Hail, Hail, Freedonia: Examining National Anthems

Jan 21, 2021 9:30:00 AM / by Dr. Michael Woolf

"Thoughts on Education Abroad" is a monthly column written by CAPA The Global Education Network's Deputy President and Chief Academic Officer Dr. Michael Woolf.


In this month's column, Dr. Mike Woolf focuses on the meaning of national anthems from around the world and explains how it is a gateway for students abroad to understand a country's values and culture better.

Understanding the Words

I find that I am most stirred by things that are incomprehensible to me. The Latin Mass moves me to tears. If the Mass is in English, I edge towards the exit. I suspect that understanding the words of prayer has much to do with the decline of worship in the Church of England and, incidentally, that is why I avoid Liberal synagogues. In contrast, I am transfixed by the mysterious chanting of the Elders at Orthodox synagogues or, the murmuring of Patriarchs in Greek Orthodox churches, and the incantations of Buddhist Priests in Saffron robes.

Much the same faith in ignorance of meaning pervades the way in which I approach national anthems. Understanding what the words really mean reveals, for the most part, an alternative, usually surreal, view of reality. Frequently, rousing martial music implies heroic exploits while the lyrics may celebrate a bumper rhubarb harvest of 1857, a 5-year plan abandoned after 18 months, an outbreak of severe dandruff in 1482.

Nation and Freedom

That said, anthems are worth looking at. These are microcosmic representations of ritualized and idealized versions of national identity. For international education, they are worthy of consideration precisely because they illustrate ideological myths expressed, usually, in very bad poetry. Most national anthems originate in the 19th century as a consequence of rising nationalism and the need, therefore, to assert superiority over less fortunate countries who are not blessed by God and have a miserable, wizened, constrained, history compared to a glorious, heroic past.

A common theme in national anthems is to celebrate the unique freedoms enjoyed by fortunate citizens. Exemplary expression is found in the manner in which Groucho Marx lauds nationhood in Duck Soup (1933) with the immortal (if limited) lyrics: “Hail, hail Freedonia, land of the free!”

Hail Hail Freedonia as performed by Groucho Marx and faithful citizensHail Hail Freedonia as performed by Groucho Marx and faithful citizens.

That represents the norm. France, America, China and many others celebrate hard won freedoms while Montenegro declares joyfully that it “had never to endure the shameful chains of slavery.”

The British National Anthem is, however, in many ways unique. Instead of the freedoms enjoyed by others, we Brits yearn for the extension of abject subjugation to monarchical authority. We currently sing:

God save our gracious Queen,
Long live our noble Queen,
Long to reign over us,
God save the Queen!

It is true, of course that the next British monarch will be male. It does seem to me, however, that the anthem is better suited to matriarchal authority. For the British upper classes, “long to reign over us” may evoke nostalgia for those childhood days when nanny ruled the nursery with a firm hand. As enthusiasm for Margaret Thatcher illustrated, some chaps contemplate the imposition of female authority with a frisson of repressed pleasure.


God on Our Side

The bit in our national anthem that they don’t sing anymore is more conventional in that it affirms that God is on the side of the British (especially the English):

O Lord our God arise,
Scatter our enemies,
And make them fall!

The divine presence is a supporter of Brexit and in particular endorses the British view of their friends and colleagues in the European Union:

Confound their politics, Frustrate their knavish tricks

The idea that God is English (more or less) is contested by, among many others, Albanians:

O God of all creation
Direct our noble cause
Guide our leaders right
For God himself proclaimed:
The nations of the earth shall wane,
And yet will live, will thrive Albania.

The Albanian anthem and flagThe Albanian anthem and flag.

In this, according to Serbian citizens, the Albanians are delusional:

God of armies! be our leader
Strengthen then the Serbian race.

Nigeria invests the divine with a similar enthusiasm for their nation all of which might lead to a conflict of interest should hostilities break out between some combination of Albania, Serbia and/or Nigeria.

O God of all creation
Direct our noble cause
Guide our leaders right

According to Ghanaians, however, their neighbors (as well as the Brits and Albanians) have got it all wrong:

Arise, arise, O sons of Ghanaland,
And under God march on forevermore.

This is unconventional theology. Instead of a universal interest in the welfare of all humanity, the divine is a great general leading the forces of one nation or another so as to ensure the enfeeblement of others.

