Politische Mythen im 19. und 20. Jahrhundert in Mittel- und Osteuropa

TitlePolitische Mythen im 19. und 20. Jahrhundert in Mittel- und Osteuropa
Publication TypePublication review
AuthorsBröker, Jan
Author(s) of reviewed materialeds. Hein-Kircher, Heidi, and Hahn, Hans Henning
Title in EnglishPolitical Myths in 19th and 20th century Central and Eastern Europe


PublisherMarburg: Herder Institut
PagesX + 412
ISBN Number978-3-87969-331-3
Full Text

Recently, scholars have become increasingly interested in the history of political myths. One product of this trend is a volume recently published by the Herder Institute entitled Political Myths in 19th and 20th century Central and Eastern Europe. This book, edited by historians Heidi Hein-Kircher and Hans Henning Hahn, features articles written by participants in a summer academy on “Politische Mythen im 19. und 20. Jahrhundert. Perspektiven historischer Mythosforschung” [Political Myths in 19th and 20th Century: Perspectives of Historical Research on Myths] held by the Herder Institute in 2004. It also includes contributions from a panel chaired by Hein-Kircher at the 45th Deutscher Historikertag entitled “Mythos und Raum in Ostmitteleuropäischen Grenzregionen” [Myth and Space in East Central European Borderlands]. In their preface, the editors’ state their intention to use the volume to stimulate more research on political myths and move the field in new directions.

The 26 articles are divided into four thematic sections, framed by an introduction and a concluding discussion about the typology of political myths. The majority of contributions (twelve) deal with the territories of Germany and Poland, or their respective borderlands. Estonia, Slovakia, Bohemia, Austria, Hungary, Albania, Moldova and Bulgaria are each discussed by one contribution, and two articles cover Russia/Soviet Union. With regard to regional distribution, there is a strong representation of (Eastern) Central Europe over Eastern Europe.

The introduction of the volume, “Politische Mythen” [Politcal Myths] by Yves Bizeul, is a reflection on political myths as a concept for historical analysis. Political myths are defined as narrations of the origins of a political era and/or a political space (which Bizeul defines as an achieved and/or desired territory) often linked to single persons or heroes (4). Bizeul distinguishes the term political myth from utopia and ideology and further points to its ambiguous character of having both conservatory (integration, social cohesion) and emancipatory effects (14). The definition might be too broad for direct application to specific cases, but it is thought-provoking and offers one way of framing “political myth” as a concept. 

The first thematic section of the volume consists of seven contributions gathered under the label “Myth-Media.” This section explores the ways myths are communicated through various forms of media. Detlef Hoffmann presents theoretical reflections on the role of non-verbal memory (“Non-Verbale Erinnerung”). He characterizes these as complementary to verbal narratives which create links to the present by visually manifesting myths, e.g. the convention to portray Zeus with a beard. In her contribution on early Soviet propaganda posters, Nicola Hille provides an exemplary analysis of the visual expression of political myths. She argues that the rise of Stalin’s political influence is visually documented and shifted from the image of Lenin’s pupil to the author of the revolution. Janis Augsburger and Katja Ludwig deal with the role of literature in creating and disseminating political myths. Augsburger deals with author Bruno Schulz’s concept of myth and the influence of the glorification of Piłsudski on his historical interpretations, which she identifies as an “anti-analytisches Bedürfnis” [anti-analytical desire] to interpret history. Ludwig describes the romanticist August Wilhelm Schlegel’s reception of the “Nibelungenlied”, the medieval epic of the hero Siegfried, as politically motivated. According to her, Schlegel’s interpretation has to be seen in the light of his political convictions and in the context of the Napoleonic Wars. In his contribution analyzing the perception of the 1943 bombing of Hamburg, Malte Thießen demonstrates the dynamics and longevity of mythified narratives and their impact on urban self-perception. According to Thießen, rather than leading to a deconstruction of myths the passing of time leads to the construction of new myths. Alexandra Kaiser gives yet another example of the persistence and longevity of myths by focusing on the rituals of the “Volkstrauertag” [Memorial Day] by three different political regimes, the Weimar Republic, Nazi Germany, and the Federal Republic of Germany. The last contribution in this section by Vasile Dumbrava deals with public memorial statues as a medium of representing and perpetuating political myths. Through an analysis of the discourse on memorials in Moldova, he shows that memorials play a central role in the tension between remembering and forgetting and are crucial in shaping the discourse on national identity.

