National Cliches

I was reading one of the Sueddeutsche books at lunch, and one of the characters, a Dutchman as it happens, casually drops into the conversation, “Poland has not yet perished.” It’s the opening line of the Polish national anthem, and one of those catchphrases of the culture, a hoary cliche, but one that despite everything still touches hearts.

I could think of one other for a European nation, “Happy is he who can say I am a Turk.” As much as the Polish phrase was a reaction to Partition in the 18th century, the Turkish phrase was a deliberate program from Ataturk, part of the whole effort to transfer loyalty from the Ottoman nstate to the Turkish.

The Germans might once have had one, but haven’t since 1945.

And of course there’s “God bless America.” Once a fervent and perhaps fragile hope, it has been misused by GWB&Co, turned into something of a command. Sets my teeth on edge.

Anyway, I was wondering how many of these national touchstones I’ve been completely ignorant about, lo these many years. What others are out there?

This entry was posted in A Fistful Of Euros, Culture and tagged by Doug Merrill. Bookmark the permalink.

About Doug Merrill

Freelance journalist based in Tbilisi, following stints in Atlanta, Budapest, Munich, Warsaw and Washington. Worked for a German think tank, discovered it was incompatible with repaying US student loans. Spent two years in financial markets. Bicycled from Vilnius to Tallinn. Climbed highest mountains in two Alpine countries (the easy ones, though). American center-left, with strong yellow dog tendencies. Arrived in the Caucasus two weeks before its latest war.

22 thoughts on “National Cliches

  1. “Tu felix austria nube” or complete and translated: “Let other nations wage war, you, blissful austria marry”

    (I’m not sure about the translation of “felix” though

  2. Happy is usual in the context …

    S’funny, Doug, National Anthems was one of the topics I played around with on my very recent first shot at Blogging. It’s striking how invasion and revolution figure so prominently. Seems like the nation really did emerge at the end of the 18th Century, except in England. There’s a very interesting theory on English specificity, by Liah Greenfield here: )

    Most European anthems have a romantic fervour.

    We knew thee of old,
    Oh, divinely restored,
    By the lights of thine eyes,
    And the light of thy Sword,
    From the graves of our slain,
    Shall thy valour prevail,
    As we greet thee again-
    Hail, Liberty! Hail!

    Guess ?

  3. *slaps head* Yes, now I remember that one about Austria.

    Would have guessed Greece, and Google confirms. Tip was “divinely restored”. The list of restored nations is surprisingly short. (Or maybe it’s just that the list of restored nations I can think of is short…) Is there a Greek catchphrase?

  4. In a sense, ?restored? nations are characteristic of decayed multinational empires like those of the Ottomans or the Austrians. But they were of course reinvented from scratch in the process. The first revolutionary Greek constitution defined a Greek as he who believes in Christ and lives in Greece; which left the borders undefined.

    The happy Turk is from a poem that inspired Attaturk. Don?t know about Greece but there?s always ?Impossible n?est pas Francais’.

  5. Sinne Fianna F?il
    A t? f? gheall ag ?irinn,

    We are the soldiers of destiny
    Our soul is pledged to Ireland

    I don’t think we actually walk around with such grandiose notions in our head, but there is the problem that in our de facto one-party state, the name of that party is Fianna Fail, the soldiers of destiny. So it’s symbolic of their lock on power that we have to listen to their name even in the anthem.

  6. The former Dutch national anthem (1815-1932) started with:

    “Wien Ne?rlandsch bloed door d’aadren vloeit,
    van vreemde smetten vrij…”

    He who has Dutch blood in his veins,
    free of foreign impurities…

    In 1932, it was replaced by the Wilhelmus, a medieval 15-stanza ode to William the Silent, founder of the Dutch Republic. The music of the Wilhelmus had always been very popular with the Dutch people and queen Wilhelmina always had it play together with “Wien Ne?rlandsch bloed”.

  7. The Fifa World Cup site ( has some National “Motto”-s.

    Here are a few interesting ones:

    “It is Austria’s destiny to rule the whole world” or “All the earth is subject to Austria” (“Austria Est Imperare Orbi Universo” -A.E.I.O.U- or “Alles Erdreich Ist ?sterreich Untertan”). Austrian emperor’s motto

    Liberty or death. My strength is the love of my people.

    Not all on mottos the site are nationalistic though (see Turkey or Brazil).

    Israel have one similar to restoration:
    Resurrection (official motto).

  8. It seems most of the more colorful ones belong to earlier generations, and to find them, you must look to states no longer sovereign:

    Like Scotland: “No one injures me with impunity.”

