Monday, September 13, 2010

Book Review of Tormented by History in Journal of Modern History

Tormented by History: Nationalism in Greece and Turkey. By Umut Özkırımlı and Spyros A. Sofos.
New York: Columbia University Press, 2008. Pp. viii220. $45.00.

We have long been told by the literature on nationalism that identities, and the nations to which they attach themselves, are “invented”; that nations have no core “essence”; that territories are not inscribed with national meaning by any internal, inevitable, “natural” mechanism or process but are read and shaped as having such meaning by the peoples and polities that lay claim to them. And all of this is true, of course. The trouble is, all of these theoretical interventions haven’t much helped, at least in the sense that the world today is no less fraught with bitter nationalist conflicts than it ever was—if anything, it is more fraught. As Umut Özkırımlı and Spyros A. Sofos put it in their new, collaborative volume, Tormented by History, “in an age pervaded by the logic of nationalism, the mere recognition that nations and nationalism are constructed is not sufficient to counteract their ‘reality,’ so to speak—their ability to structure and generate meaning, and shape imagination” (193).

But even in the academic sphere, theories of nationalism, pervasive as they are there, have taken us only so far. In the wake of reading Özkırımlı and Sofos’s recent contribution it seems that this may partly derive from the fact that few, if any, have attempted a sustained comparative reading of nationalisms developed in tandem with and response to one another. The strongest such literature to date has come out of the Israel/Palestine context, with such works as James Gelvin’s The Israel-Palestine Conflict: One Hundred Years of War (New York, 2005) being among the very few successful studies up to now that attempt a comparative illustration of nationalist processes at work. The literatures of Greece and Turkey have not had such a thing.

Greece and Turkey—like Palestine and Israel—have for too long been taken as one another’s opposite, the relationship between the two designated as a sort of point, counterpoint. But this approach is itself reduplicative of nationalist claims. In both cases, in fact, it is the intimacy rather than the estrangement of each half of the pair that binds them together. This is an important observation, and huge credit goes to those who not only assert but also illustrate it.

On these grounds alone, Tormented by History is an important contribution to the literature of the region as well as to the broader theoretical literature on nationalism: people who take the time to read it will find a clear blueprint for interactive nationalism at work and in the interactive dimension will see that nationalism’s “constructed” nature is no mere abstraction, but a very real thing that has had a very real—and oftentimes brutalizing—effect upon the lives of countless thousands of people. This latter point is one that the authors are particularly concerned to reinforce; indeed, the volume is dedicated to “those who have been displaced, repressed, or silenced by the sweeping logic of nationalism” (193).

On the Greek side, perhaps its most powerful contribution is its insistence that the creation of nations—in this case Greece—creates refugees just as much as it does away with them. Of the so-called population exchanges that came in the wake of World War I the authors write, “In many ways, the exchange of populations confirmed the idea of an ethnically cleansed territory” but “interestingly, the refugees reacted to this tremendous implosion of the ‘national’ space by recreating a version of what they called [lost homelands] in their new places of settlement” (117). Thus the proliferation on the Greek map of such place names as “New Smyrna,” “New Ionia,” and “New Makri.” Like the maps of other immigrant nations—the United States, for instance— this topography speaks of the longing for another, more real “home” and the intense need to recreate it in the displaced context. Here one of the greatest and most invidious paradoxes of Greek (and other) nationalisms is revealed: that the creation and consolidation of national space creates refugees not simply by expelling certain groups of peoples (here Slavs, Muslims, and others) but also by insisting that other groups come to the new nation. For the so-called Asia Minor Greeks forced to move to their putative “homeland,” what was presented as a homecoming was in fact an expulsion, and they were not repatriated members of the national body politic so much as they were refugees. This is a painful and important insight into a dynamic that has affected hosts of people—the redrawing of the Balkan map after the last round of the Balkan Wars is one example, another (perhaps the most “successful,” from the nationalist point of view) is the case of the close to 1 million “Oriental” Jews who, through an array of processes, migrated to Israel over the course of the 1950s—were they, as the Israeli nationalist position would have it, “repatriated Jews”? Or were they expulsed refugees?

Were the Orthodox Christians targeted by the population exchange agreement “coming home” or being torn away from it? Sofos and Özkırımlı’s attention to this complicated question, to the nationalist lie on which such migrations are—must—be built is hugely valuable.

On the Turkish “side,” too, there are extremely important contributions, perhaps most prominent among them the likewise uncomfortable fact that Turkish nationalism has not been able to encompass the fact of minorities who are themselves Muslim. As the authors write, “No doubt the nationalist dream of a homogenous nation would have become a reality, if non-Muslims were the only minority” (173). But they weren’t—  and Turkey’s claims that, for instance, the Kurds could not be thought of as a minority as they too were Muslim, is revealed as fundamentally disingenuous. The attempted flattening out of the ethnic difference of an array of soi-disant “minority” groups in Turkish nationalist rhetoric is shown to have a similarly double-edged and violent impact upon the peoples whom it was ostensibly meant to “bring into” the nation.

This is an important, well-constructed, and highly readable book that should matter to anyone interested in Greece or Turkey, to be sure, but also to those interested in the dynamics of nationalism—and in the very real, double-edged effects it has not just on the lives of its foes but also on the lives of those it purports to represent.

New York University