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East European Perspectives: October 1, 2003

1 October 2003, Volume 5, Number 20


By Pal Kolsto


When explaining the outbreak of the wars in former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, many authors have claimed that the use and abuse of historical myths have had a deleterious effect on interethnic relations in the region (Malcolm, 1994; Malcolm, 1998; Melcic, 1999; Mertus, 1999; Judah, 2000; Colovic, 2002). Often these myths are attributed to a specific Balkan mentality, and it is asserted, explicitly or implicitly, that the Balkans are infected with such myths to a higher degree than other parts of Europe. I accept the first proposition, but not the second. There is strong evidence that mythologized versions of the past have indeed influenced the thinking of many former Yugoslav citizens and induced them to accept their leaders' calls to go to war. But this propensity is not, I believe, a mark of Balkan culture as such. It should suffice to recall the extensive and often highly effective use of historical myths by fascist regimes during World War II. Furthermore, mythologized pasts are not the exclusive property of authoritarian and totalitarian states, but can be found in abundance in Western democratic societies as well. The importance of a study of historical myths in Balkan societies, therefore, does not derive from what it can tell us about an allegedly unique Balkan culture, but from what it may contribute to our understanding of universal cultural patterns and political processes that may be found ALSO in this region.

If it can be demonstrated that certain historical myths have been used to foment hatred and aggression, does it follow that historical myths are always detrimental to human collectives and ought to be eliminated? This is a moot question that divides the research community into two camps, which, for convenience sake, may be called "the enlighteners" and "the functionalists." The enlighteners treat myths as the opposite of "facts." Presentations of history that distort demonstrable facts are mythical. Whether the distortions result from ignorance, wishful thinking, or deliberate manipulation is irrelevant. In all instances a factually correct rendering of the past is strongly preferable, and it is therefore the task of the professional historian to explode the myths by pricking the balloons, so to speak, and show the hollowness inside.

Most often the enlighteners will agree that an exact and precise rendering of history "Wie es eigentlich gewesen ist" or "how is really happened" (to use Leopold von Ranke's celebrated expression) is not attainable. The enlighteners are not naive historicists or positivists, and they readily accept that all history is subject to selection and interpretation. A subjective element always creeps in, but that does not mean that we should open the gates for a deluge of unbridled subjectivism, they argue. Even if ultimately unattainable, historical objectivity should be retained as an ideal that the historian should try to approach as closely as possible.

The functionalists take a somewhat different view. They see myth making as an inevitable element of human existence and human societies. Some go even further and insist that mythologies should not be grudgingly accepted as an unavoidable evil, but be POSITIVELY WELCOMED as an enriching aspect of life; myths are part of the stuff of which well-functioning human societies are made.

The vast majority of professional historians seem to come down on the side of enlightenment and see ideology-driven constructions of historical myths as an important impediment to historical understanding. Ottar Dahl, for one, identifies the urge to construct collective identities and ideologies for social and national groups as an important driving force behind the study of history. Such ideologies have often led historians to start with the conclusion and move backward in search of evidence that can support their preconceived ideas. It is the duty of the professional historian to resist such temptations, and tendencies toward myth making must be countered with critical "de-mythologization," Dahl asserts.

"The demands of veracity and correct argumentation in professional historical science mean that the construction of collective identities should be a question not of 'myths,' but of 'self-knowledge.' This implies that prevailing perceptions of identities may have to be abandoned or revised. [Members of the group] may have to recognize that the past was not all that glorious after all, and the present may not be much better either. From a normative point of view, based on an understanding of history as a research-based scholarly discipline, it must be clear that an ideological function of history, detached from the demands for veracity and correct argumentation, is illegitimate" (Dahl, 1986, p. 105).

Few professional historians, irrespective of specialization, will disagree with the basic thrust of Dahl's position. Eric Hobsbawm, for one, insists that historians "must resist the formation of national, ethnic and other myths, as they are being formed.... We have a responsibility to historical facts in general and for criticizing the historico-ideological abuse of history in particular" (Hobsbawm, 1994, p. 11). In the same vein, Noel Malcolm juxtaposes "myth" and "proper history" as opposites. In the preface to his celebrated book "Kosovo -- A Short History," Malcolm denies that his aim has been anti-Serbian. Instead, it has been "anti-myth." All groups in the former Yugoslavia, including the Serbs, will one day have to "come properly to terms with their history," he maintains (Malcolm, 1998, p. xxvii).

