemplified in Russia’s annual Victory Day celebrations. The Victory Day celebrations which commemorate the defeat of Nazi Germany in the Second World War have cast a long shadow in Russian historical narrative, consistently being the country’s most emotional national events since 1945. Recently the 70th anniversary in 2015 was among the biggest ever seen. The event boasted over 16,000 soldiers, 200 armoured vehicles and around 150 planes and helicopters showing off various elaborate military manoeuvres. Given the sheer scale of the event, the annual commemoration has become a point of particular interest in President Putin’s perceived use of this history for its political value. The history surrounding the events of the Second World War, as with most nations, is heavily politicised in Russia. While the commemoration of the Russian peoples’ sacrifice in the Second World War is undoubtedly justified given the loss of over 26 million people, the political purpose of this commemoration demands further attention. The increasingly large performances of military strength which have come to characterise Victory Day commemorations, are most obviously at odds with the way WWII is commemorated in most other nations. To this end, it is worth noting that Russian accounts of the twentieth century differ somewhat from those in most of the West and central European nations. For example, the First and Second World War, although linked, are commonly depicted as two separate conflicts throughout most of the world. In the Russian narrative however, they are coalesced into the ‘Great Patriotic War’ from 1914-1945. While the Victory Day Commemorations were initially banned by Stalin in 1948 they have been a constant since their reintroduction 1965. Despite being a long standing tradition, the day has taken on a transformed meaning in recent years. This is a result of President Putin’s reimaging of the Nazi surrender as a ‘victory for the Russian People’, as opposed to its previous conception as a victory for the Soviet Union. This symbolic reference to past Russian victory serves a political role of reimagining a continuity between Russia’s current regime and the long and proud history of Russian strength. Such conclusions are supported by similar observations made by Andrei Kolesnikov, chair of the Carnegie Moscow Centre, who asserts that;
The regime claims to be the direct successor of all Russia’s glorious victories, chief among them the defeat of Nazism in the Great Patriotic War of 1941–1945, and thereby makes itself immune to criticism.
As such, the Victory Day commemorations are not simply the honouring of those who gave their lives. The national day is apolitical tool used in the construction and reproduction of Russia’s national narrative in the present. In this way the 70th anniversary of the Victory Day in 2015 can be seen to support Homi Bahbah’s conception of nationhood being situated within a defined historical narrative. This narrative is of such great importance that the Russian government has been quick to silence any dissenting voices which undermine the event. In the words of Maria Zakharova, the spokesperson for the Russian Foreign Ministry, ‘It is particularly important to preserve this memory today in an atmosphere where some countries attempt to falsify history, revise the causes and results of World War II, and demolish monuments erected in honour of those who gave their lives for the victory over Nazism’. The impact of this commemoration therefore goes far beyond mere symbolism and superficial identity politics. This nationalist depiction of the Second world War has even been seen by some as one of the primary pretext employed during the annexation of Crimea in 2014. Furthermore, opinion polls taken in 2015 indicated that 90% of Russians are prepared to face the possibility of nuclear war. Perhaps more alarming is the observation that while 57% of older Russians say that such a war is undesirable, 40% of younger people who have grown up with these commemorations are convinced that Russia would defeat both America and NATO. As such, the national commemoration of Victory Day is seen as a performance of political legitimacy, which serves to perpetuate a historical narrative in the present.
National commemorative days also play an important role in various conceptions of nationhood which take place after instances of revolution or uprising. When a society moves out of a period of inter-community conflict, political attention often turns to questions of how that violent past is to be represented. This dilemma is perhaps best illustrated by the paradox of competing national narratives in Northern Ireland today. As with all contexts of divided societies, the formation of identity is of particular importance to the construction of national narratives as well as the legitimacy and identity that form from them. Despite the fact that The Troubles in Northern Ireland officially ended 21 years ago, conflicting narratives of polarising enmity continue to characterise relations between the two communities. Nowhere is this more evident than the tensions that arose in respect to the centenary commemorations of both the Easter Rising and the Battle of the Somme in 2016. The tension between the two communities came from the contrasting depiction of these two events as markers in their respective national narratives. For both communities, attempts to harmonise these narratives through a mutual commemoration of both, generated a series of inevitable political clashes during the centenary commemorations in 2016. As historian Graham Dawson noted;
In Northern Ireland: Reality is constructed differently…Here, grief and mourning, as well as politics, have been split in two, polarized across the axis of violence. Reflecting this, the two cultures of commemoration on either side of the divide have been formed in a relation of antagonism; each angling its own display in opposition to those of the other; each articulating a partial and highly selective narrative focused on what the other side of have done to us, what we have suffered and how our people have fought back.
