Why Does History Help Explain Geo-Political Conflicts?

The construction of historical narratives and the pedagogic authority they hold has been vital in cultivating a sense of legitimacy with those engaged in violent practices in a geo-political conflict. In fact, these narratives are part of violence itself. Although media and education systems usually hold a significant grip on the dissemination of the teaching and learning of history, displaced and diasporic families have offered important resistance to otherwise dominant versions of history. History becomes the defining factor of national consciousness and therefore legitimacy for that nation state to dominate, kill, plunder and extract.

I believe it important to note that both the dominant imperialist and colonialist nations dominated the education systems where they ruled. The significance of this cannot be understated. Imperialists and colonisers quite clearly wanted more than land and natural resources; they want hegemony. In Ireland, the Irish language was almost completely eradicated by mandatory English-speaking schools. The attempt to integrate colonised peoples into a British identity was not only about dominance but control. In fact, jailed Irish republicans used Irish to communicate covertly. Knowledge of one’s own national history and culture has long been a weapon of the oppressed.

A drawing depicting men and women captured to be sold as slaves. (Credit: WELLCOME IMAGES via. WIKI)

Similarly, history is weaponised in the study of archaeology in Palestine. The discipline has been used as a tool to legitimate colonisation through a history explicitly based on ethnonationalism. The enmeshing of religious history from thousands of years ago with a modern-day nation state’s claim to land is a perfect example of Benedict Anderson’s argument that nationalism is an “imitation of simultaneity across homogenous, empty time”. This claim, however, is overshadowed by the history of the Palestinians who have been dispossessed of their land and of which they have emotional and practical ties to within living memory. These personal histories will be passed down orally through families and will be the spark for resistance to the colonisation process for generations to come.

History can seem like a dry academic investigation of a static past; however, the stage is set for the morality play of history in the mainstream media often. Britain seems to be obsessed with an overly simplistic version its history. When representations are narrow and limited to mostly excavations of world war two, a rare occasion in which Britain made a positive impact through contributing to the defeat of German fascism, it is easy to see how the identity of ‘Britons’ on the world stage can appear as a trans historic moral force to some. This is important to understand how people in the army understand their role as a historical agent and can believe they are doing their duty to a higher moral power, their civic religion: nationalism. It is for this reason that people can participate in imperialist wars such as the invasion of Iraq and keep a personal sense of morality and justice.

Although a new generation is questioning the authority of these narratives. This nationalism is outdated for a country that is home to people from previous colonies of Britain. Eric Williams argues that “the British historians wrote almost as if Britain had introduced Negro slavery for the satisfaction of abolishing it”. In fact, the cultural homogeneity that supports history as national morality play is swiftly broken by the curiosity, doubt and challenge of a new generation. The petition to teach the empirical truth of colonialism has garnered massive support and shows that a new generation will attempt at establishing their own history. The question that lingers is: will this be based on a new kind nationalism?

Finlay Purcell

‘You Can Get Rid of the Mines, But You Can’t Get Rid of the Miners’: Industrial Legacy and Contemporary Identity in Durham

Durham’s coal mines closed throughout the 1980s, despite dissent from local communities and mining unions. This was not an anomaly – under Conservative rule, mines were shut throughout the nation, yet these were largely concentrated in the North. As a result, a significant regional divide in unemployment, poverty, and general desolation was created. And yet, although the mines are most certainly shut, the culture and the identity of the miners, and of a mining region lives on. In Durham, mining is deeply tied up in local identity, and a celebration of this shared history occurs every year through the Miners’ Gala. This consists of a loud and proud parade through the city, in which each mining village sends a colliery band, and banners. Upon finishing the city parade, all the mining lodges meet on the cricket field for a large party for all ages. Despite the closure of the mines, the economic hardship and proud history continues to be entwined with present day understandings and contemporary identity; a common phrase heard at the gala is ‘You can get rid of the mines, but you can’t get rid of the miners’. 

