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Mythmaking and its role at forming collective identity: jugoslavian, german and polish case

In understanding some social processes of the past, historians and social antropologists focus their attention on mythmaking as an essencial process of creating social identity. For last years, myths are not only defined by dreams and projections known from psychoanalisic discourse. They are perceived as immanent element of looking at the past, in the sense of historic memory and collective rememberring and forgetting, which influence on the future ofthe whole generations. Myth must refer to the past, but gives a hope for the future – says Marko Hajdinjak in his interesting work on balkan mythmaking and it is quite perfect statement while looking at the history of nations and communities.

What myths are in this post-historical view? Myths are a kind of beliefs, that society has about itself. They constitute collective identity and a sense of history and influence on the process of rememberring. It is not the point, that community must treat the myths as an accurate version of history, however – must believe in accuracy of the myth itself. Myth, as Carl Kerrenyi says, is the way of oeparating on reality, „but a way never complete, which is always in process”(1) Myth has great power on particular community, transmitting the whole national symbols, rituals, memorials and „big dates”. In this reasoning, myth brings the new meaning and defins history. It formes collective memory and underlies the frontier from members of the community to non-members. By believing in myth, we distinguish Us from the Others.


Needless to say, that myths constitute history. But they are exceptionally important in such moments, which decide on one’s future, bringing changes on political and economic scene, tied often with nationalisms, ideologie ofexclusion and, in extreme cases – with the war. One of the most important and painfull examples of such mythological conflicts are Balkans and two countries belonging to this european region: Croatia and Serbia.

Croatia, in historic terms, is a country of forced forgetting. This expression, made by Paul Connerton, reffers to forming collective identity under a pressure and on the way of the threat of Serbian invasion, the permanent opponent in its history. This identity was constructed not earlier then in 1980′s, although was repressed by communist regime since the end of World War II, still shedding light on „who is who” matter from the begining of Croatia as a nation and exploding in the time of the balkan war. Not suprising, that croatian mythology after the World War II, returned from fascination of the power in fascist’s guerillas, to „Antemurale Christianitatis” – that emphasised religious separation form Serbs and muslims.

In contrast, Serbian participation in the war was explained by defending the honor of the Croatian fascists and fundamental muslims. The war in 1990′s was the third homeland war, that was supposed to overcome the catholic and muslim invasion (remains of Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman occupation and the myth of those two forces). The myth was bonded also in religion, evoking the origin of the nation as „Heavenly people”.

First question, after describing briefly the couloir of the balkan war, is how those two nations could clash their myths and just struggled in the name of religion, having such similar social mythology? The answer is rather simple: (re)construction of social identity is an almost regular side-effect of any rapid social change, in the opinion of bulgarian historian – Marco Hajdinjak In Post-Yugoslavian countries it was truly visible, in fact that after the end of World War II started a sharp process of erasing memories. Although, yugoslavian propaganda set up the renewed myth of brotherhood and unity, which was presented in films, literature at the time of 80′s.

But myths are hard to define and hard to deal with. They refers to the past (Croatian’s Antemurale comes from Leon’s X thesis of the region of today’s Croatia as the christians defence territory). Similarly, the myths which underlied Serbian’s identity, had their beginnings in the myth of promised land of Kosovo Polje, lost by them in 1392, expected to be the genuine missing piece of Great Serbia. Things are more complicated, than we think on behalf of sharing the same language by those two nations, living in Balkans. In the same way, Serbs and Croats were obligated to develop non-verbal language, that should showed, who is who. For instance, like Hajdinjak writes in his work, Serbs made extremely visible their „orthodox” way of greeting: by making a sign of a cross with the thumb, index and middle finger and raising the hand. It not only emphasized the nationality, but also stressed out the origin of Serbs as warriors. In 1989, those myth-making belief was a part of Serbs’ reality, when Slobodan Milosevic said to over million spectators on Kosovo polje: „Today (Serbs) are again in battles and facing battles. These battles are not armed battles yet, although such battles are not yet excluded”(2)

The same thing was with so called Krajina, the territory gived to balkan people by Emperor Ferdinand II, free from taxes and feudal obligations, with freedom of religious practices. However – Serbs were not the first habitants of this militar land, Ferdinand II Habsburg gave mentioned land to Vlachs (orthodox Christians speaking latinian dialect). Although, as Hajdinjak writes, Vlachs rapidly identified themselves as Serbs and abandoned their identity as minority in Krajina, that land seemed to be mythical „truly” Serb fatherland. The same Krajina and its important city – Knin, was an object of terytorial claims of Croatian governors, because of mythical origin of the first Croatian kingdom, found in 1058. When Croats finally pushed out Serbians from Knin in 1995, Franjo Tudzman compared city to „beautiful homeland”(3)

Mythmaking is significant in other, not necessarily always opponent, nations. Called the marketplace of ideas, clearly demonstrates the process of making collective identity and history of particular nation. I would like to describe the german case – both former „Ossies” and „Westies”, focusing attention on communist myths, that formed German Democratic Republic after 20 years of nazis’ regime.

