National Mythology


Rini Bhattacharya Mehta

University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana IL

Copyright © 2002 by Rini Bhattacharya Mehta, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. Copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the editors are notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.

Review of:

Hosking, Geoffrey and George Schöpflin, eds. Myths and Nationhood. New York: Routledge, 1997.

  1. In October 1996, the newly established Centre for the Study of Nationalism in Europe (University of London) embarked on their first venture: a two-day international conference, on 'Myths and Nationhood' in the University of London. The present volume Myths and Nationhood, edited by Geoffrey Hosking and George Schöpflin, makes available, as the preface informs us, the papers delivered in the conference. The idea of the conference came from a seminar series jointly organized by the History and Social Science Departments and the School of Slavonic and East European Studies in 1995-6, a seminar designed to investigate 'the nature and functions of myths concerning nationhood.' In the absence of an 'Introduction' or an introductory first chapter tying the contents of the collection, the short preface is quite useful to the reader, as it sheds some light on the organization of the chapters, and the general principle of coherence guiding the volume.

  2. The entire collection can be divided thematically into two sections. The first section consists of three articles of a general theoretical nature, while the longer second section consists of specific case studies, mostly from post-cold-war Eastern Europe. There is one paper on 'American Nationhood,' and one on Afrikaner nationalism.

  3. The first two articles, "The Role of Myth: An Anthropological perspective" by Joanna Overing and "The Functions of Myth and a Taxonomy of Myths" by George Schöpflin, lay the groundwork for the discussions on specific nations that will come later in the volume. Overing's paper provides a useful overview of the 'anthropological approaches to mythology' and recent directions within the said area of study. Beginning with a reference to the well-known branching off of history from myth with Thucydides, Overing guides the reader through Levi-Strauss and later scholars' works with a refreshing clarity, thus providing the non-anthropologist with useful critical tools. Schöpflin uses Pierre Bourdieu and Mircea Eliade's work to show how "myth is one of a number of crucial instruments in cultural reproduction' in acting 'as a means for the members of a community to recognize that broadly, they share a mindset, they are in much the same thought-world" (20).

  4. The third article, "The 'Golden Age' and National Renewal" by Anthony Smith, one of the key pieces of the volume, examines the deployment of a 'glorious past' in the creation of nationhood. Smith sees 'myths' not in the naïve sense of a common cultural heritage but as political tools in the hands of the élite who must "rediscover" and "appropriate" a "worthy and distinctive past [. . .] in order to create a convincing representation" of the "nation" (36). Using examples from widely various events in ancient and modern history, Smith proves his hypothesis:
    [T]he collective appropriation of antiquity, and especially of shared memories of the 'Golden Age,' contributes significantly to the formation of nations. The greater, the more glorious that antiquity appears, the easier it becomes to mobilize the people around a common culture, to unify the various groups of which they are composed and to identify a shared national identity. (39)

  5. "The Myth of European Unity" by Sonja Puntscher Riekmann, the first of the specific case studies, is another strong article, as it locates the post-cold-war question of a European Union in the context of its surprisingly long political, intellectual and literary history. The recent phase of the history unfolds in the shadow of the European reconstruction, following WWII. After the Third Reich with its vision of a European empire (that was meant to last a thousand years) met its own demise, a new narrative of European unity started taking shape: "The focus of this new narrative was no longer the perennial story of nation- and empire-building, of wars and domination, but one of a common destiny founded upon a common European culture. And this narrative, for the first time in European history, met a real political interest" (61). Interestingly, in this new narrative, the 'quest of origin' became a pressing concern for many European intellectuals. The recurrence of the question, for example -- whether 'Europe' was named after princess Europa of Greek mythology or the Semitic word 'ereb' -- reflects the obsession with an antiquity that would give a 'new world order' its cultural validity. The myth of the Union, seemingly inclusive of a diverse and checkered past, hides behind its constructed cultural front -- in spite of protests from dissenting critics -- that totalitarian systems like Fascism and Communism are as interlinked with European 'culture' as are Enlightenment and Romanticism. Also, the assumed 'Christian' basis of European culture poses some serious questions regarding the nature of that 'culture.'