The 135th Durham Miners’ Gala, 2019. (Credit: The Northern Echo)

The first Durham Miners’ Gala was organised by the Durham Miners’ Association in 1871 and was held on the outskirts of the city in Wharton Park. Despite the demise of the mining industry, the gala has survived, and continues to be integral to local identity. The gala is no longer an example of political mass assembly, but as Jack Lawson, a Durham miner, later Labour MP and minister in the Atlee government, said of the gala, it was less political demonstration, and more “the spontaneous expression of their [the miners’] communal life”. The gala is an example of intangible cultural heritage, and an identity which occurs in a specific place. Some have dubbed occasions like the gala as simply reminiscence – journalist James Bloodworth, who visited in 2016, saw the Durham Miners’ Gala as a “carnival of nostalgia”, and “something like a historical re-enactment society”. However, it is much, much more. It is a living history, a continued solidarity with the working class and the loss of jobs caused by a deep deindustrialisation which continues today in the loss, if not disappearance, of heavy manufacturing industries such as ship building. 

Labour’s Green New Deal appears to draw upon this history and empathise with the loss of industry and employment in the North. The deal sets out to rebuild industry, jobs, and pride in the towns, with more “rewarding, well-paid jobs, lower energy bills”, and “whole new industries to revive parts of our country that have been neglected for too long”. As the Industrial Revolution brought jobs and pride to the North, the ‘Green Industrial Revolution’, hopes to provide funding to restore this. Furthermore, the Labour Party recognises that for some ‘industrial transition’ has become a “byword for devastation”, and blames successive Conservative governments for this continued ignorance of whole industries and communities. The Green Industrial Revolution manifesto states that, “Tories wasted a decade serving the interests of big polluters”, echoing the sentiment of many speakers at the Durham Miners’ Gala. For example, in 2017, one speaker exclaimed that they should draw upon the lesson of the 1984-5 strikes today: that if “on the verge of achieving real change to working class people, the establishment will try to crush you”. Labour’s plans for a Green New Deal show not only the impact of economics on identity, but also, highlights the scars of neglect at the hands of a Tory government.

James Bloodworth also exclaimed in his somewhat scathing review of the Durham Miners’ Gala, that “when the past becomes an obsession, it can act as a dead weight on meaningful action in the present”. Is Labour’s Green New Deal an example of being too preoccupied with the past? Or should we be looking to it? Is an eye to the past not necessarily a bad thing, as Bloodworth states, but instead a chance to rectify past mistakes? 

Emily Glynn


Bibliography

Bloodworth, James, ‘Labour is becoming a historical re-enactment society’, International Business Times, 11 July 2017, https://www.ibtimes.co.uk/jeremy-corbyns-labour-tribute-act-socialism-trade-unions-back-nostalgic-leader-1570061 

Lawson, Jack, Peter Lee, (1949: London)

Labour Party ‘A Green Industrial Revolution’ Manifesto 2020

Will Britain’s History Ever Transcend Empire?

In recent months, racism in Britain has been widely discussed in the light of the killing of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and countless other people worldwide. The Black Lives Matter movement has gained poignancy, with many supporters risking their lives to protest against systemic racism during the Covid-19 pandemic. 

When discussing this issue with peers, one comment often made was, ‘I don’t understand why they’re protesting here, that’s all happening in America?’. On the surface this might seem true, however comments like these fail to address Britain’s horrifically racist past, and the continual microaggressions and discrimination people of colour face today as a result of this. And this begs the question – if we’re ‘better’ than America in this respect, can any country ever completely transcend its corrupt past? 

A propaganda poster for the British Empire, centred around George VI. (CreditL Snowgoose, via Pinterest.)

The verb ‘transcend’ is broadly defined as the action of going beyond the limits of something, so in order to make a sound judgement on history’s ability to transcend a period of mass exploitation, we must first discover what ‘limits’ empire placed on Britain’s History. Back in school, you might remember History lessons telling you of a time when Britain ‘owned’ almost half the world – the British Empire, reaping massive economic benefits for Britain. The crimes of the British Empire need to be discussed in greater depth.

The British Empire imposed Western ideas of civilisation onto foreign cultures, and colonists committed heinous crimes. An ideological ‘them and us’ binary was instigated by the Empire; British colonists used this dehumanisation to justify horrific acts of violence and oppression against native people, alongside the stealing of land and imposition of culture. All this is delivered to British people today under the guise of either neutrality or a jubilant narrative which ignores and diminishes the atrocities of the Empire, and the lasting effects this ‘them and us’ mentality has had on the lives of BAME people in Britain. 

