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

Deconstructing a Homage to Secularity: A Reflection of Turkey’s Changing Political Identity

After 85 years as a secular museum, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has decreed the 1,500 year old Hagia Sophia will return to its former use as a Mosque. Hagia Sophia represents Turkey’s varied history; for a thousand years, the dome covered the largest indoor space in the world and remains a focal point of the Istanbul skyline.

Byzantine Emperor Justinian I ordered the construction of a grand cathedral in 537 CE. Remains of one of the two previous cathedrals which were destroyed during riots, such as the 532 Nika Revolt, remain buried under the modern structure. The cathedral symbolised the Emperor’s dominance over those opposing his reign. 

The Hagia Sophia. (Credit: David Spender, via Flickr)

Hagia Sophia represents the prevailing ideology of the day, being used as an Eastern Orthodox Cathedral, a Roman Catholic Cathedral, and most recently a Mosque. In 1453 CE, Ottoman Sultan Mehemet II conquered the Christian city of Constantinople and claimed the cathedral as a personal possession, thereby demanding that Hagia Sophia be converted into a Mosque. The mosaics were plastered over and Islamic features, such as minarets, were added. Hagia Sophia is now a physical manifestation of centuries of interaction between Islam and Christianity, East and West. 

The building’s dedication to secularity despite its fickle past indicated the identity of contemporary Turkey, ushered in by the foundation of the Turkish Republic and the Atatürk administration. The building became a recognition of Turkey’s varied religious history and a prime tourist attraction. In 1934, Hagia Sophia was converted into a secular museum and has since been a symbol of Turkey’s multiculturalism, religious tolerance, and status as a safe haven for Christians in the region. Christian mosaics plastered over in the 1400s were uncovered. Commitment to secularity and multiculturalism has meant that no religious practice has been undertaken inside Hagia Sophia (excluding the staff prayer room) since then.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has decreed the building be converted back into an operational Mosque on the 24th July. This is something many see as a culmination of his seventeen years of conservative leadership and an attempt to gain favour from pious Muslim voters, some of whom resent the strict secularity of the country. The decision was affirmed by the court on the basis that Hagia Sophia was owned by a foundation established by Ottoman Sultan Mehment the Conqueror and was presented to the country as a Mosque, the property deeds therefore irreversibly label the building as a Mosque. 

The decision represents the battle for Turkey’s identity. Erdogan seeks to deconstruct the secular profile built by the revolutionary Atatürk administration. He is appealing to his core voter base, the conservative nationalists who are receptive to Erdogan’s policies of Islamic revivalism. The President has previously said ‘If we lose Istanbul, we lose Turkey’. Last year, he lost the municipal elections in the city.

In Turkey, Erdogan’s decision has stirred tensions between those who favour sectarian politics and those committed to secularism many of whom are concentrated in Istanbul. The AK Party of which Erdogan is a member is the predecessor to the Virtue Party which was shut down by the country’s constitutional court for its anti-secular policies. Erdogan has previously run on the idea of protecting pious citizens in Turkey, some of whom see the enforced secularity introduced to the Republic of Turkey as a repression of the muslim majority.

On a global scale, Erdogan has presented the decision to convert Hagia Sophia as a statement of national sovereignty. The natural allies of Turkey in Europe do not support the transition. The already ill-fated Turkish application to the EU now looks consigned to failure and Turkey’s troubled relationship with their Christian neighbour Greece has been worsened by this decision. The strongmen leaders such as Christians Putin and Trump, who also practice brands of populist politics, also do not view his decision favourably.

Erdogan has used the repurposing of Hagia Sophia to indicate which part of his country’s history his values are compatible with. Much like the right-wing governments of the US, UK and Russia, the President is alluding to a more ‘glorious’ past. The Atatürk reforms are associated with the abolition of the Ottoman Caliphate. Similar to the anachronistic messaging of sections of the Brexit campaign and the slogan ‘Make America Great Again’, Erdogan is harking back to a time when the region was a more powerful actor on the world stage and presenting himself as the leader of this revival. While the conversion of Hagia Sophia has been an issue on the agenda for a number of years, the decision has come when it is rumoured that elections could be called next year and Erdogan is keen to appeal to the nationalist sentiment becoming ever more present in the global political landscape. 

