On the Edge of the New Century is the sequel to Eric Hobsbawm’s The Age of Extremes, a book of serious and challenging historical analysis that became a worldwide bestseller, now in paperback. Hobsbawm’s latest book continues his “magisterial” (The New York Times Book Review) analysis of the twentieth century, and asks crucial questions about our inheritance from a century of conflict and its meaning for our future.
Looking back over the last decade, Hobsbawm finds the distinction between internal and international conflicts and between the state of war and the state of peace disappearing as the crisis of the multiethnic state deepens and nations emerge from colonialism and nuclear terror. He assesses the impact that a popular global culture has had on every aspect of life, from happiness and social hierarchy to nutrition and the environment.
|Publisher:||New Press, The|
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About the Author
Eric Hobsbawm was born in Alexandria in 1917 and educated in Austria, Germany, and England. He taught at Birkbeck College, the University of London, and the New School for Social Research in New York. He is the author of The Age of Revolution, The Age of Capital, The Age of Empire, and The Age of Extremes, and The New Press has published his books On History, Uncommon People, Industry and Empire, Bandits, On the Edge of the New Century, Revolutionaries, his memoir Interesting Times, On Empire, and Fractured Times. Eric Hobsbawm died in 2012.
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War and Peace
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The twentieth century has ended with a war, just as the Short Century started with the catastrophe of the Great War. As though time had not moved on, the national question has exploded again and put the great powers to the test. So is history repeating itself? How did we move from the end of the Cold War to the return of "hot war?" How is it possible that there are more refugees now than at the end of the Second World War?
It is true that in some ways the war in the Balkans has been truly a war with all the hallmarks of a bygone era. It is the continuation of the Balkan wars and more generally of the wars produced by the international system of powers in the twentieth century, and before that, in the nineteenth. The Balkan War is, if you like, the final consequence, the last by-product of the Great War. That conflict saw the collapse of the prebourgeois, multinational empires. The end of the Hapsburgs and the Ottomans produced the nationalist map of Southeast Europe, while the October Revolution preserved the unity of what had been the empire of the tsar. Now that that regime has also collapsed, we are witnessing similar consequences in that part of the world.
I think that it is more important to analyze the manner in which the general nature of war and peace has changed at the end of the twentieth century. The general nature of war is a much more significant problem than its specific reasons. It is, for example, more important than asking ourselves whether or not Kosovo was a just war which clearlyappeared as an enormous and urgent problem while the war was raging in the spring of 1999. But for future historians who will study the war, other questions will seem a great deal more interesting, because they define the distinctive features of this fin de siècle and say something about the coming century.
The thing that most interests me is how war has changed, both in the political and technological sense. Is it still possible to have a war between the great world powers? The answer is no, as long as America is the only superpower. It is possible that, sooner or later, China will reach a military capability to rival effectively the USA. I don't want to say whether this will happen or not. But what does seem certain is that a new world war is not probable until this happens.
Second, is a nuclear war possible? On the one hand, the unlikelihood of a world war makes nuclear war improbable. However, the use of nuclear arms in a war is, in my opinion, possible and not improbable, because technology has steadily increased their availability, made them more widely producible and more rapidly transportable. Hence the exclusion of the risk of a world war does not eliminate the risk of wars in which nuclear arms could be used.
Third, are the more conventional wars between states, to which we have been accustomed, still possible? The answer is that they never ceased, except in the areas where the two great superpowers confronted each other directly and therefore were very careful to avoid the risk of a nuclear catastrophe. We have had conflicts in South Asia between India and Pakistan, and there have been wars in the Middle East between Iran and Iraq. So wars even continued during the period of the nuclear nightmare. The possibility of more wars is therefore high. There are certain regions of the world where this is extremely improbable. We tend to forget that there are regions, like Latin America, where no army ever crossed the border of an enemy state throughout the twentieth century, with the one exception of the Chaco War between Bolivia and Paraguay (1932-35). There have been an abundance of massacres and civil wars, but not wars between states. We do not know to what extent this will also be true of Europe in the twenty-first century. In any event, this kind of war cannot be ruled out in the future world, although they will perhaps not be as important as they were in the twentieth century.
I believe that what is new about the situation in the Balkans is that the line which distinguishes internal conflicts from international conflicts has disappeared or is tending to disappear. This means that the difference between war and peace, and between the state of war and the state of peace has also diminished. The Yugoslav situation is a typical example. Although it arises from an antagonism, which the Serbs consider to be an internal question, there has also been an external intervention. This is something which, in the nineteenth century and up to the end of the Cold War, would have been completely impossible: foreign armies which cross borders to resolve an internal conflict within a sovereign state. In this case, one of the two parties to the conflict even refused to acknowledge that a war was taking place. It seems impossible to deny that bombing another state constitutes an act of war. Yet, officially, war was not declared, and therefore some people argue that a state of war did not exist. This is the staggering novelty of the situation.
