Engaging and Shaping the Theme of Nationalism in Depicting Wars

By Yousif Al Hamadi

National identity consists of a group of behaviors and values that differentiate members of a country spiritually and culturally. It gives individuals and the collective a meaning of belonging to their nation to feel stable and united, especially during conflicts and wars. The theme of national identity has been represented by painters, writers, and musicians since the romantic era in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in their portrayals of battle in America and Europe. With globalization during the twentieth century, the concept started to be adopted internationally, and filmmakers began to represent it, while filmmaking had just been developed editorially and technically. Furthermore, during the Second World War, propaganda films played an essential role in treating the national identity theme, which had served several nations during wartime as Britain and Germany.

OER Project

The representation of a nation’s history emphasizes a collective memory, a shared knowledge of past events. It is constructed, developed, and inherited in a community interpersonally and institutionally through communicative social functions. These representations or shared knowledge are essential for several reasons. First, they provide an image of what is necessary for a group to live or exist. Also, they explain the national identity, beliefs, and values through the group’s behaviors and contributions. Moreover, they are a resource of national symbols that can organize political agendas for the current time and future (Bar-Tal, 2011: 105-106).

Artists, writers, musicians, and filmmakers have reflected, shaped, and engaged with the national identity theme in their portrayals of war. Generally, the representation of conflicts and wars is dated from the Mesolithic period, such as the prehistorical site of rock art in Spain, which includes hunting and combat scenes containing human figures. It is evidence of a hostel situation between opposing parties or ‘organized military’ (McLoughlin, 2011: 7; UNESCO, 1998). However, artists specifically treated national identity in the late eighteenth century after the American and French Revolutions and then during the Napoleonic Wars at the beginning of the nineteenth century, where it had flourished. Most of the paintings, literature, and music that portrayed war during this period were romanticists. The romanticism movement was concerned with the theme of national identity. It was a reaction to the enlightenment rationalism style and influenced by the neoclassical order line style.

Rock Art of the Mediterranean Basin on the Iberian Peninsula (UNESCO)

Romanticist artists and writers believed in the value of individual experience. Their subjects were ambiguous, wild, or exotic. They mainly represented the public discourse with common popularity (Chilvers, 2004: 603). Art and culture were essential in providing scenes of conflicts and wars to keep records for themselves and others. They gave memorable information about mass death and ‘the nature of battle’ to rehabilitate, provide relief, warning, and promote peace (McLoughlin, 2011: 7).

The individualistic definition of any social identity in sociology and psychology, such as national or ethnic identities, focuses on feelings and thoughts about group membership. Though, it has two dimensions. First, it derives from a belief that the individual has a sense of belonging to a group, such as saying I am British, with its emotional significance and values connected to that membership. Second, it derives from the individual knowledge and self-acceptance of the importance of the group memberships, such as saying I am proud to be a citizen of the greatest country on earth. Others argue that the meaning and nature of group-based identities often emerge within sociocultural discourses and intergroup relations contexts. So, they are not individualistic, and they should reside at least partially within a national or cultural community (Ashmore, Jussim and Wilder, 2001: 5-6).

The French philosopher Montesquieu initially raised the concept of national identity in the eighteenth century. He said mankind is influenced by many causes such as climate, religion, laws, principles, precedents, morals, and customs. All have formed a general nation’s spirit. The German philosopher Johann Gottfried added that the national spirit is inherited from generation to generation due to common manners, systems, culture, language, and art. All members of a specific community share national features, geographical conditions, and historical traditions. The national spirit and culture together create a spiritual home and life that forms a national identity, beliefs, and values. (Ouyang, 2017: 11-12). Belonging to a national identity may stem from the positive affection for one’s people and homeland, which is the concept of patriotism. It may also be referred to as a superiority belief and extreme loyalty, whether it is right or wrong to one’s nation, and in this case, it is called chauvinism. (Ashmore, Jussim and Wilder, 2001: 74-75).


