WHAT IS A MYTH? This question cannot be easily answered; the notions and concepts used in various scientific disciplines are too divergent and, as with many other terms, they possess different meanings in different societies. (1) For the purpose of this article, a definition by Philip Manger is useful. According to this author, a myth is "a form of poetic truth, the sifting out of an essence, a hypothetical, metahistorical core that contained an intrinsic meaning," (2) a meaning that joins the past to the present and thus establishes another, perhaps higher, form of reality. This holds true for all kinds of myths, but especially for the "political" myth that will be dealt with in this paper.
Of course, one might ask, are myths nothing more than products of the fantasy of later historians and writers trying to describe something that has vanished beyond recall? Or are they a device to re-create certain longed-for, seemingly unattainable traits in the present? Is Il mito absburgico, so masterfully described by Claudio Magris, (3) nothing more than the "assimilation of historiography into fictional literature," (4) with no relevance whatsoever to the times that are the object of description (although it tells a lot about the times of the writers)? Magris himself would not agree to such a description. He wants his work to be seen as a critical and analytical study, not as an exercise in nostalgia. He claims that the Habsburg myth existed and was turned to good purpose no later than the beginning of the nineteenth century. (5)
Apart from the very existence and nature of political myths, one should concentrate upon a second question: how these myths are being construed and how they function in the process of creating community memory and thus a collective cohesive identity among a given group of people. It is by now almost a truism--although one not shared by everybody--that communities, like modern nations, are dynamic social constructs where elements of invention, creation, imagination, fantasy, and myth, together with subjective elements, form the basis for that feeling of identity that is the necessary adhesive for the formation of any group. In the process of community building, three elements seem to be decisive: the role of a political elite as actors in this process; the penetration of constitutive ideas into broader segments of society by means of the creation of a communication network, symbols, institutions, and practices conducive to the formation of a group identity (or self-images of such groups); and the adhesive impact of crises and upheavals. (6)
What applies to the groups of people we have been accustomed to calling nations (7) might perhaps also apply to other groups, such as the inhabitants of a state, for example, the Habsburg monarchy in the last 100 years or so of its existence. This compound of territories has been described as a monarchic union of estates-dominated Crownlands (monarchische Union von Standestaaten), which it certainly was until the middle of the eighteenth century; certain of these traits...