Discussion – The Bankruptcy of Imperial Symbols; or, the future of history is in clever marketing – by Richard Scully

It is a little-known fact that when a regime or empire dies, it soon reappears in t-shirt form. I am currently (as I write) wearing one of those generic, long-sleeved t-shirts which have in the last two years become so ubiquitous; the difference is that mine bears the double-headed eagle of Hapsburg Austro-Hungary. I must confess that it was the novelty of the emblem which first prompted me to purchase the top, as I had of late been engaged in a good deal of casual research on both the dynasty which ruled most of Europe’s Danubian lands between the fifteen and twentieth centuries, as well as satisfying a long-standing interest in the role of the Dual Monarchy in the First World War. However, it occurred to me that not all those wearing the mass-produced items of apparel which bore the same crest would necessarily be aware of its original connotations. A case in point was the night my good friend Travis arrived at the party I was attending with a similar shirt on, only this time emblazoned with the eagle of the Hohenzollern German Empire. When I enquired as to where he came across the shirt (as I was keen to complete my Central Powers t-shirt collection), Travis could give me little assistance, and he did in any case seem rather nonplussed by the (by now) rather irritating historian who badgered him for the remainder of the evening with “interesting” facts about the history of Germany between 1871 and 1918.

It seems odd that in this country, in which the mythology of the First World War maintains such a powerful hold on the official imagination, the symbols of the once-despised Hun and his ally should be worn with such impunity. Certainly, the events surrounding Australia’s supposed “coming of age” occurred almost a century ago, but surely someone must have noticed the rather odd heraldic raptors proliferating amoungst the young male fraternity (in whose company I include myself unashamedly). Surely the good proportion of European backpackers who frequent the same watering-holes as those concerned would be aware enough of the anachronistic attachment to the antiquated symbols of absolute or near-absolute monarchies to at least enlighten the wearers a little. Should the Hohenzollern crest reappear on the streets of Berlin or Cologne in such a way there would probably be some form of reaction, at least from the small but committed party of monarchists who still profess allegiance to HRH Prince Georg Friedrich of Prussia. Indeed, in a Germany where the display of the swastika is still punishable with imprisonment, the emblems of the Kaiser’s Reich are often utilised by the new Right as surrogate advertisements for the least tasteful of political beliefs and policies.

It seems even stranger when one considers that the Central Powers are merely the most fashionable in a line of now defunct regimes. In my first years of undergraduate life the most popular hoodies amoung my group of friends were those with “U.S.S.R.” across the breast, never mind that nearly a decade had passed since the break-up of the Cold War iceberg had resulted in a wave of party badges, bearskin hats and aluminium busts of Lenin sweeping through the street markets of trendy eastern-suburbs Melbourne. I recall very vividly the uproar my wearing of one such souvenir caused at my own terribly Catholic secondary school and how my last day of classes that year was spent pleading for it to be returned (consider the ironies of institutionalised theft). Those “U.S.S.R.” hoodies are still around, though the true meaning of them seems to be lost on the current crop of undergraduates and school-leavers. They don’t seem to get the joke that they were first produced as a humorous, historically-inspired reaction against the popularity of the “U.S.A.” hoodies of the late ‘nineties and early twenty-first century…!

I suppose you had to be there…

Perhaps I am concerning myself a little too much that the management of Target haven’t attached a potted history of Bismarckian and Wilhelmine Germany on their sale items, along with the perhaps more essential “Size M/97″ and “Warm machine wash; Do Not Bleach” tags. After all, perhaps it should be taken as an encouraging sign that the oppressive, authoritarian regimes supposedly represented by the eagles and hammers and sickles no longer have the power to terrify everyday men and women as once they did. Even those little lumps of concrete rubble with spray-paint on the smooth side aren’t capable of inspiring terror any more, because they are simply shattered remnants of Khrushchev’s Berlin back fence (though apparently it really had little to do with President Reagan’s pleas to Khrushchev’s successor to tear it down). In a different sense, they have become trophies for the liberal-democratic societies which by-and-large defeated those old empires through successive World and Cold wars (a highly controversial notion in terms of the Soviet experience). Such a display of memorabilia no longer challenges us politically, but simply reaffirms the fact that of all the forms of government and administration, democracy is still only the worst… except for all the other ones.

I find such a conclusion satisfying; however, the historian in me does still get a little annoyed when a company releases what is supposed to be an educational map of the world for children and succeeds in colouring the United Kingdom, Canada, South Africa, India and Australia in the same shade of imperial red, as though all those great historical events commemorated so appropriately on t-shirts and by the peddlers of souvenirs had never taken place! Those parents keen to purchase such a chart should inspect closely the name of the monarch on any coins they hand over…

And that’s another thing…

Richard Scully (School of Historical Studies, Monash University)

More News