Out of Ashes – Descent into Totalitarianism

Out of Ashes jacket

Out of Ashes – Konrad Jarausch

To mark the release of Konrad H. Jarausch’s Out of Ashes, we continue with our series of vignettes describing some of the most compelling moments of twentieth century European history, many of which are discussed in Jarausch’s book. Today we remember the descent into Totalitarianism. Loop back to our earlier post on the birth of Modernism here.

October 1917, The October Revolution. Centuries of imperial rule implode as revolutions sweep through Russia, triggering political and social changes that would lead to the formation of the Soviet Union. Food is scarce and mounting civil unrest eventually culminates in open revolt, forcing the abdication of Nicholas II, the last Russian czar. On October 24th, the Bolshevik Red Guard initiates a coup with the takeover of government buildings and the Winter Palace in Petrograd, seizing power from Kerensky’s interim government. The storming of the palace, an iconic symbol of the revolution, will be immortalized in Eisenstein’s 1927 film, October.

October 1922, The March on Rome. Italian society is in disarray in October, 1922, when 30,000 fascist blackshirts mass on the outskirts of Rome. Fearing arrest, their leader Benito Mussolini remains safely in Milan until King Victor Emmanuele II invites him to form a new government: he takes the train to Rome (first class) where he is appointed prime minister. A former journalist (not to mention an egomaniac) well-versed in manipulating a news story, Mussolini fakes pictures of himself marching with the blackshirts and subsequently claims to have led a mythical army of 300,000 to Rome on horseback.

Feb. 27 1933, The burning of the Reichstag. On the evening of Feb. 27, 1933, alarms sound. The Reichstag, the German Parliament building, is in flames. Firefighters rush to the inferno, but too late: the embodiment of democracy in Germany is completely destroyed. A young, mentally disturbed Communist Dutchman named Marinus van der Lubbe is arrested in due course. Many see the charges as a pretext, but opportunistic Nazi leaders waste no time issuing an emergency decree abolishing all civil rights enshrined in the Weimar Constitution. It will be 75 years until van der Lubbe (long since beheaded for the crime), is pardoned on the basis that his conviction was politically motivated.

April 26, 1937, The bombing of Guernica. It is 4 pm on a Monday in the Basque village of Guernica, and a group of German bombers are spotted over the hills. Today is market day, and over 10,000 people are in the town, which is widely considered the cultural and spiritual capital of the Basque people. During a relentless three-hour siege aimed at breaking the Basque resistance to Nationalist forces, the town is blanket-bombed, while fighter planes ruthlessly pursue and gun down anyone who tries to flee. Women and children huddle and die in cellars; the town square is surrounded by a wall of flame. Guernica is systematically and utterly destroyed: 1,600 civilians—one third of the population—are killed or wounded. Pablo Picasso will later depict the attack, considered the first aerial assault on a civilian population, in the famous anti-war painting, Guernica. Beneath a fallen horse with a gaping wound, a dismembered soldier is depicted; his severed hand still holds a broken sword from which a flower grows.

A Q&A with Konrad Jarausch can be found here.

Out of Ashes – the Birth of Modernism

Out of Ashes jacket

Out of Ashes – Konrad H. Jarausch

29 May 1913. At the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, the premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s new ballet, The Rite of Spring, performed by Diaghilev’s Ballet’s Russes, descends into chaos. The combination of Stravinsky’s violent chords and Nijinsky’s primitivist choreography proves too much for refined Parisien tastes. The music is drowned out by the barrage of shouting and roaring as conservative elements in the audience contend with the bohemian modernists in the stalls. The orchestra is pelted with missiles. Forty people are ejected from the theater before calm is restored and the performance can be completed. Afterwards, at dinner with Stravinsky and Nijinsky, Diaghilev is ebullient at this succés de scandale.

2 February 1922. Sylvia Beach, proprietor of the bookshop Shakespeare & Company in Paris, publishes the first edition of James Joyce’s novel Ulysses. Serial publication of the novel in The Little Review has been halted following a public prosecution for obscenity – Beach’s edition of one thousand is the first opportunity to read Joyce’s masterpiece in full. Subsequent editions from Harriet Shaw Weaver and John Rodker are seized by customs officials in the United States and England and destroyed. American readers have to wait until 1933 for a legal decision ruling that Ulysses is not obscene, and the first authorized US edition.

19 April 1941. The Schauspielhaus in Zurich stages the first production of Bertolt Brecht’s play, Mother Courage and Her Children. German forces are advancing through Yugoslavia and Greece to complete their conquest of Eastern Europe, Britain is nightly pounded by heavy bombing raids and U-Boats patrol the seas. Neutral Switzerland is perhaps the only place in mainland Europe where Brecht’s scathing anti-war epic can be staged. Brecht, himself a German citizen but a committed Marxist and enemy of the Nazi regime, waits anxiously in Helsinki for an entry visa to the United States. Two weeks later he sails for New York.

1 December 1948. Neo-realist Italian director Roberto Rossellini completes his trilogy of war films, following Rome: Open City and Paisan with Germany, Year Zero. Set in the ruins of Berlin, the film unflinchingly depicts the daily struggle to secure enough food to survive, and the moral collapse of a defeated nation. Preferring not to use professional actors, Rossellini draws his cast from Berliners picked out on the street—children, academics, a former wrestler. Unable to speak German, Rossellini gives direction in French while one of his co-writers translates; working without a formal script, his untrained cast have to improvise their dialog. Rossellini’s dark vision of a devastated Berlin is not welcomed in post-war Germany and after a brief run at a Munich film club in 1952, Germany, Year Zero is not shown again there until the end of the seventies.

Q&A with Konrad H. Jarausch, author of Out of Ashes: A New History of Europe in the Twentieth Century

Konrad H. Jarausch, eminent historian and Lurcy Professor of European Civilization at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, is the author of the sweeping new history, Out of Ashes: A New History of Europe in the Twentieth Century, which Publisher’s Weekly notes is “bound to become the standard work on its subject”. Recently, Jarausch took the time to discuss with us how the impact of history itself influenced his own decision to become a historian, the key lessons of the 20th century, and why the tendency to view the last century in Europe as “one gigantic catastrophe” is reductive to the larger picture’s nuanced stories of humanity, prosperity and promise.