  9. I found this on a site devoted to teaching people how harmful national stereotypes are…

    ” Heaven is where the police are British, the cooks are French, the mechanics are German, the lovers are Italian and it is all organised by the Swiss. Hell is where the police are German, the cooks are English, the mechanics are French, the lovers are Swiss, and it is all organised by the Italians “.

  10. Once a fervent and perhaps fragile hopeWhen? Kate Smith was belting out the march-like pseudo-anthem “God Bless America” more than sixty years ago. There was nothing fragile about that.

  11. Believe it or not I had not heard of Kipling’s translation of the Greek National anthem, before this thread. It’s quite a loose translation. In fact the only verbatim translation of a line is “Hail! Liberty, Hail!”… “devinely restored” is neither mentioned nor implied (although references are made to past glories to be repeated).

    In Greece, “Liberty or Death” is standard – “Hellas never dies” also. Now that I think about it there is no shortage of similar slogans – and the fact that nationalists and downright facists were running Greece after the war and before 1974 (including a military Junta under which nationalist Kitsch reached unheard of heights) might have something to do with it. However the slogan that captures the nationalist spirit is “Hellas is a brotherless nation”…

    Bardhi: “My strength is the love of my people” was the ex-royal family’s motto. I can’t seem to find it at the yahoo site, do you have a direct link?

  12. guess this one

    ?Oid mortales! el grito sagrado
    ?Libertad, Libertad, Libertad!
    Oid el ruido de rotas cadenas
    Ved en trono a la noble Igualdad.

    Mortals! Hear the sacred cry;
    Freedom! Freedom! Freedom!
    Hear the noise of broken chains.

  13. “Extra Bavariam
    non est vita,
    et si est vita,
    non est ita”

    my lose translation:
    “There is no life outside Bavaria. And if there is life, it’s boring in comparison”.

    Nowadays, Bavarians don’t aggrandize their nation in latin anymore, of course. Being the modern people they are, they prefer English (of a kind):

    “it?s nice to be a preiss,
    but it`s higher to be a bayer”

  14. George W. Bush has brought freedom to twenty five million Iraqis and the prospect of democracy to many other Arab countries. That you dishonor his and his country’s achievments speaks only to your misguided belief that Europe should stay out of international efforts to make the world a safer place. God Bless America is certainly on the minds of many Iraqis and now the Lebanese. I suspect that if you knew your own history better, you would also be singing God Bless America on this wonderful 4th of July birthday celebration of the United States of America.

    God Bless America!

  15. Ray, you have no idea how much American history I know. But as for the misuse of the phrase by Bush and his supporters, you have provided another example, and for that I thank you.

  16. Doug,

    It is your own history where your knowledge fails you. Was it your parents or your grandparents that had their ass saved by the Americans? What have you or your country done lately to remove the terrorist threat? Capitulate? Is your last name Petain, Chamberlain, Runanhyde?

    Such ingrates.

  17. “Was it your parents or your grandparents that had their ass saved by the Americans?”

    Ray, Doug is American.

  18. “Ray, Doug is American”.

    As, incidentally, was I at the time of my birth. My father hadn’t gotten round to un-doing his recently acquired US citizenship when I was born.

    However I have never set foot in the place, so I am American by birth, but not by culture. Although all this nationalism stuff personally turns me off completely.

  19. Doug-

    You’ve twice mentioned now how Bush has “misused” the phrase “God Bless America.” How so?

    He has finished speeches with the phrase, but haven’t many/most Presidents done so? Isn’t that part of why it’s a national motto in the first place? Do you think that Bush is being insincere and doesn’t really wish God to bless America?

    And, IIRC, he typically uses the phrase, “May God Bless America,” which, again, is customary, and I fail to see how he is using it as any more of a “command” than others before him have.

    I’m happy to join you in finding fault with some of his policies, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into a “misuse” of the phrase. If you have a specific example of how Bush has misused the phrase “God Bless America,” I’d be interested to hear of it.

    Thank you.

  20. I think there’s a bit of confusion here between the use of the phrase “God bless America” and the song “God Bless America”. The song’s words express hope in a time of darkness:

    God Bless America
    Land that I love
    Stand beside her
    And guide her
    Through the night
    With a light from above

    Yes, this song was an inspiration in the dark days that followed 9/11. But now it is a bit overused. Must it be played at every sporting event we attend? Its inspiration comes from being heard at those special moments.

    As for touchstone songs for the US, there are others, “My Country Tis of Thee” (aka America)and “America the Beautiful” to name a couple. Of course if you want to get a Texan moving, just drop the line, “The stars at night…”

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