Håvard Kongsrud                                                                                          03.08.2004

Grønlandsleiret 19A

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Myths: Some Theoretical Aspects

The theme of this course is the present use/misuse of the historical narrative to produce historical myths in the South Eastern European societies. Questions that are raised are: Does the mythologization of these societies continue today? If so by whom and for what purposes? Are there any new trends in the view of history by the public, politicians or historians?

This theme implies that it is necessary to base an empirical study on sources from the former Yugoslav lands. As an outsider, who neither reads the language very well nor has access to relevant usable sources, which might imply a set of relevant public statements by politicians, journalists or historians that contains historical assessments that can be compared over time, I have tried to circumvent this problem by emphasising the theoretical aspect.

My point of departure is in the position that the tradition of using mythologized historical accounts is not only an aspect of the South Eastern European societies, but is an overall mechanism in all societies. Therefore models developed from Western European and American material are relevant for the studying of myths in South Eastern Europe. The relevance of the South Eastern European experience is among others expressed by John Girling describing “bloody dismemberment of Yugoslavia, accompanied by “heroic” myths recreating “national” identities” as a counterpart of the “virulent nationalisms of the Europe of the interwar years.”(Girling 1993:9) As a historian I am of course also interested in the singularity of the South Eastern European experiences, but here I hope to draw on the expertise of the other participants.

Myth as such

The term ‘myth’ is not in it self a very precise term. Outside the academic realm the term is often connoted with a wholly imagined past. Its use in critical or discourse theory has a tendency to limit it selves to wholly autonomous self-referential worlds of meaning without relating to broader reality. A second academic position emphasise the term's relation to a plausible past. The advocates of this view often cites Anthony Smith writing that “it is history, and history alone, which can furnish the bases of ethnic identity and the psychic reassurance of communal security that goes with it”.(Wilson 1997: 182)

The political theorist Christopher Flood is one of those emphasising the irrelevance of a distinction between true and false myths seeing the myth primarily as a form of ideological discourse. For him the main criteria for analysing a myth are whether it legitimises or discredits a regime. For Flood the relevance lies in to what extent a narrative is ideologically marked.(Flood 1996: 46) He is, however, not insistent on this point.

The few historians focusing on the religious part of national mythology disclaim such foolishness as trying to discern the truth of falsity of a myth. According to Agita Misane and Aija Predite knowledge of a story in itself creates a feeling of togetherness. Evoking Mircea Eliade who investigated “the modern myth” or “the survivals and camouflage of myth” (Eliade: The Myth of Eternal Return: Cosmos and History 1954) they states that hence myths need not be believed to retain their value and function successfully. They arguments successfully that the sacred is not only a religious quality, but can also be found in secular, so called entities as Nation or State. (Misane & Priedite 1997)

From the perspective of religious phenomenology, there is no basic difference between myth and history. Both are narratives and both tell how the present came into being. Folklorists would probably argue that many of the narratives branded as historical myths is in fact historical legends, not myths. The difference between myth and sacred history lies in the degree of fabulation while the difference between sacred history and legend lies in the historical scope, as well as to the relationship to the sacred.

The universality of myths has among others been emphasised by Geoffrey Hosking and George Schöpflin. They ran a project on Myths and Nationhood, resulting in a book with this title in 1997, when they found – “contrary to what many of us had expected – that democratic ‘civil’ societies appeared to rely on myths just as much as authoritarian ‘ethnic’ ones.”(Hosking & Schöpflin 1997: v)

Myth and society – a moral aspect

There is also a set of researchers that are more inclined to emphasise a more antagonistic approach to myth. Among the pioneering students of political myth is Ernst Cassirer. In writing The Myth of the State (1946) he was particularly concerned with the resurging of myth in the modern world, and particularly the manipulation of public opinion under the Nazi system of government.(Flood 1996: 257, 267) It is Cassirer who states that "The new political myths do not grow up freely; they are not wild fruits of an exuberant imagination. They are artificial things fabricated by very skilful and cunning artisans."(cited in Flood 1996: 268)

Eric Hobsbawm follows this lead when he calls to the fight against historical myth as a moral dimension of the historians work. Like Cassirer he sees the myth as in direct opposition to the enlightened society. When talking of the responsibilities of the historian he states that “[w]e have a responsibility to historical facts in general, and for criticizing the politico-ideological abuse of history in particular.”(Hobsbawm 1998:7) A reason for the historians to act against this ideological abuse of history is the fact that “history is the raw material for nationalist or ethnic or fundamentalist ideologies”.(1998:6) These regimes invents their past because the past legitimises. He evokes Ernest Renan writing more than 100 years ago; ”Forgetting, even getting history wrong, is an essential factor in the formation of a nation, which is why the progress of historical studies is often a danger to nationality.”( cited in Hobsbawm 1998: 357)