Reversing the secularisation of Hagia Sophia is a demonstration of Erdogan’s values and his appeal to Islamic revivalism in the Republic of Turkey. The President has rebuked commitment to secularity one of the foremost monuments to secular Turkish history. In a statement of national sovereignty, Erdogan is using the conversion of Hagia Sophia, Atatürk’s homage to secularity, to appeal to pious and nationalist sentiment in the country and assert himself as national leaser in an evermore and nationalistic political landscape. 

Emerald McLaughlin

The Crisis Surrounding Gibraltarian Identity

My struggle with identity has led me to consider the multiple avenues in which these ongoing issues arose. One should not see this piece of writing as factually generalising an entire population of thirty thousand, but rather the one small blip that is my meandering experience. As my internal monologue pushes out these ideas, please sit down and pretend you are my therapist, paid to listen to every word. 

Steps in Gibraltar. (Credit: Ben Ginger, via Shutterstock)

Gibraltarian identity can be considered synonymous with contradiction; rooted in an everyday dichotomy between the right of self-determination and Britishness. As an overseas territory, Gibraltar and the Gibraltarian become the problematic spawn of an Empire buried under the burning sun. This is reflected in our unique code-switching dialect, Llatino – something which Wikipedia describes as a dialect of Spanish, and thus begins the descent into contradiction. Llanito is a complicated linguistic feat. Borrowing from Andalusian Spanish, English and other localities, it is a fine concoction of cultures and beliefs that a young Gibraltarian will be spoon-fed, one that relieves the ability to code-switch, whilst also subtly discriminating against all things Spanish. My struggle is based on this notion. Despite having Spanish family and ancestry, I was taught that any ideas of ‘Spanishness’ should be hidden away: disassociating myself from a major piece of my identity and impacting my ability to speak my grandmother’s tongue.  

Our hostility towards Spain was not always as poignant as it is today. It is the case that during the earlier half of the twentieth century, marriages between Gibraltarian and Spanish people were rampant. My mother is a product of such a marriage. However, Francoist terror and the eventual border closure in 1969 contributed to the development of a fearful hatred towards our Spanish roots, precipitating often conscious omissions of Spanish ancestry. 

“I am not Spanish,” my Seville-born granny would often say, “I am Gibraltarian, I am British.” 

However, it was not just my granny who had this mentality. A study by professor Canessa found that whilst older generations of Gibraltarians stress their Britishness, and middle-age respondents associated themselves with a Gibraltarian-British identity, my generation emphasised an identity that built away from the classic British notions that plagued our ancestors: denouncing being Llanito and rather adopting a Mediterranean identity (Canessa, 2019). One often rooted in Spain but hidden by the associations of the Mediterranean. It has provoked in me a major identity crisis. As a result, I am still afraid of being associated with Spain due to repercussions in my home community, yet I simultaneously try to prove that I am not wholly British. 

This identity crisis has been provoked even more so through the racist Brexit campaign. This heightened tensions around Gibraltar’s relationship with the UK and the colonial buttons that signal outdated sentiments of Empire. As a child of Gibraltar, and one that has grown up forced to idolise the protection of the British state, it is a disgusting revelation that it is the Conservative party which we must rely on to bolster a nationalistic pride which defends our very community. It creates a phrase which my father would often repeat: “Labour is good for the UK, the Conservatives for Gibraltar.” It once more uproots a further identity crisis that is rooted in politics, history, and personal beliefs. It is a dilemma which not many Gibraltarians feel strongly about. A nationalistic pride has created a system whereby Gibraltarians will switch beliefs based on who appeals to us the most, and many do not seem to care about their identity; they will denounce Spain, preach being Llanito, all whilst sipping tea at the beach in a caricature of what they have defined as being British. 