Clearly, we are dealing with a consequence of the end of the Cold War. During that period, the relative stability of the world was essentially based on the golden rule of the international system: no one crosses the borders of another sovereign state, because the result would be to upset the balance. Since the end of the Cold War, we have seen the end of this self-limitation. Central Africa, Yugoslavia, Kosovo, Iraq: it is not at all clear whether these were wars or not. The very fact that there was a great deal of debate about whether they were just or unjust was another way of expressing our perplexity, faced with a completely new phenomenon. The Italian philosopher Bobbio was being fairly logical in saying that he doesn't even want to pose this question, because the real question is whether the war in Kosovo was legal in accordance with the past rules. The answer is no. The old rules of war and peace, which distinguished between internal conflicts and international ones, have been eroded, and it does not appear at all probable that they will be restored in the near future.
There are also differences in the way in which war is fought, enormous differences. Some were predictable, other less so. The first is the transformation of war brought about by advanced technology. Initially, we feared that it would bring about conflicts that were more bloody and devastating. But, since the Gulf War, we have known that advanced technology produces a much more precise and discriminating power of destruction. Intelligent bombs are capable of selecting particular objectives and avoiding others. Leaving aside operational incidents and the risks of "friendly fire," this new reality is important, because it restores the distinction between combatants and noncombatants, which had disappeared in the twentieth century when wars were increasingly directed against civilians. This allowed NATO to say in the Kosovo War, for example, we are not targeting civilians, but only troops and their installations, at least in principle.
On the other hand, this makes possible an increasingly frequent and frivolous recourse to destruction. If you believe yourself to be so powerful that you can choose exactly what you want to destroy, it becomes easier to be tempted to resolve your problems by bombing, as occurred in Iraq. In this sense, advanced technology increases the risks of armed conflicts, at least by the nations that have it at their disposal. Moreover, it underestimates the risks of what is called "collateral damage." I do not mean the people killed by mistake, but the enormous damage caused to infrastructures by which a community lives and produces. Given that there isn't the risk of killing too many human beings, you might think that this is a very civilized way of conducting a war. However, there are estimates that the Serbian economy suffered greater destruction in a few weeks than it suffered throughout the whole of the Second World War. The effects do not only concern the Serbian economy: the destruction of the bridges over the Danube, for example, has seriously damaged the economy of the entire region, which extends from southern Germany to the Black Sea and beyond.
Finally, an enormous difference has been created at a lower level, that of the peoples who do not have access to advanced technology, between the war conducted by aircraft at fifteen thousand feet with highly sophisticated bombs, and the war on the ground, where people physically kill other people, perhaps with machetes or knives, as occurred in Central Africa. This was particularly evident in Kosovo, where the two different wars progressed simultaneously without contacts between each other. In the past, "guerrillas" were armed with rifles and machine guns; now they have rocket launchers and portable antiaircraft weapons. This is another product of the Cold War, which flooded the world with its capacity for producing arms. While there were no actual wars between the powers in that period, the armaments industry was working at full capacity, as though a general mobilization was in operation. Obviously, the end of the Cold War immediately made this vast arsenal available. I will give you an example: the conclusion of the civil war in E1 Salvador suddenly put enormous quantities of automatic rifles on the market. They could be bought on the border for a hundred dollars each, and then carried to Colombia for resale at five hundred dollars. It was a good business for some people. Now the world is full of arms, and this creates a new situation in which "freelance" armed groups appear. They are not necessarily linked to a government, but they are ready for war.
I see this as another sign of change: the relationship which is emerging and connects wars between states or organized movements to private wars between private individuals or organizations. Potentially, it is a fundamental change. During the century that is now coming to an end, it has been assumed, with a few exceptions, that armed conflicts were conducted between states or by quasi-state organizations (resistance movements in Italy or Yugoslavia, the African National Congress, and movements of national liberation). They were not organized by private enterprises, as occurred in Italy during the age of condottieri, or by leaders of mercenary armies. Up to the seventeenth century, European states would hire armies. In the Thirty Years' War, Wallenstein was the last entrepreneur who hired out his army to the states in conflict.
Today, we have a return to private enterprise in war. This is very clear in parts of the world where states are disintegrating, as in Africa, and where mercenary bands are used sometimes by warring factions and sometimes by governments.