We should note, however, that in accordance with its neutrality, Switzerland makes no such militaristic claim and merely asserts that “God, the Lord, dwelleth in this land.” Monaco also has some probably realistic reservations about God’s willingness to intervene on the country’s behalf:

There are not very many of us,
But we all strive to defend our traditions;
We are not very powerful,
But if he wants to, God will help us!

“If he wants to” is a charming, modest corrective to the arrogant confidence of others. In any case, there has to be some limitation on how many national loyalties even the omnipotent and omniscient can sustain.


The British aspiration, expressed in our national anthem, is to do as we are told.

Americans sing about a flag which, although sewn by a maternal figure, signifies anything but obedience.

Elizabeth “Betsy” Ross at work Elizabeth “Betsy” Ross at work.

This is, like much else in this essay, probably not true.

If England is the good boy in the nursery, America is a disobedient, unruly brat, determined to obey no orders whatsoever:

And the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.
Oh, say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

American forces at Fort McHenry defeating erstwhile colonial rulersAmerican forces at Fort McHenry defeating erstwhile colonial rulers.

The lyrics of the Star-Spangled Banner come from a poem by Francis Scott Key who, in 1814, observed the defeat of the ex-colonial rulers, perfidious Albion, at Fort McHenry during the Battle of Baltimore.

History is full of ironies. The author who penned this paean to liberty was a slaveholding lawyer from an old Maryland plantation family. I suspect that this is why only the first verse is sung. Later in the poem, Scott Key notes that:

No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave

Francis Scott Key 1779 - 1843Francis Scott Key 1779-1843.

Sensitivity to racism in the USA has justly focused in many directions but apparently has not encompassed the iconic status of this anthem. Passing over the somewhat paradoxical nature of who is free in the land of the free, we can discern something that is very common in the myths of national foundation: a struggle against repression by alien powers.

The Chinese national anthem, written by Tian Han in 1934, has had a number of different iterations; this is not uncommon. Anthems get edited as political orthodoxies change; Lenin is, for example, decidedly absent in the anthem of the Russian Federation. However, while China and the USA have little in in common right now, they both have anthems that celebrate freedom achieved by resistance:

Arise! Arise! Arise!
Millions of hearts with one mind,
Brave the enemy's gunfire,
March on!

Nations built out of revolution are likely to celebrate their victories in this manner, marching on to glory, whereas the more staid, evolutionary nations move away from activist violence, or at least they edit history to avoid such distasteful excess. God Save the King/Queen, by way of example, does not reference Charles 1st (1625 – 1649) who was beheaded in the English Revolution that saw Oliver Cromwell lead a republic from 1653 to 1658. These rumbustious years, when God patently did not save the King, are edited out of the narrative.

It was not only the Chinese and Ghanaians who march on, however.

The Best One – Especially if You Don’t Speak French


Allons enfants de la Patrie
Le jour de gloire est arrivé!
Contre nous de la tyrannie
L’étendard sanglant est levé
Aux armes, citoyens
Formez vos bataillons
Marchons, marchons

Rather like the Latin Mass, listening to La Marseillaise is surely the most moving and powerful experience, particularly if you do not understand French. It was written by Claude-Joseph Rouget de Lisle against the background of an invasion by Prussia and Austria in 1792 (following France’s declaration of war). Marchons Marchons is a truly rousing call to arms. The English version is a little more alarming:

Do you hear
The roaring of these fierce soldiers?
They come right to our arms
To slit the throats of our sons…
May impure blood
Water our fields!

When sung by the fearsome giants of the French rugby team, the anthem becomes somewhat disquieting.

Little Places

There is also a problem for those little places that you can drive through without really noticing, or indeed for those of which you know nothing. Few of them will have tales of heroic resistance, narratives that record marching determinedly from one place to another, or histories as lurid as the French. No stirring tales seem entirely appropriate if your national fame is built on offshore banking or tax avoidance. Instead, Lichtenstein rather sweetly offers a tourist summary of its delights:

Lovely in the summer
On the high Alps' meadows
Floats heavenly quietude.

Indeed, most of the smaller nations have anthems that suggest that thy would prefer to be left alone. Andorra, for example, adopts a first-person persona stressing the fact that, given her neutrality, it would be very nice if nobody messed with her:

I was born a Princess, a Maiden neutral between two nations. I am the only remaining daughter of the Carolingian empire Believing and free for eleven centuries

Similarly, Monaco makes a point of being very nice to its larger neighbors:

Greetings, you who are our neighbours!
Greetings, you who are watching us!

