Why national anthems cause so much trouble

Calm down now. EPA

Canadian MPs have voted in favour of making their country’s national anthem, O Canada, gender neutral, replacing the words “in all thy sons command” with “in all of us command”. Far from an ugly fight over national identity, the motion passed without much acrimony, and lawmakers followed it by standing and singing the amended anthem in both national languages.

But not all countries have such an easy time with their anthems. Some ban awkward verses, some glue different songs together, and some think it wiser not to provide lyrics of any kind.

It wasn’t meant to be this way. National anthems first became popular in Europe during the 18th century, with famous composers including Haydn (Germany) and perhaps Mozart (Austria) sometimes providing the music. It has been argued that these “core” countries of the global order are more likely than peripheral ones to have anthems with a basic, rather than embellished, musical syntax. And while the genre has now spread around the world, all anthems are not created equal.

Only in some countries are anthems regularly played and heard outside major sports events; most people in the world have to wait for an international clash to hear their national songs sung, and for others to listen.

The genre has its conventions, and some themes feature particularly strongly. Plenty of anthems refer to former battles – few more aggressively than France’s La Marseillaise, which asks citizens to take up arms, form battalions and march forth until “an impure blood waters our furrows”. Others, such as the UK’s God Save the Queen (or King), salute national leaders. In North Korea, the official anthem, Aegukka, has been replaced domestically at least since the 1980s by songs written to praise former leaders Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il.

The greatest number of anthems, however, celebrate the nation as a physical entity, focusing on the national landscape. Croatians celebrate their “beautiful homeland”, Danes their “lovely land” and Swedes the “loveliest land on earth”. Even at a sub-national level, the anthem of Cape Breton in Canada is a paean to landscape, identifying both the land itself and also its people as “an island, a rock in the stream”.

But even if they stay on these relatively reliable themes, some countries’ anthems struggle either to accommodate or ignore their countries’ struggles with language and identity politics.

Who are we?

The lyrics of the German and Russian anthems evolved to reflect the upheavals of the 20th century. Switzerland has struggled to incorporate its four national languages. The current South African anthem is essentially a merger of Die Stem van Suid-Afrika (The Call of South Africa), the anthem of the apartheid era, and Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika (God Bless Africa), formerly used an expression of political defiance. The lyrics now incorporate five of the country’s 11 official tongues.

And even having a national anthem without words can cause problems: Spain’s Marcha Real (Royal March) is one of only four anthems to have no official lyrics, the others being those of San Marino, Kosovo, and Bosnia and Herzogovina. This has not stopped football fans of Athletic Bilbao and Barcelona CF drowning out the music before Spanish Cup Finals in order to assert their Basque and Catalan identities respectively. (The alternative is to sing along in wordless syllables.)

The UK and Ireland have a political minefield of their own to navigate. Scotland (Flower of Scotland) and Wales (Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau, or Land of My Fathers) use their own anthems before football and rugby international matches. England, on the other hand, uses God Save the Queen – though a recent challenge in parliament tried to start the process of choosing an England-specific anthem.

More contentiously still, the Irish Football Association, which governs the game in Northern Ireland, also uses the UK anthem – regardless of the fact that some of the national team’s players have a constitutional right to self-identify as Irish rather than British.

A similar problem has been partially addressed by the Irish Rugby Football Union, which presides over a national team made up of players from both the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland. The result is that at international matches played in Dublin, the anthem of the Republic, Amhrán na bhFiann (The Soldiers’ Song) precedes Ireland’s Call, a song which refers to the four proud provinces of Ireland and was composed specially for the purpose of acknowledging the contribution of players from Northern Ireland.

All these problems are compounded by the fact that, as a consequence of sport labour migration, many national teams increasingly include athletes who were not born or did not even grow up in their adopted sporting nations. As fans sing lustily, they may occasionally notice that not all of their representatives are joining in: the Swiss squad selected for the 2016 European football championship included players born in Ivory Coast, Cape Verde, Germany and the former Yugoslavia.

Given the increasing complexity of national identities and affiliations in a globalised world, it’s difficult to say what relevance many of these songs actually have other than for nationalists, including the extreme xenophobic variety. Canadians seem to have decided that changing the words of their anthem says something about their country – but in many other places it just isn’t that simple.

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