Political scientists, however, often take another approach. While the enlightenment position might certainly find adherents within this discipline, the functionalist orientation nevertheless seems to be more widespread in politology, at least among those political scientists who have discussed the subject of historical myths in writing. Thus, for instance, Sonja Puntscher Riekmann in her definition of myth brackets the question of historical "truth," which was central to Dahl's and Hobsbawm's discussion. A myth, she argues, is:

"a story told and retold by the members of a community about its inner and outer conflicts and conflict resolutions. It is a true story in so far as it recalls events which have in one way or another shaped the community and its social order through the emergence and consolidation of beliefs and norms. At the same time, a myth transcends the truth of the events: a myth is not historiography" (Riekmann, 1997, pp. 61-62).

To probe into the historical veracity of myths would be misplaced. Puntscher Riekmann does not discuss, however, how a researcher ought to react whenever she or he comes up against myths that are presented as if they were precise and true renderings of the past. Nor does she tell us how we shall be able to discern between mythical accounts of the past and other historical narratives.

Several authors have taken Noel Malcolm to task for his treatment of the myth concept as presented above. Tom Winnifrith claims that demythologization Malcolm-style may lead to the production of new myths, and specifies two such myths for which he believes Malcolm's "Bosnia: A Short History" may provide fuel: First, that racial groups are real and "clearly separated from each other by language, religions and culture for ever and a day." And second, that "one race is superior to another in a particular area if it got there first" (Winnifrith, 1995, p. 8). Providing theoretical underpinnings for racism is one of the most serious charges that can be directed against any author, and Winnifrith's criticism would have been annihilating if it had been trustworthy. However, it is hard to see how an unbiased reading of Malcolm's book can lead to these conclusions.

A less egregious and perhaps more constructive critique of Malcolm's books has been presented by two other British researchers, Wendy Bracewell and Alex Drace-Francis. They write:

"Although his work has brought many useful clarifications, Malcolm's definition of 'myth' simply in terms of 'historical untruth' is not sufficient to understand, let alone prevent, ongoing conflicts. It may even leave the door open for new myths to enter the scene. The questions of Bosnia and Kosovo are not (or not only) ones of 'what really happened,' but also ones of why different versions of the past continue to hold the meanings that they do, and of why such importance is attributed to these meanings" (Bracewell and Drace-Francis, 1999, p. 54).

These two researchers seem to accept the enlightenment position that mythic histories for the most part DO have a pernicious impact on social relations. Other functionalists, however, take a different view. They see historical myths not as something that, regrettably, is virtually impossible to eradicate, but on the contrary, as an aspect of life that fulfils positive and wholesome functions. Anthony Smith, for instance, talks about the "regenerative potential of ethnic myths." The myths of a community, Smith asserts, "refer to the selfsame community and its history, [and] different sections of the community find themselves enclosed within one national circle, a single orbit of common security and destiny, a clearly bounded social and territorial identity" (Smith, 1999, p. 88).

One of the most influential books on the study of historical myths published in recent years is "Myths and Nationhood" (1997), edited by Geoffrey Hosking and George Schopflin. In his introductory chapter, Schopflin starts from an explicitly anti-rationalist premise: "Certain aspects of our world...cannot be encompassed by conventional rationality" (Schopflin, 1997, p. 19). This leads him to see myths as "one of the ways in which human collectives -- in this context, more especially nations -- establish and determine the foundations of their own being, their own system of morality and values. Members of a community may be aware that the myth they accept is not strictly accurate, but, because myth is not history, this does not matter. It is the content of the myth that is important, not its accuracy as a historical account" (Schopflin, 1997, p. 19-20).

Communities may be distinguished by the different degrees of density and intensity of their myths, Schopflin maintains. Some communities have developed a much richer set of myths than others. Such a dense and intense network of myths plays a constructive role in the life of the community. It enhances the coherence of the group and helps it overcome tribulations and hardships. It allows the community in question to withstand much greater stress and turbulence (political, economic, social, and so on) than those with only a relatively poor set of myths (Schopflin, 1997, p. 22). Members of myth-poor communities will tend to be drawn into the orbit of superior myth-rich communities. Through myth, the assimilation of ethnically different groups is accelerated, as the myth-poor community accepts that upward social mobility demands the abandonment of its culture, language, and myth-world in exchange for something superior, for a better world (Schopflin, 1997, p. 22).

Even if we forget for a moment the demands of the enlightenment position and keep within the logic of the functionalist position only, Schopflin's theory is problematical, in at least two different ways. First, his claim that dense mythology alleviates collective stress is not supported by argument or evidence, and, in fact, from a strictly logical point of view there seems to be no particular reason why it should not lead to the opposite result. Uncritical belief in irrational historical myths may plunge the members of a community into rash actions against other groups in defense of perceived historical rights. This may lead to protracted and painful conflicts that increase the stress level of all groups involved.