Washington Crossing the Delaware 1851 (he Metropolitan Museum of Art)

At the beginning of the American Revolution, partisans defined themselves as Whigs and Tories. They were British political parties. In 1775, they found a need to combine under a revolutionary coalition and be identified as American to earn its independence from Great Britain (Owen, 2012). Washington Crossing the Delaware (1851) was a great example of a romantic painting engaged with the national identity theme. It is oil on enormous Canvas (378.5 cm x 647.7 cm) with a panoramic composition and wintry light, showing appreciation, respect, and admiration for George Washington, who crossed the Delaware River in 1776. He went from Pennsylvania to New Jersey to surprise the Hessian troops in Trenton a few months after America declared its independence. It portrays Washington crossing with Colonel James, who is holding the flag, promoting the American identity, loyalty, and patriotism. In the center, General Nathanael Greene is leaning in the front, the African American Prince Whipple on the side of the boat. The militiamen and local fishermen in the painting represent the loyal forces that protected the river.

Washington was the first president and had a high national spirit. He is represented with a national and heroic purpose, standing up confidently and proudly. Washington Crossing the Delaware was painted by the German American Emanuel Leutze (1816-1868), born in Württemberg, Germany. Yet, he was considered an American because he spent his early life in Philadelphia. The painting was exhibited in New York City in 1851 and brought a nostalgic sensation to Americans by its historical rendering of the event. It has received a remarkable and positive acceptance and appreciation. The Literary World magazine considered it one of the best in executing an American theme. Likewise, The New York Evening Mirror described it as majestic and influential (Barratt, 2011: 5-9).

Boissy d’Anglas at the National Convention 1831 (mediastorehouse.com)

The French Revolution was a turning point in modern history. It was sparked by the prosperity of the American Revolution at the beginning of 1789. The French citizens destroyed and reconstructed all the visible features of their land and their nation’s political monarchy system and institutions. The revolution started because of the lack of contentment with the policies of King Louis XVI and caused a chaotic bloodbath in which many people were killed violently. However, it also showed the world the power existing in the people’s will. (History, 2018). The French were fighting for their national identity, similar to the Americans in their revolution.

Boissy d’Anglas at the National Convention (1831) by Auguste Jean-Baptiste Vinchon (1789-1855) portrays a vital scene during the French Revolution in 1795. Before the royal palace, more than a hundred workers demonstrated and shouted for higher wages and food. Some were arrested and described as enemies of order and public peace (Boime, 2004: 285). The painting is oil on canvas (400 cm x 600 cm). Its composition is like a big triangle showing Count Boissy d’Anglas seated on top, in front of a rioter offering the head of the politician Jean Feraud on a long spear. There is a strong and healthy woman mounting the tribune on the right side. She is Aspasie Migelli, who performed surgery on Feraud’s body. This is why she is holding a big knife in her right hand. She also has the tricolor flag in her left hand, which was not yet the official French flag at the time (Marrinan, 1980: 32). The revolution established the tricolor flag and became a national symbol gathering people under a particular identity (gouvernement.fr, 2014).

Liberty Leading the People 1830 (wikipedia.org)

Migelli is leading some demonstrators from different classes and genders. Her likeness is similar to Liberty in Eugène Delacroix’s (1798-1863) famous painting Liberty Leading the People (1830), considered a famous national symbol of the French Revolution. Moreover, there is a motif of agents bribing a rioter, suggesting outsiders were encouraging the French citizens to create violence for their benefit on the left side of the painting. Vinchon’s Boissy d’Anglas at the National Convention was contesting other artists, including Delacroix, in a contest organized by the Interior Ministry to provide historical inspiration and information about events in the late 1790s from the French Revolution to raise the nation’s spirit. Vinchon was the winner in his group (Marrinan, 1980: 31-32).


Napoleon Bonaparte (History.com)

The French revolution caused a series of wars and conflicts all over Europe from 1792 to 1802. Napoleon Bonaparte I, a son of a Corsican and a representative in the ruling court, was determined to get the opportunity in the chaotic situation to be the leader of France (Milliner, 2018). He was talented and a military genius that led the French army in many campaigns and victories against a series of coalitions in Europe from 1803 to 1815. These campaigns followed the French Revolutionary Wars, which did not reach an agreement. Napoleon’s campaigns became known as the Napoleonic Wars.