So, while it’s understandable to hope for a History detached from Empire in today’s more progressive society, it’s integral to understand that the global devastation caused by Imperialism cannot simply be forgotten. Remember that it was only in 2015 that the British taxpayer had paid off compensation paid to families of slave owners for their loss of ‘business assets’ after it was abolished in 1833. Imperialism arguably catalysed racism, and years of Black Lives Matter protests have shown that there is no quick fix. To hope for a transcendent utopia away from this is naïve. In many ways, ‘moving on’ from Empire minimises the experiences and culture of those adversely affected by it; derailing discussion and progression in a way which mirrors using the phrase ‘All Lives Matter’ as a response to ‘Black Lives Matter’. 

One method which gained huge amounts of public backing was a change to Britain’s school curriculum, in which education about the realities of Empire and colonisation are made mandatory. Many of us will remember, and have signed, the government petition for this which gained over 250,000 signatures. However, after first responding to this in July, saying that colonial education is already part of the key stage 3 curriculum (ages 11 to 14), they have now agreed to host a debate on the subject; the date for which will take over 80 days to decide. 

One organisation who advocate for education on Black History in schools is The Black Curriculum. In their open letter to the Secretary of State, Gavin Williamson, they stated their aim to embed, ‘Black History in England’s National Curriculum more explicitly’, to counteract the whitewashed version of History children are taught. This would be an important step to take in tackling racism and inclusivity in schools; the founder Lavinya Stennet and her team have developed an extensive multimedia curriculum to teach Black History in an accessible way. If you’d like to support this cause, you can download their email templates to send to your MP, or donate through the link on their website. 

So sadly, there’s no way for Britain’s History to transcend Empire, as this would ignore the experiences of those continuing to be affected by racism, stereotypes and the microaggressions brought about by it. Being able to see past the effects of Empire is a privilege, and one which unfortunately isn’t a reality for many British citizens, despite more information becoming available via social media to help inform everyone of changes that can be made.

Sarah Matthews

Historical Narratives: The Glorified and the Silenced Narratives of Spanish History

The bare, granite landscape of the Sierra de Guadarrama in Spain gives way to a 3,000-acre woodland that is home to the country’s most controversial monument. Soaring an impressive 150-metres high is a granite cross, raised dramatically above the basilica and valley. Beneath the Valle de los Caídos, or the Valley of the Fallen, are the graves of 40,000 people, both Republicans and Nationalists, killed during the 1936 to 1939 Spanish Civil War.

From 1975 to 2019, Francisco Franco was also buried in the valley. Franco, dictator of Spain since leading the Nationalists to victory in the Civil War, was one of only two people to have a named grave there, which was placed behind the altar. 

The monument was constructed between 1940 and 1959 with the intention of honouring those killed on both sides during the Civil War and was approved by Franco as a masterpiece defying time. It claims a degree of neutrality through honouring all victims. However, the grandeur of the unique Spanish architecture, constructed under a fascist dictator, glorifies a narrative that tells of the power and splendour of the victors – the side that erected such an impressive monument. 

Valley of the Fallen (El Valle de los Caídos). (Credit: Domingo Lorente, via Flickr.)

Spain battles with such narratives. Last year, Spain’s socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez vowed to exhume Franco’s remains. He claimed that their presence glorified Franco, drawing attention to the dictator through the monument and allowing his followers to continually pay tribute. Millions watched ahead of the election as his remains were airlifted to a cemetery just North of Madrid. Whilst Sánchez remained Prime Minister post-election, Vox, a far-right party, made huge gains becoming the third largest party in parliament. 

The attempt to alter the narrative away from Franco’s power and grandeur was met with strong opposition calling for the former leader to continue to be glorified. The political battle was fought over such a visual representation in the Valle de los Caídos of Franco’s power, despite the years of oppression many suffered under his leadership. Some of those who built the monument were serving in forced labour under the regime. The political significance of the monument held power to sway the elections, marginalising both right and left of the spectrum. 

The imposing visibility of the monument differs greatly from the hidden past of the Civil War and Franco-era. The atrocities committed by both Republicans and Nationalists during the civil war era and beyond were intentionally left to rest in a politically organised Pacto del olvido, or Pact of Forgetting, intended to make the transition to democracy after Franco’s death as smooth as possible. Such a pact left behind trials, judgement and retribution, and served to hide a whole narrative of suffering and brutality. 

Significance lies in Spain’s hidden narratives as well as the glorified ones. As attempts to silence glorified narratives through the likes of removing Franco’s remains in the Valle de los Caídos occurs, so too does increased political conversation around the Pacto del olvido as narratives suppressed for decades are brought into conversation. Spain grapples with both, one pulling against the other in a country in conflict about all narratives of its history.