Specifically, The Battle of the Somme is of great significance to Protestant-Loyalist communities in Northern Ireland. Commemoration of the battle allows them to construct their identities within the performance of Remembrance Day, through which they claim a stringer sense of Britishness. The Easter Rising on the other hand, is for Republicans a defining and somewhat mythical event in their national narrative. The Rising is viewed by Republicans as the catalyst for Irelands independent after centuries of unjust victimisation under British rule. However, the issue brought to the fore in 2016 was the way in which these narratives were constructed in total opposition to each other. For Loyalists, the Easter Rising is viewed as a cowardly act of rebellion which took place while the British empires was preoccupied ‘fighting for European freedom.’ Such perspectives have been best articulated by impassioned unionist politician Jeffrey Donaldson, who remarked in regard to the commemoration of the Rising in 2016, that ‘when people walk in and shoot a policeman in a police station, whether it was in 1916 or in 2016, it’s wrong, it’s immoral. You do not glorify those acts.’ Conversely, Republicans take pride in their absence from the Battle of the Somme. This is seen in the fact that for years republicans refused to participate in any commemorations of the First World War, a notion embodied in a prominent Belfast mural, which states that ‘republicans fought for neither King nor Kaiser.’ Thus, these two mutually exclusive narratives of the events which took place over a hundred years ago emphasise the importance of such commemorations in the construction of national narratives. As Chris Brown has noted, identity necessarily relies on an element of negation. For Brown, identity of individuals and nations alike is clearly seen to depend not only on ‘what you are’ but also more importantly on ‘what you are not’. Because each event gained meaning, at least in part because of the other, the respective identities of Protestant-Loyalist and Catholic-Republican communities continue to orient themselves primarily in their contrasting relationship to one another. Therefore, Brown’s theory of identity formation seems consistent. As these national narratives are solidified through denunciations of each other, the paradox at the heart of commemorative days in Northern Ireland highlight how concepts of the Other play an undeniable role in constructing the concept of an Us.
In a somewhat different case to the previous two cases, Australia Day has become the focal point of debates over indigenous recognition and inherent contestation over Australia’s narrative in recent years. Celebrated on the 26th of January, Australia Day is synonymous with the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788. Specifically, the day is synonymous with the landing of Captain James Cook, marking Australia as a British Colony. Notably, common conceptions of Australia Day doe not commemorate military victory or trauma in any formal sense, however, for many Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander people it represents exactly that. For some Indigenous Australians, the 26th of January is a date which marks the loss of their land, people and culture. The 2018 campaign to ‘change the date’ brought these long-standing issues to the fore of Australia politics. Since the 1980s, the revision of Australia’s colonial history has proved a divisive topic for politicians and professional historians alike. The highly charged nature of these debates has culminated in what have become known as the ‘History Wars’. These primarily academic debates concern the issue of Aboriginal dispossession and instances of frontier violence. The debates necessarily lead to questions of how this reflected on the common Australian conception of the nation. W.E.H. Stanner’s 1968 lectures were a primary player in these debates, arguing that with regard to victimisation of Australia’s first people there was a ‘cult of forgetfulness practised on a national scale’. As a commemorative day inherently linked to this debate, Australia Day has become the main site of this controversy in recent years. As such it is clear that Australia day holds many different meanings for many different people. In such light, the national narrative constructed around Australia Day can be seen as an example of Benedict Anderson’s conception of the nation being an ‘imagined community’. The controversy over the campaign to change the date is essentially a clash between two different conceptions of Australian nationhood. How these different nations are imagined also highlights who people perceive as part of that community and how they fit into that national narrative. Campaigns to change the date of Australia Day are not troubling because of any practical reason, it is because they directly challenge the national myth of peaceful settlement in Australia. As controversial Australian historian Keith Windschuttle recognised in his work ‘The Fabrication of Aboriginal History‘;
The debate over Aboriginal history goes far beyond its ostensible subject: it is about the character of the nation and, ultimately, the calibre of the civilisation Britain brought to these shores in 1788.
