Excerpt: Republic or Death! by Alex Marshall

Alex Marshall

You’ve sung the words, but have you ever really thought about them? Alex Marshall's new book uncovers the captivating history of national anthems.

Republic or Death! Alex Marshall
Republic or Death! by Alex Marshall

 

About the book 

The first recognisable national anthem was composed in the Netherlands when the country was under Spanish rule, which is why the Dutch anthem still pledges loyalty to the King of Spain.

The second, nearly 200 years later, was our own “God Save the King”, written to inspire resistance to the Jacobite uprising—hence that rarely-sung reference to crushing rebellious Scots. It was also such a success that, for a while, other countries created their own anthems simply by setting different words to the same melody. (Switzerland’s anthem kept the tune of “God Save the King” until 1961, and Liechtenstein’s still uses it.)

All this and much more besides can be found in Alex Marshall’s endlessly engrossing Republic or Death!—a book that makes you realise how wrong most of us have been to take national anthems for granted, as if they somehow just appeared, rather than being the products of often fascinating history. 

And some of it is surprisingly recent. Only in the 1920s, for example, did the Olympic committee decide to play the winning athletes’ national anthems—which, for many countries was the cue to make sure they had one. And even then, America didn’t adopt “The Star-Spangled Banner” until 1931. 

Marshall mixes the history and plenty of memorable incidental facts with some equally good travelogue, as he journeys from Japan to Kazakhstan, Bosnia to Nepal, to investigate the origins and significance of anthems all over the world. 

 

The excerpt

Just read some of their [National anthem's] lyrics. They are like epics, setting down for posterity the entire history of their country and its people, the woes they suffered, the pain they bore, and which then swear that they will never go through such ills again. 

It’s not hard to work out who the villains are in these songs: the Spanish and Portuguese who once tried to control the continent. ‘Don’t you see them over sad Caracas / Spreading mourning, weeping and death?’ goes Argentina’s. ‘Don’t you see them, like wild animals / Devouring all people who surrender?’ Fortunately, heroes are at hand: ‘“Down with the chains!” / the gentleman yelled, / And the poor man in his hovel / For freedom implored,’ goes Venezuela’s, sounding more like a Dickensian novel than an anthem. ‘For a long time the oppressed Peruvian, / Dragged an ominous chain /…he quietly moaned,’ adds Peru’s in a similarly dramatic vein. ‘But as soon as the sacred cry, / “Freedom!” was heard, / The slave’s indolence shook / [And] his humiliated, humiliated, / humiliated neck rose up’… 

The anthems then tell of the battles that were fought for independence, the blood that was spilled and the revenge that was had. You would think that all that would be left to do after that would be to celebrate victory, but practically all South American anthems then make sure to warn people that the Europeans could one day be back; that ‘the barbaric injustice of fate’ might force new chains around people’s wrists. If that happens, everyone must be prepared to fight again. (Ecuador’s anthem is one of the few that doesn’t call for more fighting, instead asking for a volcano to erupt and turn everything to ash so there will be nothing for the Spanish to enslave, an approach I doubt many Ecuadorians would be happy with.)

It is easy to get lost in the sheer eccentricity of these songs—every time I read Colombia’s I end up gawping at a verse that starts, ‘In agony, the Virgin/ Tears her hair out’—but there is a serious point to them that you shouldn’t miss: South America’s anthems get to the point of what nationalism is meant to be about better than any others. They all say, in no uncertain terms, ‘This is my land and I’m prepared to die for it.’ 

The anthem that does it best of all is Paraguay’s. ‘Republic or Death’, it says in its very title, a message that could not be clearer if the anthem were called, ‘Step on My Land and I’ll Slit Your Throat’. ‘¡República o Muerte!’, to use the Spanish, are three words that say more about what is meant to be at the heart of nationalism than entire books on the subject do. They encapsulate that desire to fight and die for your land; that need to keep what’s yours forever, no matter how arbitrary or recent a creation your country actually is.”