Maddy Burt

Europe’s Hidden War: How Ukraine Struggles With Post-Soviet Nationalisms

13,000 fatalities. 3,300 dead civilians. These are the casualty numbers of a European war that seems like it could have taken place in the nineteenth century; nevertheless, it is de facto a war of the twenty-first century, and the numbers date from 2019. The war in Eastern Ukraine, sparked in 2014, continues to this day. Yet, it has been largely forgotten by West European media coverage, particularly in this year of social and political upheaval caused by the global health crisis. 

The last time this conflict received major international attention was when the passenger plane MH17 was accidentally shot down over Ukrainian territory in 2014 through the military activities there. Yet after this tragedy, the fight between the Ukrainian army and volunteer forces, and the separatists who aim for the autonomy of the two oblasts, Donezk and Luhansk, remains at the obscure margins of political news. The continuation of this war, however, should again receive more attention from the rest of Europe. Not merely because it is a war that takes place right on Europe’s borders – which in itself should be a strong incitement for international action – but, more importantly, because it is a disquieting sign of post-Soviet nationalisms that foster a conflictive political climate in Eastern Europe and particularly in the countries along the Russian borders. 

Ukrainan rescue servicemen looking through the remains of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, July 20, 2014. (Credit: Rob Stothard, via Getty Images.)

To expand on this thesis, it is vital to examine Ukraine’s Soviet and pre-Soviet past more closely in order to shed light on present-day tensions between the new countries that emerged from the Russian-dominated Union. National movements that demanded Ukrainian independence were present during the final decades of the Tsarist Empire, which broke apart after the February Revolution of 1917; in 1918, the Ukrainian People’s Republic was founded – the first independent Ukrainian state in history. Yet its existence was as brief as it was revolutionary: between tensions with Poland and the newly-founded Russian Soviet Republic, Ukraine was incorporated into the Soviet Union in 1922. With the regime change under Josef Stalin, the Ukrainian territory began to be exploited for its agricultural riches; the infamous collectivization of agricultural produce, a Soviet concept, led to what is now known as Holodomor, a famine that took the lives of several millions of Ukrainians in the 1930s. Historians nowadays consider this event as man-made and potentially even as a Stalinist way of intentionally weakening nationalist independence movements in Ukraine. 

In 1991, Ukrainians voted for their independence from the shattered Soviet Union. At the time, the country was struggling with its re-orientation as an independent nation between the East and West, and this post-Soviet burden cumulated into tensions which were released in the 2013 Revolution. The chaos of the Maidan, and the years of corruption and destabilization of the state under President Viktor Yanukovych, provided the Russian-backed separatist movements in eastern Ukraine with a convenient opportunity when the Crimean peninsula was annexed by Russia and the fighting for independence from Ukraine ensued. Although Russia itself continues to deny its military involvement, it is difficult to interpret the annexation of Crimea in any other way than Russian interest in territorial expansion hidden behind nationalist narratives – Ukrainian territory is sometimes claimed to be the birthplace of the “true” Russian nation – and widening of Russian influence under Putin. And while it would be too speculative to argue that Russia is actively intending to recreate some of the former greatness of both the USSR and the Tsarist Empire, it cannot be denied that having politically weakened neighbours seems to be in its interest, and potentially even leads to cases such as the annexation of the Crimean peninsula. Neo-nationalisms on both sides, however, aggravate the problem, and the concrete issue of the ongoing military conflict will thus hardly find a swift conclusion. After all, it not only depends on Ukraine’s decision on which way to go in its position between East and West, but also if, and how, Russia manifests its – at times provocative – foreign policy.

Cristina Coellen

The Decolonisation of Mauritius Is Incomplete, It Must Now Come at All Costs

In March 1968, the Republic of Mauritius gained its independence from the United Kingdom. Despite the jubilation which ensued in the small Indian Ocean island nation, the coming of independence brought with it the territorial dismemberment of what was once Mauritius, a moral and legal injustice which still stands today. The decolonisation of Mauritius remains incomplete, the violation of its territorial sovereignty persists; the people of its former territories suffer continuing discrimination and the imbalances of geopolitics weigh heavily upon it. Britain must right these wrongs and end its colonialism in the Indian Ocean.