Napoleon also fought against Russia in his campaigns. The battle between them is known as the Battle of Borodino (1812). Russia has responded with an outburst of nationalism. Before the invasion of Napoleon, Russian art and culture were influenced by the West and mainly by France, particularly during Peter the Great (1672-1725). However, after the battle of 1812, Russian cultural authorities responded with a Russian national identity and refused to value the West as an imitative model (Norris, 2004). For example, The Bronze Horseman (1833) by the romantic Russian poet Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837) is referred to as the Bronze Statue of Peter the Great in St. Petersburg. The poem presents the conflict of the combination of the West and East, which has challenged the Russian identity (Lehan, 1998: 147). Pushkin established the notion of the involvement of literature in a social role and led writers such as the romantic poet and novelist Mikhail Lermontov (1814-1841) to write his patriotic poem Borodino (1837) and A Hero of Our Time (1940). Borodino is celebrating the battle of Napoleon’s war with Russia. It is written colloquially to reveal the national identity of the common folk. Moreover, it captures the generational tension and conflict during Peter’s era, looking for unity and participation in social change (Kucherenko, 2011). It is divided into an introduction and the main part. The introduction is only one stanza that starts with

but tell me, uncle why our men let Moscow burn, yet fought again

(Stakhov, 2009)

The main part consists of thirteen verses. The first eight verses describe the action with tension and a prospect. The other five verses describe the battle of Borodino. By dividing the main part on Phi (1.618), the golden ratio, to comprehend the poem’s composition. The second part accordingly starts from

O what a day! the Frenchmen came, a solid mass, like clouds aflame

(Stakhov, 2009)

From this part, the tension gradually reduces to the end of the poem (Stakhov, 2009: 118-119). However, Borodino was published on the 25th anniversary of the battle in the social and political Sovremennik magazine. Eventually, Lermontov became an inspiration to several poets and writers, such as Leo Tolstoy (1828- 1910), Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881), and others. Today, the poem is included in Russia’s schooling education curriculum to raise the national awareness and spirit of the new generations by recalling specific historical elements linked to the Russian identity (Zajda, 2017: 70).


The romantic era valued nationalism through poetry and music. Several writers and composers attempted to make their national identity a theme in their pieces. This era inspired a shared sense of belonging and collectively towards their independent identities. Collectively, they were influenced by the power of national music by communal experience and creating feelings of cultural intimacy (Nikl et al., 2018). By comparing music with literature, scholars found that the manner of representation in music is more practical, provides multiple interpretations, and can be consumed by large amounts of people, while literature is limited according to the authorities and can be received by literates only (O’Connell, El-Shawan and Branco, 2010: 2).

F. Chopin : Polonaise op. 40 no. 1 in A major Military (Pollini)

For example, the polonaise, which originated in Poland in the seventeenth century, was a couple-dance that is moderated with a triple meter. It continued to develop during the next centuries, becoming instrumental, expressive, and conventional. The Polish composer Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849) showed an impressive, fully developed polonaises which became symbols of the Polish national identity. His works received strong emotion. Some were connected with historical events such as Op. 40, No 1 in A major, representing the Battle of Vienna (1683) of King John III Sobieski. It was published in Paris in 1839. The piece maintained a traditional melodic, rhythmic aspect, including repetition at the beginning of the older dances and a powerful keyboard making an orchestral effect. The first measure included detached chords together with a stepwise increase in the highest note, which promoted the nickname of the piece Military. (Palmer, 2018). When the Germans invaded Poland in the Second World War, Polskie Radio played Chopin’s Military Polonaise daily. It was considered a nationalistic protest, while its composition was inspired by a similar situation, filled with chords, and included sharply articulated gestures that brought the Polish people together (Classic FM, 2018).