Over the next several weeks, we’ll be posting installments in a new blog series called Out of Ashes – Scenes from 20th Century Europe. Through a series of vignettes highlighting the major episodes covered by Jarausch’s book—from the descent into totalitarianism, to the growth of modernism and the arts—we hope to offer a sense of the scope and range of events that shaped the war-torn, and, as Jarausch writes, “spectacularly recovered” continent.

Out of Ashes jacketWhy do we need a new history of 20th century Europe?

KJ: The development of Europe during the last century is a fantastic story which no screen-writer could have invented, because its extremes offer an incredible mixture of suffering and pleasure. The war-torn continent has now spectacularly recovered from its prior disasters and overcome the division between East and West. Though written by eminent historians, the previous efforts are too incomplete in temporal treatment, too unbalanced in geographic coverage and too partisan in ideological interpretation in order to do justice to the complexity of events. Written after the overthrow of Communism, this new book presents a more comprehensive and balanced account.

What inspired you to get into your field?

KJ: My becoming a historian was determined by the impact of history itself: I was born in Germany on the day on which the Atlantic Charter of fundamental rights was proclaimed by FDR and Churchill, August 14, 1941. I survived the Allied bombardments of Magdeburg as infant, but my mother evacuated both of us to a farm in lower Bavaria in order to escape the danger from the air. My father, who was serving on the Eastern Front in charge of a kitchen for Russian POWs, passed away in January 1942  from typhoid fever, because he was trying to keep the Soviet prisoners from starving. As a result we never saw each other. At the end of the war my mother started teaching school in some private institutions until she finally got a state position in Krefeld in the Rhineland. I grew up playing in the rubble, being confronted with the devastating impact of the war almost every day.  It was therefore only natural for a curious teenager to want to find out what had happened in the Third Reich that destroyed his family and divided his country. Six decades later, having moved to the US as a student, I am still wrestling with questions of dictatorship and war.

Is the European record of the past century just one gigantic catastrophe?

KJ: It is true that the first half of the 20th century was full of internecine warfare, economic depression, ethnic cleansing and racist genocide that killed tens of millions of people, more than any other period in human history. But looking only at the disasters creates an incomplete perception, because the second half of the century witnessed a much more positive development in spite of the Cold War. After the defeat of Fascism in 1945, the peaceful revolution of 1989/90 also liberated the East from Communist control in a quite unexpected fashion. As a result, Europeans generally live more free, prosperous and healthy lives than ever before.

What is the central theme of the new perspective offered by this book?

KJ: Drawing on the conception of multiple pathways towards modernization, the book explores the fundamental ambivalences of modernity. The dynamism of change which Europeans unleashed in the 19th century held enormous potential for progress, but it also created an unparalleled destructive force. During the First World War, the broad coalition advocating change fractured into three competing ideological blueprints: Bolshevik social revolution, Wilsonian capitalist democracy and Fascist racial imperialism. It took World War Two to defeat the Nazi version and the Cold War to overcome the Communist variant.

Which role did Germany play in the conflicts over control of Europe?

KJ: In these ideological struggles, the new nation state of Germany played a key role as the source of problems during the first half of the century due to its authoritarian and dictatorial drives for hegemony. The country was both too large to fit into the European order and too small to dominate the continent all alone. But double defeat and loss of territories forced a drastic rethinking that re-civilized the country in the West. With the overthrow of Communism in the East, Germany became part of the solution, ending the division of the continent through reunification. In both respects Germany, located at the center of the continent, is at the heart of the story.

How does the newly emerging Europe differ from US politics, economics and society?

KJ: Both transatlantic partners share basic values such as liberty and equality, but since the Reagan revolution in the United States, the trend towards convergence has been reversed. The Europeans interpret the common legacy in a different way that makes life more livable there. For instance, the memory of the terrible bloodshed of the two World Wars has made them less willing to use war as means of politics; putting a higher value on social solidarity has created more equality on the continent; tight control of firearms has reduced homicide to one-third of the rate in the US; higher investments in mass transit have made Europe more ecological. In these questions the American public can actually learn from its European partner.

What are some of the key lessons of the twentieth century?

KJ: The loss of life and human suffering during the first half of the century were so appalling that European leaders made strenuous efforts to prevent their recurrence. Both sides of the Iron Curtain understood the need to tame the dynamism of modernity lest it become self-destructive. Concretely that meant no longer engaging in war on the continent, allowing nations the chance for self-determination, providing possibilities for self-government and creating more social equality. The overriding lessons have therefore been the need for a peaceful world order and the importance of human rights.

Does the Old Continent have a promising future?

KJ: Contrary to American pundits emphasizing the Euro crisis and to Tea Party denunciations of European socialism, the future of the old continent looks very promising indeed. The transnational effort at European integration is not just directed to overcoming the hostilities of the past, but also to meeting the globalization challenges of the future. The EU comprises a multinational realm of almost 500 million people, growing together by economic trade, unrestricted travel, civil society contacts and public debate. While the precise shape of the EU’s inter-governmental structure is still vigorously disputed, the Europeans have created an attractive alternative to the American Way.

Konrad H. Jarausch is the Lurcy Professor of European Civilization at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. His many books include Reluctant Accomplice: A Wehrmacht Soldier’s Letters from the Eastern Front (Princeton) and After Hitler: Recivilizing Germans, 1945–1995. He lives in Chapel Hill.

