University of Social Sciences and Humanities, VNU Hanoi

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[Book introduction] Vietnam: Myths and realities

 

The book launch ceremony for Vietnam: Myths and realities

In German, the term "Mythos" (myth) is associated with a number of quite different ideas and meanings: On the one hand, we associate it with a supernatural level, a level that surpasses our everyday sphere; on the other, however, we also find this word in our everyday language: "I think this is a myth", is a widespread phrase, at least in colloquial German. Between these two poles, there are different conceptual gradations as to how this term is understood.

Generally speaking, we can understand myths as stories, or, to use a new German buzzword, as “Narrative” (narratives). In our book we use a specific understanding of myth and narrative and this understanding we explain with the following words:

"This book deals with stories, their relationship to realities and their perceptions. The term stories covers a very broad spectrum: from stories that distract from experienced reality and want to lead into another, fictitious world, to stories that deal very intensively with this reality and try to shape it. Such stories are usually referred to as narratives. They can be very different: Longer, sometimes epically formulated stories are contrasted with stories that are condensed into a slogan or even a catchword.

When we use the term 'narratives', we refer to stories that have a certain potential to create meaning and identity, both collectively and individually. They convey values and emotions and promote the integration of citizens. They can contribute to weakening of and liberation from authoritarian forms of rule, but also to the support of those in power and even the fortification of authoritarian forms of rule. They contain truths and un-truths, they can even be true and false at the same time.

Such narratives shape the image one has of a country, its society, economy, politics and culture. They help to create realities. People believe to the best of their knowledge and ability that reality is what the narrative says it is.

What we call realities, is therefore always shaped by narratives at least, and always contains narratives, and narratives always contain realities. Narrations and realities are thus mutually dependent, influence each other, cannot be separated from each other and can be in strong tension with each other".

This quote from our book makes clear that in our understanding myths are obviously a very complex even contradictory structure. However, they also derive their attractiveness from those contradictiosns, because they have the ability to bridge contradictions and to merge different meanings into a seemingly homogeneous whole. In this way, myths dissolve seemingly inexplicable things and put them together within the framework of a catchy narrative.

Myths are at least ambiguous, and since they can fulfil several functions, we can also describe them as, and here we suggest using a sociological term, "polyvalent". This is especially true for "political myths". All analyses of the very different political myths that we find in Vietnam and that those various authors examine in our book fit the following definition Claus Leggewie has developed:

"The political myth is a narrative that creates a common identity and gives a ‘we-group’ self-evident, unquestionable recognition across its social divisions and cultural differences. […]

From a sociological point of view, myths create the collective consciousness and memory of large groups, including nations, to whom they lend an inner bond and temporal continuity beyond their spatial extent and territorial boundary.

The political myth substantiates what is and should be in the community, thus it creates credibility in the entire breadth of the sense of legitimacy (our emphasis, JW/GW). [...] Political myths always contain elements of truth and lies, of historiography and prophecy, of past and future. In this respect, they are true and false at the same time."

In European intellectual history, from Plato through the Enlightenment to the "Critical Theory" of the 1930s, 1940s and beyond, there has been an intense interest in exposing and deconstructing myths in order to find out the truth and reality behind them.

In our book, we have proceeded incomparably less profoundly and philosophically founded. Since, speaking with Claus Leggewie, we consider political myths true and false at the same time, and because we think that splitting processes that are dependent on each other is an unproductive endeavour, we have focused on a detailed analysis of the content of the respective myths and an investigation of their function(s). We have therefore asked all book authors to confront the political myth they have studied with the following questions:

- What does the respective myth consist of, what exactly is its core content?

- How did it the myth came into being?

- What is the tension between verifiable facts and the statements of the myth?

- To what extent does the political myth contribute to the consolidation and legitimation of the rule of those in power?

- Which potential do myths have to challenge domination?

- What exactly makes the myth so attractive?

We examine these political myths in Vietnam, a country that is geographically far away from Germany and whose history and culture seems to have few parallels with Germany or other European countries.

Regardless of such geographical and historical factors, however, increasingly intensive relations between Germany and Vietnam have developed since the middle of the last century. Probably no other (South) East Asian country is as present in Germany as Vietnam. This has contributed to the fact that exaggerated expectations were put into perspective and that clichés were broken up, which in turn resulted in the creation of an image of "Vietnam and the Vietnamese" which is much more colourful but also much more contradictory than it was a few years ago, if not decades ago. Our volume should not least contribute to such a more differentiated view.

However, with our book we do want to achieve more than developing just a new or at least a different perspective on Vietnam. Our analysis of the political myths of this country, which we find in the fields of history, culture, politics and economy, should open the view of the nature and function of political myths in other countries, not least in Germany. It is precisely the comparison of two - at first glance - so different worlds that can help to analyse things more clearly and sharply.

 

Dr. Jörg Wischermann at the Book launch ceremony

In the concluding chapter of our book, we have therefore tried to draw some conclusions and to point out some corresponding problems in our, the German, political and cultural environment.

It is in this context that we do not aim at pointing out plain parallels, but to encourage to reflect on the similarities and differences that arise when we compare, for example, the German "Economic Miracle" (“Wirtschaftswunder”) (1947/48ff.) and Vietnam's economic miracle, that is the outcome of the reform policy called "Doi Moi" (1986ff.). If one takes a closer look at them, then both economic miracles have something in common.

If we take as a starting point Adam Fforde's analysis of the "Myth of the 1986 Party Congress", presented in this volume; then take into account his thesis of a kind of "self-modernization" of the Vietnamese economy and society in the 1980s; finally, accept his conclusion that political strategies and measures have had comparatively little significance in the initiation of the Vietnamese "economic miracle" since the late 1980s and early 1990s, then it becomes immediately obvious that it makes sense to compare the most recent Vietnamese economic miracle, seemingly brought about by and at the 6th Party Congress of the CPV, with the German myth of the 1947/48 currency reform (“Währungsreform”) as the mother of the German “Wirtschaftswunder”.