One of the most patriotic songs is La Marseillaise, written in 1792 during the French Revolution. Indeed, it is about the pride of being a citizen. The act of singing gathered and encouraged French troops to defend the nation when major powers in Europe invaded France, attempting to suppress the revolution. It was composed by an amateur musician Claude-Joseph Rouget de Lisle (1760-1836), a captain in the French army. Its title was originally War Song of the Army of the Rhine and changed after being adopted by the troops of Marseille when they reached Paris during the same year. The lyrics start with a threat by announcing that this is the day of glory when children of the fatherland arrive to cut the throats of sons and women. It calls citizens to raise their arms and “let’s march, let’s march” (BBC, 2015).

La Marseillaise, French National Anthem (Fr/En)

La Marseillaise is classical chorus music. Its famous tone is G major, which starts with a trumpet-call dominant, then chords and basic melodies until the terrifying parts of the central section. Then it turns to be mostly operatic, guided by chords of a parallel minor, while the refrain is repeated with a powerful patriotic tone (Tyranny, 2018). La Marseillaise became the anthem of France by 1795 but was banned by Napoleon I and suppressed during the second restoration of 1815 by Louis XVIII. However, it later became reaccepted and permanently became the national anthem during the French Third Republic after 1870 (BBC, 2015). The line “let an impure blood water our furrows” has been criticized as racist, and many campaigns have organized to change it or change the whole song. Others argued that changing the words or the song does not cure the deep racist beliefs in society (Andress, 2018). Currently, primary schools in France are teaching the song La Marseillaise to let the new generation be more attached to their French identity. The curriculum was designed around values such as patriotism, republicanism, and secularism. This is because the French government is worried about the conflicts which appeared with the immigrants who moved to France during the last century who belong to different ethnic, cultural, and religious groups (Sage, 2018).


Globalization during the twentieth century has contributed in differentiating the world, and nations have formed their identities with more political and maturing aspects. The camera was already invented, and filmmakers started to engage with the national identity theme in their portrayals of war (Nikl et al., 2018). The Film form of communication was well established as a medium during the Second World War (1939-1945). It was used as any other media platform for propaganda, whether crudely or even truthfully (Kassel, 2006). The Second World War was the most significant event in the twentieth century and involved the whole world. It was between the Axis powers, including Germany, Italy, and Japan, and the Allies powers, including Britain, France, the United States of America, and the Soviet Union. It continued the disputes left unsettled by the First World War (1914-1918) (Smith and Hughes, 2018).

The Lion Has Wings Trailer

British filmmakers and institutions attempted to create propaganda documentaries and feature films during wartime. At the beginning of the war, recruitment strategies by Britain and their Allies for involving people in their cause were unclear, while the Germans had been producing propaganda films since 1934 (Kassel, 2006). The Lion Has Wings (Powell, Hurst, and Brunel, 1939) was the first propaganda film produced. It is a feature film showing Britain’s Royal Air Force’s strength, the Nazi’s nature, and the British society. It illustrates the importance of defending the country by using a mixture of fictional and archival footage. It also includes a scene of the Spanish Armada faced by Elizabeth I (BFI, 2018). The film imitates German propaganda film’s technique of manipulation. It is even using footage from the Triumph of the Will (Riefenstahl, 1935) (Kassel, 2006), which was about the 1934 Nazi Party Congress and rally in Nuremberg, showing Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) as a God (Ebert, 2008). The Lion Has Wings was produced to show the Americans the danger of Hitler, but it came out crude and unrealistic humanly. So, the Ministry of Information in the following year declared a policy mandating British Propaganda to be subtle and truthful (Kassel, 2006).

Humphrey Jennings (1907-1950) was a documentary filmmaker who contributed to the Ministry of Information and the UK General Post Office Film Unit (GPO) during wartime. He created several films, but the most extraordinary film was Listen to Britain (1942) with the editor Stewart McAllister (1914-1962). The film is a poetic film of daily life in Britain at war. The film is divided into two parts. An introduction clarifies where the film is targeting Canadians. The rest of the film is based on the technique of collage (Logan, 2016: 104). Jennings showed a preoccupation with the national identity as he believed that documentary filmmaking should distinguish the nation’s legacy and sympathy. However, he used images associated with Britain, the British public, and their identity by focusing on unity in diversity such as industry, art, countryside, city, middle and working-class, popular culture, science, and religion (Petley, 2014).

