The use of historical myths in changing Balkan societies


Historical myth-making as a boundary-defining mechanism in the Balkans




Discourses in societies in South Eastern Europe are permeated by the use of historical myths for various purposes. This use of myths underlies this  project  that aims at promoting  the work of scholars working in the area of politicised historiography in South Eastern Europe.


In practical terms, this effort to strengthen and make known the work of scholars questioning ruling conceptions of history in Balkan societies today will take shape by organizing two successive conferences on the topic. Most of the participants will come from the Yugoslav successor states, but international scholars will take part as well. The conferences should result in one monograph in English (to be published by an international publisher) and one monograph in Bosnian/Serbian/Croatian made available for a wider audience in the Yugoslav successor states.



In the Balkans arguments put forward by historians are used to a far wider extent in politics and public life than is commonly the case in Western Europe. Talking to people in their homes, in cafes or on the streets, brings home the fact that they often use purported historical facts to justify their political views or to make sense of their life and their local environment. This doesn’t imply that most people’s knowledge of history is particularly profound; only rarely are issues critically scrutinized or questioned. In most cases information that doesn’t fit with the preferred version of history is avoided or actively discarded. Typically, accounts presented as having a basis in historical fact, bear the marks of mythical narrative: “We have lived here since the beginning of time”, “We are eternal and innocent victims”, “We are strong but crazy”, etc.


For our purposes, an historical account will qualify as mythical if it is organized around historical material but is in most other aspects fictional. It may use the names of historical people and places, but the mythical account will conflict with other findings of methodological and critical research. The emphasis in the mythical account is on the creation of order, meaning and a basis to contemporary life, especially to its harsher and more equivocal aspects. The myths that are part of people’s identities typically operate with simple categories, and, for the people in question (frequently with leaders presented as incarnations of the people) as unquestioned truths.


There are, of course, explanations for this phenomenon. But it is little wonder they are held in esteem by ordinary people, when actively propagated by respected citizens bearing the authority conferred by impressive academic titles, membership of national academies of sciences and arts, and leading positions at the main universities.


History, as well as linguistics and political science, has traditionally been quite politicised. Since the countries in the area have been ruled in an authoritarian fashion, appointments to positions and selection of works for publication have ultimately been the result of political considerations. In other words, the concept of history in the Balkans should not be regarded as a ‘natural’, unchangeable state of affairs, but far more the result of political machinations. The prevalence of mythologizing versions of history in schoolbooks, subject to government support and approval, is further evidence of this.


The use of historical myths in explaining present conditions probably contributes to a less intensive scrutiny of other factors, such as the role of political nomenclature, weaknesses in local judicial systems, and corruption. It would not be unreasonable to assume that mythical accounts, which not only thrive by themselves, but are actively encouraged, present a hindrance to new, alternative ways of understanding one’s own condition, as well as to an unprejudiced discussion of the fundamental challenges facing changing Balkan communities.




Axes of comparison


In this project it is not our intention to map all the various historical myths that abound in the Balkans. Rather we will focus on those myths that have most clearly been used as boundary-defining mechanisms and been put to use as political legitimation of existing states.[1] In this category we identify three strands or clusters of myths: the myth of being sui generis; the myth of being ante murale; and the myth of antiquity. Each of these clusters, we believe, are found in all or most of the Balkan countries, though with different emphases and usages. As we argue below, they sometimes tend to infiltrate and shade into each other. We nevertheless believe that for heuristic and analytical purposes these distinctions are useful, as they allow us to detect inner tensions and contradictions in the mythogenetical processes.


Sometimes we can detect sudden or gradual changes in how different myths are used and interact. Occasionally, one set of myths may be substituted for another set as the dominant mythological paradigm in a country. A major object of the project is to compare the dynamics of myth-making in the various countries in the region and the different political outcomes these processes contribute to.


The myth of being sui generis


As most parts of the world, the Balkan peninsula represents a cultural continuum that cuts across not only political borders but also ethnic boundaries. Traditional lifestyles, mores, ethical codes, and folklore that one group regard as an essential part of their cultural heritage may often, with minor differences, also be found among neighbouring groups. Such commonalities present a problem for nation-builders and ethnical entrepreneurs since they blur group boundaries and complicate the establishment of fixed group identities.[2] Often, therefore, we see that great efforts are made to de-emphasize or outright deny cultural commonalities shared with other groups. One common way of doing this is through ethnogenesis: Our group, it is asserted, stems from different ethnic roots from its neighbours.[3] Such denial dynamics may be symmetrical or asymmetrical: either both parties agree that they have little or nothing in common, or one party may ignore the similarities while the other tends to highlight them.