Supporters of the Chagos Islanders in Westminster following following the Law Lords judgment over the decision of the British government to stop the Chagos Islanders going home. (Credit: Fiona Hanson, via PA, PA Photos)

Three years prior to the granting of independence, the British government had agreed with Mauritian representatives that the Chagos islands were to be detached from Mauritius and retained by the British government in exchange for £3 million in compensation. In an era of growing Cold War paranoia, the British had been convinced of the geostrategic significance of the Chagos islands (later renamed the British Indian Ocean Territory or  the ‘BIOT’ by the British) by the United States, given their proximity to the Horn of Africa, the Arabian peninsula, south and southeast Asia. The result of this purchase was the construction of a British-American joint military base on the largest of the Chagos islands, Diego Garcia, and the arbitrary expulsion of roughly 1400-2000 Chagossians from their homeland. 

The islands’ depopulation began with the extermination of the islanders’ dogs. Roughly 600 were seized from their owners and gassed with exhaust fumes. This mass extermination was considered by many Chagossians to be a thinly veiled threat, that should they refuse to leave they too may be killed. This fear drove the islanders to leave their homes, families and livelihoods and board ships carrying them to Mauritius and the Seychelles. Their new lives were extremely difficult. Being immediately homeless and jobless, the Chagossians were forced into crushing poverty, with many resorting to slum-dwelling and subsistence living. The psychological impact of their dispossession and new situation, made worse by the frequent discrimination they faced in their new homeland, was immense, with several reportedly related suicides. 

The expulsion of the Chagossians to clear the islands for British-American military operations has drawn increasing moral condemnation since the 1960s. Approximately 3000 Chagossians now reside in the UK, many having been actively involved in high profile legal cases regarding their expulsion. The apex of this campaigning was the 2000 ruling of the British High Court that the Chagossians should be allowed the right to return to all islands other than Diego Garcia. The eventual nullification of this ruling in the House of Lords in 2008, following a near decade-long battle between the High Court and Parliament, typifies the systemic discrimination still faced by Chagossians at the hands of the British government. Many are forced to reside in the UK illegally and are unable to work after having been continually denied citizenship and the right to legal residency by the state which arbitrarily exiled them from their homeland.

Far more successful have been the challenges mounted by Mauritius against the process of their own decolonisation on the international stage. The main grievance of the Mauritian state is the means by which their territory was dismembered before their independence, contending that the seemingly wilful removal of the Chagos islands from Mauritius in 1965 was in fact done under duress as a prerequisite for the granting of independence. This stance has found support in several resolutions of the African Union, and in 2017 the UN General Assembly voted to seek the advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice on the issue.  The ICJ’s advisory opinion, released in 2019, strongly condemned the dismemberment of Mauritius, suggesting that no binding international agreement could be made between the British government and Mauritian representatives still under colonial rule, and called on Britain to end its continued colonial occupation of the Chagos islands. In response, the UN General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to demand that the UK end its colonial activity in the BIOT and to cooperate with the state of Mauritius in resettling the Chagossians. The 6-month deadline given to the UK to abide by this resolution passed on the 22nd of November 2019 with no action undertaken.

The privileged position of the British and American governments as permanent, veto-holding members of the UN’s Security Council has largely prevented further action on the international stage despite near-unanimous global condemnation of their joint imperialism. With 2016 seeing the British and American governments agreeing to continue their military presence on Diego Garcia for another 20 years, no immediate end is in sight. The toxic British reliance on the ‘special relationship’, made more intense by its withdrawal from the European Union, has left the spectre of its colonialism to cast a long shadow. While the British government now concedes that the means by which it expelled the Chagossians from their islands was immoral, its outright refusal to abide by international law and allow their right to permanent resettlement demonstrates that their disdain for a people once described by a colonial official as “some few Tarzans or Men Fridays” remains very much the same.  

Joseph Callow

Orcadian Identity

Having recently returned from the Orkney Isles, one thing that struck me was the strength and uniqueness of Orcadian identity. The people on the island do not identify as Scottish, but rather relate their belonging to ‘the Mainland’. This is not the Scottish mainland, which is a mere fourteen miles away, but the most populated group of islands in the archipelago which are now connected by a series of barriers. The power of this identity is such that upon noting how the prehistoric village of Skara Brae was free to enter due to coronavirus to a B&B owner, she replied that she may visit having previously never done so. Her reasoning for this was that Orcadians should not have to pay Scottish Heritage to visit ‘their’ monuments. 