Second, the centripetal power of myth-dense communities that Schopflin postulates is also questionable. The main reason for this is that collective myths tend to draw STRICT BOUNDARIES between those who belong to the community and those who do not. This boundary-defining function of myths Schopflin readily accepts.

"Through myth, as already argued, communication within the community is intensified. [...] The consequence is that communication across the boundary becomes extremely difficult, given that mythicized language is devised for intra-community communication, not across boundaries. In trans-boundary communications, myths distort perspectives and confuse participants, because their role is to strengthen collective solidarity and not to clarify exchanges with another community" (Schopflin, 1997, p. 24-5).

Thus, in the larger world, in which the myth-based community interacts with other groups outside the pale, their myths may turn out to be quite dysfunctional, if not destructive. In a globalized world, in which no ethnic or cultural group is an island onto itself, this certainly poses a major problem.

The Political Use Of Myths
While the methodologies of the enlightenment approach and the functionalist approach to the study of historical myths are very different, they are not mutually exclusive. There is no logical contradiction between studying the functions of a certain myth in a given society and at the same time asking: How far does this mythologized version of the past misconstrue or distort the historical record? What IS actually the historical record?

Branimir Anzulovic has suggested that we may distinguish between beneficial and harmful myths. The difference between the two, he explains, derive from their intrinsic qualities. Modern myths based on the Enlightenment idea that man is by nature good have inspired genocide and must be rejected. The myths of higher religion as well as classical Greek myths, on the other hand, he regards as beneficial (Anzulovic, 1999, p. 181).

I agree that myths may indeed by categorized by their internal structure and message, but just as important as the intrinsic qualities of myths are the way and the causes for which they are employed. Any number of myths may be used in harmful ways, also seemingly innocuous ones, if they are appropriated as expressions of a certain quality of the group that allegedly provides the group with specific rights not enjoyed by others. I see no inherent reason, for instance, why the Greek myth of Prometheus -- which Anzulovic cites as an example of a beneficial myth -- cannot be exploited for aggressive purposes. A Greek nationalist can, for instance, claim that since Prometheus (in a nationalist interpretation) was a Greek, and had the temerity to steal the fire from the gods, the Greek nation possesses more audacity, as well as a higher culture, than other peoples.

When we study the function of myths, we ought not to assume that myths function in this or that way of and by themselves. Myths cannot act, only people can. To ask about how myths function, therefore, is to ask about how myths are used and misused by people.

It is probably possible to find historical myths that have been narrated throughout the ages without being fuelled by any particular political motive. The opposite phenomenon, however, seems to be much more common: myth makers have a political agenda; myths are produced and propagated in order to bolster specific group claims.

Already in premodern times scribes, priests, and chroniclers mingled myth and history with the aim of glorifying power holders and dynasties. Princes and kings were described as having descended from an ancient, often semi-divine or divine, forefather, and the gods allegedly fought on their side in the battles they won (Sundquist, 1997). In the age of nationalism, the tendency to mix history and myth for political purposes was strengthened and took on a new dimension. Now it was no longer the dynasty as such that was glorified, but the NATION and the nation-state (Cassirer, 1975). As Bruce Kapferer has expressed it: the legends of the people are turned into the myths of the state (Kapferer, 1988).

A transparent -- and to a contemporary reader a rather amusing -- case of how boundary metaphors may be twisted and molded to suit the exigencies of the day is provided by the British historian R.G.D. Laffan. His book "The Serbs: The Guardians of the Gate" was written during World War I and first held as a series of lectures for British officers and soldiers on the Balkan front. Laffan's aim was to give his fellow countrymen a better understanding of the Serbs, better also in the sense of replacing negative British stereotypes about this Balkan people by some new, positive stereotypes.

For British soldiers in World War I, it was far from obvious that the Serbs would be their most obvious allies in the Balkans. Since the 1830s, when Russia appeared as a major player in Balkan politics, Great Britain had pursued a rather consistent policy of propping up Serbia's main enemy, the Ottoman Empire. The main reason for this was that strong South Slav national states in the Balkan were expected to become natural allies of England's rival, Russia. Hence, in British public discourse the Turks had been presented as noble and civilized aristocrats, while their Orthodox, Slav subjects had been depicted as uncouth ruffians (Todorova, 1997, pp. 95-100). During World War I, however, Britain suddenly found herself in alliance with the Serbs -- and Russia -- against the Turks, and a different story had to be hastily constructed.

In his lectures, Laffan combined the Wall metaphor with David-and-Goliath imagery.