Medieval Relativisms by John Marenbon

In a commencement speech at Dickinson College yesterday that focused on the virtues of free speech and free inquiry, Ian McEwan referenced the golden age of the pagan philosophers. But from the turn of the fifth century to the beginning of the eighteenth, Christian intellectuals were as fascinated as they were perplexed by the “Problem of Paganism,” or how to reconcile the fact that the great thinkers of antiquity, whose ideas formed the cornerstones of Greek and Roman civilization, were also pagans and, according to Christian teachings, damned. John Marenbon, author of the new book Pagans and Philosophers, has written a post explaining that relativism (the idea that there can be no objective right or wrong), is hardly a post-modern idea, but one that emerged in medieval times as a response to this tension.

Medieval Relativisms
By John Marenbon

Pagans and Philosophers jacketRelativism is often thought to be a characteristically modern, or even post-modern, idea. Those who have looked more deeply add that there was an important strand of relativism in ancient philosophy and they point (perhaps wrongly) to Montaigne’s remark, made late in the sixteenth century, that ‘we have no criterion of truth or reason than the example and idea of the opinions and customs of the country where we are’ as signalling a revival of relativist thinking. But the Middle Ages are regarded as a time of uniformity, when a monolithic Christianity dominated the lives and thoughts of everyone, from scholars to peasants – a culture without room for relativism. This stereotype is wrong. Medieval culture was not monolithic, because it was riven by a central tension. As medieval Christian thinkers knew, their civilization was based on the pagan culture of Greece and Rome. Pagan philosophers, such as Plato and Aristotle, were their intellectual guides, and figures from antiquity, such as the sternly upright Cato or Regulus, the general who kept the promise he had given to his enemies even at the cost of his life, were widely cited as moral exemplars. Yet, supposedly, Christian truth had replaced pagan ignorance, and without the guidance and grace provided for Christians alone, it was impossible to live a morally virtuous life. One approach to removing this tension was to argue that the pagans in question were not really pagans at all. Another approach, though, was to develop some variety of limited relativism.

One example of limited relativism is the view proposed by Boethius of Dacia, a Master in the University of Paris in the 1260s. Boethius was an Arts Master: his job was to teach a curriculum based on Aristotle. Boethius was impressed by Aristotelian science and wanted to remain true to it even on those points where it goes against Christian teaching. For example, Christians believe that the universe had a beginning, when God created it, but Aristotle thought that the universe was eternal – every change is preceded by another change, and so on, for ever. In Boethius’s view, the Christian view contradicts the very principles of Aristotelian natural science, and so an Arts Master like himself is required to declare ‘The world has no beginning’. But how can he do so, if he is also a Christian? Boethius solves the problem by relativizing what thinkers say within a particular discipline to the principles of that discipline. When the Arts Master, in the course of teaching natural science, says ‘The world has no beginning’, his sentence means: ‘The world has no beginning according to the principles of natural science’ – a statement which is consistent with declaring that, according to Christian belief the world did have a beginning. Relativizing strategies were also used by theologians such as Henry of Ghent, Duns Scotus and William of Ockham to explain how some pagans can have even heroic virtue and yet be without the sort of virtue which good Christians alone can have.

These and other medieval relativisms were limited, in the sense that one reference frame, that of Christianity, was always acknowledged to be the superior one. But Boethius’s relativism allowed pragmatically a space for people to develop a purely rational scientific world-view in its own terms, and that of the theologians allowed them to praise and respect figures like Cato and Regulus, leaving aside the question of whether or not they are in Hell. Contemporary relativists often advocate an unlimited version of relativism, in which no reference frame is considered superior to another. But there are grave difficulties in making such relativism coherent. The less ambitious medieval approach might be the most sensible one.

John Marenbon is a senior research fellow at Trinity College, University of Cambridge, honorary professor of medieval philosophy at Cambridge, and a fellow of the British Academy. He is the author and editor of many books, including Abelard in Four Dimensions, The Oxford Handbook of Medieval Philosophy, The Cambridge Companion to Boethius, and Medieval Philosophy: An Historical and Philosophical Introduction.

An interview with Josiah Ober, author of The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece

The period considered classical Greece (roughly the 4th through 5th century BC) had a profound effect on Western civilization, forming the foundations of politics and philosophy, as well as artistic and scientific thought. Why did Greece experience such economic and cultural growth—and why was it limited to this 200-year period? Josiah Ober, Professor of Political Science and Classics at Stanford University and author of The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece, took the time to explain the reasons behind Greece’s flourishing, and what its economic rise and political fall can tell us about our own world.

The Rise and Fall of Classical GreeceWhat was the rise of classical Greece and when and why did it happen?

JO: Basically, sustained economic growth lead to the rise of Ancient Greek civilization.

At the Early Iron Age nadir, in ca. 1000 BCE, the Greek world was sparsely populated and consumption rates hovered near subsistence. Some 650 years later, in the age of Aristotle, the population of the Greek world had increased at least twenty-fold. During that same period, per capita consumption probably doubled.

That rate of growth is far short of modern rates, but it equals the growth rate of the two standout societies of early modern Europe: Holland and England in the 16th to 18th centuries. Historians had long thought that the Greek world was impoverished and its economy overall static – which of course made Greek culture (art, philosophy, drama, and so on) seem that much more “miraculous.” But, thanks to the recent availability and quantification of a huge mass of data, drawn from both documentary and archaeological sources, we can now trace the amazing growth of the Greek economy, both in its extent (how many people, how much urbanization, and so on), and in terms of per capita consumption (how well people lived).

So the rise of the Greek world was predicated on sustained economic growth, but why did the Greek economy grow so robustly for so long?

JO: In the 12th century BCE, the palace-centered civilization of Bronze Age Greece collapsed, utterly destroying political and social hierarchies. Surviving Greeks lived in tiny communities, where no one was rich or very powerful. As Greece slowly recovered, some communities rejected attempts by local elites to install themselves as rulers. Instead, ordinary men established fair rules (fair, that is, for themselves) and governed themselves collectively, as political equals. Women and slaves were, of course, a very different story. But because these emerging citizen-centered states often out-competed elite-dominated rivals, militarily and economically, citizenship proved to be adaptive. Because participatory citizenship was not scalable, Greek states stayed small as they became increasingly democratic. Under conditions of increasingly fair rules, individuals and states rationally invested in human capital, leading to increased specialization and exchange. The spread of fair rules and a shared culture across an expanding Greek world of independent city-states drove down transaction costs. Meanwhile competition encouraged continuous institutional and technological innovation. The result was 700+ years of of world-class efflorescence, marked by exceptional demographic and per capita growth, and by immensely influential ideas, literature, art, and science. But, unlike the more familiar story of ancient empires, no one was in running the show: Greece remained a decentralized ecology of small states.

