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History and Myth in Romanian Consciousness

Lucian Boia


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1We have now reached the end of this attempted decoding of a number of mythical structures which are powerfully imprinted in modern Romanian culture. I do not propose to identify alternative solutions which might be more “true” than those I have discussed. Even if, finding myself faced with fabrications or extreme distortions, I have on occasion felt the need to make my own point of view clear, the essence of my argument concerns not History but the historical discourse and its inevitable ideological and mythological charge. Even a completely different type of discourse would have invited a similar approach. History can break loose neither from the constraining structures of the imaginary nor from the equally constraining imperatives of the present. From the perspective of my project it has been used as a source for the present, a disguised source (dressed up as objective truths), but no less eloquent for all that.

  • 1 In 1996, on the occasion of the visit to France of Pope John Paul II, the “two Frances” once again (...)

2The present problem of Romanian society does not lie in the mere fact of implication in the game of the historical imaginary. The figures of this historical imaginary, though adapted to the local climate, are far from being unique. There is no society without foundation myths,1 heroes, or symbols of unity. The problem is that the way in which the structures of the historical imagination take shape among us today is highly “out of step” with Western European culture and mentality. Communism took over and exacerbated a nineteenth-century mythology, which it then left to us as an inheritance.

3Public opinion only knows the accepted “vulgate” of history (if it knows even that). But even in professional circles it is proving hard to break with old clichés. The official discourse only serves to complicate things, in as much as it can be felt to be served by a nationalist, unanimist, and authoritarian interpretation of the events of the past. The hostile reception of the volume Romanian Historical Myths (which appeared under my direction in 1995) seems to me to be eloquent; it was attacked virulently for the simple reason that it proposed a critical interpretation of the historical discourse in place of the endless and always self-equivalent “patriotic” litany. On the national television channel one vigilant historian did not miss the occasion to denounce a “Masonic plot”, while an autochthonist sociologist launched an unusual summons to scholars to align themselves with an apparently infallible popular intuition, and a military man did not hesitate to enrich the already broad palette of our original democracy with the supposed mission of the army to defend, in peacetime, the values of national history. Various critics even asked the question (habitual in the years of communism), “Whom does such an approach serve?”—in the understanding that it served the “others” (Hungarians, CIA, KGB, Freemasons, etc.). Whom it serves—apart from the far from unimportant fact that it serves the truth and the standards of a profession—I can say without hesitation: it serves Romania. Jingoistic speeches are, at the most, for “internal use only”, if anyone still hopes that in this way they can cover the lamentable state in which Romanian society finds itself. But they are of no use outside. On the contrary, it is precisely this sort of discourse which discredits one nowadays. In history, as in any other field, you must have something to offer your own time and you must speak the same language as your interlocutors. If not, you are out of the discussion, however patriotic your intentions. Nowadays, patriotism in history means rebuilding a historical school of European standard, such as we had in the first part of the century. It is not an improved and amplified version of the events of the past that will promote us in the world, but our own quality as historians, as people capable of intelligently discussing the problems that are discussed today.

4It is clear that the Europe in which we want to be integrated is not being constructed on the basis of nationalism and autochthonism, but by leaving behind these states of mind. Nationalism had its constructive aspect, which was called for in a certain phase of historical evolution. It is by virtue of it that the modem nations, the national states, coalesced. But the same nationalism—and no other—has stained Europe with blood for two centuries. There is not a good nationalism and a bad nationalism; there is simply nationalism, with all the manifestations that follow from its premises. Today we have to choose. “Le nationalisme, c’est la guerre”—Francois Mitterand’s words on his departure from the political stage perfecdy define the historical moment at which we find ourselves. And the symbolic illustration that a history of confrontation has been left behind is offered by the image of President Mitterand and Chancellor Kohl, hand in hand on the batdefield of Verdun. It is the starting point of a new mythology, in any case an overturning of the old one; a “place of memory” invested with a strong conflictual significance becomes a symbol of rediscovery within the same space of civilization.

5If nationalism means the acceptance of inextricable conflicts, autochthonism, its privileged variant in the Romanian environment, leads in a no less worrying direction. Nationalism implies the affirmation of primacy over the others. Autochthonism almost ends up ignoring them, sinking into a world of its own, practically out of history.

6Neither confrontation nor isolationism are acceptable solutions. We know that only too well, but it seems that history drags us back. Not real history, but the history we imagine. This history, in which the Romanians are different from the others and subject to persecution by the others, a paradoxical combination of illusory superiority with an obsessive complex of inferiority, illustrates a state of mind which is inappropriate to our time. Insistent actualization of a glorified past and abandonment in its trap perpetuate confrontation in relation to others and immobility in relation to ourselves. We do not need to wipe the battlefields from our memory. But perhaps we can succeed, as the French and Germans have succeeded, in giving them a new significance.

7March-October 1996


1 In 1996, on the occasion of the visit to France of Pope John Paul II, the “two Frances” once again affirmed their mythological divergences, against the background of an ad hoc debate around the issues of freedom of conscience and church-state relations. Two founding myths were set face to face: the conversion of Clovis at the end of the fifth century (the Catholic version); and September 1792 and the proclamation of the republic and the battle of Valmy (the lay version).

© Central European University Press, 2001

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