We agree to Fforde’s argument, which says that if you search for “causes” of miraculous economic and social developments in Germany and Vietnam, then you should focus less on certain political events and measures such as a currency reform or a party congress. Rather, one should turn to economic and social structures and the interaction of various actors with and within those structures as the “causes” of such "miracles".

In this context, we would like to emphasize that in the Federal Republic of Germany, the myth of currency reform as the cause of the economic miracle proved to be very helpful in protecting an existing economic and political order and old and new elites from fundamental political, economic and social change. The myth of the currency reform helped to prevent the transition to a fundamentally different, perhaps even a socialist order. In the case of Vietnam, it could be said that the myth of the 6th party congress helped to keep a socialist republic and a corresponding political order alive. Moreover, here and there, a myth has helped political and economic leaders to secure their positions.

Elsewhere in our book, we have examined a very powerful political myth that was remembered just last year, on course of events dedicated to the 50th anniversary of the “1968” incidents. Here I refer to the myth of the “Vietnam solidarity” in the Federal Republic of Germany between 1965 and 1975. In my analysis of this myth, which you can read in this book, I warn against seeing this and the internationalism practiced at that time as "a 'practical-revolutionary', emphatic and voluntary solidarity of the stronger with the weaker without the impetus of self-interest" (as Dorothee Weitbrecht writes in her excellent dissertation on the internationalism of the student movement in the 1960s and 1970s).

In my opinion, however, the students and others who celebrated Ho Chi Minh in the 1960s and 1970s, shouted his name, and practiced solidarity with the "fight of the Vietnamese people" (as it was called at that time), were pursuing their own interests. Their internationalism and solidarity primarily aimed at changing society in Germany in the first place and thus functioned as a substitute.

The argument that the Vietnam solidarity functioned as a substitute has also been brought forward by former students who took to the streets in the 1960s and 1970s. In a discussion between the former member of the German National Parliament representing the Green Party, Dietrich Wetzel, Daniel Cohn-Bendit (German and French student leader, later member of the European Parliament of the Green Party and today advisor to the French President Macron) and Joschka Fischer (former taxi driver, Frankfurt “Sponti” and street fighter, later member of the Green Party, Hessian Minister of the Environment and Federal Republic Foreign Minister, later visiting professor in the USA, and founder of a think tank and his own consulting firm) Dietrich Wetzel judged in 1979:

"Internationalism [...] had a kind of proxy function and was a substitute. If in other countries struggles took place, then the identification with those struggles had a broader meaning for us. It meant and implied that we had to fight against this state, which supported and guarded imperialism (i.e. US-imperialism, JW/GW), the Federal Republic of Germany; and in this context fascism played a very strong role, at least for our generation (Wetzel was born 1936, JW/GW), i.e. this helpless anti-fascism of the Federal Republic, which seemed cynical to us in view of what happened in Vietnam" (and was done there in the name of the representative of the free and democratic world, the United States).

Joschka Fischer agreed:

"We have chosen our myths on the basis of our needs, and have then also founded and rooted them in our heads accordingly."   Internationalism, socialism and the dream of a different German republic, in Joschka Fischer’s words “that was all ‘head trash’ (Kopfschrott)", which he had "fallen for". It was a clear “identification with communism”, or to be more precise: It was “an identification [...] with the successfully fighting movement, ultimately with the socialist state". 

To an even greater extent, such an use of Vietnam applies to the kind of solidarity as it was practiced by the "Initiative Internationale Vietnam Solidaritaet" and organizations cooperating with this organisation, dominating the West German Vietnam solidarity in the 1970s and beyond (such as the "Hilfsaktion Vietnam"), I argue in my book contribution. Here the myth of the victoriously fighting Vietnamese people and the solidarity with them served political party interests and finally the goal of a transformation of the FRG following the example of North Vietnam, the GDR and the Soviet Union. Whether and to what extent this was somewhat political daydreaming we do not need to discuss in this context. It is sufficient for such ideas to inspire and guide activities.

Of course there have been others in the solidarity movement, for example our deceased friend Heinz Kotte. He did not allow himself to be politically appropriated and his priority was solidarity with the victims of the war and not with political movements and rulers.

Irrespective of such practical counter-examples, I can be summarize the thesis of my book contribution as follows: Vietnam was a myth for the vast majority of those in the Federal Republic of Germany who showed what was called “Solidarity with Vietnam” between 1965 and 1975, and like every myth, it had various functions. Perhaps the most important function was to help bring about more or less fundamental political, economic and cultural change in our country, i.e. the Federal Republic of Germany. The latter should not come as a surprise, because such fundamental political, economic and cultural change is what social movements are all about and the “Solidarity with Vietnam” was an integral part of the early so-called Third World Movement of the Federal Republic of Germany.

Finally, we would like to ask whether Vietnam's efforts to capitalize on the uniqueness of its culture and history, its attempts to convert its centuries-long defensive struggle against foreign aggression into a binding, national narrative - are those efforts not reminiscent of those, unevenly less consistently developed and presented attempts to formulate and define leading core values of German clture constituting a "Prototype German Culture" (“Deutsche Leitkultur”)?

We are aware that such a view beyond national borders may initially appear somewhat arbitrary and that it provokes contradiction. The latter is certainly one of our intentions. Because our concern in this book is to give food for thought, and not to repeat eternal truths in ever new and beautiful formulations.

Author: Jörg Wischermann/Gerhard Will

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