So what about the fall?

JO: There are two “falls” – one political and one economic. The economic fall is the decline of the Greek economy from its very high level in the age of Aristotle to a “premodern Greek normal” of low population and near-subsistence consumption levels with the disintegration of the Roman empire. That low normal had pertained before the rise of the city-state ecology. After the fall, it persisted until the 20th century. But we also need to explain an earlier political fall. Why, just when the ancient Greek economy was nearing its peak, were Philip II and Alexander (“the Great”) of Macedon able to conquer the Greek world? And then there is another puzzle: Why were so many Greek city-states able to maintain independence and flourishing economies in the face of Macedonian hegemony? The city-states were overtaken by the Macedonians in part because human-capital investments created a class of skilled and mobile experts in state finance and military organization. Hired Greek experts provided Philip and Alexander with the technical skills they needed to build a world-class army. But meanwhile, deep investments by city-states in infrastructure and training made fortified cities expensive to besiege. As a result, after the Macedonian conquest, royal taxes on Greek cities were negotiated rather than simply imposed. That ensured enough independence for the Greek cities to sustain economic growth until the Roman conquest.

What does the economic rise and political fall of classical Greece have to tell us about our own world?

JO: The new data allows us to test the robustness of contemporary theories of political and economic development. In the classical Greek world, political development was a primary driver of economic growth; democracy appears to be a cause rather than simply an effect of prosperity. The steep rise and long duration of the city-state ecology offers a challenge to neo-Hobbesian centralization theories of state formation, which hold that advanced economic and political development requires the consolidation of centralized state power. The comparatively low rate of ancient Greek income inequality, along with the high rate of economic growth, suggests that the negative correlation of sustained growth with extreme inequality, observed in some recent societies, is not a unique product of modernity. Finally, the history of the ancient Greek world can be read as a cautionary tale about the unanticipated consequences of growth and human capital investment: It reveals how innovative institutions and technologies, originally developed in the open-access, fair-rules context of democratic states, can be borrowed by ambitious autocrats and redeployed to further their own, non-democratic purposes.

How did you get interested in the topic of rise and fall – was it just a matter of “Edward Gibbon envy”?

JO: Gibbon is amazing, as a prose stylist and historian. But the origin of my project actually goes back to a quip by a senior colleague at the very beginning of my career: “The puzzle is not why the Greek world fell, it is why it lasted more than 20 minutes.” Twenty-five years ago (and fifteen years after my colleague’s quip), the historical sociologist W.G. Runciman claimed that classical Greece was “doomed to extinction” because the Greek city-states were, “without exception, far too democratic.” True enough: the classical Greek world eventually went extinct. But then, so did all other ancient societies, democratic or otherwise. The Greek city-state culture lasted for the better part of a millennium; much longer than most ancient empires. I’ve long felt that I owed my colleague a solution to his puzzle. This book is an attempt to pay that debt.

Josiah Ober is the Mitsotakis Professor of Political Science and Classics at Stanford University. His books include Democracy and Knowledge, Political Dissent in Democratic Athens, The Athenian Revolution, and Mass and Elite in Democratic Athens (all Princeton). He lives in Palo Alto, California.


A Q&A with Cormac Ó Gráda, author of Eating People is Wrong

Cormac Ó Gráda’s new collection of essays on famine—which range in focus from from the economic history to the psychological toll—begins with a taboo topic. Ó Gráda argues that cannibalism, while by no means a universal feature of these calamities, has probably occurred more frequently than previously recognized. Recently he answered some questions on his book, Eating People is Wrong, and Other Essays on Famine, Its Past, and Its Future, its somber title, and his early interest in The Great Irish Famine.

O'Grada jacketWhy did you write this book?

CÓG: When Famine: A Short History (Princeton, 2009) came out, I wanted it to be my last book on the subject. So Eating People is Wrong was not a question of ‘what will I do next?’ I just realized a few years later that I had still had ideas to contribute on topics that would make for a new, different kind of book on famine. These topics ranged from famine cannibalism to the Great Leap Forward, and from market failure to famine in the 21st century; the challenge was to merge the different perspectives that they offered into what would become this new book.  The idyllic résidence I spent in the south of France courtesy of the Fondation des Treilles in the autumn of 2013 was when the different parts came together. By the end of that stay, I had a book draft ready.

What inspired you to get into your field?

CÓG: It is so long ago that I am bound to invent the answer… But I have always had an amateur interest in history—as lots of Irish people tend to have—whereas my academic training was in economics. Economic history seemed a good way of marrying the two, and that has been my chosen field since my time as a graduate student in the 1970s. I began as a kind of jack-of-all-trades economic historian of Ireland, focusing on topics as different as inheritance patterns and famine, or migration and banking. This work culminated in a big economic history of Ireland in 1994. My interest in the Great Irish Famine of the 1840s goes back to my teens, but that interest was sharpened after getting to know Joel Mokyr (also a PUP author) in the late 1970s. Economics taught me to think of the Irish in comparative terms, and that led eventually to the study of famines elsewhere. My books have all been solo efforts, but I have very lucky and privileged to write papers with some great co-authors, and some of these papers influenced the books.

How did you come up with the title or jacket?

CÓG: The title is an ironic nod to Malcolm Bradbury’s eponymous novel (which most people seem ignorant of). A friend suggested it to me over a pint in a Dublin bar. One of the themes of the chapter on famine cannibalism, to which the title refers, is the need to realize that famines not only do terrible things to people, but that people do terrible things to one other in times of famine. Peter Dougherty and his team at PUP came up with jacket. The image is graphic and somber without being sensationalist, which is what I had hoped for.

