History / Society

Myth and Modernity Part 1: Political Myth and Nationalism

There once was a king, feared and loved at the same time. His kingdom was torn from the inside, divided even under his oppressive rule but larger than any kingdom his forefathers had called their own. He reigned for many a year, fighting wars in the foreign lands of the south, struggling with cousins, foe and friend, with bishops and popes. But in the end he survived them all.

There came a day when he realized he was getting old and the mighty king decided to fight a last war against the heathens to safe Christianity. With his host he moved along the shore of the Mediterranean Sea to the east, towards the land of dust and heat. One morning he decided to take a bath in the river like he had always done since he was a little boy, he was a good swimmer but, as his squire later told, this day his old heart failed him. And while it hesitated to beat the king drowned. Or so he had made his followers believe for a long time.

But the king did not die that day. He had seen his reign come to an end, had seen his heir claim the throne: A united kingdom created with fire and sword. And so the mighty king decided to leave this earth and rest, rest until one day he was needed again to unite a divided kingdom once more.

It is said he moved to a mountain in the north, dwarves and creatures known only from legends and myths followed him deep down into the earth. And there he sits beneath the mountain, sword in hand, waiting to be called. His fiery red beard grew longer and longer, through the lithic table, around his ankles. And above the mountain the ravens fly. Ready to call him, the king whose name will for eternity be told in legends: Frederick Barbarossa, the Redbeard.


The legend of the king resting beneath the Kyffhäuser in Germany is not only a story, it is a myth that lay fountain for the new German Reich in the 1870s, a political myth born out of a long tradition of storytelling.

The tale of a sleeping king in the mountain was for the first time told in the Middle Ages and had an Italian origin. But it was first not a tale about Frederick I Barbarossa but about his grandson Frederick II who struggled with the Pope even more than his grandfather ever had done and for that was more than once excommunicated. Nonetheless his followers were devoted to him and when he died all of a sudden in 1250 they began to spread the tale he was not dead but only waiting at a secret hiding place for his return to the world. Rumours were told that people had seen an army walking into the volcano Mount Etna shortly after the emperor’s death. And even though many chroniclers tried to blacken his name this story spread. In the following years many Pseudo-Fredericks were seen all over the Holy Roman Empire, 34 years after his death for example a fraud was executed in Wetzlar for pretending to be Frederick II.

It is not clear when the story of the sleeping king underneath the mountain was transferred to Germany or when the son became the father and how the story changed from a tale about the devil’s companion, who Frederick II clearly was in the eyes of the church, to one about the saviour of the world.

In the early 19th century the legend began to change into what can be called a national myth. In 1814 Friedrich Rückert wrote a poem about the sleeping “Kaiser” which became the base for other artists’ interpretations of this story. He foretells the rise of the king and with him the glory of the old “Reich”:


“Er hat hinab genommen,

des Reiches Herrlichkeit,

und wird einst wiederkommen,

mit ihr zu seiner Zeit.



The united “Reich” founded through the war against France in 1870/1871 was an empire without a history. Even in the Middle Ages when the Holy Roman Empire was still united under one “Kaiser” every territory had its own ruler, duke or knight, bishop or town council. The emperor was elected by the seven electors, the highest sovereigns in the kingdom and even though most likely the son followed the father upon the throne, theoretically that was never predetermined in the constitution.

So how to explain the consolidation of the “Reich” in the 19th century and how to keep together what was never an entity? Through storytelling, myth and legends. The young state was under enormous symbolical pressure, especially since Prussia forced through the so called “kleindeutsche” solution – a “Reich” which excluded the Austrian empire – and established the “Reich” as a counter-catholic protestant entity.

In this insecure situation the Prussian emperor claimed the ideal of the good ruler and the Kyffhäuser tale was transferred from Frederick I to Wilhelm I. Artists and writers declared Wilhelm I to be the re-born Frederick Barbarossa and gave him the name Barbablanca – Whitebeard.

