Review: Transforming National Holidays: Identity Discourse in the West and South Slavic Countries, 1985–2010

This review originally appeared in Discourse and Society 25:5 (2014), 573-5.

Ljiljana Šarić, Karen Gammelgaard and Kjetil Rå Hauge (eds), Transforming National Holidays: Identity Discourse in the West and South Slavic Countries, 1985–2010, Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2013; xiii + 314 pp., €99.00 (hbk).

Annual commemorative holidays are a distinctive form of national symbol. Like flags, anthems, monuments and museums, they belong to a set of techniques, originating in the French Revolution, that simultaneously communicate the unique past of a nation and demonstrate that the nation is a nation like any other. Where they differ from most other kinds of national symbols is in how they are constituted. Between the yearly recurrences of a national holiday, it has no existence in and of itself; even though its preparations and celebrations involve other, material artefacts of the nation, the national day itself is produced anew by human action. If a national holiday can be said to exist through the rest of the year, it does so in memory. Perhaps more than any other national symbol, the authors and editors of this book suggest the national holiday is brought to life through human interaction, and therefore through discourse.

Transforming National Holidays collects 12 case studies from West and South Slavic nation-states which investigate elite discourses around national holidays during a period when the meaning of the political community in each country came under severe scrutiny: the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe and the breakdown of the Czechoslovak and Yugoslav federations into nation-states. The political speeches, newspaper commentaries and religious homilies that contributors to the volume analyse showcase all four strategies in Ruth Wodak’s framework for the discursive construction of national identities: the constructive, the justificatory, the transformative and the destructive. Examples are drawn from Serbia, Bulgaria, Montenegro, Macedonia, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia (two chapters) and Poland (three chapters), with one of the chapters on Poland also taking in some German and Russian discourses about the commemoration of the 1944 Warsaw Uprising. There is thus the potential for tightly-drawn comparisons between the national identity discourses of these nation-states.

The methodological approaches of the collection are, within the field of discourse analysis, diverse. Some chapters specifically employ Critical Discourse Analysis; others focus on genre analysis, strategies of legitimisation, or Kenneth Burke’s discourse typology of act, scene, agent, agency and purpose; and others emphasise the semiotics of collective memory, with particular reference to Aleida Assmann’s writing on societies coming to terms with a traumatic past. Many chapters also relate their findings to the interdisciplinary study of nationalism, particularly the work of Michael Billig on the ‘banalisation’ of national symbols and of Jon Fox and Cynthia Miller-Idriss on the everyday construction of nationhood. Although the methods and analytical scales of the chapters may differ somewhat, all chapters agree on the significance of ‘underlying events’ (p. 26) – the moment in the past that a holiday commemorates – to the discourses that emerge around national days. These events can be re-injected into memory, downplayed in significance or dramatically altered in meaning, as the constellation of political systems and power relationships goes through contestation in the present. With the fall of Communism, some Communist holidays ceased to be celebrated but others remained as part of the continuity of the nation; certain holidays discarded by Communist authorities were recovered; and it is not uncommon for one calendar day to have acquired several past and present reasons for celebration, which, in certain cases, are mutually incompatible. In one case, Bosnia-Herzegovina, so little consensus on national days has been achieved since the Dayton Peace Agreement of 1995 that one can question whether a national community exists at all.

Each chapter presents detailed and valuable findings about its chosen country. The time frames of the chapters differ somewhat: rather than taking every case study all the way from 1985 to 2010, some of them (such as Ljiljana Šarić on Croatia or Karen Gammelgaard on Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic) follow a national holiday from late Communism to the present day, while others (such as Tatjana Radanović Felberg on Montenegro or Ljiljana Šarić on Serbia) begin after a more recent political rupture (Montenegro’s declaration of independence in 2006, or the aftermath of the fall of Slobodan Milošević in the early 2000s in Serbia, for example). They also differ in the range of discourses they study. Some are tightly focused on the discourses of a particular politician or newspaper, while others contrast a greater number of competing discourses and put more emphasis on contestation than discursive affirmation. All, however, succeed in giving a flavour of the discursive politics of commemoration in the country at hand.

A limitation of the collection is perhaps that not every chapter pushes its conclusions as far as they might go. Some, such as Vjeran Pavlaković’s chapter on Croatia, conclude by opening up many broad points, but others are far more limited in scope. The case studies also have potential commonalities and differences which the structure of the volume prevents the authors from exploring in depth. An example of this emerges from reading the chapter on Serbia together with the chapter on Bulgaria. Political culture in contemporary Serbia contains a frequently-reiterated binary between sets of discourses that this chapter refers to (following Filip Ejdus) as the ‘civic-democratic’ and ‘national-liberation’ models (p. 41). Could it be that the decision to mark Army Day on the same day as the commemoration of the Sretenje Constitution of 15 February 1835 directly brings together these two models and attempts to enable enough consensus for the Serbian nation to exist as a political community, even though the beliefs behind the two models are different? In parallel to this, the chapter on Bulgaria refers to ‘an argument over commemoration of insurgency versus commemoration of legitimization’ (p. 58, original emphasis) that has determined the relative success of commemorations of national uprisings as against the commemoration of the 1878 Treaty of San Stefano, a diplomatic instrument that created a Greater Bulgaria with Russian influence. Can this be compared to the ‘two Serbias’ problem in Serbian national discourses – and is this a phenomenon of south-east European nationalisms in particular, with their specific history of wars of liberation against the Ottoman Empire, or can anything comparable be observed in the West Slavic case studies? The volume would undoubtedly have benefited from a conclusion that was able to synthesise issues such as these.

This is nonetheless a useful volume. Some previous knowledge of the national histories involved will help the reader to grasp the full significance of the details provided in the empirical material, although enough historical background is presented in the chapters for them to be intelligible without this. Linguists in Slavonic studies and scholars of post-socialism will particularly appreciate this book.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s