The cliffs at Marwick Head and the Kitchner Memorial tower on the west coast of the Orkney Islands. (Credit: Martin McCarthy, via Getty Images)

The rich history of Orkney is very tangible. As well as Neolithic archaeology, the islands had a strong Norse influence during the Middle Ages. The Orkneyinga Saga, similar to other Viking age sagas like Heimskringla which were produced at the same time, provided a comprehensive history and sense of nationalism to Orcadians. The story of the Earls of Orkney continues to have a cultural legacy on Orcadian identity today. The unprecedented conservation of sites relating to it, as well as other archaeology, as Basu (2001) correctly notes, results in a strong sense of belonging that is rooted almost exclusively in history. In Orkney, it is undeniable that ‘ancestral places… are part of the living fabric of the community’ as modern crofts sit on top of the brochs of previous settlers. The people of Orkney are therefore trapped in their history through a tangible connection to ancestors which is rare elsewhere.

This connection to the past provides a potential explanation for why the B&B owner was reluctant to buy a ticket to visit Skara Brae. If history is such an inextricable part of culture and identity, and this history does not come from Scotland, then it makes sense for an uneasiness around modern geography dictating conservation and custody of sites. This is particularly true when it is considered that the significance of many sites has only been identified relatively recently. Skara Brae for example, a Neolithic settlement older than Stonehenge, was left completely unprotected from its accidental discovery in 1850 to 1927, and it only gained UNESCO status in 1999. Prior to modern conservation schemes, Orcadians were free to explore and children used sites as playgrounds, attaching to it an emotional significance as well as a historical one. As many sites have been accessible almost exclusively to Orcadians for so long, it links that there is a difficulty in distancing and letting them be conserved by external agencies.

Finally, it is worth considering the implication that the existence of such a uniquely tangible past has on the future, particularly the identity of young Orcadians. In 1999, a ‘homecoming’ of 150 Canadians of Orcadian descent took place. Looking at the accounts of participants, the sense of excitement to visit the crofts still situated in the same place their families lived previously, and therefore the durability of Orcadian identity, is clear. The isolated nature of the islands means that beyond the growing tourist industry, very little has changed for crofters. For this reason, it can be said that for Orcadians whose families have lived on the island for generations particularly, the strong identity provided by the archaeology that surrounds them means they are trapped in history. How long this will continue for however I am not sure.

Isobel Hine

Endless Conflict: Azerbaijan and Armenia

It is almost a yearly tradition: since 1994 tensions between Azerbaijan and Armenia, both formerly part of the Soviet Union, have regularly exploded into brief military conflicts, leaving soldiers and civilians on both sides wounded and dead. The most recent clashes erupted in July 2020. With about a dozen casualties on both sides so far, peace still is not in sight. The fighting usually centres on the region of Nagorno-Karabakh, a landlocked strip of mountains and forests that factually belongs to Azerbaijan. However, it is easy to see why the area is problematic – it is the home of a predominantly Armenian population and claims political autonomy as the Republic of Artsakh, which still awaits international recognition from most countries. This combination of ethno-political factors lies at the heart of the conflict, despite the region´s geography making it economically unimportant. Instead, it is a clash between the mostly Christian Armenia and the dominantly Muslim Azerbaijan, between the respective allies´ interests (Russia on Armenia´s side and Turkey in support of Azerbaijan), between two different languages, ethnicities, and ideologies. Foremost, it is the result of a long and complicated historical process of domination, the struggle for autonomy and nationalism. 

Anyone who looks back into history will quickly recognize this conflict extends much further back than 1994. The Transcaucasus has long been a region of ethnic tension, with claims to the territory from Georgians, Armenians, Azeris and bigger forces such as the Russian or the Ottoman Empires. The fight for Nagorno-Karabakh first escalated into a series of conflicts from 1918 to 1922. With the creation of the Soviet Union and the incorporation of both nations into the union, the conflict seemed to subside for the next decades. However, it could be argued that this situation in fact had a negative effect on the relationship between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

A security guard walking an Azeri flag (left) and an Armenian one at talks in Geneva, Switzerland, 2017.
(Credit: Denis Balibouse, via Reuters)

In an article on the Nagorno-Karabakh problem, the historian A. N. Yamskov identifies different scenarios of ethnic conflict in the region, notably ‘territorial-status conflicts that have flowed from the national-state structure of the U.S.S.R’. He associates these with the fight for Nagorno-Karabakh. In most of his definitions, Yamskov includes a struggle against governmental structures as a factor, which in this context of course refer to the Soviet regime that in many instances suppressed national and individual ethnic struggles for independence. Thus, the decades of Soviet rule merely masked the conflict and even amplified it. This is exemplified by the fact that, after the fall of the Soviet Union, the clashes turned once more into a war, which lasted for six years and took an estimated 30,000 lives.