Historian Frantiçek Grauss once even raised the question whether it was not this mythical ideal of Frederick that had in the end more influence upon history then the historical figure itself.

When the Germans celebrated their victory over France on March 7th 1871 at the Stuttgart “Hoftheater” the play “Kaiser Rotbarts Erwachen” – “Emporer Redbeards Awakening” – celebrated the sleeping man under the mountain, history passed by while he dreamed on but when he heard about the great victory over France he awoke and cried: “Now Germany will be great again!” It is this idea of greatness through victory that inspired the history professor Johann Nepumuk Sepp to write a new verse for Rückert’s poem shortly after the German-French-War, celebrating a prophecy fulfilled:


„Erfüllt ist jetzt die Sage,

Gekommen ist zugleich,

Gott segne diese Tage!

Der Kaiser und sein Reich.“


Even Heinrich Heine, one of the most famous German poets, authors and journalists of that time, wrote about the myth of the sleeping king, but more in an ironic and critical sense, calling Mr Redbeard a chimera who could, as far as the poet is concerned, sleep again because redemption can be found without him.


„`Herr Rotbart´ – rief ich laut – `du bist

Ein altes Fabelwesen,

Geh, leg dich schlafen, wir werden uns

Auch ohne dich erlösen.“


But far more influence than poetry, theatre and novels had monuments of grid and stone which were built all over the country between 1871 and WWI. They are ideas carved in stone, with a totalitarian and long time aspiration to manifest a political interpretation of events in a public sphere. As Thomas Nipperdey wrote in 1969 about nationalism and national monuments, a national monument is the attempt to gain a certain national identity through a graphic symbol.

The most prominent example is the “Kyffhäuser” Monument built between 1890 and 1897 in the ruins of an old castle from the Middle Ages exactly where Barbarossa was believed to be sleeping. It was dedicated to the idea of Wilhelm I being the reborn Frederick, showing on one side the awakening Barbarossa beneath the mountain and above him an equestrian statue of Wilhelm I. Since it was built on top of a mountain it could be seen from afar, the Prussian emperor got the charisma of a nation’s redeemer. Even in its design vocabulary the monument connected to the past in using only Romanesque forms. It was part of the Neo-Romanesque period that denotes the early “Kaiserreich”.


Website Kyffhäuser Monument:



Another example for this attempted connection between modernity and Middle Ages are the paintings in the main hall of the Kaiserpfalz in Goslar, a palace constructed in the 11th century, renovated and partly reconstructed in the 1870s not according to modern standards for heritage buildings but according to an ideal of greatness and importance which was proclaimed through monumental buildings. Wilhelm I did not only visit the building site but donated more than once money for the reconstruction work. After those were completed Hermann Wislicenus between 1879 and 1897 painted an allegorical cycle of the German history focusing on the Salier and Staufer period and finding its fulfilment in the proclamation of the “Reich” in Versailles. Next to this painting the second prominent is one of Frederick Barbarossa leaving is hiding place beneath the mountain, sword in hand and ready to fight his enemies. The picture of “Barbarossa’s Awakening” even resembles the fairy tale of “Sleeping Beauty”.


Barbarossa and Barbablanca in front of the Goslar Kaiserpfalz

Barbarossa and Barbablanca in front of the Goslar Kaiserpfalz


Referring to Frederick Barbarossa gave the young state a new identity, like the old king the empire had only slept waiting to be awakened by a new dynasty of rulers. It is a myth constructed by political elites eliminating every other interpretation or mythical background that could be found in the German history like the pre-March era and the democratic movement of 1848. It was a myth to legitimate not only the state but the dominance of the Hohenzollern above the other German aristocracy as well.

Even after the death of Wilhelm I and during WWI Barbarossa was conjured, it was proclaimed that like the old king his heir Wilhelm II would gain victory in battle. The national myth only died with the end of WWI and the foundation of the Republic of Weimar.