On top of this, you need to add recent trends concerning wars directly linked to governments, such as the tendency to abolish general conscription even in countries which until now have based their army on national service. The general trend is to concentrate on the use of professional and highly qualified military personnel. Without doubt, this process creates room for private enterprise. Even in the most advanced countries, there is now a gray area where highly specialized military personnel and private businesses which provide security services are working together. In Great Britain, soldiers from SAS commando units obtain similar jobs on retirement with companies that provide consultancy and operational services to governments in relation to warfare and antiterrorism.
There is already a mass of studies into the prospects for private armed forces in future wars; for instance, by the Institute of Strategic Studies in London. Some think that the prospects aren't great, particularly because such services are not reliable. But, on the other hand, we have noticed in the case of the Gulf War a widespread use of private enterprise for logistical support in warfare. This was a little like what happened in the civilian field during the Thatcher period, when services previously provided by the government were put out to outside tender. I believe that munitions, provisions, and clothing for the troops will be increasingly tendered to private firms.
As in Macedonia, where an American company follows the NATO troops and provides logistical support.
Exactly. This is a new phenomenon in relation to the twentieth century. It is typical of a new era. It arises from the relative disintegration of the state power in some parts of the world. It has resurrected the figure of the "warlord," who has not existed in Europe since the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. These people were capable of influencing political events because they had organized their own private armies. It reminds me of the situation in China for the fifty years between the collapse of the empire and the revolution, when there was no effective government, only the power guaranteed by the armies of the warlords. Some were ex-bandits, like Chan Tso Lin, who ruled Manchuria and transformed himself into a general. I feel that the current situation, a mixture of private warfare and wars between states, means this phenomenon will again be probable in areas where the state is disintegrating markedly.
This is reinforced by another new factor: the extraordinary wealth that is now available to private entities. Today, it is possible for individuals or corporations to possess as much money as states. This is partly due to the growth of illegal businesses such as drug trafficking and smuggling. As far as I know, not a single government has financed the Kosovo Liberation Army, partly because I believe that the last thing that Western governments wanted is the creation of an independent Kosovo. Equally, I do not believe that the Albanian government has assisted them significantly, because it is not in a position to grant financial aid to anyone. Therefore, the KLA is almost certainly being funded by the illegal trafficking run by the Kosovar and Albanian mafia, as happened in Chechnya. I am not saying that this is money spent on an unjust cause, but I want to say that groups which otherwise would not have had political significance have acquired it by resorting to resources which were not available in the past. This is particularly evident in Colombia, where the government has practically lost control of large areas of the country, because the groups which dominate them are sufficiently well financed to fight and to resist. There is really no lack of resources in the world at the moment.
In my opinion, these features will become increasingly important in future wars. It is very easy for three hundred well-armed militiamen, theoretically not controlled by any state or government, to range over vast areas plundering and cleansing them of "enemies." As we have seen in Kosovo, you do not need many men to burn houses and villages, and put their inhabitants to flight. The less armed conflicts are structured and state-governed, the more dangerous they become for the civilian populations, hence the exceptionally high number of refugees in the world today.
I know someone who has worked for some years with the United Nations in Sudan, a country tormented by a long civil war. She told me that initially they had to apply to the leaders of the liberation movement to have humanitarian access to areas in the south. But in due course, the territory they controlled broke up into a series of principalities governed by individual generals, who also became masters of the refugees' fate, and the UN now had to negotiate with each of them to be able to help the refugees.
It is just as well then that we have television to show us the suffering of refugees.
There can be no doubt that the new role of public opinion has had a decisive role in changing the nature of war. The "CNN effect," as we might define it. Selective news of what is happening becomes immediately available. This is another result of the end of the Cold War, because government control and censorship of information is much less than in the past, and on occasions even impossible. This was not the case during the Vietnam War, and still less during the years immediately after it. Television's extraordinary domination has made it impossible now for governments to manage international crises in the manner they were accustomed to. But it is also an instrument at their disposal for mobilizing public opinion with a rapidity unthinkable in the past. Consider the amount of time required to transform either the sinking of the Lusitania or the Tonkin Gulf incident into a casus belli. The effect of television is immediate, but it is also no longer controllable.
This can be seen in the way in which both Saddam and Milosevic allowed television teams from the countries they were at war with to stay and film what they wanted to show to Western public opinion, while in the past the natural reaction would have been to black out the screens in a traditional Stalinist manner. This has important effects on the politics of war.