It would perhaps be over-simplistic to argue the Soviet past of the Transcaucasus is the only root cause of all its current problems; other factors and events, both historical and modern, also influence the conflict. The Armenian Genocide, for instance, perhaps plays into this situation to a certain extent. It was the Ottoman Empire – now mostly modern-day Turkey – that murdered and displaced approximately 1.5 million Armenians during the First World War, an event of which both Azerbaijan and Turkey remain in denial, despite it being recognized by the majority of nations. The fact that Azerbaijan is continuously being supported by Turkey in the conflict therefore does nothing to ease the tension, especially not with the most recent clashes, in which Russia has so far maintained silence, and while Turkish politics contribute to anti-Armenian sentiments, as the German newspaper Die Zeit found. 

Whether it is in 1994 or in 2020, it seems ultimately unlikely that peace will be achieved any time soon. The ethnic struggles in the Transcaucasus will continue until the region has come to terms with its heavy historical burdens. 

Cristina Coellen

Anti-Denial Laws: The Politics of Remembering

In many countries it is criminal to deny the Holocaust; yet, many historians have argued heavily against this concept. Do laws like these, which are passed by parliaments, unjustifiably limit the freedom of expression? Or are they necessary in the remembrance of genocides, such as the Holocaust, or the Armenian genocide?

Protesters at a demonstration against anti-Semitism in Parliament Square, London, March 26, 2018.
(Credit: Henry Nicholas, Reuters)

Holocaust deniers either state the Jews were not killed in a systemic genocide or minimise its extent; some claims suggest they were instead victims to disease, or other forms of indiscriminate hardship. The reality, as we well know, was “the most documented tragedy in recorded history”, as Holocaust survivor and Nobel Prize winner, Elie Wiesel declared during a discussion in 1999 at the White House. Due to the indescribable suffering inflicted upon many by the Nazi regime, many countries have in response passed Anti-Denial Laws, which criminalised both the promotion of Nazi ideology, as well as the denial of the Holocaust. In France, there is a more general law on genocide denial, geared perhaps to the Armenian genocide, which was commemorated formally for the first time in 2019. President Macron said during his 2017 presidential campaign, “France is, first and foremost, the country that knows how to look history in the face”, setting a precedent perhaps for other countries to not only set Anti-Denial laws, but to also commemorate such genocides. 

However, historians protested heavily against the more general law on genocide denial in France, and on the concept more broadly. As Garton Ash writes for The Guardian, such laws “curtail free expression”. Through restricting this by law, regardless of good intentions, other freedoms which free expression sustains are suffocated. Although ex-German justice minister Brigitte Zypreis argues “this historical experience puts Germany under a permanent obligation to combat systematically every form of racism, anti-Semitism and xenophobia”, Garton Ash contends there is no evidence that a ban on free expression will make any significant difference. Many of the countries with laws against Holocaust denial (such as France, Germany, Lithuania, Romania, and Belgium) happen to also be some of the countries with particularly strong right-wing xenophobic parties. It is of course not that these parties exist due to the existence of Anti-Denial laws, but independent of this. 

When the French Anti-Denial law was passed in 2006, many felt, again, that this was a repression of free expression. Even the renowned Turkish-Armenian editor Hrant Dink passionately opposed such laws, as they placed limitations on the discussion of what happened to thousands of Armenians in 1915. While in Turkey, it was illegal for Dink to describe these events as ‘genocide’, for which he was tried. Before his death, Dink responded to the first moot of such a law in France: “I cannot accept that in France you could possibly now be tried for denying the Armenian genocide. If this bill becomes law, I will be among the first to head for France and break the law.” He continued somewhat humorously, that then we could all watch whether it would be the Turkish Republic or the French government to condemn him first. 

Anti-Denial laws while necessary in the remembrance of genocides, have proven a particularly contentious topic for historians. Although we promote free speech in society, there has to be limits. Therefore, while I have discussed both views, the promotion of free speech should not act as a gateway to hate speech in any form.