Cathedral of Orleans

Cathedral of Orleans



Frederick Barbarossa had its French counterpart in Joan of Arc, who, after losing the war against the Reich, was stylized as heroine and freedom bringer by French nationalists. But not only that: Throughout history Joan of Arc was labelled in many and completely different ways. Calling her “Jeanne de Domrémy” highlighted her peasant heritage, her title “la pucelle”, the maid, referred to her service to France, “the virgin” emphasizes her untouched body and her most prominent name “Jeanne d’Arc”, Joan of Arc, tells the story of a warrioress, an Amazon.


Cathedral of Orleans

Cathedral of Orleans



Born between 1412 and 1413 in the middle of the war between France and England and on the boarder between the French kingdom and the dukedom of Burgundy she experienced the firsts fights during her early childhood. Some historians believe that this caused her hearing the voices of saints in her adolescence. The lack of knowledge about her childhood, about the origin of her voices and the question why her first meeting with the French king was such a success that in the end he gave her an army even though she was from low birth, without experience or education and over all a woman – all that makes her character so fascinating even from a modern point of view.

With Joan of Arcs appearance the French’s fate changed from almost losing the war to nearly demolishing the English troops and capturing nearly every English bastion on French territory. It was this young girl from Lorraine who led Charles VII to be crowned king in the cathedral of Reims, and it was that said king who after she was no longer of use abandoned her never paying the ransom to release her from captivity and let her fall in the hand of her enemies to be burned as a heretic and witch in Rouen on May 30th 1431.


Jeanne Gegenlicht


The construction of myth had already started during Joan’s lifetime and increased after her death. Her executioner described that even though he had used oil and pitch to fuel the fire her body was burned but in the ash he found her heart unscathed.

Shortly after her death a new process was initiated which declared Joan of Arc free of all charges in 1456. This was the base for the far later process which led to her beatification in 1909 and her canonisation in 1920.

Her mythical fate is hard to describe. It varied from being a symbol of the French revolution to her demolishment by Voltaire and the enlightenment, who declared her insane rather than heroic due to her claim to be able to speak with angels and saints. The political left emphasized her low born heritage and stylized her as a heroine of the people in the early 19th, but her real comeback as a national heroine began with the raising conflict between France and Germany when the nationalist movement adopted the heroine as part of their own mythological tradition. This had its origin as well in the early 19th century, when during the restoration the again established kingdom tried to claim Joan as its own. A new form of catholic and nationalistic adoration evolved.

For a long time the leftist movement had blamed the Catholics for not showing any interest in the heroine and being responsible for her death in the first place, with the process leading to Joan’s beatification this argument was shredded and the Catholics and Nationalists started to re-interpret the myth. A central figure was Félix Dupanloup, bishop of Orleans since 1848, who was not only a main figure in the anti-leftist movement but also the first who demanded Joan’s canonisation. Every year the city celebrated the liberation through Joan of Arc in so called Panégyriques. In 1855 Dupanloup spoke of Joan the saint for the first time, to reinforce his claim in 1869: “I have shown you the epiphany, the heroine, the martyr. Today after years of study I can rise higher and advance further. I will show you the Joan of Arc, who is not widely known: the saint in the young girl, the saint in the warrioress and the executed. (…) In her I greet the saint. (…) Will this great and glorious honor one day even be acknowledged by the Holy Roman Church? I desire this day and call upon it. Oh France, oh my fatherland, Joan of Arc’s mother, with what unequalled diamond will our churches brow bejeweled on that day.”


Orleans' town center

Central Orleans


The Vatican was not very eager to fulfill these plans even though the catholic devotion grew and in 1978 over 20,000 went on a pilgrimage to Domrémy the place of Joan’s birth to celebrate a mass on the open field. With this pilgrimage a first climax was reached and when bishop Félix Doupanloup died the movement experienced a setback.

But the flame was still burning underneath and was fueled with traising nationalism in the late 1890s. In January 1894 the Holy Pope declared the initiation of the procedure which could lead to Joan’s beatification and with that the political right finally and completely laid its claim on their national heroine. After the beatification in 1909 it took eleven more years and a war before she was canonized on May 16th 1920, in 1922 she was declared a national saint. Stories about her performing miracles were as much a justification as her above mentioned unburned heart, although the process itself had a political motivation.