In an era of identity, culture and equality, Gibraltar stands as a unique example of the opportunities and obstacles which come with multicultural identities, and serves as a poignant reminder of the troubling impact of the British empire. 

Saray Imlach


Bibliography

Canessa, A., 2019. Bordering on Britishness. Palgrave Studies in European Sociology.

The War That Never Ends

It has now been 75 years since the Second World War ended, and yet it remains an inescapable presence in today’s politics. Numerous anachronistic comparisons plagued both sides of the debate during the Brexit campaign. Those voting Leave celebrated the ‘Dunkirk spirit’ of Britain, while those voting Remain rendered the referendum another ‘Eden moment’. There were bizarre campaigns, such as the Leave poster exclaiming ‘halt ze German advance! Vote Leave’, and the bus blaring the tune of the 1955 war film, The Dam Busters. Even more recently, Covid-19 has elicited endless comparisons to the war: food bank support has been compared to the ‘Blitz spirit’, private labs to ‘Dunkirk little ships’, and even the Queen has drawn parallels between the experiences of isolation and wartime evacuation.

But why do these comparisons exist? It is not uncommon to draw on past events to interpret our present, but nonetheless, narratives of the Second World War appear to pervade the fabric of our politics far more than any other historical comparison. Where does this bizarre and rather loud obsession with the Second World War come from, and what are the dangers? 

Comparisons to the Second World War may arise from a desire to find solace and comfort in knowing that, as a nation, we have overcome other crises, yet other comparisons come with much greater and potentially damaging ramifications. The recurrent comparison to the war has the ability to distort our politics, warp our history, and aggrandise our perception of Britain’s place in the world. As a nation, we have a selective memory, and forget the parts we do not wish to remember. By mythologising our past into a romanticised and simplistic narrative, depicting the essence of the British ‘plucky’ character, we have forgotten the other half of the infamous speeches that our leaders continue to import today.

We need to start addressing our own failures as a nation rather than basking in a eulogised myth.

Forgotten from the “blood, sweat and tears” speech is the warning that without victory the British empire would not survive. Forgotten from the “finest hour” speech is the precursor to the infamous phrase: “if the British empire and its commonwealth last for 1000 years, men will say, “This was their finest hour.” Behind what we believe to be narratives of morality and unquestionable dignity, the injustice and inequality of the British empire is hidden. The danger in misremembering is that it continually projects an image which is factually incorrect. What has thus far contributed to a fantasy of British exceptionalism does not render us exceptional from our nation’s wrong-doings. We need to start addressing our own failures as a nation rather than basking in a eulogised myth. Moreover, not only has it allowed us to forget our wrong-doings as a nation, it also proposes the myth that Britain stood, and will stand, alone against the odds. As David Edgerton notes, this is a mythologised ideal: “people want to remember the war, and especially the early years of the war, as a time when the nation stood alone without an empire or without allies. Nobody at the time would have believed this.” Many men of the empire stood with the British army against Hitler, and yet they remain unwritten from the popularly accepted version of history.

This has very real consequences for our political decisions today. Following our withdrawal from the EU, we have overstated our independence as a nation historically, and will inevitably realise that we cannot live up to this ideal; one romanticised for far too long. India will not strike up a trade deal for sentimental reasons, nor will Ireland remain Britain’s neutral and junior partner following us out of the EU. Instead, the realisation of Britain’s lack of status and power will smack us in the face and our inability to ‘stand alone’ will challenge the 75 years of misremembered history. 

Stop Brexit March, London, March 2019. (Credit: Sandro Cenni, via Upslash)

Edgerton proclaims, “the problem is not just getting history wrong, but that history is invoked at all”. Although I would not wholly support this sentiment, the use of historical analogies in our contemporary politics, as well as our popular historical narratives, needs to be challenged. This is beginning with conversations around statues, but the issues go much further, and are certainly cause for more conversation.

Emily Glynn