What is your next project?

CÓG: There is no single all-consuming project. A lot of my research in recent years has been collaborative work on British economic history with UCD colleague Morgan Kelly. So far the results of that work have appeared—when we are lucky—in academic journals rather than in books. We have plans to continue on this basis, but we are also involved in an interesting piece of research with Joel Mokyr on the origins of the Industrial Revolution, and that may eventually yield a monograph by the three of us. I also want to revise several unpublished papers in Irish economic history and to get them published singly or, perhaps, as a monograph. Finally, Guido Alfani of Bocconi University in Milan and I are editing a book on the history of famine in Europe. This is coming along well. The end product will consist of nine specialist country chapters, a cross-country analysis of the famines of World War II, and an overview by Alfani and me.

What are you currently reading?

CÓG: I am at page 630 (so another hundred or so pages to go) of Stephen Kotkin’s Stalin, vol. 1 (Penguin, 2014), which brings the story of Iosif Vissarionovich only as far as 1928. I have been interested in Soviet economic history since the late Alexander Erlich introduced me to the topic in Columbia in the 1970s, and this is what attracted me to Kotkin’s riveting tome—which, however, turns out to rather uninterested in the economic issues! I am also reading Maureen Murphy’s Compassionate Stranger: Asenath Nicholson and the Great Irish Famine (Syracuse, 2015), an account of an eccentric but appealing American evangelist who toured Ireland, mostly on foot, in the years leading up to and during the Great Hunger. I was familiar with Nicholson’s own published accounts of her travels, but knew very little about her otherwise, so Murphy’s book is a revelation.   My current bedtime reading is Henning Mankell’s The Man from Beijing (2010).

Cormac Ó Gráda is professor emeritus of economics at University College Dublin. His books include Famine: A Short History and Black ’47 and Beyond: The Great Irish Famine in History, Economy, and Memory (both Princeton).

Ronald Suny on the anniversary of the Armenian genocide

Suny jacketToday marks the 100th anniversary of the first day of the Armenian Genocide. Beginning on April 24, 1915, up to 1.5 million Armenians would die in massacres at the hands of the Ottoman government. The executions took place during and after WWI, targeting able-bodied males, and sending women, children, and the infirm on death marches into the Syrian desert. And yet, as Armenians around the world commemorate the anniversary, and numerous nations offer condolences to the descendents of the victims, the use of the term “genocide” to describe these atrocities has been politically fraught. Turkey, as the successor state of the Ottoman empire, has taken a stance of denial; Obama stopped short of using the term, with Israel seeming to follow his lead. Ronald Suny, author of the new book “They Can Live in the Desert but Nowhere Else”, argues that the fact of the Armenian Genocide is indisputable. In his op ed in yesterday’s New York Times, Suny writes about the “cost of Turkey’s genocide denial”:

…governments that fail to accept and confront the harsh consequences of historical truth are giving comfort to ultranationalist and anti-democratic forces that threaten liberty and democracy in Turkey.

Read his full New York Times op ed here, and his piece in The Daily Beast, in which he discusses the term “genocide” and its application. Suny recently took time to answer questions about the genocide, his book, and the inherent difficulty in explaining events that remain for many—at least emotionally—inexplicable.

What was the status of Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire before the Genocide began in 1915? Did the government openly discriminate against them?

RS: The roughly two million Armenians in the Empire were distinct — religiously distinct, as Christians in a majority Muslim society, as well as culturally and linguistically distinct in many cases. Most of them were peasants and townspeople in the six provinces of eastern Anatolia, often living in homogeneous villages and sections of towns, and occasionally dominated larger rural and urban areas. The most influential and prosperous Armenians lived in the imperial capital, Istanbul (Constantinople), where their visibility made them the target of both official and popular resentment. But they of course were Ottomans, so they were part of this society. Many Armenians even spoke Turkish and not Armenian and so forth, but at least you could identify who they were – they went to different churches and clubs, etc., and they lived in concentrated areas. At a certain point, resentment developed against Armenians who were better off, more closely tied to Europe, and better educated. Then as the propaganda about Armenians and Greeks, another Christian minority, developed suggesting they were linked to foreigners, that they were threat to the Empire, etc., more and more people begin to turn against them. So eventually fear, anger, and resentment became hatred.

The Assyrians are also part of your book – were they seen as a distinct group from the Armenians at that time?

RS: They saw themselves as distinct groups, but the Assyrians, who as another Monophysite Christian group, were often identified with Armenians. Some of them were part of ermeni millet, the official Armenian community, and they were also perceived to have links with foreigners. So the Assyrians were somewhat outcasts, both in Persia and in the Ottoman Empire, and they also suffered tremendously.

Why did the Young Turk government of the Ottoman Empire perceive the Armenians and Assyrians as a threat, and why they chose such an extreme approach to handle them?

RS: That is the central question of this book. There is a tendency on the part of some scholars – particularly Armenians – not to try to explain the genocide because – “why do you need to explain it? These are Turks, this is what they do, and this is the kind of regime it was.” Or, slightly more sophisticated – “oh, it’s Christians and Muslims – they are inevitably in conflict.” Or — “it’s clashes of nationalism.” Now for me, religion, nationalism, the nature of Turkish culture, Ottoman society, the state – all of these are the questions to be asked, not the answers. That is, they need to be investigated. The way I would explain this genocide, and I think it has relevance for other kinds of ethnic cleansings and mass killings, is that the regime developed what I call an “affective disposition” – that is, an emotional understanding of who the enemy was. They constructed the Armenians as an existential threat to the Ottoman Empire and to the Turkish nation, what they conceived as the Turkish nation at that time. I try to explain the origins of this affective disposition – this mental universe – in which emotion, fear, anger, and resentment combined to create an image of Armenians. Armenians originally had been thought of as a loyal part of the empire, but by 1878 they became an instrument of certain foreign powers to intervene in the Ottoman regime and internal policy — the Ottomans began to see them as a threat.