Emily Glynn

The Floating Jew: Manifestations of Migration in Chagall’s Art

Although there are many distinct features of a Marc Chagall painting, it is the floating figures that are the artist’s most curious motif. In amongst the rich pastel colours and two-dimensional composition are people suspended in mid-air – an idea that features in some of his major works across his career, from 1915’s Birthday to 1950’s La Mariee. Whilst the concept of the “wandering Jew” is not unique to Chagall, it is the optimism that he embeds within his art that makes his work significant. To understand this we must not only analyse the artist’s life, but also the position of Jews in the early twentieth century. 

Born Moïche Zakharovitch Chagalov in what is modern-day Belarus, the artist’s formative years were spent not in art school but in the synagogue. The majority of Jews in Eastern Europe lived in shtetls; insular agricultural villages that were governed by Chassidic law, allowed to live under the Russian rule. Anti-Semitism was rampant, often manifesting in the violent form of pogroms and attacks on Jewish property and people. They reached a height in 1881, after Jews were partly blamed for the assassination of Tsar Alexander II given that they were viewed as foreign, and loyal to Israel rather than Russia. 

Marc Chagall’s ‘The Birthday’, 1915 (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The pogroms were one of many factors that forced Jews to move out of Eastern Europe in the early twentieth century. Shtetls were often characterised by intense poverty, exacerbated by Jewish farmers’ reluctance to embrace industrialisation in the name of preserving traditional culture, despite the fact that the agricultural way of life that had sustained the communities for thousands of years was becoming inefficient in supporting growing populations. Chagall was one of many Jews who fled westwards. Around 200,000 Jews migrated to London between 1880 and 1919, with thousands more emigrating to America in search of new opportunities and safety. This forced the abandonment of the Jewish traditions and lifestyle that permeated in the shtetls, a process which exacerbated with growing multiculturalism and secularism: Chagall himself emigrated to Paris in 1923, a time when France was still reeling from the Dreyfus affair where a Jewish Captain had been falsely accused of leaking military information to Germany and was imprisoned. Despite Dreyfuss being exonerated in 1906, there still loomed a distrust of Jews, especially as many did not view them as French, and thus disloyal to the French Republic (as was the case in Russia). Many immediately deserted any semblance of Jewish identity both in lifestyle and identity out of fear of being identified as an alien: Jews changed their names to aid their attempt to integrate; Chagalov became Chagall, and fellow Russian-Jewish artist Chaim Sutin became Chaim Soutine. 

Jews not only ran the risk of alienation from western society but also the Jewish culture that they turned their back on, a feeling likely exacerbated by the growing popularity of Zionism. The call to create a Jewish state had entered mainstream thought, and transcended the Jewish intellectual circles with the 1917 Balfour declaration which decreed support from the British government. This would have intensified feelings of displacement for many Jews living in the diaspora knowing that there was a spiritual and literal home for them elsewhere, a place where they could belong. 

So what of Chagall’s art? How do these broad socio-political ideas translate into paints and canvasses? The phenomenology of lacking a true homeland to act as a spiritual ballast explains Chagall’s floating figures. As an itinerant Jew himself, Chagall would have known what it was like to be “a stranger in a foreign land”, as was predicted in the Abrahamic covenant. This theme is well documented in art and literature: the image of the “Wandering Jew” appears in novels by Dickens, poems by Shelly, and illustrations by Doré. Chagall twists the usual despondent pessimism which the “Wandering Jew” is depicted by giving his figures a distinct serendipity. They appear buoyant like helium balloons, following each wind and current without resistance. His figures, sometimes ostensibly Jewish and sometimes not, are not melancholic or cursed, they exist as a testament to survival over thousands of years of being wanderers. None of his figures are shown to be tormented or suffering. Instead, they appear to be at one with their predicament, calmly accepting the surrealism of the situation. This is best implemented in his 1923 Green Violinist, which depicts a violin player precariously balancing on two rooftops as he towers over his shtetl whilst a figure glides over the houses behind him. There is a precariousness to his position: he is lumbering and clumsy but whilst he could fall at any moment, he continues to play his violin absorbed in the moment. Chagall captures the sentiment of Jewish identity in the early twentieth century: one of duality and one of homelessness. Despite the persecution and adversity, his optimism endures through his artwork.

Alexander Cohen