"The little country [Serbia] stands in a position of world significance: She holds a gateway between the mountain walls, and therefore she is in a position of utmost danger.... The more powerful neighbors have coveted the passage-way which she commands" (Laffan, 1989, p. 19).

In Laffan's rendering, Serbia was a defender of both Christendom and Civilized Europe. "The Serbs had always done their best to render [services] to Christendom: for their country is, indeed, one of the gateways of civilized Europe" (Laffan, 1989, p. 3).

In World War I, however, Britain and Serbia were at war not only with the Ottomans, but also, and much more importantly, with Germany and Austria. Laffan's argument logically lead to the conclusion that while SERBIA belonged to civilized Europe the latter countries did not. This, in fact is a conclusion Laffan is willing to draw. "The Serbs, he insisted, have never ceased to struggle against the barbarism of Turkestan AND BERLIN" (Laffan, 1989, p. 3. Emphasis added). No more fuss about "das Land der Dichter und Denker" [the Land of poets and philosophers], as Germans often like to describe their own country. But since Berlin is located to the north, not to the east or the south of Serbia, it was not entirely clear how the Wall metaphor could still apply.

It should be noted that historical myths may be employed not only by the defenders of a people or a state in order to glorify it, but also by its detractors to blacken and discredit it. In such cases, a political agenda is often discernible as well. As Maria Todorova has shown, during the Yugoslav wars of succession Western political leaders for a long time used the myth of the exceptionally bloodthirsty Balkan peoples as an excuse for their lack of active involvement. Since all Balkan peoples allegedly partake in this particularly ghastly Balkan culture, it was virtually impossible to distinguish between culprits and victims in these wars. Deep down, all former Yugoslav peoples were cutthroats, and if the international community should decide to intervene on the side of today's underdog, the victimized party would be certain to revenge himself prodigiously as soon as it got the upper hand, in an endless vicious circle of vendetta (Todorova, 1997, pp. 3-7 and 130-38, passim).

Negative myths that reverse the myths that a nation tells about itself are often presented as the true and demythologized version of history. However, when the demythologizers themselves have a political ax to grind, their demythologized version may be no less mythical than the versions they replace. The new versions of history are often just mirror images of the old myths: former heroes are now depicted as villains, and glorification is turned into demonization. The new stereotypes that are presented are antimyths not in the sense of providing an antidote to mythical history, but by turning the old myths inside out.

Concluding Remarks
A study of historical myths may take two different forms. The enlightenment approach aims at exposing them as the myths they are, in order to liberate those who are misled by them and clear the ground for a truer, more rational, and factually more correct history. The functionalist approach, on the other hand, brackets the issue of veracity and probes into the social functions that these myths fill. In my view, both approaches may be defended and legitimately employed by serious scholars, albeit with certain caveats and within certain limits.

Some varieties of functionalism, however, must be rejected. This is the case when it is used, explicitly or implicitly, to delegitimize questions of truth and moral guilt. This relativistic variety of functionalism claims that since objectively true history is not attainable, "my version of history is always just as good as yours." All accounts of the past are mythical and interest-driven. Since we have no way of pressing beyond the various narratives -- in Keith Jenkins' terminology: from "history" to "the past" (Jenkins, 1991) -- we must put to rest all questions of historical accuracy as well as all questions of responsibility for historical events.

Some other varieties of functionalism are also problematical. George Schopflin and Anthony Smith maintain that myths may have the positive effect of enhancing social cohesion. A logical corollary of this position would be that demythologization may have the opposite, detrimental effect of UNDERMINING cohesion in society. This, it seems to me, is wrong for at least two reasons. First, myths are probably NOT indispensable for group formation. Groups are formed for a number of reasons, most importantly to fight for common interests (see, e.g., Hechter, 1987). Second, national groups may have TOO STRONG cohesion. This is the case when they no longer admit the inclusion of newcomers, and also when they lay claim to the unconditional allegiance of their members.

Any claim, then, that historical myths must be left in peace in order not to sap the energies of a nation, is misconceived. On the contrary, the opposite assertion may well be made: A society that is able to treat its homespun identity-myths with some degree of irony and detachment is less likely to be mobilized by political and ethnic entrepreneurs for aggressive purposes. This could be called the wholesome function of demythologization and enlightenment.

Whatever leads to greater cohesion WITHIN has an inherent tendency to increase tension with outside groups. The propensity of myths to be used as a means to distinguish between insiders and outsiders, between friend and enemy, is therefore potentially one of their most pernicious and dysfunctional aspects. Any study of "the functions of myths," therefore, ought to be a study of "the functions AND DYSFUNCTIONS of myths."

The author is professor of Russian, Central European, and Balkan Area Studies, Department of East European and Oriental Studies, University of Oslo.


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