Remind us what happened in 1878.

RS: This was the Russian-Turkish War of 1877-1878. The Russians beat the Turks, and they were going to enforce reforms on the Ottoman Empire, and that was the beginning of the new “Armenian question” that continued right up to the war. Now, some people would say “well, you don’t need to go into emotions – it was a perfectly strategic, rational choice. The Armenians were actually a threat in World War I, and the Turks decided to get rid of them for national security reasons.” My view is that’s an insufficient explanation. Why did they see them as a threat? A threat is always a perception. It’s about emotion, it’s about understanding, feeling, sentiment, and construction – both cognitive and emotional construction. I’m taking a step backwards to see how they got into the position that they could imagine people this way and then carry out the worst possible kinds of things. I’m bringing emotion into it.

By some accounts, Armenians sided with Russia at the beginning of World War I —was that something the Ottomans could point to that the Armenians were a threat?

RS: This is the problem. You can’t say the Armenians sided with Russia. That is what the Ottomans would say, and they perceived that. So there are people who try to justify what the Ottomans did to the Armenians by saying they were with the enemy. What I try to show in the book is that the overwhelming majority of Ottoman Armenians wanted to stay in the Empire and attempted to prove to the Turks that they were loyal, but they also wanted reforms to protect them and allow them to prosper. They wanted Kurdish predations against Armenians to be contained, for example. The Ottoman government was opposed to these reforms, but ultimately had to agree to them in February 1914. When the war came, though, they used the first opportunity to get rid of them. I’ll give you an example. As the Ottomans are going to war, they mobilize the population. Hundreds and thousands of young Armenian men are drafted and join the Ottoman army. A few desert and go over to the Russian side. Some prominent leaders go over to the Russian side. The Russians form Armenian voluntary units on the Caucasian side against the Ottomans, but the Turks see this as treachery and demobilize hundreds of thousands of Armenian soldiers, take their weapons and uniforms away, turn them into labor battalions, and eventually murder them. So it’s a very different thing. It’s not that there wasn’t sympathy among some for Russia, but there was also no particular love for Russia. Russians didn’t like the Armenian nationalist revolutionaries any more than the Turks did so they were persecuting them as well. The Armenians were in an unfortunate position – in Persia, in Russia, and in Turkey. They were like the Kurds today.

How did they try to prove their loyalty?

RS: They mobilized their young men to fight in the army, they raised money for hospitals and aid to the government, they spoke in favor of the war effort, and many other things. They told them – we’re loyal, don’t push us into opposition. But there was an imbalance of agency. You see this today in the Armenian and Azerbaijani conflict over Karabakh, or the Israel-Palestine conflict. One side has more power and has more cards to play: the Israelis in the case of Palestine, the Armenians in the case of the Armenian- Azerbaijani conflict, and the Ottomans in 1915. The Armenians had what I’d call a dilemma of the damned. As they were being constructed as the enemy, there was very little they could do. And then they were disarmed, their leaders were arrested, they were systematically deported, and many hundreds of thousands were murdered.

The Ottoman Turks mobilized the population, in a completely chaotic and disorganized way, and there was dislocation, food shortages, soldiers marching hundreds of miles to get to the front. They were inadequately equipped, and huge numbers of desertions took place. There were half a million deserters, Muslims as well as Christians and others. Many of those deserters would either pillage villages for food, rape women, or clash with the army, and the Ottoman government claimed these were Armenian revolts. A lot of soldiers deserted, and it was general chaos.

To what extent did ordinary people participate or was it mostly carried out by special military forces?

RS: Genocides are ordered from the top: secret orders go out that say “take care of these people” (start the deportations), but we don’t have very good records on that. The orders bring about massacres, and in a systematic way. In the Armenian genocide, the deportations and massacres were often carried out by nomadic Kurds, Circassians (or, Cherkess, as they’re also called), Chechens — many of them refugees from the Caucasus or the Balkans, so called mujahedeen, other refugees who were to be settled in the Armenian villages, and ordinary people, even women. We have reports of women cutting down people so there is some popular participation.

One problem I have is – how much did the Ottomans understand what they were doing, and how much did they believe in it? There were some Ottoman governors who refused to carry out the killings and the deportations. And there were Turks and Kurds who took Armenian refugees into their homes, sometimes forcibly making women part of their harem or family, converting them to Islam. But others believed in the necessity of the massacre. You can now access intelligence reports, and certain commanders were sending reports of Armenian insurrections. Some scholars have read these reports — a kind of new, sophisticated denialism — and taken the Ottomans at their word that there really was a revolt. While there were individual moments of resistance, as at Van or Musa Dagh, because they were being attacked. there was no coordinated, general insurrection of Armenians during the war.

Were the Chechens and Circassians specially sought out for the killings or were they already living in the Empire?

RS: There had always been clashes between Kurds and Circassians and Armenians about land so there was a base of hostilities and tensions. The Ottoman government would often recruit them into special organizations, which hired them as well as criminals and others into gangs, and these people carried out a lot of massacres. The Kurds today, in the Republic of Turkey, are one major group who recognize the genocide, who have apologized for what they did, who believe they were used by the Turks, and they are trying to make up for that now. For example, in the city of Diyarbakır where my grandmother is from, the local Kurds have opened churches and talk about living in the land together with Armenians.

So the Kurds have tried reconciliation?

RS: Yes, because they also feel persecuted by the Turks. Kurdish discourse is something like “they had you for breakfast, and they’re going to have us for dinner.” I really think Turkey is the country to watch. Something’s happening there, and we don’t know where it will go. We don’t know where Russia or Armenia will go either.

Armenians began to view themselves as a nation during this period – how did the genocide contribute to that process? What caused the growing sense of a nation?

