Heroes and Victims, Bodies and Burials: Remembering the Dead in Poland, Hungary, and Romania

AHA Session 129
Society for Austrian and Habsburg History 4
Saturday, January 8, 2011: 9:00 AM-11:00 AM
Grand Ballroom Salon D (Marriott Boston Copley Place)
Bonnie G. Smith, Rutgers University-New Brunswick
Mary D. Lewis, Harvard University

Session Abstract

What role did dead bodies, funeral rites and commemorations play in
the creation of national or political narratives in Eastern Europe?
Who and on what authority spoke for the dead? What made their message
convincing? Were the dead compliant partners in this process or did
they resist becoming a sounding board for messages they would
not have endorsed? If resistance took place, what made it possible?
The panel examines these questions through case studies from Eastern
Europe from the nineteenth century to the present. The case
studies range from the reburial of „Polish national bards“ and
national heroes at the traditional burial site of the Polish royal
family (1817-1935) through the development of secular rites in
communist Hungary to the legacy of communist commemorative practices
of the Second World War in post-communist Romania. The authors´
sensibility for the difference between the officially intended meaning
of commemorative and ritual practices and the various meanings they
actually produced connect the papers on an analytical level.

The dead can become powerful allies (or, just as easily,
enemies) of political movements and regimes. Funerary rites as well as
commemorations channel the power of the dead by connecting past and
present, the eternal and the particular, the transcendent and the
manifested. The ritual realm is a creative space. From it could arise
the construct of a linear Polish national history from the monarchs of
the Middle Ages to the military heroes of the interwar period as well
as a narrative of Romania´s victimhood in the Second World War. Yet
the ritual realm is also a competitive space. Zoltan Kodaly, for
example, asserted his own religious conviction in communist Hungary by
requesting a religious funeral rite rather than an atheistic state
funeral, thereby also contesting the role assigned to him in the
culture-political narrative. In Romania a great variety of local
commemorative practices arose around the Second World War despite the
clear directives of the communist party, challenging and modifying the
official historical narrative endorsed and propagated by the state.

The three papers in this panel, all excerpts from recently published
and upcoming book projects, thus thematize and examine the

active „political lives of dead bodies,“ to use Katherine Verdery´s

classic term, at the intersection between rituals, politics and the
creation of historical narratives.

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