You have described the new characteristics which war tends to adopt at the end of the Short Century. However, these include the arrival on the scene of the concept of the "just war" and the "unjust war." Is it just, in your opinion, that democracies wage war against dictators in the name of Universal Human Rights?
I am a little skeptical about this. It doesn't appear to me that governments go to war because it is either just or unjust. Of course, they tend to justify them, in order to gather public support, by claiming that they are just. It is extremely important to convince public opinion. It is decisive to present the war in such a manner that people perceive it as legitimate and just. But it is very difficult to find historical examples of governments which went to war over something other than national interests.
Obviously, there are exceptions. One of these is constituted by revolutionary regimes, that is, expressions of a revolution, which sometimes wage war for other reasons based on morality, ideology, or national liberation. But even these regimes, as soon as they have stabilized, adopt foreign policies typical of states and start to act on the basis of national interests.
On this point, we must always remember that the United States of America is, to some extent, an ideological power which originated, just like the Soviet Union, from a revolution, and therefore feels the need to guide the world in accordance with its principles, as an essential part of its foreign policy.
This can be very dangerous. I have no doubt that the United States would like to change the world, and that the protection of human rights is part of its ambition. In spite of this, I cannot think of one time when the USA went to war exclusively to do good, without any significant national interests being involved.
Today, there undoubtedly is a genuine debate about the importance of human rights in order to ascertain to what extent their defense could be guaranteed by the use of military force. But I am still of the conviction that neither NATO nor the United States thought seriously about going to war entirely on grounds of principle and ethics. Not even the Second World War was fought for this principle. Of course, the Allies were on the right side and their victory saved the world from Nazism, but the European democracies and the Soviet Union were dragged into it by Hitler, and the United States by Japan.
You experienced anti-Semitism in Germany, because of your Jewish origin. For you, January 30, 1933 was not only the date on which Hitler became chancellor of the Reichstag, because you also remember it as "a winter afternoon in Berlin, when at the age of fifteen [you] were returning home to Halensee with [your] younger sister from the school at Wilmersdorf, and somewhere along the road [you] saw a newspaper headline. [You] can still read it, almost as though it was a dream." Do you also feel, like Elie Wiesel, that you need to halt ethnic hatred even with force, before it can strike home? Do you believe that Milosevic's "ethnic cleansing" constitutes the crime of genocide, and is it comparable to the Holocaust?
I think not. "Genocide" has become an overused term, and has therefore lost some of its meaning, a little like what happened to the word "fascism." Genocide is a plan to eliminate an entire ethnic group. In a way, it is a logical and extreme extension of ethnic cleansing. For example, information has now emerged which suggests that ethnic cleansing in Srebrenica came close to genocide. Nevertheless, there is a fundamental difference between driving people away from their land, telling them "off you go somewhere else," and implementing their total elimination. The Nazis killed Jewish men, women, and children. What happened with ethnic cleansing was the deportation of women, old men, and children, and the selection of men of fighting age for imprisonment and physical elimination. This does not in any sense diminish the moral gravity of ethnic cleansing, but I believe we must be able to make that analytical distinction. Ethnic cleansing is a phenomenon that occurs with various degrees of gravity, and can be pushed to the limits of genocide. It is so vile in itself that it does not need to be made worse by identifying it with genocide. The fact is that, although no one likes to discuss this in public, generals and politicians do not hesitate to assert in private that in history ethnic cleansing has often helped to simplify problems. This is another reason that makes me skeptical about the moral motivations of the war in Kosovo. If the Germans had not been driven from Slovenia, would that country be the quiet and peaceful place we know today? In the end, the conflict in Bosnia was ended by separating the different populations which lived in different parts of the country. Personally, I think it is mistaken to allow it to happen, even just as a matter of principle. It should not even be discussed as a theoretical or possible solution. But we live in a very violent world, and it happens.
If there was no moral imperative to motivate NATO, what then was the interest that drove its member countries to bomb Serbia?
For some of the countries in the Alliance, the objective was not to lose contact with the United States. This was the case of countries like Poland, which do not have any specific interest in Kosovo, and certainly did not think that it would have to participate in a war just after it had joined NATO. Many other countries had their own particular agendas, such as Italy and France. For Great Britain, the traditional principle of its foreign policy held good, whereby it thinks it is obliged to stay one hundred percent aligned with the United States. I wouldn't say the rest is hypocrisy, because there are people who sincerely believe in what they say, but it is certainly not a serious motive for the war.