Essentially, those who support ‘Change the Date’ assert that January 26 is a day marred by the inhuman acts that soon followed. Such a conclusion is supported in the work of Bhabha who argues that a national narrative is a ‘process of fluid, open and contentious public debate,’ where the ‘lines separating we and you, us and them, more often than not rest on unexamined prejudices, ancient battles, and historical injustices.’. To this end the contestation of the Australian national narrative demonstrates how concepts at the core of national commemorative days can also be the battleground for contestation of the narratives they represent.
As has been shown through an examination of various impacts commemorative days have on present political discourse it is clear that history and the past are not the same thing. While basic facts cannot be contested; the First Fleet landed in 1788 and the Easter Rising occurred in 1916, what is often overlooked is that these events take on meaning only through the political discourse of the present. While Russia’s Victory Day celebrations are founded upon the factual event of Nazi Surrender, they are manipulated in the present for distinct political advantage. The case in Northern Ireland highlights how conceptions of ‘Us’ necessarily rely on a counter construction of a ‘Them’. Finally, and perhaps most telling, the ongoing contestation over Australia Day indicates how such commemorations can also become a lightning rod for narratives which undermine the dominant national narratives. What all instances of national commemorations share however is that they all work to enhance and reinforce exclusive group solidarities. Thus, the role of anniversaries and national commemorative days is to a large extent fundamental to the construction and even contestation of national narratives.
- Anderson, Benedict 2006, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, London: Verso Books. (9781844670864)
- Arefin, Abu 2018, ‘Campaign to change the date of Australia Day’, SBS.com, Accessed May 22 2019. <https://www.sbs.com.au/yourlanguage/bangla/en/audiotrack/campaign-change-date-australia-day>
- Bhabha, Homi 1990, Nation and Narration. London: Routledge. (0415014824)
- Brown, Chris. ‘Borders and Identity in International Political Theory’, In Identities, Borders, Orders: Rethinking International Relations Theory, edited Albert Mathias, 117-136. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001.<https://www-jstor-org.proxy.library.adelaide.edu.au/stable/10.5749/j.ctttst8f>
- Coleman, Misha 2018, ‘Change the Date: Why shouldn’t local government act on “Australia Day”?.’ Arena Magazine.com, Accessed 29 May 2019. <https://arena.org.au/change-the-date-by-misha-coleman/>
- Dawson, Graham 2008, Making Peace with the Past? Memories, Trauma and the Irish Troubles, Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press. <http://www.manchesteruniversitypress.co.uk/9780719056727/>.
- Dodson, Patrick 2018, ‘Constitutional Recognition’, International Journal of Applied Psychoanalytic Studies, 15: 124-127. <https://onlinelibrary-wiley-com.proxy.library.adelaide.edu.au/doi/full/10.1002/aps.1574>
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- Harland-Jacobs, Jessica 2016, ‘Ireland in 1916: The Rising, the War and controversial commemorations’, The Conversation, Accessed May 23rd 2019. < https://theconversation.com/ireland-in-1916-the-rising-the-war-and-controversial-commemorations-58121>
- Hancock, Landon 2019, ‘Narratives of Commemoration: Identity, Memory, and Conflict in Northern Ireland 1916–2016’, Peace & Change, Vol.44(2), pp.244-265 <https://onlinelibrary-wiley-com.proxy.library.adelaide.edu.au/doi/full/10.1111/pech.12339>
- Hodge, Nathan 2018, ‘Why this year’s Victory Day parade in Red Square matters’, CNN, Accessed June 2 2019.<https://edition.cnn.com/2018/05/08/europe/putin-netanyahu-victory-day-parade-hodge-intl/index.html>
- Kolesnikov, Andrei 2017, ‘Putin’s Politicization of Soviet History’, Carnegie Moscow Centre, Accessed June 1 2019. <https://carnegie.ru/commentary/73341>
