4 January 2008

I doubt that anybody who finds their way to this site will not already know and appreciate the writing of Mark Mazower, one of the leading contemporary historians on modern (South East) European history. Having just (re)read two of his books during the vacation (Salonica – City of Ghosts and After the war was over – reconstructing the family, nation and state in Greece, 1943-1960) I feel strongly that contemporary debates on the Balkans – and an understanding of recent events – would benefit from more policy makers (also in the Balkans) being familiar with his research.

I also recommend visiting Mark Mazower’s elegant website: www.mazower.com. There one finds links to a range of articles he has written, which are available online, such as Violence and the State in the 20th Century. Here Mazower explores the relationship between modernity, the state and violence:

“there can be little doubt that the genocide of European Jewry cannot be understood in terms of atavistic throwbacks to medieval hatreds: Nazi anti-Semitism did not merely represent a revival or continuation of earlier Christian attitudes but drew extensively on contemporary racial science for its authority and legitimacy. Sociologically, leading Nazi cadres included highly educated individuals. The technology employed, and the state that deployed it, had a fair claim to be among the most advanced in the world at that time.”

Mazower also looks at another example of European barbarity in the modern age, the destruction of Ottoman Armenians:

“In 1915-1916, at least 800,000 Armenian civilians were killed in cold blood by Ottoman forces. There can be little doubt that the killings were deliberately planned and carried out at the highest reaches of the Ottoman state. The fact that the Armenian populations of Istanbul and Izmir were largely untouched simply means that the goal was not, as in the Nazi case vis-à-vis the Jews, complete extermination. But this is not the only difference between the two cases. The use of Ottoman rather than Nazi ethnic categories meant that some Armenians could escape death through conversion. Moreover, the structure of the Ottoman state differed sharply from that of the Third Reich: there was a cabal at the top rather than a single leader: we know far less about the Teskilât-i Mahsusa than about the SS, and we still lack an analysis of who really held power in Istanbul in 1914-1915. Above all, while the Third Reich plotted the extermination of the Jews at the height of German supremacy, in the spring of 1915 the very existence of the Ottoman Empire had been thrown into question by Russian victory at Sarikamis, British victory at Suez, and the threat of seaborne invasion of the Dardanelles.”

In addition to mass killings the 20th century was marked by other forms of state-sponsored violence:

“More common throughout the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries as empires collapsed and nationalism gained ground have been those intermediate-range policies of violence known since the 1990s as “ethnic cleansing”-policies characterized by a combination of massacre and expulsion, deliberate acts of terror and looting, social humiliation and mass rape.”

As Mazower notes in another article (2006) on the emergence of the idea of an international civilisation:

“Paradoxically, the common experience of Nazi occupation – which had discredited nineteenth century civilizational monism – led European states to reaffirm the value of law as a check on the unfettered executive power over the individual subject and citizen. As Brian Simpson has so fully analysed, the 1950 European Convention on Human Rights emerged out of the crisis of the war and the postwar struggle for decolonization as the expression of an unprecedented voluntary surrender of sovereignty by member states of the Council of Europe.”

Mazower’s website also has a list of links to articles he has written. Just two quotes will be sufficient to make obvious why these comments are also of interest to anybody who cares about the issues discussed on this website.

One is from a commentary how Europe can learn from Turkey’s past:

“The penalisation of discussion of the Armenian genocide is a similar kind of hang-over from the past. After the great war, some of the most liberal of the new European states criminalised any questioning of the circumstances of their origin. In the 1920s, Czechoslovakia and Estonia, for example, felt so unsure of themselves that they outlawed what they termed opposition to the state “because of its origins”. In western Europe, the contemporary criminalisation of neo-Nazi sentiment and Holocaust denial is a phenomenon closely related to this, reflecting postwar unease about the fragility of democratic traditions and testifying to the well-founded suspicion that without the intervention of the Big Three during the second world war, right-wing authoritarian rule in the EU heartlands might have lasted well after 1945.” (Financial Times 2005)

Another is the most recent comment, written in Februay 2007, following the assassination of Hrant Dink:

“Repealing the now infamous article 301 of the penal code, under which Dink among many others was convicted, would be an important step towards ending the legal intimidation of writers: the government’s talk of reforming it is not really enough. It could do more to support the dissemination of the exciting research that is emerging from Turkey’s flourishing universities. Above all, it should take a hard look at how the country’s history is taught in schools. Right now, the Kemalist old guard still talks and acts as though any discussion of the republic’s founding myths will jeopardise the security of the state. This is absurd: Turkey is not going to crumble if its leaders finally acknowledge the Armenian genocide. The Turkish army is not suddenly going to be weakened by a more critical look at what happened 90-odd years ago. The alternatives right now look pretty stark. On the one hand, an opening to Europe. On the other, continuing to live in a world where the work of defining patriotism and historical truth is placed in the hands of trigger-happy 17-year-olds.”

Filed under: — Gerald @ 1:43 pm
1 Comment »
  1. […] much of a surprise either: rereading it while preparing to make a documentary about this very city, Mark Mazower’s Salonica is the best introductions to one of the most fascinating urban experiences in the […]

    Pingback by Rumeli Observer - ESI — 23 December 2008 @ 10:43 pm

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