Take a step back for a longer perspective


Mark Mazower has systematically studied the history of modern Greece, which is why a discussion with him amid the celebrations of the 200th anniversary of the Greek Revolution promises to be very interesting on many levels. Moreover, as a member of the Greece 2021 committee, the British historian personally contributed to the preparations to mark the bicentenary of the 19th century War of Independence against Ottoman Turkey.

Mazower, professor of history Ira D. Wallach at Columbia University in New York City, recently traveled to Greece to speak at an event hosted by the Department of Justice. Speakers included President Katerina Sakellaropoulou and Minister of Justice Kostas Tsiaras. Mazower’s own speech focused on types of justice during the Greek War of Independence.

However, in this interview, he touches on many other aspects of Greek wrestling while exploring his modern perception: the endurance of Greek society in 1821, our dedication to the heroes of the time, and the opportunities offered by a national anniversary are a few of these.

What questions should we ask ourselves when evaluating a national anniversary such as the bicentenary of the Greek Revolution?

A national anniversary is not a fact of nature but the product of a political decision, sometimes collective, sometimes less. Over time, such celebrations may become established while others may disappear or be abolished. Who is celebrating the date King Otto set foot on Greek soil today? It has long been forgotten. Yet, in fact, it predated the establishment of March 25 as a national holiday. The bicentenary year of the outbreak of the Greek Revolution offers a rare opportunity to step back from the very short-term concerns that normally beset us and think in a much longer perspective. In some ways, this can be particularly useful today. The way we receive information and news today is increasingly breathtaking; it becomes more and more difficult to find a moment of reflection and contemplation on what the events mean because everyone is supposed to have an instant reaction. In addition, we are gradually losing the habit, as historian Carl Schorske once said, of “thinking with history”. Thus, the bicentenary is an opportunity to try to understand the very radical break with the past represented by the establishment of an independent Greece, to ask what independence really meant and to trace the path traveled since then. . At the same time, it is an opportunity to think a little about the future.

We tend to think in such moments along two lines: a) was it a success or a failure? b) should we be pessimistic or optimistic about the future? I think like any relationship, our relationship with history is too complicated and too multifaceted to be embraced by such dichotomies. We have already benefited from a number of very important exhibitions and publications which will be lasting testimonies of the value of this opportunity.

In his work of the same name, Eric Hobsbawm argued that national rituals and celebrations could be broadly described by what he called “the invention of tradition.” Is this something inevitable, given the ultimately unifying impact that the concept of nation has on the historical past? Have you faced similar issues as a member of the Greece 2021 committee?

Hobsbawm, and others, helped us see how much we have inherited from a 19th century obsession with history and its need to create lore where they couldn’t be found, or to make whole myths. from pieces and pieces. This does not mean that all traditions are invented or that the meaning of the past is a modern invention. To put it in the abstract, this means that we have to be careful not to confuse the essence with the process: we have inherited the conceptions of Hellenism and Greece from the past: but different versions of these have emerged. at different times.

You are writing a new book on the Greek Revolution. Have you charted new directions in the historiography of 1821 which is published in large quantities these days and, if so, in which “school” (if any) would you classify your upcoming work? What is the main point of your new book?

The first thing to say is that scholarly history flourishes in Greece like few or no other countries of comparable size. Some classic works were written on the Greek Revolution in the 19th century; but no serious scholar today can write on the subject without taking into account the works that have come out in Greece over the past 20 to 30 years: We know much more than in the past about the economy of the revolution, about the Ottoman Dimension, on the war at sea, on Etaireia and those who joined it and what they thought about it. My book will therefore be partly a synthesis and a kind of tribute to the work of my Greek colleagues.

At the same time, it will provide – I hope – a fresh and interesting interpretation. The story of 1821 is in many ways a very complicated story. I think that’s one of the reasons we tend to focus on the heroes – because they make everything so much easier to understand. In fact, it took place in many different regions, in spurts. There was a failed start, on the one hand, under Alexandros Ypsilantis. In addition, the Greeks were facing defeat in the summer of 1827 and would not have won their freedom without the support of the Allies. But what does this also mean? That for six years the Greeks – at least from Morea, the islands and parts of Rumeli – had already resisted far longer than anyone in Europe had imagined they could in 1821. This endurance, this endurance – to use the expression now very popular – this resilience of Greek society strikes me as the key element and the one that fascinated me the most.

You recently spoke about the forms of justice during the Greek Revolution. What is the most important thing you would say on this subject to a citizen who is sometimes wary of the judicial institutions of his country? Can we trace the so-called woes of modern Greece back to the early days of the Greek state or is it not at all?

Institutions are old fashioned – state institutions first and foremost: few people fall in love with institutions. What I think the history of 1821 shows us is what a society looks like when it is between institutions – when the old institutions have ceased to function and the new ones have yet to emerge. The Ottoman state had collapsed; the new state of the Bavarian monarchy was not yet imagined. Was this vacuum preferable? Ask the peasants in central Rumeli, who were at the mercy of any “oplarchigos” and any gang of armed men who held power at the moment. The work of building judicial institutions was difficult, and after 1821 it fell behind the more prestigious and public affairs of establishing the other two branches of government. Between the texts of revolutionary constitutions and the realities of what justice meant, there was, in the 1820s, a vast gulf and that is what interests me as a historian.

In 2022, Greece will commemorate the unfortunate end of the Greco-Turkish War of 1919-22. What kind of thinking would you, as a historian, like to see then, given that the event being commemorated will be one of loss and not of victory?

When there are too many, commemorations risk losing their impact. But the “katastrofi” was obviously a fundamental moment in the emergence of the modern Greek state. One could almost say that it was only then, a century later, that the revolution of 1821 truly came to an end. Human suffering was immense, and the challenge that the refugee crisis posed to the state was no less important. The society of northern Greece in particular would have developed in very different ways without this enormous movement of populations. And two other longer-term consequences of these events strike me. First, that it transformed relations between Greeks and Turks – simultaneously severing old ties, as Muslims left Greece and Orthodox Christians from Anatolia and the Black Sea; and intensifying them, as Greece received a new influx of populations who had lived for centuries with Muslim neighbors and who often spoke Turkish as well as if not better than Greek. The second is that the “katastrofi” announced a new relationship between nation and territory. The old ideal had been to take as much territory as possible, as if the land itself was the reward; we live in a very different world today, which may have started then.

From David Harvey to Craig Calhoun, opinions about the role of nation states in the 21st century vary widely. What do you think is the role, the meaning of these “imagined communities” (and their celebrations) in a globalized world where people, money, products and information constantly cross borders?

I think what is striking is how powerful nation states remain today. They embody feelings of political community that do not easily dissipate, perhaps because they have been associated with ever wider political and economic social participation. Globalization is a huge challenge for them. However, nineteenth-century political thinkers understood something that often escapes us today, namely that national politics and international cooperation are not opposed but complementary. Small countries, at the mercy of the bigger ones, know this from experience. But in the face of global warming, even large countries are now small.

And the pandemic? Should we expect it to reinforce cosmopolitan visions (based on awareness of the vulnerability of our species) or to make us more introverted, nationally? Can public health (as a policy but also as an objective, as a collective objective or even as a concept) play a role towards more inclusive societies?

I experienced the pandemic in Manhattan and saw moments of tremendous social solidarity as people tried to isolate themselves and ignore those around them. Over time, the latter realized that this was not possible. So, what I saw was the pandemic reinforcing the notions of public good and social solidarity which had been in decline for many years. I hope this will continue. But when crises end, it is often the lessons that are most quickly forgotten.


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