  6. Mary Fullbrook's study of the rupture between the lived memory of the people of GDR and the great anti- Fascist and Imperialist myth propagated by the East German government makes "Myth-Making and National Identity: The Case of GDR" appealing reading. Fullbrook describes how the people of GDR, many of whom remembered their own complicity in the Nazi repressive regime and most of who had traumatic memories of the rape, pillage and plunder that accompanied 'Liberation' by the Red Army, had to yield to an official memory. They were forced to recognize, against their own memories, that
    GDR was a country in which innocent workers and peasants had been oppressed by nasty capitalists and Junkers, imperialists and Fascists, until at last they were liberated by the glorious Red Army of the Soviet Union in conjunction with resistance fighters of other nations. (75)

  7. "Myth and the Construction of the American Nationhood" by Susan-Mary Grant is a welcome piece on the subject. For in spite of being the "largest democratic civic society of the modern period," America rarely finds itself, as the author herself has pointed out, on the list of nations to be studied by recent scholars. Grant examines the construction of American national identity around two significant moments in the process: the American Revolution and the Civil War.

  8. Bruce Cauthen's article is on "The Myth of Divine Election and Afrikaner Ethnogenesis." Afrikaners saw themselves, like the Israelites, as a 'chosen people.' The idea originated during the time David Livingstone visited South Africa in the late 1850s and actively "attributed specific notions of divine mission to Afrikaners as a historical explanation of their racial views and practices" (112). The Afrikaner perception of themselves as 'a people with a providentially ordained calling' continued through politically turbulent periods, the Anglo-Boer wars, and "with its emphasis on racial exclusivity," ultimately facilitated the rise of apartheid (131).

  9. Kieren Williams's paper, "National Myths in the New Czech Liberalism," examines the 'mythopoeic vision of the Czech nation' that gained currency following 1989. In some ways, this paper complements Fullbrook's paper on GDR: it analyzes a process of mythmaking that is bent on erasing the iron curtain period from its history. Williams provides a clear picture of how, determined to rebuild the image of a nation worthy of the company of its Western European counterparts, "New Czech liberals enlist myth to present a vision of the Czech nation as Europeans naturally inclined to democracy, hard work, commerce and self-reliance. A mythologized reading of Czech history serves to erase awkward facts, such as times when Czechs were inclined to pan-Slavism and looked away from Western Europe, or acquiesced to authoritarian rule, either by foreigners or compatriots" (134).

  10. Norman Davies's "Polish National Mythologies" chronicles and critiques the most important myths intercepting Polish political history from 1587 to the present. Beginning with the 'Sarmatian' myth which established in 1587 the Polish nobility as the pure body of the 'Polish nation,' Davies examines the myth of Poland's role as the 'Bulwark of Christendom' that originated in 1620 with the Turk invasion, the myth of 'the Catholic Pole' (1655), etc. With astonishing clarity Davies writes about the modern era, the birth of the modern political parties, and finally the birth of Poland as the 'Communist-type party-state'; he explains how myths operate in the workings of power, in both pre-modern and modern political milieus, as instruments of strategic manipulation.

  11. In " National Mythology in the History of Ideas in Latvia: A View from Religious Studies" Agita Misane and Aija Proedite examine the sacred legends, and the legacy of ancestors that characterized Latvian national identity in times of German and Russian subjugation. "Myths of National History in Belarus and Ukraine" by Andrew Wilson is a study of a similar phenomenon of counter-mythology, though in a different context and manner. The historians of Ukraine and Belarus had several clear-cut tasks before them: "disentangling a national myth of descent from traditional Russophile historiography, celebrating a lost 'Golden Age' before forcible incorporation into the Russian sphere of influence," to name a few (183).

  12. "The Myth of Zion among East European Jewry" by John D. Klier explains, among other things, how the 'tie to Zion' has kept Judaism from becoming "just a religious community by infusing it with ethnic and national elements" (173). And in the late 19th century, when European theories of race and ethnicity were fashionable, Eastern European Jewish intellectuals "rediscovered the efficacy of the myth of Zion as a symbol of Jewish identity. The myth of Zion gained special force when it was linked to a Messianic concept of return to the sacred land" (181). The concluding paper by Geoffrey Hosking entitled "The Russian National Myth Repudiated" provides a thorough and clear account of the deep impact of 'raskol' (the mid-seventeenth century split in the Russian Church) on the Russian national identity. Interestingly, the persistence of the 'Old Believers' (following the 'raskol') contributed to the conceiving of Russian nationhood in a way similar to how the myth of Zion contributed to Eastern European Jewish identity.

  13. Myths and Nationhood has brought together a fine collection of papers on many relevant contemporary issues in the study of nationalism. Many of those issues have surfaced in the wake of the break-up of the USSR. Areas of the former Soviet Union and the former 'Eastern Block' countries are latecomers in the arena of discussions on nationalism, and need more scholarly attention. This volume is a good start in that direction.

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