But not only this quite religious adaptation had an impact on modern French society. The figure Joan of Arc was part of the struggle between left and right over the supremacy in a state which political fate was undecided and fought over heavily. After losing the war against Germany the long existing flaws in society became obvious and substantial. The upraise of the Paris “Commune” is only one example for the inner fight for dominance between left and rights, monarchists and republicans.

Contemporaries already saw the German occupancy of Alsace-Lorraine as one of the main reason for the raising interest in Joan of Arc whose hometown was now as well under German rule. Her popularity was therefore closely linked to the trauma of a lost war and the effort to gain back the occupied territory, linked to the idea of revenge.

None the less the German historian Gerd Krummreich declared the idea of revenge against the German archenemy not to be the main aspect of conservatives’ utilisation of the national heroine, she was far more an instrument to circumscribe from other political groups in this case the above mentioned anticlerical left who tried to create a different myth. Until the 1880s the political left still believed Joan of Arc to be one of their heroines, which changed during the last years before WWI when the left lost interest at the figure since it became clearer that due to the many different groups claiming Joan as their own she could no longer be a mythical figure that could unite the whole of France. At the dawn of the 20th century Joan of Arc was finally in a tight grasp of the nationalists.

For the first time the mythical figure Joan of Arc became role model for all of France when the country headed into war with Germany. While lying in the mud, dying it did no longer matter if a soldier had a left or right political background, both groups could put their faith in Joan the Saint. Today it is nearly impossible to verify the impact the idea of a national saviour had on soldiers in the trenches, there are only indications like the full-sized portray a soldier carved into a rock during the fight over Compiègne. On posters and postcards Joan of Arc was pictured as saintly saviour floating over the soldiers, banner in hand. And those postcards were widely used during the whole wartime.


Joan of Arc, Reims

Joan of Arc, Reims


Like Frederick Barbarossa Joan became a national myth – a myth with two souls, one left one right, but in the end uniting the country nonetheless. Compared to Frederick Barbarossa the ideal of unity might not be as strong but Joan of Arc’s popularity was extraordinary and lasted longer than that of the old “Kaiser”. While Frederick Barbarossa was abandoned as a mythical father of the German nation after losing WWI, Joan of Arc is one of the most popular historical figures of France until today. She is celebrated in statues and paintings, parades and films and there is not a schoolchild who has not heard about the heroine who died defending France. Today she is popular beyond French boarders inspiring even Hollywood filmmakers.

But what do political parties and institutions gain in referring to mythical figures? It is all a question of identity. To define when a figure becomes a myth is not easy, as many theorists have proven. To shorten a discussion that started in the early 20th century:  One can speak of a political myth if a (historical) figure or a (historical) incident is used in a political system to create a modern identity – even if that means to change the actual story into mythical storytelling. Political myths are based on history but have always a connection to the present, they are mostly created by political elites, they are not only discussed in a close intellectual community but have greater influence on society. They have a true core, but can be changed to create a base for a political system, to give historical and political justification to certain events and certain forms of government.

But whoever thinks the importance of national myth ended with the time of nationalism will be proved wrong. Especially the totalitarian states of the 20th centuries used the same form of storytelling justifying their claim to rule Europe. Until today politics and myth are linked – with all its positive and negative side effects.


To be continued: Part 2 – Political Myth and Totalitarianism


Jessica Holzhausen

4 thoughts on “Myth and Modernity Part 1: Political Myth and Nationalism

  1. Pingback: 10 Historical Figures Reputed To Be In Suspended Animation | BIZARRE BUZZ

  2. Pingback: La sainte Jeanne d’Arc, Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Rouen – Jessica Holzhausen

  3. Pingback: Rewriting history as political strategy – a phenomenon as old as history itself? | 20One

  4. Pingback: 10 Historical Figures Reputed To Be In Suspended Animation – QS Daily

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