History, Memory and National Identity 


The historian Jacques Le Goff reflected, in assertive fashion, on the relation between history, memory and identity: “Memory is a key element in what is usually called individual or collective identity, the search for which is one of the fundamental activities of the fevered and anguished individuals and societies of today, […]. Memory, where history grows, and in turn nourishes it, tries to save the past to serve the present and the future. We must work to ensure that the collective memory serves to liberate and not to enslave men” (Le Goff, 1984, p. 46-47). Within the process of inscription on memory which, according to Fernando Pessoa, is “conscience inserted in time”, lies the programme of ritualisations of the centenaries of representative figures or events justified, in terms of the civic religiosity of “res publica”, by Teófilo Braga in his work Os Centenários como síntese afectiva nas sociedades modernas (1884), the aim being to weave a public patriotic ethic through ties of affection, conscious stimuli and an altruistic spirit to renew the “social contract”, to which had to be added a “sentimental convergence” between the actions of the present and the symbolic representations of the past, which obviously are generationally subject to reconstruction processes.
 The Great War (1914-1918), which also presented characteristics of a “European civil war” and the “last war of fatherlands”, configured a representative moment of world history with deep political, military, economic, social or cultural consequences, mainly for Europe. It was to open up a long cycle of “permanent warfare” and, in the resilience of the combatants of the various nations, showed three fundamental ethical and political characteristics: (a) some mental normality of the relationship with death (derived from the Early Modern Age); (b) the inculcation of a hierarchy of civic values owing much to physical courage, moral integrity and human solidarity; (c) the affirmation of an ethic of patriotism/nationalism (“religion of the homeland”; “to die for the homeland”), in which the anonymous collective (the “unknown soldiers”) imposed itself on the cult of personality (Vincent, 1991, p. 208). Strong examples of the new identitary patriotic spirit that endure to this day were the pantheonisation in 1921 in Batalha Monastery of two Portuguese unknown soldiers (from Africa and Europe), with the Flame of the Homeland lit since 1924 to this day, the creation of the League of the Great War Combatants, the constitution of the Commission for the Great War Standards or the Commemorations of 9 April 1918/Combatant Day (Battle of La Lys) and of 11 November 1918/ Armistice Day.
 The defence of Portuguese intervention, mirrored in the remarkable war memoirs of the combatants Jaime Cortesão, Augusto Casimiro and João Pina de Morais, included in the cultural and political programme of the “Portuguese Renaissance” movement (set up in Porto in 1912), conveyed images of national identity rooted in double patriotic justification: (a) a political and geostrategic justification, given that Portugal was the natural ally of the Anglo-French demo-liberal bloc against the Caesarist German-Austrian expansionist bloc; and (b) an ethical and cultural justification, to democratically deepen the republican proposal of moral revigoration and national regeneration. Despite the polarised debate in Portuguese politics between “interventionists” (war) and “anti-interventionists” (neutrality) concerning Portugal’s participation in the European front of the Great War, once the German Empire declared war on Portugal (9 March 1916) nationwide there were great political and cultural speeches about the regenerationist opportunity the war might engender, activating the social force that creates peoples and elites.
 In his Memórias da Grande Guerra (1919), Jaime Cortesão spoke of the new awakening of the “genius of the Portuguese people” (1914-1918), which was sometimes revealed in “isolated flashes of lightning”, giving the example of our resistance to the Napoleonic invasions (1808-1812) and to the British «ultimatum» (1890), and the days of the Republican revolution (1910). A strong symbol of national identity the then young National Flag was sacralised by the blood shed by the Portuguese soldiers on the African and European warfronts.

Bibliographical references :
 Afonso, Aniceto e Gomes, Carlos de Matos (coordination), Portugal e a Grande Guerra, 1914-1918, Matosinhos, QuidNovi, 2010.
 Le Goff, Jacques, “Memória”. Translation by Bernardo Leitão and Irene Ferreira, Enciclopédia Einaudi, vol. 1, Lisbon, Imprensa Nacional-Casa da Moeda, 1984, p. 11-50.
 Vincent, Gérard, “Guerras ditas, guerras silenciadas e o enigma da identidade”. Translation by João Barrote, in Ariès, Philippe and Duby, Georges (editor), História da vida privada, vol. 5, Porto, Edições Afrontamento, 1991, p. 201-247.

Ernesto Castro Leal
(Faculdade de Letras / Universidade de Lisboa)


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