Certain hypotheses, we believe, may be formulated with regard to the regularities of these dynamics:


  1. The shorter the cultural distance between two self-differentiating groups, the more consciously and explicitly myth-making nation-builders tend to underline the putative differences.
  2. In an uneven power relationship, in which a politically and/or numerically stronger group confronts a weaker group, the weaker group will tend to emphasize differences between the two, while the stronger group will tend to emphasize similarities, up to the point of subsuming the weaker group under itself as a subgroup.[4]
  3. Most groups define themselves in relationship to more than one other group. If the power relations in the various constellations differ, the group will tend to underline similarity in those relationships in which they may aspire for domination, and insist on being sui generis whenever they cannot.
  4. Politically, the sui generis myth will often be used as an ideological underpinning for secession from a larger state.


These hypotheses will be tested against the evidence found in the material we will examine.


The myth of being ante murale


This myth comes in many different guises and under different labels: ‘christianitatis’, ‘Europe’, ‘the defenders of the gates’, ‘the bearers of true civilization’, etc. Typologically, this myth is very different from the one discussed above. Rather than insisting on the uniqueness of the group, the group is now included into some larger and allegedly superior cultural entity that enhances its status vis-à-vis other groups who do not belong to it.


Also in this case myth-making functions as a boundary-defining mechanism, but the logic is different. Rather than drawing a border around the group that is equally definitive on all sides, the differences that distinguishes the group from one neighbour are magnified out of all proportion, while boundaries in other directions are de-emphasized. The wall is, of course, the ultimate boundary metaphor, the last line of defence of cosmos or order against the forces of chaos. This myth stresses not only that the group is an integral part of the true civilization, but also that it represents its very outpost. As the Wall throughout history time and again has been assailed by the dark forces of the other side, the group has been chosen by divine provenance to sacrifice itself in order to save the larger civilization of which it is a part. In this martyrological version the ante murale myth acquires messianic overtones: the nation is seen as a collective Christ that gives its life for others.


In the 1990s the American political scientist Samuel Huntington gave currency to a civilization theory that lends an aura of academic credibility to some of the popular ante murale myths in the Balkans.[5] It must be pointed out, however, that the wall—or ‘fault line’ in Huntington’s terminology—may be imagined to run many different places, not only between Western Christianity and Islam/Orthodox Christianity,  which is where he placed it. To many people in the Balkans a much more conspicuous fault line runs between the Islamic world and the Christian world. Thus, some Orthodox peoples like the Serbs may find themselves in the peculiar situation of considering themselves the last bastion, ante murale, in relation to the Islamic world, while in relation to another imaginary wall, one erected by Catholic peoples further north, they will be on the outside, and part of the forces of chaos that wall exists to protect against.


Are ante murale myths symmetrical or asymmetrical? In other words, can we find instances where both opposing group agree that a civilizational wall separates them, but at the same time hold diametrically opposite views as to who represents the forces of cosmos and the forces of chaos, respectively? This is an empirical question that requires a study of reciprocal myth-making along the Islamic/Christian as well as the Orthodox/Catholic divide in the Balkans.


As pointed out above, the ante murale myth has two aspects: it builds a high wall to one side while at the same time it ignores or de-emphasizes cultural differences to the other. In a sense, the ante murale mechanism seems to negate the sui generis myth: we are not unique after all, instead, we are a small part of a larger whole. This is not to say that a combination of these two orientations is inherently contradictory. A skilful myth-maker may succeed in explaining that sui generis and ante murale belong to different levels of identity, as it were. In most cases, we believe, an inner tension between an ethnocentric and a civilizational boundary-defining approach will nevertheless obtain. In particular, we want to examine how much contemporary Balkan mythologists see their own nation, as well as the neighbouring nations, as part of the larger entity of Europe, as well as the reasons they adduce to explain this relationship.


The myth of antiquity


An extremely important purpose of historical myth-making, not only in the Balkans but all over the world, is to give credence to claims for control over specific areas. One of the most common approaches is to prove that ‘we got here first’. The need to establish oneself as the primal group in the area in question is particularly acute if that area is inhabited or laid claim to by others, as so often is the case. This is a kind of political prospecting: the group that was able to plant its banner in the soil first, is considered to be the rightful owner of the land.


Claims of primevalness can be set forth in at least two different ways: cultural-archaeological and political. In the first case, what is asserted is that pottery and other relics found in the ground belong to the forbears of this particular group and no other.[6] In the second case, what is asserted is that an old state that  once upon a time controlled the territory in question was a national state of our group. The fact that all pre-modern states were based on a dynastic[7] and not an ethnic or national principle has never deterred nationalists from appropriating earlier state formations as their own.[8]


While discussions about who can lay claim to a particular archaeological item may perhaps be dismissed as petty and harmless squabbling, the state principle of historical myth-making must be regarded as pernicious and politically de-stabilizing. The boundaries drawn by this principle differ from the boundaries discussed above: it is no longer a question of cultural delimitation, but hard-fact geographical borders on the ground.