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- Reynolds, Henry 1984, The breaking of the great Australian silence: Aborigines in Australian historiography 1955-1983, London: University of London, Institute of Commonwealth Studies, Australian Studies Centre (0902499386)
- Stanner, W.E.H. 1969. The Boyer Lectures 1968 – After the Dreaming. Sydney, NSW: Australian Broadcasting Commission. Accessed May 28 2019. <https://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/latenightlive/weh-stanner-and-the-great-australian-silence/3143396>
- Anonymous, 2015, ‘Great patriotic war, again; Russia’s Victory Day celebration’, The Economist, Vol.415(8936), pp.43-44. <https://search-proquest-com.proxy.library.adelaide.edu.au/docview/1678086439?accountid=8203&rfr_id=info%3Axri%2Fsid%3Aprimo>
- Windschuttle, Keith 2002, The Fabrication of Aboriginal History, Sydney: Macleay Press. (9781876492199)
- Zolotarev, Vladimir 2015, ‘The Great Patriotic War’, Herald of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Vol.85(3), pp.185-191.<https://link-springer-com.proxy.library.adelaide.edu.au/article/10.1134/S1019331615030041>
 Gearóid O’Tuathail, ‘Understanding critical geopolitics: Geopolitics and risk society’, Journal of Strategic Studies, 22:3 (1999). 108
 Nathan Hodge, ‘Why this year’s Victory Day parade in Red Square matters.’ CNN. Accessed June 2, 2019. https://edition.cnn.com/2018/05/08/europe/putin-netanyahu-victory-day-parade-hodge-intl/index.html
 Marlène Laruelle, Russian nationalism, foreign policy, and identity debates in Putin’s Russia (Stuttgart, Germany: Ibidem-Verlag 2014), 41.
 Vladimir Zolotarev, ‘The Great Patriotic War’, Herald of the Russian Academy of Sciences, 85:3 (2015), 185.
 Zolotarev, ‘The Great Patriotic War’, 185
 Laruelle, Russian nationalism, 43
 CNN, ‘Why this year’s Victory Day parade in Red Square matters.’
 Kolesnikov, ‘Putin’s Politicization of Soviet History’. Carnegie Moscow Centre.
 Homi Bhabha, Nations and Narration (London: Routledge 1990), __
 CNN, ‘Why this year’s Victory Day parade in Red Square matters.’
 The Economist, ‘Great patriotic war, again; Russia’s Victory Day celebration’. 415:8936 (2015), 43-44.
 Jessica Harland-Jacobs, ‘Ireland in 1916: The Rising, the War and controversial commemorations’, The Conversation.com, Accessed May 23, 2019. https://theconversation.com/ireland-in-1916-the-rising-the-war-and-controversial-commemorations-58121
 Graham Dawson, Making Peace with the Past?: Memories, Trauma and the Irish Troubles (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2008), 297.
 Patrick Pinkerton, ‘Resisting Memory: The Politics of Memorialisation in Post-conflict Northern Ireland, The British Journal of Politics and International Relations, 14:1 (2012), 142
 Landon Hancock, ‘Narratives of Commemoration: Identity, Memory, and Conflict in Northern Ireland 1916–2016’, Peace & Change, 44:2 (2019), 257
 Ibid, p.254
 Hancock, ‘Narratives of Commemoration,’ 253.
 Chris Brown, Borders and Identity in International Political Theory, in Identities, Borders, Orders: Rethinking International Relations Theory, ed. Albert Mathias (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001), 129.
 Henry Reynolds, The breaking of the great Australian silence (London: University of London, Institute of Commonwealth Studies, Australian Studies Centre, 1984), 34
 Misha Coleman, ‘Change the Date.’ Arena magazine, Accessed May 29, 2019. https://arena.org.au/change-the-date-by-misha-coleman/
 Abu Arefin, ‘Campaign to change the date of Australia Day.’ SBS, Accessed May 22, 2019. https://www.sbs.com.au/yourlanguage/bangla/en/audiotrack/campaign-change-date-australia-day.
 Neville Meaney, Neville 2001, ‘Britishness and Australian identity: The problem of nationalism in Australian history and historiography’, Australian Historical Studies, 32:116 (2001), 76-77.
 W.E.H. Stanner, ‘The Boyer Lectures 1968 – After the Dreaming’ (Sydney, NSW: Australian Broadcasting Commission) 1969
 Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities (London: Verso Books 2006)
 Keith Windschuttle, The Fabrication of Aboriginal History: Van Diemen’s Land 1803-1847 (Sydney: Macleay Press, 2002), 3
 Bhabha, Nations and Narration (London: Routledge 1990), 178
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