RS: I’m a constructivist — I believe that nations are creations of human beings. At a certain point people begin to think of themselves as a nation rather than a religious group or other identity, and this happened for the Armenians in the 19th century. Turks began to think this way a bit later, more in the 20th century, and Kurds even later than that. The genocide happened at a time when some people were thinking in this nationalist idiom, but simultaneously, many others were thinking of themselves as Ottomans, with special Armenian characteristics. Armenian nationalism in a sense won the day in World War I, and the post-war period, until, of course, the Soviets took over the Armenian republic, and nationalism became an alien ideology that couldn’t be expressed openly. It then became the ideology of the diaspora.

Yes, the Armenian genocide was just that, says Ronald Suny’s new book

Suny jacketApril 24th marks the 100th anniversary of the start of the Armenian genocide, the first genocide of the 20th century, though lesser-known, and more contested than other crimes against humanity that followed. Ronald Suny’s “They Can Live in the Desert but Nowhere Else”: A History of the Armenian Genocide claims that the massacres did indeed constitute genocide, and chronicles the human catastrophe through eyewitness accounts and archival documents. The end result is a deeply researched narrative history of how and why the atrocities were committed. The Sunday Times writes, “Suny is admirably dispassionate in explaining the particular circumstances that led the Ottoman government to embark on a policy of mass extermination…”

Check out this video where Suny, Charles Tilly Collegiate Professor of History at the University of Michigan, gives an overview of the genocide’s history, Turkey’s denial, and his own Armenian family’s experience:

Q&A with Maud S. Mandel, author of Muslims and Jews in France: History of a Conflict

We recently sat down for a Q&A with Maud S. Mandel to talk about her new book Muslims and Jews in France: History of a Conflict. Read the introduction for free, here.


How does your book speak to the current dialogue about tensions between Muslims and Jews in France, particularly in the wake of Charlie Hebdo?

MM: First, my book helps contextualize recent events by placing them in a longer history of Muslim-Jewish relations in France. It thus helps us understand why the violent outburst against Charlie Hebdo became intertwined with an attack against a kosher market, two sites that might not seem obviously linked to contemporary on-lookers. Secondly, I think it also helps us understand the diversity of Muslim-Jewish responses during and after the violence. While French-born Muslim citizens perpetuated the attacks, a French-Muslim policeman died in the conflict and a Muslim immigrant hid Jews in the grocery store. Some Jews have opted in the aftermath to leave France for other countries, while many have never considered such an option. My book helps us get a better grasp on this diversity of possible responses by showing the complex evolution of Muslims and Jews to the French state and each other.

Why did you write this book?

MM: I wrote this book in response to the outbreak of anti-Jewish violence in France in 2000, after which a number of stories came out in the media referring to the “new antisemitism” in France. The term “new” often gives an historian pause, and so I became interested in investigating what was “new” about the events that were unfolding in France. What had changed in Muslim-Jewish relations over time? And what were the forces shaping the evolution of those relations?

What was the most interesting thing you learned from writing this book?

MM: Given the centrality of the Israeli-Palestinian struggle to so much of the media coverage of Muslim-Jewish conflict in France, I had expected the story I was writing to focus largely on that issue. And yet the further I delved into the topic, the more clear it became that the legacy of French colonialism and the evolution of French politics had as great an impact on Muslim-Jewish relations as events in Israel/Palestine. Although this conclusion should not have been a surprise to an historian, given the significance of context to the study of history, I was surprised by the long shadow of French colonialism in shaping my story.

What do you think is the book’s most important contribution?

MM: As in all historical projects, my goal is to complicate simplistic understandings of the problem before us, to challenge notions of inevitability, to force us to question how and why the past took the shape that it did, and to push against monocausal explanations. This approach has pointed me to the diversity of socio-religious relationships between Muslims and Jews in France; conflict is not the only–or even the primary–way of understanding these relationships. This approach has also directed me away from conceptualizing Muslim-Jewish relations in France as arising inevitably from conflict in the Middle East. Rather, I argue that where conflict does exist, its origins and explanation are as much about France and French history as they are about Middle Eastern conflict. While global developments created fault lines around which activists began to mobilize, the nature of that mobilization (i.e. who was involved), the political rhetoric employed, and the success or lack thereof of their appeal emerged from French political transformations.

What was the biggest challenge involved with bringing this book to life?

MM: The biggest challenge involved with bringing this book to life was my stage of life when I wrote it. Newly tenured at Brown and with two young children, I faced the difficulty of finding long stretches of time away from campus and the responsibilities of home life to conduct research abroad. This book would have benefited from much longer periods of ethnographic research in Marseille, one of my key sites of investigation, but it was extremely difficult to balance all the demands of my life in such a way as to accommodate long research trips. The result was that it took me a long time to write this book, and I never felt I could immerse myself as deeply in the project as I desired.

Describe your writing process. How long did it take you to finish your book? Where do you write?

MM: As I mentioned in my answer to the last question, the book took me a long time to write. I began the research when my oldest child was two years old and it came out in print just before he turned fourteen! I wrote most of it in my home office that I share with my husband. Much of the writing happened during a couple of sabbaticals in which we shared that space with several cats. I have fond memories of those long days of writing. My process is to write everything out in long detail and then to pare down to my central argument. First drafts of most chapters thus numbered around 250-300 pages. The work of crafting chapters came in the revisions process, which I really enjoy.

What is the biggest misunderstanding people have about what you do?

MM: People often assume the study of history is either a process of learning about the facts of the past (dates and names) or laying out new information. To my mind, however, the study of history is far more of a humanistic exercise than a social science. Historians are storytellers and interpreters.



Muslims and Jews in France:
History of a Conflict
Maud S. Mandel

The Failure of Islamic Democracy, by John Owen, author of CONFRONTING POLITICAL ISLAM: Six Lessons from the West’s Past — Op-Ed Original

The Failure of Islamic Democracy
By John M. Owen IV

The recent jihadist horrors in France, Pakistan, Nigeria, Iraq, and Syria have lured our attention away from political conditions in the Middle East that indirectly helped produce them. In Turkey and Egypt “Islamic democracy” failed in 2014, and that failure will likely have long and deep repercussions for the entire region.

