29 March 2010

Suicide Bombing in Moscow

The Irish Independent reports that two female suicide bombers blew themselves up in a crowded Moscow subway this morning (29 Mar. 2010), killing at least 37 people and wounding at least 102 others.

The bombers are reportedly rebels from Chechnya, a breakaway Russian republic that started to fight for independence from Russia during the mid-1990s. The conflict began with a war that lasted from 1994-96—a conflict that Russia effectively lost following the death of some 70-80,000 people in the devastated city of Grozny.

The stateless-nation soon fell into chaos. Warlords took charge, unemployed Chechens were radicalized, and an assortment of groups, including Islamist militants, moved into the region.

This latest attack offers a reminder to those outside of Russia concerning the festering problems in the former republic. Nationalist struggles may have significant long-term effects that extend beyond the more localized fight for self-determination. It is worth learning a great deal more about the country and its terrible problems:

A Timeline of Key Events in Chechnya, 1830-2006
The Global Issues Website Chechnya page
The US Holocaust Museum's "Preventing Genocide" page
YouTube offers footage of the 1994-96 war
BBC News provides a useful information page on their website

11 March 2010

Greek Debt Crisis and the EU

American Public Media's "Marketplace" program ran an interesting story on the Greek debt crisis.

In an effort to prevent his country from defaulting on its debt, Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou proposed a $6.5 billion austerity budget this week. Protests resulted. Workers, not anxious to see their pay or benefits cut, were enraged.

Some saw the problem as a European one. Liana Kanelli, a Communist member of the Greek parliament, blames the decision to join the Eurozone in 2001. "If you get in this Eurozone you abolish a very severe amount of your national sovereignty. So you see, we are not free!"

While Kanelli expresses a minority view, the Euro always threatened to undermine national identity. Simply put, money is one of the key ways that nation-states express themselves, putting national symbols on currency as a means of promoting identity. In this case, the compromise was to assure that each country released its own Euros, with nationally distinct symbols on one side of the currency.

Fair enough, but this did not stop a relatively widespread nationalist backlash. What strikes me, however, is that opposition to the EU comes from both left and right. So, the question is this. Will the current economic crisis promote growing resentment toward Germany (the dominant economic power in Europe) and toward the European Union?

The indications from Greece suggest that the answer is "yes." The Marketplace story finishes with the fact that "Greece has now broken the unspoken rule of European politics: don't mention the war. Over the past week or so the Greek airwaves have been awash with archive newsreel footage of German's least popular export. News shows have reminded viewers of Hitler's occupation of Greece."

For Kanelli, German domination of the Eurozone represents "another form of conquest." She states "That's why sometimes I and a lot of other people speak about an economic neo-Nazism that's going against European people."

Memory, nationalism, and economic turmoil always make interesting bedfellows. The Greek story is certainly one worth watching.

06 March 2010

More on the US Vote Regarding Armenian Genocide

The non-binding vote by the US Congress regarding the Armenian genocide sparked rage among Turkish nationalists. The Guardian has more...

05 March 2010

Legacies of Trauma and National Identity in Modern Turkey

René Dumont remembered the twentieth century “as a century of massacres and wars.” Isaiah Berlin recalled it “only as the most terrible century in Western history.” William Golding echoed these men by saying: “I can’t help thinking that this has been the most violent century in human history.”

If one considers the statistics, these reflections seem apt. Some 37 million casualties during World War I. Between 50 and 60 million dead during World War II—the largest human undertaking in history. Genocides in Armenia, Rwanda, Bosnia. Millions and millions dead in purges in Russia and China. The Vietnam and Korean wars. Horrendous killings in Argentina. The list goes on and on and on.

Given these terrible realities, it is hardly shocking that there are numerous legacies of trauma. In Germany, collective guilt is virtually a cornerstone of post-World War II national identity. In Austria, collaboration with the Nazis was carefully “forgotten” until the 1980s and 90s. In France, the need to forget more shameful chapters of the Second World War created what historian Henry Rousso called the “Vichy Syndrome.” Indeed, the first serious historical study of Vichy, written by Robert Paxton in 1972, resulted in hate mail and death threats. In Russia and China, unpleasant memories of mass death and all pervasive fear are submerged in nostalgic recollections of a previous age.

Against the great canvas of the twentieth century, the Turkish effort to forget the massacre of roughly 1.5 million Armenians between 1915 and 1923 is hardly unique. During those years, the Ottoman government force-marched Armenians from their homes to horrendous camps, never supplying adequate water or food. [You can see a map of the various genocide-related sites by clicking here.] The experience represents the first genocide of the twentieth century, an ominous marker of what was to come.

The effort to separate modern Turkish identity from the Ottoman past started with the foundation of the Republic of Turkey in 1923. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk disdained the Ottomans. Historian Christopher S. Wilson, a professor at Izmir University of Economics in Turkey, quotes Atatürk saying: “The new Turkey has no relationship to the old one. The Ottoman government has disappeared into history. A new Turkey has now been born.” Wilson goes on to say that the new leadership

frequently described their Ottoman predecessor as old, outdated, inefficient, wasteful and disorganized. In contrast, their new democracy was to be modern, up-to-date, efficient, resourceful and well organized. This attitude of contempt for the new state’s immediate predecessor shaped the ideology and hence policies of the young Republic of Turkey.

Toward this end, the Turks did everything in their power to move on, right down to endeavoring to represent the new state through different architecture, symbols, and myths. Useful, pre-Ottoman sources were emphasized to give legitimacy to the new regime, while whatever came after was conveniently forgotten. There was certainly nothing helpful about remembering a mass murder.

Given the foundation story of the Turkish state, it is hardly surprising that efforts by the European Union and now the United States to demand a confession of the sins of the past is not greeted warmly by the Turks.

Turkish objections are so vehement that the country faces exclusion from the European Union and the passage of a non-binding Congressional resolution by the US Congress is raising fears that US-Turkish relations may be damaged at a time when the American government is dependant on Turkish good will in order to carry out its foreign policy in places such as Afghanistan.

Understanding the nexus of legacies of trauma, contemporary politics, and national identity, even in places that may seem as peripheral to many Americans as Armenia, is tremendously important. While it seems utopian to imagine, along with Armenian foreign minister Edward Nalbandian, that resolutions such as the one passed yesterday represent “an important step towards the prevention of crimes against humanity”—the endless repetition of “never again” in reference to the Shoah certainly has not stopped mass killing from taking place—the ongoing working out of memory does seem important. Especially if that memory work inspires a greater understanding of twenty-first century identities.

Work Cited:

Christopher S. Wilson, “The Persistence of the Turkish Nation in the Mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk,” in Mitchell Young, Eric Zuelow, and Andreas Sturm (eds), Nationalism in a Global Era: The Persistence of Nations (London and New York: Routledge, 2007), 93-114.