The borders of defunct states rarely, if ever, coincide with the borders of the contemporary states that are touted as their successors. Thus, the historical-state principle may easily provide fuel for irredenta claims, that is, demands for border revisions. No historical states have ever had fixed borders throughout their existence: borders waxed and waned over the centuries. Myth-makers, however, will tend to focus on the period of the state’s greatest expansion, its ‘golden age’. The  various putative pre-incarnations of today’s states are almost certain to  overlap and cover vast swathes of  the same  territories.


In our project we will examine how the two principles of antiquity—the archaeological and the political—are combined by various myth-makers in the region.





A crucial aspect of our project will be country-by-country comparative analysis. We will document which myths and varieties of myths that dominate in each country and ask the following questions: why does one strand of myth-making dominate in one country while other strands dominate elsewhere? Can we detect any changes in myth-making strategies over time? If so, in what directions and for what purposes? Does the mythogenesis of each country evolve in isolation, or is there interaction in the form of statements and refutations, claims and counterclaims?


Analytically, we will distinguish between two sets of discourses, one academic and one political. The former is the one dominated by professional historians, archaeologists, etc, while the latter is the one in which politicians and political ideologists participate. We fully realize that this distinction is highly problematical, since many historians and other academics are quite prepared to step beyond the confines of their professional competence and participate in political debates as well. (Quite a few have also taken up political positions; it should suffice to recall how the military historian Franjo Tudjman became the first president of the Republic of Croatia.) But only by keeping the two discourses analytically apart will it be possible to detect how they flow into and interfere with each other.


The academic discourse will be examined through studies of historical monographs and articles in scholarly journals, but also through an examination of history textbooks. Textbooks are important since they are consciously intended to inform the perceptions and ideas of the whole population in general and of the impressionable younger generation in particular. Textbooks, then, have a clear nation-building side to them and may be seen as a bridge to an examination of the political discourse proper.


The analysis of the political discourse will focus on the speeches of political leaders (those in power as well as those in opposition); political declarations; ideological pamphlets of party hacks, law texts, etc. As a very important part of this stage of the project we will single out for particular scrutiny the new state symbols—national anthems, flags, emblems, insignia, coats of arms—that have been adopted by the states after Communism. Many of these symbols draw directly on specific historical myths, often myths that are highly controversial in the region. Such symbols adorn public buildings and accompany official events and to a much larger degree than esoteric academic writings leave an impression on the population at large.







[1] For boundary-creation in ethnic consolidation processes see Barth, Fredrik (ed.) 1969, Ethnic Groups and Boundaries. London: Allen & Unwin and Eriksen, Thomas Hylland 1993, Ethnicity & Nationalism. Anthropological perspectives. London: Pluto press. For the role of myths in national ideologies, see Geoffrey Hosking, George Schöpflin, eds, Myths and nationhood. London: Hurst, 1997.

[2] Neumann, Iver B. 1993, ‘Russia as Central Europe's Constituting Other’, East European Politics and Societies, 7, 2 (Spring) pp. 349–370; Neumann, Iver B. 1999, The Uses of the Other: “The East” in European Identity Formation, Minneapolis: University of  Minnesota  Press.

[3] See e.g. Jon Kværne, Accounts of origins in Bosnian Muslim historiography (MA thesis, University of Oslo, 2001). This phenomenon is known also to Norwegian historiography. The so-called ‘Norwegian school’ of Norwegian historians—P.A. Munch, Rudolf Keyser and others—insisted that Norwegians had immigrated to the Scandinavian peninsula from the north, while the Swedes had arrived from the south. Hence, we should not see these peoples as closely related. See e.g. Dahl, Ottar 1970, Norsk Historieforskning i 19. og 20. århundre. Oslo: Universitetsforlaget.

[4] For power relationships between ethnic groups, see Schermerhorn, R.A. 1970, Comparative ethnic relations: a framework for theory and research. New York: Random House.

[5] Huntington, Samuel P. 1993, ‘The clash of civilizations?’, Foreign Affairs, 72, 3, pp. 22–49; Huntington, Samuel P. 1996, The clash of civilizations and the remaking of world order, New York: Simon & Schuster.

[6] See e.g. Shnirelman, Victor A. 1996,Who gets the past? Competition for ancestors among non-Russian intellectuals in Russia. Washington, D.C. : Woodrow Wilson Center Press.

[7] Or some other non-national principle such as the Greek city states or the medieval ecclesiastical states.

[8] See e.g. Pål Kolstø, Political construction sites. Nation-building in Russia and the post-Soviet States. 2000 Boulder, Colorado: Westview press 2000. Chapter 3: ‘Discovering the centuries-old state tradition’.