Brits in the EU

A View from Europe: The Theft of National Symbols

Adam R. Mathews takes a broad historical perspective to compare a Hungarian national icon with the fate of Britain's poppy.

In May 1809, Napoleon succeeded for the second time where the Ottoman Empire had twice failed, in invading and occupying the city of Vienna. Klemens von Metternich had been Austrian ambassador to Paris when hostilities were renewed that year, and soon found himself under arrest. As they invaded his native lands that spring, the French army took Metternich along to use as collateral in negotiating the release of some of their own diplomats.

Home and freed, the Austrian Emperor wanted Metternich as his new foreign minister. His key task, and first great success, would be to negotiate a détente with France by securing Bonaparte's marriage to the Austrian princess Marie Louise, as opposed to her Russian rival. Yet after Napoleon crossed into Russia three years later, the Austrian Empire saw their chance to join the ultimately successful Sixth Coalition and defeat the husband of the Austrian princess for (almost) the last time.

Although they hadn't met since he was first imprisoned on Elba, Napoleon was still married to Marie Louise when he died in exile on 5th May 1821. Three weeks later, Metternich was Chancellor of Austria, a position he would retain for almost thirty years until the world was turned on its head through the revolutions of 1848.

Discontent that year had first bubbled over in what soon would be Italy; in Milan, boycotts of Austrian produce started on 1st January, while at the other end of the peninsula, the Sicilians overthrew their Bourbon king on the 12th. In February, the French deposed a Bourbon for the second time in 70 years and declared the Second Republic.

By March, revolts had spread to the heart of the Austrian Empire; the Parliament in Vienna forced the resignation of Metternich on the 13th. Shortly afterwards, a speech by Hungarian journalist and politician Lajos Kossuth was read to the masses, and the Viennese were hailing him a hero. Two days later, his own country was up in arms.

The morning of 15th March 1848, crowds gathered at Pest's Vörösmarty Square chanting Sándor Petofi's National Song (Nemzeti Dal). "By the God of the Hungarians, we vow. We vow, that we will be slaves no longer!" And as they left singing, to take up arms against their occupiers, they wore ribbon cockades of green white and red, the Kokárda.

Left: a Hungarian Kokárda. Right: a Royal British Legion poppy

By Autumn the next year, Petofi was dead, Kossuth in exile and the rebellion supressed. For much of the next 150 years foreign powers would dominate Hungary. Over that time, the Kokárda would become the symbol of Hungarian unity and defiance against their occupiers, be they Austrian, German or Russian.

Hungarians find commemorating their defeats gives a certain nobility to their melancholy. Of their three national days, two recall rebellions that turned out to be failures. One is 15th March, the other that great dashed hope at the hands of the Soviets in 1956. The third national day belongs to St Stephen, although in Hungary that day falls on the 20th of August when the snow is neither deep nor crisp and certainly not even.

The day before St Stephen's day 1989, hundreds of East Germans gathered on the Austrian-Hungarian border for the 'Pan-European Picnic', a mass attempt to cross the Iron Curtain. Hungarian border guards did not follow through with their threat to shoot, and effectively opened the border between east and west. Two months later, Berliners tore down the wall that had split their city, weakening the Soviet Union to such an extent that it too soon collapsed.

Suddenly independent, the 1990s brought most Hungarians their first possibilities to travel. Many made their first trip abroad to the shopping malls in Austria; their hunger for western consumer goods meant the new democratic government had to put out adverts telling people how to drive a Trabant with a fridge strapped to the top (carefully). For a people whose national identity had been defined in opposition and supressed for so long, maybe it was only natural that that decade gave the first inkling of a rise in nationalist feelings.

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The Hungarian Referendum
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The Decline of the European Left
Traditional left parties are losing out, but is it all the fault of the far right?

The Left's Resurrection
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That newly released nationalism opened up divisions in Hungarian society that had been papered over by their occupiers. The right and far-right claimed national icons as their own, politicised them, cheapened them as they became identified with a certain ideology. The young Viktor Orbán encouraged true patriots to wear the ribbon every day, turning a symbol which had united Hungarians once a year into a constant sign of division. Soon, left-leaning Hungarians started feeling uncomfortable displaying what they once had worn with pride. Lamenting the Kokárda's loss to a political movement they both despised and feared, they hid their ribbons away in drawers until the day it might become politically acceptable to pin once more to their lapel.


The poppy as a symbol of remembrance goes back to a 1915 poem by a Canadian surgeon at the Second Battle of Ypres. The opening lines, 'in Flanders fields the poppies blow, between the crosses, row on row,' so inspired an American academic doing aid work in New York that, two days before Armistice Day she wrote her own poem in tribute. The author, Moina Michael, also made herself a silk poppy that she pledged to wear every day in remembrance of those who had died in the war. By 1921, her efforts had led the American Legion Auxiliary veterans' association to adopt the poppy as their symbol, thus securing her enduring epithet as the Poppy Lady.

A French woman is credited with bringing the poppy to Britain and presenting one to Douglas Haig. The former Field Marshall then made possibly the most inciteful decision of his career when he ordered 9 million poppies to be sold on Armistice Day, 11th November 1921. They sold out that year, making over Ł100,000 for Douglas Haig's new British Legion Appeal Fund and establishing the well-known relationship between the flower and what would become the Royal British Legion.

Around 11th November every year, people wear poppies across much of the Anglo-Saxon world. But nowhere has the flower taken on the political symbolism that it has in Britain. The far-right group Britain First gained hundreds of thousands of followers on social media by manipulating the poppy into glorifying their hateful ideology. Channel 4 news presenter Jon Snow was complaining about Poppy Fascists a decade ago, but many in Britain still refuse to see the political mud that now stains their beloved poppy.

Every time international matches fall on 11th November, football's governing bodies punish the home nations for displaying political symbols on their shirts, and the papers have a field day. The flower is routinely sown onto the kits of professional football teams, but a sure sign of politicisation comes from the reaction to players who do not wish to wear a poppy, such as the Irish international James McClean. Every year around this time he faces vicious verbal and online abuse. Last Saturday he was pelted by missiles from the crowd while he was playing a Premiership match.

McClean grew up on an estate in Derry where British servicemen killed six residents on Bloody Sunday, 1972. Since the poppy is now associated as much with the armed forces as the British Legion, he has the right to refuse to wear something with which he does not agree. Remembrance is a fundamentally personal matter, and in a democracy, citizens should be able to commemorate the fallen as they choose. Yet often the poppy is now used as a hammer with which to hit those deemed 'unpatriotic' by a mainstream British opinion which has lurched worryingly to the right.

In Budapest these days, what remains of the Hungarian left is reinterpreting the Kokárda. Recent 15th March commemorations are notable for the variety of brooches and pins on the red-white-green theme. As such, their wearers are recovering their lost national symbol and showing they no longer feel ashamed to wear it.

Yet reclaiming the poppy from politics will take something rather more than a different design. The white poppy has been sold by religious and peace groups since the 1930s, and today draws as much hatred as ever. Ceramic poppy badges are used a tool of the far right and their purchase from unauthorised vendors helps spread hatred rather than helping the veterans as they should.

While its legacy and appeal are far from over, the British Legion's cause as important as ever, the longer the poppy is allowed to be associated with hateful ideology and war mongering the less relevant and more divisive it will become. Eventually people will stop wearing it so as not to associate themselves with a cause they neither recognise nor support. At that point, which may not be too far away, we may have lost forever a common symbol of peace and reflection.

Adam R. Mathews, Madrid, 8th November 2017

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