Nation-building and National Myths


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Nations are imagined communities. This idea was put forward by Irish political scientist and
historian Benedict Anderson in his 1991 book Imagined Communities. They are imagined
“because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their
fellow-members, meet them, of even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image
of the communion.” As nations are imagined, nation-builders have to construct the nation
out of the past, while similarly projecting the modern nation into the past. In the words of Eric
Hobsbawm: “nations without a past are contradictions in terms. What makes a nation is the past, what justifies one nation against others is the past, and historians are the people who
produce it.” This idea has been elaborated on by historian Stefan Berger. In the book
Writing the Nation: A Global Perspective he argued that the history has been used by
nation-builders as a tool to create a nation. It was the most important precondition for
establishing shared national identity, while it also gave the nation a place in world and time.
From this follows the conclusion that without history, the nation cannot exist. Nineteenth-century nation-builders looked to the distant past in order to construct the nation. In this process, longevity is key. The older the nation was, the more authentic it became. If nation-builders could claim ancestry of an ancient people that lived in the same area as they did, surely they can also claim this territory as historically theirs. Beliefs that the nation has existed for a substantial amount of time reinforced the being of that nation. Thus, nations are not only imagined constructs between modern-day citizens, they are also imagined into the past. It is here that historians have an important role to play: it is the
historian who constructs the nation out of the past, and similarly projects it into the past.
The formulation of national myths has proved a useful tool to construct the nation: by
providing a nation its national heroes, birthplace, or tales of eternal suffering at the hands of
terrible enemies, the historian connects the modern nation with its distant past and
legitimizes it both as an abstract concept and a territorial being. It is this construct of national
myths that shapes the nation, the national consciousness, and the national identity. The
historian hereby holds great influence over a nation’s past and present.

Yet, national myths have proved problematic. For the myth to remain intact, history is
presented in a way that is favourable to the nation. Cultural and historical distinctiveness is
overemphasized, threats posed by other groups exaggerated, whilst the nation’s own
agency in causing conflict and pursuing national goals through violence is diminished.
Factual evidence that would contradict the myth is left out of the narrative. Moreover,
nation-builders have to present their nation against other nations. As a consequence,
national myths can legitimize repression or lead to ethnic conflict. It is for this reason that,
post-World War II, historians started to critically reflect on their national myths. While this did
not deconstruct the nation altogether, it did open the discussion on the national past - i.e. the
nation’s role in colonization, slavery or ethnic violence.

However, while the appeal of national myths has withered away in Western Europe, it
re-emerged in formerly communist Eastern Europe. As federative states, such as the Soviet
Union and Yugoslavia, fell apart, successor states experienced a new wave of nationalism
which was strongly connected to history: as nations had to be reinvented, they invoked
national myths in order to legitimize themselves against their neighbours. This thesis will
focus on national myths in historiography, and how historiography can shape and influence a
nation’s political culture and national identity. Central is the case of Kosovo

- Melle Havermans
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