The British film director Lindsay Anderson (1923-1994) commented on Listen to Britain:

This is what it was like – this is what we were like 

Lindsay Anderson

The film represents true Britain by using popular iconography. Among the images and sounds two female workers are shown eating sandwiches on the steps of the entrance of the National Gallery, two other girls working in a factory sing along to a song they hear on the radio, and a Canadian soldier singing in the train. Those images were seen on every street, and Jennings felt it granted the necessity of the situation by providing familiar iconographies edited with popular culture.

The background music of Listen to Britain consisted of classical and popular. He believed that saving Britain might lay in enjoying the music of all kinds, such as the songs Roll out the BarrelRule Britannia, composers such as Handel and Beethoven, and involving popular British singers, such as Bud Flanagan and Chesney Allen during wartime (Hodgkinson and Sheratsky, 1982: 96). Moreover, for propaganda purposes, he showed the Queen sitting between the audience like an ordinary person listening to the pianist Myra Hess playing Mozart. (Kassel, 2006). The film is seen as patriotist production. The Man Who Listened to Britain (Channel 4, 2000), directed by Kevin MacDonald, is a biographical documentary about Jennings. It considered Jennings’s work to be concerned with the topic of patriotism, particularly his wartime works (Baker, 2013: 109).


Representing events and conflicts between different communities has been essential for present awareness and future knowledge since prehistoric times. However, the national identity theme started being portrayed in the late eighteen century during the romantic era. Whether individualistic or collective, national identity consists of emotional, mental, spiritual, and cultural aspects. It is formed throughout generations by inherited memories, manners, beliefs, and values within a community.

The theme started to be characterized initially in paintings during the American Revolution. Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emanuel Leutze is an example that portrayed Washington with his national spirituality as the first president and accompanied by his loyal and patriotic forces holding the American flag as an enhancement to their identity. During the French Revolution, which sparked after the American one, the French identity was also portrayed individually and sponsored by institutions such as Boissy d’Anglas at the National Convention by Auguste Vinchon. It represents a bloody event in 1975, adding a woman holding the tricolor flag leading some demonstrators.

The French Revolution caused conflicts in all of Europe, followed by the Napoleonic Wars, which enhanced other European nations’ attention to their identities. For example, in Russia, after the Battle of Borodino in 1812, some romantic poets such as Alexander Pushkin and Mikhail Lermontov described the battle and criticized the cultural imitation of the West, recalling elements that were linked to their identity, and became an inspiration for other writers to maintain it.

Also, musicians played an important role during the wars of the romantic era in portraying the theme of nationalism. For example, the Polish Polonaises have been seen as a national symbol. Frédéric Chopin’s Military Polonaise was inspired by historical conflicts. It included traditional rhythms played on radio daily during the German invasion in the Second World War to bring the Polish people together. Furthermore, The Song of La Marseillaise was written during the French Revolution and promoted French troops to defend the nation from the European invaders. It has become the French national anthem and a symbol of patriotism, despite its bloody and racist lines.

Filmmakers also portrayed the nationalism theme in war films, producing propaganda films during the Second World War. In Britain, The Lion has Wings was the first work that took many national aspects into account, imitating crude German propaganda films. The film was received negatively, which led the government to make policies to avoid such a result and cooperate with more honest and credible filmmakers such as Humphrey Jennings. He created many propaganda films, but the most extraordinary one was Listen to Britain, which includes several British iconographies and popular culture and was considered a patriotic film with an optimistic sense.

Hence it is evident that artists, writers, musicians, and filmmakers have used the power of their work internationally and as far back as history recalls to shape and encourage a deep-rooted sense of nationalism during wartimes.


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