National collectivities – like all collectivities – cannot exist without some shared sense of their past. They tell and consume stories about themselves. They explain who “we” are, what “our” history is. As in fairy tales, they establish who the villains and the heroes are. These narratives are formed, evolve, and are challenged by other narratives. Some are dominant, hegemonic, and manifest; others are subordinate, dormant, and hidden. Groups within nations – parties, regions, ethnicities, churches – elaborate their own stories, confirming or denying the dominant narrative, or simply coexisting with it. The conflict is continuous, part of the life of modern nations.
These struggles are fought with unequal means. The dominant historical narratives achieve their status because they are produced and promoted by dominant groups and by those entrusted with the task of diffusing them. Politics and economics play a preponderant role because the construction of these narratives requires a disproportionate access to the means of circulating ideas. Politicians, journalists, press magnates, those in charge of the mass media, but also educators, prestigious intellectuals, textbook writers, publishers, filmmakers, songwriters, and, occasionally, historians have a considerable advantage over those with reduced access. Unlike the myths of antiquity, the historical narratives of the post-traditional age are not necessarily taken on trust but must conform to some well-known and established facts. They cannot be made up out of thin air and cannot totally contradict the actual experience of those to whom they are addressed.