The first president of GDR, Wilhelm Pieck, in 1950 claimed, that „East German youth knew too little about the Peasants’ War” (4) , that took place in 1525 in Thuringen. For the first timein german history, a radical priest, Thomas Muntzer found the Workers and Peasants’ State. In incredibly large scale, this reformative priest became an archetype of true revolutionary, the champion of the masses, who, on the basis of his People’s Reformation Party, inspired writers such as Frederic Engels and governors like Walter Ulbricht, the General Secretary, to build an idea of freeing the working class. Astonishing might be the fact, that the leaders of communist regime in Germany did not appreciate Martin Luther – the avant-garde of reformation – for his article „Against Robbing and Murdering Hordes of Peasants” (1525). Like Walinsky-Kiehl states: „If Mutzner was perceived in mythic terms as the embodiment of revolution, then Luther clearly personified the forces of Counter-Revolution during German’s Reformation Era” (5) and symbolized West Germany and their religious bourgeois ideologie. GDR communist leaders perceived themselves as the genuine democratic class, the unique Germans, non-polluted by capitalism and western, USA-in-favor-politics. Thus, in 1961 the Berlin Wall could separate the two Germanias solely. Suprisingly, in early 60′s, Luther seemed to be rehabilitated and soon Erich Honeker, the present at time, President of party, was a head of Martin Luther Commitee, which was responsible for making relations with Lutheran Church warmer than they were before 1950. Although, the myth, established by communist regime, is now concidered as not fulfilled. Masses, which this myth reffered to, didn’t in Walinsky-Kiehl’s opinion, believed in a sense of cultivating and glorying Thomas Mutzner and his Workers and Peasant’s State. Maybe this myth could not form the novadays history due to a short period of Peasant War, which dured only a year (1525-26), and was quickly shut by the feudal army.

Reffering to the glory of history and to the mythical origins, beliefs are a part of european identity, although they are at the same time often false. „False” means having false framework and being historically unreal, in opinion of Carl Kerrenyi. In Polish case, which I want to describe as the last reflection on european mythmaking, those beliefs were based on not real fable – present in chronicles, but never proved to be real. By this short introduction I want to show the polish myth of Sarmatian nationality, in which Polish noblemen were portraited as sons of Sarmatia – utopian land, which probably existed only in the historiographic writer’s imagination and baroque poetry.

Sarmatism was a myth of genealogy, which supposed to shed light on politics and culture. Thus, sarmatian noblemen, who at the same time were poets and politicians (like Maciej Stryjkowski, Stanislaw Sarnicki or Aleksander Gwagnin among others), constructed the content of mythical genealogy – nobleman as a warrior defending christian’s heritage. In its beginings they reffered to polish intervention in Moscow, which led to come to the throne the „last and lost” of Ivan’s descendants – Dmitrij. Worth to mentions is that Dmitrij was a false Tzar, created as an idea to put on the throne polish aliant, who implement new politics, in favor of Poland.

In the myth of sarmacy, writers of epoque made the model of nobleman, who should have been the warrior of his own liberty, who should have been good, frank, hospital, individual, independent. This characteristic changed into portrait of the nation as a whole, shifting with the time to a more „catholic” and contre-reformatic values like: devoutness, decency. Political situation and permanent wars with turkish enemy as well as sweddish „Flood” in 1654, developed in polish noblemens’ character new ‘mythical’ and ‘sarmatian’ virtues: stubborness, xenophobia, nationalism. Polish noblemen, in a state of invasion from all the sides, formed a myth of defenders of the faith, „one and proper catholic religion”, and focus their attention on their own small homelands, as we might read in Waclaw Potocki’s poems and epos like „Chocim War”. Today historians as Janusz Tazbir in his publications claim, that maybe this factor of shifting their forces to their own business, could lead to loss of polish autonomy. One fact is certain, this myth developed with his creators and began polish national portrait till novadays.

As we could see in those descriptions, yugoslavian, german and polish cases, so different and so particular, show consistent need of national beliefs, explaining ideological shifts, religious virtues or psychological, national characteristics. In almost all of those cases we saw clearly the unspoken but noticeable power of the myths, leading millions of people to conflicts and wars, like it was in Yugoslavian and Polish case and could be in german GDR with „Westies”, if they hadn’t established the Wall. European history evokes those myths, although it is a big work for us to do, just in revealing another myths and to clear collective memory from „erasing” or evaporating memories. History is still full of the myths waiting to be explained and discovered.

1 Carl Kerrenyi: Myth and technique, Diogenes, 13/24, p. 8.
2 Olivera Milosavljevic, :”Yugoslavia as mistake”, The Road to War in Serbia, p. 69, in: Hajdinjak: Yugoslavia: Dismantled and Plundered, paper presented at international Symposium: The Memory of Violence/Genoside, p. 10.
3 Judah, The Serbs, p. 46, in: Hajdinjak: Yugoslavia: Dismantled and Plundered, p. 12.
4 Robert Walinsky-Kiehl, Reformation history and political mythology in the German Democratic Republic 1949-1989, Sage Publications, 3.
5 Robert Walinsky-Kiehl, Reformation history and political mythology in the German Democratic Republic 1949-1989, Sage Publications, 9.

Agnieszka Szmidel

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