A compelling contribution of János M. Bak on the persistence of the myth of the Hungarian conquest from medieval to modern times opens the second thematic section on the “inevitability” of mythic concepts of history. Bak traces the changing instrumentalization of the myth that served as a symbol for the rights of the nobility in the 15th and 16th century, was portrayed as representing the ‘thousand year old constitution’ of Hungary in parliamentary debates in the 19th century, and at the turn of the twentieth century was used to legitimize the dominance of ethnic Hungarians in the Hungarian kingdom. Ingo Wiwjorra analyzes the crucial role of anthropologists at the end of the 19th century in transforming the romanticist perception of the Germanic myth into a politically viable asset that was later used to counter a deficit of legitimacy and propagate autochthony. Hans Henning Hahn and Eva Hahn deal with the myth of expulsion (“Vertreibung”) in Germany from 1945 to 2005. They demonstrate how several different sequences of events were merged into the label “expulsion” and how much this collective term (with strong biblical allusions) still dominates public debate, preventing a critical reassessment. In his contribution, Gabriel Eikenberg scrutinizes the role of the mythification of German culture for the self-identification of the Jewish minority in Austria from 1918 to 1938. According to Eikenberg’s analysis, the discourse in the Jewish press of the time featured a selective interpretation of German culture, constitutive for Austrian Jewish self-identification. Stefan Guth deals with the role of Polish and German historians of the interwar period and distinguishes between “logos” (represented by historians) and “mythos” (represented by citizens, patriots). Historians, he argues, played a crucial role in reconciling “logos” and “mythos” by adding to the corpus of national myths. Marina Liakova convincingly explores the dichotomy between the historical concept and meanings of “Europe” and “Islam” as myths in public discourse in present-day Bulgaria. The final contribution of this section, by Miloslav Szabó analyzes the works of 19th century Slovak philosopher Ľudovít Štúr’s on Slavs, which shows the active role of scholars in shaping and promoting political myths.  

The third section, “Space-myths,” is opened by two complimentary articles on “Kresy”, the Polish borderland, by Werner Benecke and Jerzy Kochanowski. Benecke provides an overview on the development of the discourses on the region from “antemurale christianitatis” in 15th century to its 19th century romanticist characterization as an idyllic land, and finally to its classification as dispensable by the Polish politicians of the National Democracy, such as Roman Dmowski, in the interwar period. The post World War II development of this same discourse is carefully scrutinized by Kochanowski, who juxtaposes the idealization of the region in the memory of exiled Poles to the attempted (and failed) elimination of Kresy from public discourse in socialist Poland. Silesia as a contested region for political mythmaking is also the subject of two articles. In analyzing the myth of “Oberschlesien,” (Upper Silesia) during the Weimar Republic, Juliane Haubold-Stolle stresses the stylization of Silesia as “blutende Grenze” (bleeding border) in the irredentist propaganda of freikorps groups (284). Antje Johanning focuses her attention on a less explicit political use of the region as a projection of mythological interpretations of the natural landscape by 19th and 20th century German writers. Lastly, Olaf Mertelsmann’s article on the myth of Narva river in Estonian public discourse provides another paradigmatic example of the instrumentalization of a borderland region. For the most part the river was perceived as a gradual point of transition, but in the framework of Estonia’s accession to the EU in 2004, it has increasingly been described as the line of demarcation between “civilized Europe” and “the rest”.

