Using history to grasp the present

Mark Mazower, a British historian, is no stranger to Greece. In addition to having written the influential «Inside Hitler’s Greece,» he continues to spend considerable time here, and is currently writing a historical study of Thessaloniki. A graduate of Johns Hopkins and Oxford, he has divided much of his professional time between Princeton and Sussex universities, and is currently professor of history at the University of London’s Birkbeck College. His other books include «Dark Continent: Europe’s Twentieth Century» and «The Balkans.» In Greece this week to promote the Greek edition of «Dark Continent» (by Alexandria Publishers), Dr Mazower spoke with Kathimerini English Edition on a rainy Thursday morning (January 17, 2002) in Thiseion on an array of subjects. As a historian, you deal professionally with elements of continuity from the past. What can history teach us in a time of upheaval, post-September 11? History can’t really give one greater powers of prediction about the future. What it can help us understand is that different critical elements from the past make it possible to make valid historical comparisons and parallels. And it can give us a useful vocabulary for thinking about where we go from here. For example? Well, for example, we are supposedly in a war against terrorism, and that is a complex concept – terrorism in particular. Here is a case where it is probably quite helpful to look at past instances of fighting against terrorism, about what people meant by terrorism. It can help us guard against too-firm judgments about the usefulness of fighting it now. It is the only thing that counts when informing our judgment about «the now,» when certain states defined terrorism in a way that implied a military response, and what was affected by their decision to impose a military response, and what was useful in effecting that as opposed to giving a policing response. We can ask: When did policing work? When did it fail to work? What kinds of terrorism required intelligence gathering and what kinds were not susceptible to intelligence gathering? And what kind of intelligence? Much of the history you write is what we could call «social history.» Have you focused on that as opposed to «elite» history because of personal proclivity, or is the reason more professional in nature? There is no one kind of desirable history. You have to adapt the material according to how one approaches the questions that one is interested in. In the past, for example, people were interested in who started the Cold War, which led to the study of policy elites [but in Greece], many things going on were neglected [by historians] because of this. The Greek reality How would you summarize the advances Greece has made over the past decade or so? To what extent has Greece «arrived» in the sense of European modernity, as the government would have us believe, or is this mainly rhetoric? Well, I’m always a bit uncomfortable with the railway metaphor for modernity. I think Greece has changed hugely over the last 10 or 20 years. The importance of ideology and politics has greatly diminished; 15 years ago you couldn’t have a discussion about the Civil War or the [German] occupation without people getting impatient and shouting about these issues. There’s a new generation now that doesn’t feel so strongly. It’s also become a much more consumerist and urban society… The other thing that one notices is a much greater involvement of foreigners in Greek life. Also, Greece finds itself in what we might call its «post-optimum trading world,» with new business opportunities and has also brought many people from Eastern Europe and elsewhere into Greece. This has created a huge underclass. Greece’s relationship to the East, with the Balkans, and with Europe have all changed profoundly. There has also been a great influx of immigrants from the Balkans, especially Albania. Has this change been primarily social, economic, political, or all the above? Greece is part of this very paradoxical evolution in modern European history. With prosperity came a new immigrant population, and Greece now faces all the dilemmas of multicultural societies. These issues are not going to go away. In «Inside Hitler’s Greece,» you refer to Greece’s archives as a «national disgrace.» Was this a youthful indiscretion, or is that still your feeling? Oh, I am very happy to sound off about this, because here is a country that is rightly proud of its past, yet it treats the artifacts and documents that give clues to its recent past more cavalierly than any other country in Europe… The problem is the indifference of the Greek State… And you’ve had a tremendous renaissance of historical studies in Greece since the end of the junta. The production of scholarly history has never been higher. But it is a great pity that they have to travel to London, or Paris or elsewhere to do their research on Greece itself. Do you think this could in some ways damage Greece’s image, because historians help write the image? Well, it certainly doesn’t increase scholars’ love of the Greek State! But what they have is Greece through the eyes of their diplomats… [which] reinforces a certain picture, that Greece is the plaything of foreign powers. And of course, often Greece was, but not in quite the way that people understand it, and not always. How would you rate Greece’s performance in the Balkans in the last decade or so? Was its role basically helpful, a hindrance, or some of both, and how did it evolve? I think that Greece’s role has become really very positive, and more active in a larger regional role. Europeans feel there should be much more regional input, and all this has underpinned the new thinking. It represents a rather impressive rethinking and reorientation of Greece’s interests. Do you think the Balkans are over the worst of the violence that started