From northwest Africa to South Asia, majorities of Muslims routinely tell pollsters that they believe their country should either adopt literal Sharia, law derived from Islam’s holy texts, or at least follow the principles of those texts. The secularism that authoritarian Muslims imposed on their peoples from the 1920s through the 1970s is simply not popular over this vast region.

At the same time, the late Arab Spring made clear that Middle Eastern Muslims want governments that are accountable to them. The only resolution for most countries in the region, then, is some kind of Islamic democracy.

The very phrase “Islamic democracy” seems incoherent the Western ear, and indeed any Islamic democracy could not be liberal, in the individualist and secularist sense that we mean by that term today.

What, then, is Islamic democracy? Since it took power in 2002, Turkey’s ruling AK (Justice and Development) Party has invited the world to watch it build just such a system (although its leaders insist on the term “conservative democracy”). The early years of AK Party government under Recep Tayyip Erdoğan looked promising, as the economy grew, negotiations with Kurdish separatists progressed, and Turkey even moved toward membership in the European Union. The AK Party fairly won several elections.

The unraveling began in 2013 with a crackdown on protests, and in 2014 it continued with corruption charges against Erdoğan allies, media censorship, politicization of the judiciary, and arrests of political rivals. Elected President in August after twelve years as Prime Minister, Erdoğan has made clear his determination to expand the powers of that office.

Then there is Egypt. Its stirring 2011 revolution ousted the authoritarian secular regime of Hosni Mubarak, and free elections in 2012 produced an Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi, and an Islamist majority in parliament. Openly admiring of the Turkish model, the new Egypt was poised to exemplify an Arab Islamic democracy.

But in November 2012 Morsi assumed extraordinary powers. Mounting public protests against Morsi’s power grab were followed by his ouster by Egypt’s military in July 2013, led by General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. In 2014 al-Sisi ran nearly unopposed for President, and while in office he has suppressed the Muslim Brotherhood and all other dissenters. Egypt appears where it was before 2011, only with a different former army general in charge.

Turkey’s Erdoğan has bested his opponents; Egypt’s Morsi was destroyed by his. But in both countries the experiment with Islamic democracy has failed. Each elected leader confronted powerful elites and large segments of the public who did not trust him to remain a democrat. Relations deteriorated, factions polarized, and both countries are settling into sultanism.

These depressing stories are not only about Turkey and Egypt. They are about the future of Islamic democracy itself. For nearly a century the entire Middle East has been passing through a legitimacy crisis, or a struggle over the best way to order society. The West and other regions have passed through legitimacy crises of their own in past centuries – most recently, the twentieth-century struggle between communism and liberal democracy. Prolonged spasms like these scramble political loyalties and generate unrest, revolution, and foreign interventions.

In the Muslims’ current crisis the original contenders in the struggle were secularism, pioneered by Atatürk, founder of the Turkish Republic; and Islamism, formulated by thinkers such as the Sunni Hassan al-Banna and the Shia Ruhollah Khomeini. Many Muslim and non-Muslim scholars, journalists, and politicians lately have touted Islamic democracy as a hybrid solution to this long struggle.

Western history shows that long international ideological contests are played out in the policies and performances of real countries. And they end only when a large, influential state that exemplifies one contending ideology manifestly outperforms large states exemplifying the alternative ideologies.

Consider the Cold War, a struggle between the liberal democracy and communism that played out in the competition between the United States and Soviet Union. By the 1980s America’s economic, technological, and military superiority was clear. Societal elites the world over concluded that communism did not work after all. Country after country abandoned state socialism, and liberal democracy enjoyed a period of predominance over much of the globe.

In 2011 and 2012 it appeared that the Middle East was heading for a similar resolution, with Turkey showing the superiority of Islamic democracy, Egypt following its example, and elites in neighboring societies adopting this new hybrid regime as the wave of the future. As 2015 begins, things look nearly the opposite. Tunisia, which recently held fair elections and a peaceful transfer of power, provides some hope. But if history is a good guide, Tunisia is too small and peripheral to be an exemplar or inspire imitation.

We can continue to argue over whether the retreat of Islamic democracy was inevitable or caused by other factors. We can argue over whether Islamic democracy’s time has passed, or not yet arrived. What is clear is that the Middle East’s legitimacy crisis continues, with an end no longer in sight.

John M. Owen IV is Professor of Politics, and a faculty fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, at the University of Virginia and author of CONFRONTING POLITICAL ISLAM.

Donald E. Canfield and Gillen D’Arcy Wood to be honored at annual conference of the American Meteorological Society

On January 7th and 8th in Phoenix, Arizona, authors Donald E. Canfield and Gillen D’Arcy were recognized by the Atmospheric Science Librarians International (ASLI) for their books Oxygen: A Four Billion Year History and Tambora: The Eruption That Changed the World, respectively.

Canfield’s account of the history and importance of oxygen won him the 2014 ASLI Choice Award and will be recognized as “a well-documented, accessible, and interesting history of this vital substance.” Wood received an honorable mention for this year’s Choice Award in History. Tambora, will be acknowledged as “a book that makes this extreme event newly accessible through connecting literature, social history, and science.” More general information on the awards can be found, here.

Congratulations to Donald E. Canfield and Gillen D’Arcy Wood!


A Four Billion Year History
Donald E. Canfield



The Eruption That Changed the World
Gillen D’Arcy Wood

Boris likes fairy tales, too!

The Brothers Grimm can now count the Mayor of London among their growing list of fans. At a recent book signing in Oxford, Boris Johnson proclaimed that he had heard good things about The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, which came out in November and has proved a popular choice for Christmas. In fact, the Mayor of London said that he would be giving a copy of the book as a Christmas gift himself, although the identity of the lucky recipient remains a mystery!


The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm is the first ever full translation into English of Jacob and Wilhelm’s original versions of their famous tales. Gory, dark, disturbing and, yes, grim, the originals were first published in 1812 and 1815 and have since been overshadowed by the later versions of the stories that we know today.