The fourth thematic section “Fremd- und Eigenbilder” (Perceptions of the Other and Self-Perception) assembles five contributions grappling with national myths as much as (auto-) stereotypes. Annika Frieberg describes Stanisław Stomma’s leading role in initiating a change in the Polish perception of Germany from 1956 to 1968. While not neglecting the predominant negative experience of Nazi-Germany, Stomma paved the way for reconciliation by arguing for a transnational dialogue. The national myth surrounding Georgi Kastrioti Skanderbeg, the 15th century Albanian leader, is scrutinized by Andreas Hemmig. He convincingly argues against any positivist attempts to reveal the “truth” behind political myths or to dwell solely on the content and symbols of a myth. He demonstrates how the myth of Skanderbeg was utilized by various factions, thus becoming not only the symbol for 19th century nationalists, but also as the figurehead of the socialist regime under Enver Hoxha. Anna Kochanowska-Nieborak explores the contributions of conversational lexica to the production and dissemination of the myth of the “noble Polish patriot” in pre-1848 Germany. She demonstrates that although following the 1830/31 November Uprising public perception largely embraced a positive image of the Poles, it became increasingly negative as a result of Prussian influence after 1848 and found its culmination in the unification in 1871. In his contribution Jonathan Kwan establishes three competing perspectives: Gesamtstaat, Czech national and German-Bohemian in the historical narratives of 19th century Bohemia. Using these lines of interpretation, he persuasively argues that historians played a crucial role in formulating concepts of Bohemian identity. Another, more recent process of identity formation is presented by Magdalena Parus-Jaskułowska, who analyzes the 2003 debates around Poland’s accession to the European Union. In these campaigns, Poland stressed its special role in history, and existing myths such as Poland’s historical role as “antemurale christianitatis” were re-invigorated, thereby distinguishing itself within Europe. 

The concluding chapter of the book contains Heidi Hein-Kircher’s typology of political myths. This typology develops arguments and issues from Hein-Kircher’s dissertation research on the Piłsudski-Cult (Hein 2003). She characterizes political myth as an emotional narrative that is based on a selective interpretation of (invented or actual) historical events or figures, and mainly serves the function of orientation and Sinngebung (creation of meaning) (408). Although this definition is rather broad, Hein-Kircher rightly stresses the need to analyze rather than dismiss the use of myths in political life, and her typology opens the field for a comparative inquiry.

            Undoubtedly, this collection fulfills the editors’ intentions to promote further research on the history of political myths. However, it also raises a number of important questions and concerns with regard to the very topic it addresses. One crucial question concerns the term “political myth.” Some contributions rely on the dichotomy between “mythos” and “logos”, defining the former as fundamentally irrational and emotional. This implicitly echoes the positivist dichotomy of “myth” vs. historical “reality,” a distinction which does not possess high heuristic value in current historiography. Likewise, the selection of contributions demonstrates a rather broad interpretation of the label “political,” that includes the veneration of political figures, the politics of history, and national poetry to national (self-) perceptions. However, since the book's main goal is to address the question of methodology used in the research of political myths, and because it brings together contributions covering a wide variety of topics and regions, one cannot expect all the contributions to rely on a single set of theories in a sub-field where a comparative perspective is only now becoming popular. Furthermore, both the introduction and conclusion successfully lay the foundation for theoretical advances.

A slight shortcoming of the volume is its rather odd structure. For example, Heidi Hein-Kircher’s typological reflections on political myths are contained in the last and not the first chapter. Moreover, an introduction elaborating on the concept of “political myth” (which might have provided insight into the use of the terms “political” and “myth”), and outlining the scope of the volume is lacking, thus burdening the reader with making sense of the regionally and methodologically heterogeneous contributions. Although the titles and contents of the different sections (especially the third and fifth chapter) also seem to some extent arbitrarily chosen, they point to the complexity of “political myths.” However, these organizational issues are likely because the volume combines contributions from two different conferences, and also because several of the articles fit into more than one section. Despite these limitations, Political Myths presents valuable case studies that expand the historiography of well-known figures and events within their respective national traditions. It also raises, and begins to answer fundamental questions about the history of political myths.


Jan Bröker

Central European University




Selected Bibliography


Hein, Heidi. Der Piłsudski-Kult und seine Bedeutung für den polnischen Staat 1926-1939. [The Piłsudski-Cult and its Impact on the Polish State 1926-1939]. Marburg: Herder Institut, 2003.


Flacke, Monika (ed.). Mythen der Nationen: ein europäisches Panorama. [Myths of the Nations: a European Panorama]. München: Koehler & Amelang, 1998.


Williamson, George S.. The Longing for Myth in Germany: Religion and Aesthetic Culture from Romanticism to Nietzsche: Culture, Religion and Politics from Romanticism to Nietzsche. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2004.