There is, as these anthems suggest, little point in being aggressive if you are small fry. Better to be nice and hope that no one really notices. There would be little point, if you are a contented citizen of Lichtenstein, in adopting the posturing of North Korea:

The glory of a wise people
Brought up in a culture brilliant
With a history five millennia long.
Will go forth to all the world.
The country established by the will of the people,
Breasting the raging waves with soaring strength.
Let us glorify forever this Korea

It is Not Just About the Words Though

The question of patriotic commitment cannot be measured only in words and music. It is also a matter of performance. Compare, for example, the emotional attachment to the anthem expressed by Americans citizens with that of the British. In England it used to be customary in the cinema to play God Save the Queen at the end of the show. This was stopped because the introductory notes triggered an immediate rush for the exits. All except the odd Colonel Blimp departed swiftly, determined to get to the pub before closing time.

In contrast, at the beginning of each baseball game in the USA, the entire audience stands, hand on heart, and sings The Star-Spangled Banner (not the bit about hireling and slave). It just matters more there, as it does indeed in North Korea where disdain or indifference along British lines may prove to be fatal. Brits, as further evidence, have tea towels, wear comic hats, and enjoy wearing underwear in the pattern of the Union Jack. Under The US Flag Code this is a legal offense: “The flag should never be used as wearing apparel, bedding, or drapery.” In North Korea it is probably a capital offense.

This might suggest that patriotic symbols and songs mean much more in revolutionary societies and much, much more in despotic environments.

Anthems During the Pandemic

During these troubled times, international football matches (soccer to you) have taken place behind closed doors. It is customary to play the national anthems of both teams prior to the commencement of sporting conflict. In these days, therefore, you can hear the players singing, or failing to sing, their anthems – usually drowned by the enthusiastic abuse of the crowd.

We have learned that most players have horrible voices. Furthermore, very few appear to know the words. To date, miming some gibberish has been sufficient. The only players who appear to have some familiarity with the rousing lyrics are those who have been drafted in from elsewhere because a grandparent, real or imaginary, once stopped in the country en route to somewhere else. Thus, a talented Japanese midfielder may grace the ranks of, for example, Montenegro’s rather limited team. A remarkable number of gifted African footballers have become variously Serbian, Icelandic, Israeli, Latvian, Ukrainian, and so on. These guys, anxious to demonstrate their credentials for participation and remuneration, have made an effort to reproduce sounds that have some connection, albeit tenuous, to the patriotic and inspirational messages carried in their respective anthems.

In Education Abroad

It is easy to be flippant of course but it is also too easy. An anthem is a song with music and words, but a song is not an anthem. The difference is instructive. Songs that make the wireless, are played on your phonograph, or are “downloaded” from Spotify (whatever that is) have gone through a filter of commercial evaluation. Someone thinks that the song will sell which means it is “good.” In contrast, an anthem is rarely “good” by any measurable standard, but it is representative of something larger than itself. It demonstrates a paradox – it may be very very bad aesthetically and at the same time very very important in the representation of national mythologies.

In the context of education abroad, the language of anthems may offer a means of exploring something of the rhetoric that shapes national mythologies. Events included and, at least as telling, those excluded are pointers to a subjective version of identity seen through lenses of patriotic affirmation. Anthems demonstrate that nations are made in the imagination, inventions built upon myth, reverie, illusion, poetry. Students will understand that national identities, including their own, are constructed through a combination of stirring tales of heightened heroism and discordant delusions. There is no simple route to understanding the world in which we live. An anthem will offer one of many possible narratives. At the intersection of these, students may learn that nations are dreams, not just history, geography, or that thing we sometimes call reality.


Thanks Mike!

CAPA_Michael Woolf Headshot

Dr. Mike Woolf is the Deputy President for Strategic Development here at CAPA. His unique role at CAPA takes him around the world to conferences as a frequent presenter and attendee. He serves on a number of boards and committees, including the Curriculum Committee of the Forum on Education Abroad, the Editorial Boards of Frontiers and the Journal of Studies in International Education, EAIE’s Knowledge Development Task Force, and Braun Stiftung für Internationalen Austausch. He has written widely and has published extensively on international education and cultural studies. Most recently, he published work aimed at critically reviewing the core assumptions of study abroad. 'Thoughts on Education Abroad' is a monthly column of short essays sharing his thoughts and expertise on the subject.


Topics: International Education