The renown researcher on historians, Georg Iggers, has also strayed this field. In an introduction he made at the 19th International Congress of the Historical Sciences in Oslo in year 2000 under the banner of The Uses and Abuses of history and Responsibility of the Historian, Past and Present he stated that the instrumentalization of history is quite common. Inventions of the past played an important role in the formation of nationalisms in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. (Iggers 2001: 311) According to Iggers these mistaken views of the past where not merely transmitted from older times but were consciously invented by intellectuals: Historians, poets, artist and politicians – who themselves were convinced of the truthfulness of their views of the past. 

Iggers went on to investigate the manipulation of history in relatively open societies. In Germany from the 19th century onward the main theme of the historian was to “help contribute to the construction of a national identity”.(315) The Germans where not alone. In USA writing before 1945 historians set out to give scholarly legitimacy to the disenfranchisement and segregation of Blacks. Constructions of national history going back to the early medieval where put forth by German historians before 1945 to justify expansion eastward, and after 1945 by Polish to justify expansion westward. More recently also feminist and ethnic counter narratives have added to the ideological interpretations of history. (316)

The historians role in building nations from states has not ceased. In the Outline History of Poland (J. Topolski, Warsaw 1986) Poland appears as a ethnically homogenous nation: Jews, Lithuanians, Germans, Ukrainians and Roma occupy only a minimal place. This is typical for many country histories. In USA only recently have the multicultural an multiethnic nature of the state bee given proper place.

In 2004 the historian John Lampe is one of those who have looked into the field of the post communist South Eastern European states. Participating in an interdisciplinary project run by the Open Society Institute in cooperation with the Central European University in Budapest he edited the book Ideologies and National Identities: The Case of Twentieth-Century Southeastern Europe together with Mark Mazower in 2004. Here he refers to a “review of recently published county histories from Yugoslavia’s successor states [that] revealed old nationalist assumptions of native virtue confounded by intervention from near or far”.(Lampe 2004: viii)

The media as a vehicle of myths is among others studied by Edward S Herman & Noam Chomsky, in Manufacturing Consent. The political Economy of the Mass Media, from 1994. In their study of the American mass media they show that the media voluntarily rally too the cause of those who dominate the governmental and private activity. (Herman & Chomsky 1994). The journalist Mark Thompson has produced a similar study on the media’s role in the wars of former Yugoslavia in Forging War, which came in a new edition in 1999, building on Warren Zimmermann’s theory on the media’s vital role in preparing the society for war.

A recent study that I wish to include is the OSCE-report on the role of the media in the march 2004 events in Kosovo. Here the journalist Dardan Gashi concludes "that the media, specifically the broadcasting sector, displayed unacceptable levels of emotion, bias, carelessness, and falsely applied "patriotic" zeal." (OSCE 2004: 3)

The vital role of schoolbooks in spreading myths has been known for a long time. An investigation into the textbooks of Kosovo led Holly Hughson to question if history in schools had taken over the fights on the battlefield. (Joke van der Leeuw-Roord, citing from the conference on history teaching in Pristina 6-9 December 2003)

Demasking the myths

Eric Hobsbawm is not entirely enthusiastic about the historian's ability as a myth slayer. He puts forwards three limitating factors. 1: the historians role is primarily negative as he can only slay myths by falsifying them. 2: not all myths build on a historical verifiable truth and can thereby not be falsified. 3: The historians are impotent against those who choose to believe historical myth. In this respect the schools plays an very important role. (Hobsbawm 1998: 362f) Iggers adds that enhanced understanding of the past might be reached by illuminating it from a variety of perspectives. Iggers states that “the best way of avoiding arriving at untruths is to analyse one’s point of view and thus being aware of one’s perspective.”(Iggers 2001: 317)

Georg Iggers emphasise that it takes time for the historians to de-mask myths. The first study of German responsibility of the first world war being published in Germany in 1961. Only recent studies has established the extent to which broad segments of German population were involved in the Holocaust. In France the taboo of the collaboration of the French authorities in the deportation of Jews has finally been broken. Beginnings were made in the revision of schoolbooks in Japan. A similar revision of textbooks is occurring in Israel today.

