Yesterday, I visited Zagreb Cathedral. In a discreet corner close to the altar, close to where Croatian visitors are crowding to see the life-size effigy of a popular saint in a crystal coffin, a marble plate with commemorative text caught my eye. It told me that in 1971, the remains of two heroes, who had died for the freedom of Crotia, had been laid to rest in their native soil - three hundred years after their execution in Vienna.
A historian’s view of the past is never innocent. My own cynical mind immediately reminded me that Peter Zrinyi and Ferenc Frangepan (as they are known in Hungary) are also revered as Hungarian national heroes who have died for the freedom of… you guess it. Monuments to them can be found in Budapest and other places in Hungary. In the nineteenth century, Hungarian historicist painters have drawn tearful images from their lives. They have, thus, served as important figures of two national mythologies (in the most neutral sense of the word), as part of two vivid national narratives that have led, in the twentieth century, to the estblishment of two nation-states.
The trouble with national narratives is, they tend to take the past very seriously. So seriously in fact, that there is no place in that past for proper historical context that would give flesh and blood (and much-needed comparative perspective) to stories about national heroes. Had there been place for proper context in this particular story, Croatian AND Hungarian schoolchildren would have got a different, albeit no less interesting narrative. It could be, for instance, an engaging story about cosmopolitan, ambitious Croatian aristocrats who were prepared to conclude a separate treaty with the Ottoman Turks in order to secure control over Hungary from the Habsburg emperors (who, being equally cosmopolitan, preferred to put Italians, Germans and Spaniards in positions of control on the Hungarian war frontier). It would be, essentially, a story of personalities and conflicting interests of networks and clans, rather than nations. Or, alternatively, it would be a story of an early multinational corporation, called the Habsburg Monarchy, crushing the resistance of a regional branch (called Hungary), led by regional managerial elite, to the introduction of a new operational strategy and new (international) management. As any student of seventeenth-century history would know, it was essentially the international management that ultimately got two-thirds of the kingdom of Hungary (inlcuding Croatia) liberated from the Ottoman Empire. And it was a different, but still international, management team that, in the 1990-ies, achieved some kind of compromise, establishing the state of Bosnia on the territories of the historic Croatia that were not reclaimed by the Habsburgs in the 1680s and 90s.
History is a terribly complicated thing. In that, rather than in the national myths, lies its distressful beauty.