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

Do Belarus’ Protests Suggest a Chance for Change, like the 1989 Revolutions in Eastern Europe?

This article will use Russian spellings of Belarusian names for the sake of consistency.

When comparing the situation in Belarus today to the revolutions of 1989, we have to note that each country experienced a different revolution. Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians in the Baltics were trying to reverse the fifty-year long annexation of their nations since the Nazi Soviet Pact of 1939. The Baltic protest movement also saw an emphasis on salvaging national cultures – particularly language. Poland’s revolution was the result of a more long-term protest movement that began in the shipyards of Gdansk in the early 1980s under the helm of Lech Walesa. Romania saw the violent overthrow of the maverick megalomaniac dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. 

What we are seeing in Belarus is a combination of all three. The protest movement is fundamentally against a long-serving authoritarian dictator whose foreign policy modus operandi is to play east off west, like Ceausescu. As in Poland, the Belarusian protest movement is spearheaded by striking workers. Finally, there is an element of the movement that campaigns for the revival of Belarusian national customs in favour of the more ‘Russified’ and ‘Sovietised’ ones pushed by the incumbent system. Opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya seems to suggest a blend of these three aspects in her interview with the independent Russian news site Meduza.

It must be said that Tikhanovskaya is not Lech Walesa, Lukashenko is not Ceausescu and Belarus is not the Baltic States. Nonetheless, we still see aspects of 1989 permeate the Belarusian protest movement. 

Belarusian protestors holding old Belarusian flags in support of the opposition, Minsk, August 25, 2020. (CreditL Sergei Grits, via The Associated Press)

The one aspect that is very different to 1989 is Moscow’s willingness to intervene in Belarus. In the late 1980s, Mikhail Gorbachev rescinded the Brezhnev Doctrine – the idea that if a country in the Warsaw Pact tried to break away the USSR, other Warsaw Pact nations would intervene to quell the political dissent. In an interview with Russian state television on the 27th August, Vladimir Putin essentially came up with his own version of the Brezhnev Doctrine. He said that Russian police forces would come into Belarus in the event that “extremist elements, using political slogans as cover, overstep a certain boundary.” The fact that Putin publicly admits that Russian forces could be used in Belarus is a reassertion of the Brezhnev Doctrine in a more subtle form – in contrast to Russia’s intervention in Eastern Ukraine where the Russian government denies that its military is present. Putin’s initiative is very bold and risky but if that is what it takes, in the view of the Russian leadership, to keep NATO out of Belarus, then so be it. 

Russian support is the best chance Alexander Lukashenko has got if he is to survive. Beyond the security services and the highest echelons of the Belarusian leadership, Lukashenko has little or no support in wider Belarusian society. The price that Lukashenko will pay for keeping himself in power, thereby protecting his own security and finances, is by outsourcing more of his nation’s sovereignty to Russia. 

Belarus’ protest movement does have some similarities with the 1989 revolutions in Eastern Europe if we look at some of its aims and the demographics of the opposition. However, Russia is more willing to intervene in the post-Soviet sphere than it was in 1989. Therefore, it is highly likely that instead of moving away from Moscow’s sphere of influence, Belarus may end up much nearer to it.

James Meakin

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

Through the Lens of Stolypin: Understanding Vladimir Putin’s Personal Politics through his Historical Idol

Few pictures hang on the walls of President Putin’s office, but the portrait of the third Prime Minister of Russia, Pyotr Stolypin is more prominent than the rest. Putin has publicly praised Stolypin on multiple occasions and he has become commonly known as the President’s idol. 

The President of Russia, Vladimir Putin, in 2019. (Credit: the President of Russia’s website)

Following recent constitutional reform to keep Putin in power until 2036, and growing crises caused by COVID-19 and mass protests, the historical example of Stolypin may offer a way to understand Putin’s current conception of power and corresponding strategies of control for the near future. 

2012 marked the 150th Anniversary of Pyotr Stolypin’s birth. The same year, Putin ordered his own cabinet ministers to donate a month’s wages to build a statue of his historic mentor. In following speeches, Putin referred to Stolypin as ‘a real patriot and a wise politician’ who ‘displayed personal courage and a willingness to load himself with the entire burden of responsibility for the state and country’. Further expressed was that the guidance of Stolypin had put ‘Russia on a healthy path’, with his assassination in 1911 marking a first step to Revolution and chaos. 

Stolypin’s zenith certainly alludes to why Putin upholds his legacy. Both leaders’ political climates and foundations of power appear similar. Following Revolution in 1905, Stolypin fundamentally quashed dissent and partially ignored democratic process to will reform in whichever direction he saw fit. Throughout the Third Duma, Article 87 was introduced to constitutionally change fundamental laws, and bypass the Duma itself. Subsequently, Stolypin could personally control mass agrarian reform whilst commanding immense power to suppress opposition. At the pinnacle of the Stolypin years, the hangman’s noose became colloquially known as ‘Stolypin’s Necktie’. 

As readers may already be noticing, Stolypin’s doctrine of reform and repression bears similarities with the political climate of the past decade in Putin’s Russia. Much like his idol, Putin has faced what his government deems as liberal dissent. The base of Putin’s power rests upon the centralised image of a man who can reform Russia to bring it back to an assertion of glory. To secure that position Putin has personally driven overhauls in economic, political, and foreign policy. But as much as he follows Stolypin’s approach of individually guided change, Putin understands the necessity of repression to maintain his position. Harassment of journalists, a secret police, and state sponsored assassinations are just as much a part of Putin’s Russia as they were Stolypin’s. 

