Subscription 790/year or 190/quarter

The past returns

Analysis: Not only Pope Benedict abuses history to substantiate his rhetoric. The same applies to Jens Stoltenberg, Fr.p. and the Norwegian Church.


[historical myths] "The need for myth in our day is screaming!"

This is what American psychologist Rollo May's conclusion sounds like in the classic The Cry for Myth (1991). The national and international statements of recent weeks have again made May's contemporary analysis relevant. The more modern the world becomes, the more the need for historical myths seems to arise. The experience of the 21. The diversity of the century makes it tempting to seek back a constructed and unified security in the past.

78-year-old Pope Benedict XVI's controversial speech at the University of Regensburg in Germany, the 12. September, can be understood in such a context. As a cardinal, Joseph Ratzinger fought against Church women, abortion, homosexuality and Harry Potter. As a pope, his main project has been to warn against secularism, materialism and the de-Christianization of Europe.

And that is how his speech can be understood: a desire to create European unity, well to mark based on Roman Catholic faith. According to the pope's speech, it was the fusion of "the biblical faith" and Greek philosophy, with the addition of "the Roman heritage", which "created Europe and remains the foundation of what can rightfully be called Europe".

Secular, atheistic or Jewish thoughts are kept out of his European project. This is how the Pope uses generalizing historical images to create unity in the present. To win in the future, it is crucial to gain definitive power over the past.

The church about the Jews

Therefore, it is no coincidence that the Pope emphasized the Byzantine 1300 number emperor Manual II. Later this fall, Pope Benedict will be in dialogue with the East Roman Church, which still has its seat in Istanbul. Therefore, he failed to mention that there was a theological rift between the East and West Roman Church in 1054. Or that Catholic crusaders were the first to destroy Constantinople when they burned the city in 1204. Or that the Orthodox patriarch would rather live in the Ottoman Empire than under the Roman pope.

To create a new Christian-European community, certain historical facts must be buried. Therefore, he conceals that Catholics like Thomas Aquinas began to read Greek philosophy after learning from Arab philosophers such as Averröes.

In order to include some in a historical summary, one must also exclude someone like "the others": In the case of the Pope there were secular atheists, Enlightenment philosopher Kant and Muslims.

But Benedict is just one of many in power who uses a selective storytelling to adapt the past to the enemy images of today. 18. In September, the Norwegian State Church sent out a press release stating that the terrorist shooting against the synagogue in Oslo. At the same time, the historical was withdrawn:

"We have not previously experienced shootings against god houses in Norway. Therefore, this can be seen as an attack on religious freedom in our country. This is therefore also an attack on our democratic society »

The interesting thing is how "the Jewish" now in 2006 is made a natural part of Norway and "fundamental values ​​in our society". In contrast to how the Evangelical Lutheran Church founder, Martin Luther, viewed Jews as "worm angels and the children of the devil," a view that formed the basis of the 1814 Constitution and the reintroduction of the Jewish law during World War II. The view of the Jews as "the others" also meant that they did not receive compensation like others after the war. After the synagogue shoots, however, the Mosaic religious community is clearly included by the Norwegian church.

Past terror

The question then becomes what is excluded from the story. The church claims that "we" have not previously experienced shooting at the house of God, and that this "therefore" is an attack on religious freedom.

But the most serious attack to date on a god's house in Norway was when the Ahmaddyya Muslims' Nor mosque at Frogner in Oslo was blasted with dynamite 14. June 1985. A woman aged 38 suffered shock and smoke injuries during the terrorist attack carried out by the National People's Party. Four days later, someone tried to set fire to the Islamic Center. At the same time, the Oslo Synagogue painted anti-Semitic slogans. While Varg Vikernes and his Norse worshipers in the 1990 century burned down churches.

It is possible that Norway has not experienced "shooting" against god houses, but on the other hand unfortunately the country has experienced worse attacks on believers than the shots in Bergstien. As is often the case, the nuanced historical "truth" becomes the first victim when dramatic contemporary events are to be understood. By not mentioning the past attacks on Jews, Muslims and other minority believers in Norway, the Church also creates a notion that today's god-house attack is something "new" and "unoriginal." The historical parallels disappear so that it is not serious that a house of God is attacked once again, but that it is presented as if this is the first time.

Stoltenberg about Denmark

Norwegian power politicians also use a selective understanding of history to justify their policies. When Jens Stoltenberg started last year's election campaign at the National Assembly last year, he compared Bondevik's policy towards the Cathedral School with the threat of the "400 anniversary night under the Danes". Understand that Norway's union with Denmark from 1380 to 1814 was a dark time, citing Ibsen's Peer Gynt metaphor. Stoltenberg's historical problem only in the following: The 400 years were one of the best economic growth periods in Norwegian history. The Danish age was better for Norway than Denmark, as history professor Knut Mykland has pointed out.

However, historical intelligence is not the most important thing when the past is to justify one's argument. The most important thing is to create unity in the present by creating myths and unity about the past. And this is done by making a distinction between "us" and "the others", by emphasizing one mythical side of the past, and by hiding complex information.

Fr.p's June proposal for a historic "cultural canon" in Norway, inspired by Denmark, is now being discussed at the Storting. The grounds state that Fr.p. will "give people a better understanding of what is Norwegian culture and of the border between Norwegian and foreign culture".

Again, it is about creating unity in the present with the help of selected events in the past. However, the most important thing here is not what you include, but what or who you exclude. History is not drawn to show complexity, but rather simplicity and relevance. In practice, there are limits to the worldview of the future.

The Viking Age

However, these Norwegian examples of history selection also have parallels to more serious views of the past. Serbia's Slobodan Milosevic laid the foundations for the Balkan wars of the 1990s when he went to the Kosovo plain on June 28, 1389, to mark the 600th anniversary of the military defeat of Orthodox King Lazarus. While Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in recent months has cast doubt on the extent of the Holocaust, precisely to discredit Israel today.

And those who were co-responsible for the Holocaust had to point to even earlier times: "We gather here in West Viken, because the genealogy that unified Norway into one kingdom lies here," as Vidkun Quisling put it in his speech to NS in Borre, the pin 1943. The brutality of the "Viking Age" legitimized both Nazism and a reactionary family view. Today, however, Norwegian schoolbooks use the Vikings to show how extroverted, women-friendly and enterprising Norwegians have been in the past.

In short: History can be used for the most part. Therefore, it is dangerous, since the need for mythical storytelling does not seem to diminish but increase. The past has to come back.

Dag Herbjørnsrud
Dag Herbjørnsrud
Former editor of MODERN TIMES. Now head of the Center for Global and Comparative History of Ideas.

You may also like