with the Yugoslav breakup, or does the process have further to run? Specifically, do you see Montenegro or Kosovo (or both) eventually assuming statehood? Well, I think a big problem was the tendency to identify the Balkans with violence to start with… We don’t have to assume that there will be a cycle of violence…. Nobody, anywhere, wants war. It’s an obvious point, but where people see the effect of war on their doorstep, it gives them pause for thought. I think that we have a very precarious settlement in Bosnia. And in Kosovo, the problem is more a legal issue raised by the NATO intervention itself, namely its future constitutional status… that still needs addressing. Of course, in Greece Kosovo unleashed passions that haven’t been seen for many years here. How do you interpret that in retrospect? Well, in Kosovo there were two competing principles: state sovereignty, and preventing the ill-treatment of minorities, and the two principles collided… In the minds of many people, not just in Greece, was the thought that, if NATO was going to intervene so quickly on behalf of… a minority, then will this set a precedent for the future? And there is, of course, a long history of Balkan peoples achieving national liberation by deliberately enmeshing or getting the great powers to intervene on their side. So this was a [Greek] reaction that in many ways stemmed from an understanding of the region that people in the West needed to have, but didn’t… And therefore there were reasonable grounds to be against the NATO intervention in Kosovo. Over the past decade or so, has the knowledge base of Greece and the Balkans, by British (or other foreign) students increased or decreased, and why? Interest in the Balkans has hugely increased in the last 10 years, as well as the Ottoman Empire because of the Middle East crisis… Much recent history of the Balkans has been written by journalists, like Misha Glenny or Noel Malcolm, (who) is not exactly a journalist but not exactly a mainstream historian, either. And think of the importance of [Robert] Kaplan’s book in America, in the 1990s [«Balkan Ghosts»]. So this huge public appetite is filled by historians, but they have been a bit slow, and that’s because it’s a slow business, to train historians. Europe after EMU With the introduction of the euro, have your sometimes Euroskeptical views changed at all, or are you still pessimistic about the EU’s ability to bring about a common sense of European identity? What I resist is the rhetoric of all or nothing… If you have the all-or-nothing view, you see [a future euro crisis] as a great existential crisis which is sliding you straight back into the bad old days of nation-states and national wars… I think that there are strong reasons, especially post-September 11, why we should aim toward as close a cooperation among European states as possible. Do you think part of the problem, still, is that the EU is basically elite-driven? Yes, isn’t it? (laughter). There is a cultural issue there. That explains why there has not been a common European identity created, and there won’t be for a very long time, because this is not the sort of thing that elites can construct. Discussing his work In «Dark Continent» [Mazower’s best-known work to date], you discuss the 20th century as involving a large-scale clash of three ideologies, liberal democracy, fascism and communism, and argue that the second of these is the most genuinely «European» of the three. Assuming this is so, do you think that the remnants of either fascism or communism can pose a genuine challenge to the 21st century liberal democratic framework? Historically, fascism was about a number of different things: nationalism, anti-Semitism, racism. Now, these new parties you are talking about know better than to present themselves in favor of a one-party state, which has been rather discredited. Many of those at least in Western Europe know much better than to come out as anti-Semitic, but they get a certain mileage out of racism and immigration. And they don’t, unlike fascist parties in the past, come out against capitalism… We are in a different historical situation where democracy is not… pitted against something that threatens its own abolition, but it’s pitted, if you like, against a force that other people would regard as reprehensible. A political scientist would say that their influence is indirect rather than direct. I think you’re absolutely right; the real influence is how they influence center-right conservative parties. But we have to say that racism and anti-immigrant views are so widespread that… they can shift the public discourse and the policy of mainstream parties in their direction. Do you think the same is true at the other end of the spectrum? Well, I’m not sure the Green parties are the successors to anything. They have roots in the past… but seem to me to be a genuinely new force. But many of these left parties are not successors to anything; they have existed for a very long time. So the connection between the left and the failure of communism is a different kind of connection than that between the right and the failure of fascism. You often express strong views in your works. Do you think that there are drawbacks to, shall we say, «showing your colors» as an historian, that it could jeopardize its scientific value? No (laughter). Because you can write history in different ways, but every historian… has his own views and interpretations, and everybody, in order to be scientific, tries to ensure that those views have been tested against the evidence. And to think that the evidence would always force one in the direction of nicely moderated moderate views is an interesting hypothesis, but it’s not necessarily true. There’s a question of rhetoric and of science here… but sometimes deciding your choice on the basis of the rhetorical element can be less than fully honest.