Hobsbawm certainly put forward some very convincing arguments that the great majority of the events and practices that are now thought of as being long standing traditions are in fact invented or manufactured. Hobsbawm starts with the astute contention that traditions are usually generated in two ways, officially and unofficially. The official fabrication of traditions he terms ‘political’, whilst the unofficial invention is deemed to be ‘social’. He also argues that traditions have been invented for thousands of years, yet increased significantly in the four or five decades before the First World War began.1 Hobsbawm believes the explanation for the increase in the invention of traditions at the nineteenth century was related to the rise of nationalism and the emergence of new states in Europe, Germany after 1871 being the most obvious example. The Imperial German government was particularly keen in promoting officially invented traditions to boost nationalist pride.
Another country whose government set about the official whole sale invention of traditions was Italy, mainly to overcome the divisions between the largely urban North and the agrarian South. The Roman Catholic Church played a prominent role in reinforcing Italian nationalism by preaching unofficial traditions about Italian greatness and loyalty to the royal family. Hobsbawm argues that the increase in the official invention of traditions was an effort to protect the ruling classes and monarchies from the emergence of mass democracy, political liberalism, and the fear of socialism. Once again Germany is the prime example, its government promoted nationalism and the monarchy, whilst its voters favoured the Social Democrats.
The French government also attempted to increase officially invented traditions to restore political stability as well as increase public support for vengeance against Germany in the wake of defeat in the Franco-Prussian war. France took the lead in establishing public ceremonies to promote previously non-existent national traditions, most notably the celebration of Bastille Day after 1880. The Third Republic did this to gain political legitimacy, as former monarchists, and socialists alike disliked it.6 Imperial Germany had less success in inventing public traditions, yet national unity and progress only became threatened towards the end of the First World War.
Although Germany did not have an equivalent of Bastille Day, a great deal of statues was erected to honour the Kaiser and Bismarck for achieving unification.
The German government was more successful in promoting traditions of Prussian and German military prowess, symbolised by a hatred of France and schoolboy military cadets. The USA had to officially invent national traditions, as there was very little common identities between the millions of immigrants who had settled there. A sense of Americanism was established by building up traditions such as the July 4th celebrations.
The apparent success of inventing traditions in France, Germany, and the USA tempted the Russian and Austro-Hungarian governments to try similar events. Inadvertently the murder of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne would set off the First World War, which destroyed the old European order.
The First World War would help to generate even more invented traditions as well as leading to the Russian revolution. The communist regime in the Soviet Union took the use of propaganda and invented traditions to an extra level, and their strategies were copied and developed further in Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. Even these totalitarian regimes could not totally control their own societies, the Soviet Union rotted away whilst Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany were destroyed by defeat in the Second World War.
Hobsbawm E, (1987) the Age of Empire 1875-1914, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, London
Hobsbawm E, (1994) Age of Extremes, the Short Twentieth Century 1914-1991, Michael Joseph, London
Hobsbawm E, The invention of Tradition
Judt T, (2007) Postwar – A History of Europe since 1945, Penguin, London
Roberts J.M, (1996) A History of Europe, Penguin, London