Krakow, Poland. What role does national myth play in forging national identity and cohesion? Here in this beautiful country of Poland it is a question that seems particularly apposite. Poland is a country that through the centuries has had to sustain its identity in spite of many attempts to wipe the country from the face of Europe. But, where does one draw the line on national myth? What happens when myth evaporates? My visit to Auschwitz was eloquent testimony of what happens when myth through strategy and policy becomes industrialised. Hitler, Mussolini, Mladic – these people represent the danger that can emerge from unbridled, industrial myth.
One could argue that Europe’s violent past is itself the result of a myriad of myth-makers. Myth fits neatly into the ancient tradition of European story-telling. And yet myth clearly has a role to play. My own sorry country Britain is a sad example. Now denied its myths by the Komissars of political correctness, drowning in a sea of meaningless multiculturalism, St George has been slain not by the now protected dragon, but by the health and safety laws of a state that has become over-mighty.
It was my old friend, Hans Binnendijk of the National Defense University in Washington, who gave me this phrase which crowns this blog. It is powerfully convincing. Americans of course have their own myth; purveyors of the American dream, a nation recast from nations, the shining city on the moral upland of rectitude looking down upon the rest of us dwelling in servitude amongst dark, satanic mills from which narrow calculation is ground out. And, of course, the one in which the Americans turn up late and then ‘win’ World Wars One and Two. America’s hollywood myth has almost written we Brits out of history. Hey ho.
But there is a point to myth. Take America indeed. We all need America to believe itself that America is an idea, rather than a power. When America simply becomes another power, as it did during the last decade or so, the West lost much of its moral compass and with it much of its political authority. The European Union is trying to cast itself in a similar mould, but Europeans do not sit comfortably on top of shining hills. European myth requires that someone always has to win and someone always has to lose. Sad, really.
Here in Poland myth is alive and well. Do not get me wrong. This amazing, modernizing country is testament to human spirit, faith, myth, NATO, European Union but above all Poles. Indeed, standing in the centre of beautiful Krakow I felt ashamed of the fast-fooded, fading, filthy centres of most British cities. The beauty of central Krakow is a myth in itself and speaks of centuries of defiance of a people gang raped repeatedly by history, most recently by Nazi and Soviet alike. Remember, the liberation of Europe from Soviet occupation began here in Poland.
Indeed, it is that heady mix of faith, myth and modernity that makes Poland. There are warnings. I saw several gangs of skin-headed youths that looked dangerously aggressive and seemingly fed by a more unattractive form of Polish national myth. I also saw the contrasts of Poland as I drove out to Auschwitz. Smart Polish Catholics on the way to church weaving to avoid drunks…at 10am. Poland has come a very long way, but still has a ways to go.
My hosts took me on a tour of the amazing Wieliczka salt mine. Some three hundred kilometers of tunnels, diving some nine-hundred metres deep, taking some seven hundred years to carve out. And, what carvings! Here Polish faith, myth and modernity are represented by salt carvings that range from cathedrals to monuments to myth in huge chambers that leave one speechless and breathless.
In a sense this mine is itself a metaphor for national myth. Bring myth too fast and too abruptly to the surface and it can break the delicate social and political balance upon which all societies are built – ancient, modern and post-modern. Why? Because national myth in Europe (and for much of the world beyond) is not like America’s myth in which everyone is meant to win. In Europe most ‘dragons’ are metaphors for the slaying of enemies, and historically in Europe most enemies live next door. That was the tragedy of the Balkans where myth became fact and fact became murder.
Rather, keep it safe, discreet, carved in some underground gallery of shared awareness so that we can from time to time we can remind ourselves of who we were and maybe, just maybe, who we are.
Yes, everyone does indeed need a dragon-slayer, but keep him in the closet.
St George, England, today? My money’s on the dragon.
Professor Julian Lindley-French, a member of the Atlantic Council Strategic Advisor’s Group, is Special Professor of Strategic Studies, University of Leiden, Netherlands and Associate Fellow of the Royal Institute of International Affairs, London. This essay first appeared on his personal blog, Lindley-French’s Blog Blast.