Due to recent events, we are likely to see the guidance of Stolypin once again rear its head in Putin’s mind. The President is now facing a climate of crisis unparalleled in his political career so far. Failures in navigating the COVID-19 crisis are currently undermining his personal image. Unprecedented mass protests in Khabarovsk in the Far East mark a new era of anti-Kremlin dissidence, with tens of thousands on the streets and no great response from Putin. Upon this, regional dislike for the Kremlin is growing and local government increasingly becoming favoured. 

Already, Stolypin-esque responses can be seen in the aforementioned constitutional change that was pushed through in July. Through the extension of his term, Putin is already bolstering his personal power and looks set to take a hand in new conservative reforms to channel loyalty. Respectively, it is not far fetched to suppose that once he has gained a grip on the pandemic, Putin’s gaze shall turn to suppressing growing anti-government fervour. 

Much like his icon, Putin believes in his personal ability to guide Russia upon ‘a healthy path’. To do so he follows Stolypin’s appreciation of the need to repress and reform in order to captain the Russian behemoth, through the storm posed by the unpredictable political climate that varies abruptly across each region of the nation. Putin faces growing damage to his reputation. The guidance and example of his historical mentor may be key to understanding Putin’s next step to recuperate his popularity and reputation. 

Henry Kilding

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

‘Accepting Violence and Violent Language Against Women:’ How Language is Used to Belittle Female Politicians

On Thursday the 23rd American Congresswoman for New York Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez came before congress to call for a point of personal privilege. Ms. Cortez sought to address her recent confrontation with Republican Congressman Ted Yoho who was overheard by a member of the press as calling her a ‘f***ing b***h.’ Mr. Yoho has denied using this particular phrase but has apologised for the ‘abrupt manner of the conversation [he] had with [his] colleague from New York,’ referring to his aggressive confrontation with Ms. Cortez on the steps of the Capitol during which he, according to Ms. Cortez, called her ‘disgusting,’ ‘crazy,’ and ‘out of [her] mind.’ 

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez at New York City’s Women’s March, 2019. (Credit: Dimitri Rodriguez, via Flickr)

Ms. Cortez remarked in her address that she expects no sincere apology from the representative from Florida, ‘a man who has no remorse over calling women and using abusive language towards women.’ Throughout her address, Ms. Cortez continually returned to this point of contention, using her encounter with Mr. Yoho as but one example of a wider cultural issue. Citing two more instances of verbal abuse issued by male colleagues, one being the President of the United States himself, Ms. Cortez incisively remarked such encounters expose ‘a cultural lack of impunity, of accepting violence and violent language against women, an entire structure of power that supports men.’ Ms. Cortez’s speech highlights that her highly-reported altercation outside the physical heart of US political discourse is but one of many identical interactions between congressmen and woman on both sides of the bench that occur far less publically but with concerning frequency. 

This issue is not endemic to the United States alone but has been found to be globally pervasive. A recent study on ‘Violence Against Women in Politics’ in the UK conducted by Delyth Jewell, a women’s right’s campaigner at ActionAid UK, interviewed female members of parliament to ascertain the frequency with which female politicians experience some form of violence (verbal or physical). Jewell interviewed one member of parliament who told her ‘everyone knows it happens; it happens to all women [in politics].’ Jewell’s study also highlights the frequency of abusive encounters associated with female politicians is alarming given the comparatively short period of time that their admission to parliament has even been legal. Jewell notes, ‘since gaining the right to be elected as members of parliament in 1918, a total of 489 women have been elected. This represents only 9% of all members of parliament elected over this time period.’ During this short history, women have been far less visible in politics and have faced harsh censure for aspects of their person outside of their political presence, a reality that is seemingly absent from the male political narrative. One only has to look to the day of Margaret Thatcher’s death on which ‘Ding Dong! The Witch is Dead’ re-entered the UK charts at number two, extending a lifetime of criticism beyond the grave.

What Ms. Jewell’s study reveals is that female politicians in the UK have historically faced a heightened threat of violence in the comparatively short period of time that they have been politically active. As Congresswoman Cortez exposes however, attacks on female political competency and simply female political participation come just as frequently from within the house as without. In 2011, former prime minister David Cameron was criticised for belittling a female colleague across the bench. During a lively debate discussing the NHS, Mr. Cameron told shadow chief secretary to the Treasury Angela Eagle to ‘calm down dear’ as she, among others, opposed his remarks surrounding former Labour MP Howard Stoate. Like Ms. Cortez, Ms. Eagle did not expect an apology from the Prime Minister (nor did she receive one) but instead remarked that ‘I don’t think a modern man would have expressed himself that way,’ adding ‘women in Britain in the twenty-first century do not expect to be told to “calm down dear” by their prime minister.’ Whether they expect to be addressed in such a manner or not, Mr. Cameron’s rebuttal rings of the systemic dismissal of female political voices; a dismissal that, as Ms. Cortez’s experience attests, can often cross the line into confrontation. This begs the question, when will it be time to tell politicians like representative Yoho and former prime minister Cameron to ‘calm down dear’ when they attack the female political voice.

Lily Riley

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