In all these re-examinations historians have played an important role. However, revision is no guarantee for objectivity. Iggers acknowledge that the revisionists too have their agendas, but the dismantling of historical falsehoods ay contribute to lessening the hold which these have over the minds of men and women. Iggers believe “that there are standards of humanity and logical thinking which can guide the rational discourse among historians.”(Iggers 2001: 318)

It is in the field of schoolbooks that most resources has been laid down in fighting the myths. According to Wolfgang Höpken of the Georg Eckert Institute for International Textbook Research, with the growing importance of interethnic and intrastate warfare, education has become one of the major fields that international interventionism in post conflict societies has focussed on.

The idea is, however, by no means new. Already after the Balkan wars The Carnegie Foundation in the 1920s tried to initiate a dialogue among the Balkan countries on reform of their textbooks. At the same time teachers organizations in France and Germany tried to work out alternative schoolbooks for their countries to fight the stereotypes. The idea gained momentum after the second world war with bilateral projects between Germany and France, and later Poland and Israel.

There are several ongoing projects in the new democracies in Eastern Europe today. For example there is an EUROCLIO project aiming at the strengthening of the national History Teachers’ Associations of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia and Serbia and Montenegro financed by the Danish Neighbours Programme; Publications on teaching materials on childhood, gender and family has been made; There exists also bilateral cooperation as between history teachers organizations in Serbia and Denmark. (Jørgen Eliassen in HIFO-nytt 2 2002)

Not only the Eastern European Countries are being put to the test. Andreas Helmedach of the George Eckert Institute is looking into the way this part of Europe is being portrayed in the textbooks of Western Europe. So far he has found neglect and bias that need to bee righted.

However, according to Wolfgang Höpken projects such as these only successfully contribute to reconciliation after basic political questions has been settled, the projects are backed by broad consensus within the society and the initiatives are seen by the political elites as a way of increasing their legitimacy. Furthermore, people can not link with textbooks describing peace if they are experiencing ongoing conflict. In Afghanistan Höpken sees “Western” approaches of “multiculturalist education” as counterproductive as the society needs to be reintegrated and stabilized before it can be implemented. Moreover, the textbooks need an academic and educational infrastructure. Höpken concludes that “textbooks cannot initiate or replace a general politics of reconciliation and detente, but have to be part of it. Where the political climate is missing, it seems to be hard for textbook initiatives to have a real impact on the textbook practice.” (I’m actually not allowed to cite from this draft of his)

According to Höpken the mental condition of a post conflict society is important. Victims of violence in Bosnia and Kosovo find it to be against their right to grief or even disrespect of their sufferings to be confronted by the demand for multi-perspective of the past.

Wolfgang Höpken's final suggestion is that “It seems that there might be conflicts, which need time, before you can really deal with them, and may be the principle of “non-remembering”, which is behind the ancient concept of “amnesty” and which for centuries was the common way to deal with a war once it has ended, should be considered again.”


Flood, Christopher G.: Political Myth: A theoretical introduction, Garland 1996.

Girling, John: Myth and Politics in Western Society: Evaluating the Crisis of Modernity in the United States, Germany, and Great Britain, Transaction 1993

Hobsbawm, Eric: On History, Abacus 1998.

Hosking, Geoffrey & George Schöpflin: Myths & Nationhood, Hurst & co: London 1997.

Ideologies and National Identities. The Case of Twentieth-Century Southeastern Europe, John R. Lampe & Mark Mazower (eds.), CEU press: Budapest 2004.

Iggers, Georg G.: “The Uses and Misuses of History. The Responsibility of the Historian, Past and Present” in Sølvi Sogner (ed.) Making Sense of Global History, Universitetsforlaget: Oslo 2001. 

Misane, Agita & Aija Priedite: “National Mythology in the History of Ideas in Latvia: A Wiew from Religious Studies” in Geoffrey Hosking & George Schöpflin (eds.): Myths & Nationhood, Hurst & co: London 1997.

OSCE: The Role of the Media in the March 2004 events in Kosovo, OSCE: Vienna 2004

Thompson, Mark: Forging War. The Media in Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia-Hercegovina, Article 19: 1999.

Wilson, Andrew: “Myths of National History in Belarus and Ukraine” in Geoffrey Hosking & George Schöpflin (eds.): Myths & Nationhood, Hurst & co: London 1997.