National Anthems – Strongly Symbolic or Offensively Outdated?

Hours after the sound of bullets echoed around Paris, the sound of the French National Anthem echoed around the world. La Marseillaise was sung proudly in New York’s Union Square, in front of the French Embassy in Canada and at Martin Place in Sydney, the tones of international unity and unequivocal support drowning the brutal sound of gunfire. Yet almost instantly, controversy was aroused over this seemingly harmless demonstration of defiance as the reality of the anthem’s striking lyrics were realised.

La Marseillaise was first sung by forces marching on Paris during the French Revolution in 1792 and subsequently is, first and foremost, a revolutionary war song. The words talk of calling soldiers to arms, of cutting the throats of the opposition and letting impure blood water French fields. With this lyrical brutality it is hardly surprising that singing this anthem as a supposed condemnation of violence and slaughter has become an issue of debate over its ultimate hypocrisy.

“La Marseillaise … is first and foremost a revolutionary war song”

One writer for The Independent made the fierce statement asserting that the chorus of La Marseillaise could almost pass for the kind of rhetoric associated with an ISIS public broadcast. It is indeed calling for further bloodshed and greater violence, and in light of recent events the insensitivity of these lyrics is undeniable. The anthem also succeeds in conjuring criticism over its message to refugees – condemning them as impure and calling for war in order to fight against them – and given the current crisis this could be potentially perceived as racist and xenophobic.

However, at Wembley stadium on Tuesday night, the crowd adorned with red white and blue, liberté égalité fraternité embellished across banners and signs, there was an atmosphere of unity and inclusivity. There was an oneness that yearned for every single person in that stadium to sing La Marseillaise in triumphant defiance of an attack that had stunned the world. The literal meanings of the lyrics were consequently immaterial in the face of the stark solidarity that the rendition evoked.

“The truth of the matter is that national anthems are not about the lyrics … It’s about the symbolism and what the anthem represents”

Very few people would refuse to sing our national anthem out of principle; the patriotism that is expressed through chanting these lyrics is near-impossible to achieve through any other method. Furthermore, national anthems are almost exclusively songs written centuries ago who’s meaning and significance changes over time. God Save the Queen dates back to the mid-eighteenth century when the monarch had absolute power, yet it remains our anthem to this day despite the crown now occupying a virtually symbolic position.

The truth of the matter is that national anthems are not about the lyrics. The words aren’t what unite a stadium of people, or a city, or the entire world in the face of such a horrific attack. It’s about the symbolism and what the anthem represents. Yes, they are outdated, sometimes offensive, sometimes inappropriate, but this is irrelevant – what the anthem achieves is far more important. In the face of atrocity, tragedy and grief, the song unites, it inspires hope, it dispels feelings of isolation and desertion. Over the past week La Marseillaise has brought people together and provided a common outlet for us to express our defiance and undeterred strength in the face of such evil, and it should continue to do so with pride.

Laura Hanton

Image by Ivo Jansch on Flickr

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3 Comments on this post.
  • Will
    26 November 2015 at 20:37
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    15 The Crescent

  • Will
    26 November 2015 at 20:39
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    A really good article! One thing though, and I really don’t want to be ‘that guy’… but it’s not true to say that we had an absolute Monarch in the 18th century – the slide from Crown to Parliament was already pretty advanced at that point.

  • Alex Marshall
    27 November 2015 at 11:06
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    Great to see someone getting the importance of anthems in a university given it’s a subject no one touches on in academia and I’d love more people to. One thing, though -very few of these songs are hundreds of years old (the music may be, but they became anthems really recently, as you rightly said politicians picking and choosing them when it best suits them). You might be interested in my book on them called, Republic or Death! I hope if you see it you go and do some actually good work about them!

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