As far as the Americans are concerned, the war in Kosovo is a much more complicated question. Initially, the Americans were interested in the Balkans, because Europe had dramatically failed to stabilize the area at the beginning of the nineties. The Americans had to become involved, because at that time they understood that, as the only superpower, they could not remain on the outside. This was because at least part of the Balkans is a strategic area, and too geographically significant for the NATO structure to be ignored. Indeed, they were the first to send troops to Macedonia, back in 1992, and under Bush they explicitly declared their strategic interest to Yugoslavia, which included the fate of Kosovo. They had to do it for many reasons, not least the awareness that the United Nations would not have been able to confront and resolve the Bosnian crisis, as it is not an independent power, but based on the authority which the superpowers conferred on it. Thus, after the end of the Bosnian War, the United States found itself in a situation from which it could not disentangle itself, but in which it could not act alone without the support of the Alliance. In my opinion, the United States even saw the Bosnian crisis as an opportunity to give a new role to NATO, to give it a new purpose and meaning following the end of the Cold War, an aspiration which I haven't yet completely understood. Today, the United States considers itself to be a power that has the task of stabilizing the world, and has to resort, where necessary, to international police operations. It thus has to demonstrate that, if needed, its power can intervene anywhere on the globe, to convince potential enemies outside the NATO region.
The future of NATO is the real reason for NATO intervention. You must not forget that when Clinton listed the reasons for his decision to commence the bombing of Serbia, the first was to defend NATO's credibility, and therefore that of the United States. I don't believe that it did it very well or with great results, but it is clear that NATO felt the need to do something. In order to resolve the humanitarian crisis, there were many other kinds of action which could have been taken.
But what then can be clone to stop a dictator who can do what he wants with his people? Is military intervention to be excluded a priori?
There are exceptions, of course. Bosnia is clearly a case in point. On the other hand, there are a few criteria which have to be followed. There have been two important examples of military intervention that have successfully halted crimes against humanity and expelled savage dictators. The first was Vietnam's invasion of Cambodia to overthrow Pol Pot's regime, and the other was Tanzania's intervention in Uganda when it was ruled by Idi Amin. I think that they were both justified. But the real reason why I don't have any reservations about these two wars is that they were successful and effective in reaching their objective, and they were over in a relatively short period of time. One of the reasons for my reservations about the intervention in Kosovo is that it was not conducted in this manner, because it was clear from the beginning that dropping a few bombs on Serbia would have worsened and aggravated the situation of the refugees. I should add that, for many years after Vietnam had brought Pol Pot's regime to an end, the United States and China continued to aid the dictator's forces, further demonstrating that the policies of states and powers are not primarily determined by ethical considerations. In the same way, I think that the humanitarian intervention in Bosnia was not really devised as such, and therefore was not effective. They announced that they would protect the Muslim enclaves, but they did not take action that could have guaranteed that objective.
I believe that, precisely because of the new fusion between domestic and international politics, intervention in the internal affairs of a state must respond to clearly defined rules and criteria. There needs to be a debate on this point: what are the new rules of the international system of powers? We need to return to a situation in which military action cannot be undertaken by anyone without there being a wide consensus and without it being based on serious justifications. The world cannot function if someone can just say, "I am strong enough to do what I want, and therefore I will do it."
The Serbs have fought to defend the sovereignty of the nation-state. The Albanians of Kosovo rebelled because they belonged ethnically to another nation. Globalization was supposed to have heralded the end of the nation-state, and yet here it is again, shrouded even more in ethnic and religious justifications, whose roots go back into the history of the Middle Ages. What is happening?
I think we have to distinguish between the two meanings of the term nation-state. In its traditional sense, it means a territorial state over which the people who live in it, the nation, hold a sovereign power. This is the meaning of nation-state which emerged from the French Revolution and, in part, from the American Revolution. It is a political and not an ethnic or linguistic definition of the state: it is the people who choose their government and decide to live under a certain constitution and certain laws. In comparison, the other meaning adopted for the term is much more recent, and consists of the idea that every territorial state belongs to a particular people, defined by specific ethnic, linguistic, and cultural characteristics, and this constitutes the nation. According to this idea, only one nation lives in the nation-state, and the others are minorities who live in the same place but are not part of the nation. Both types of nation-state are in crisis, but we must distinguish between them. What we find in Yugoslavia is the collapse of a state in which various nations in the ethnic sense lived together, and its transformation into several states, each of which pursues the exclusion of the other nations from its citizenship.
As far as I can see, there are actually very few signs of mass pressure from below to obtain the breakup of multinational states, at least in normal circumstances. We have seen it recently in the case of Scotland and Wales. Both these peoples, the Scots and the Welsh, are fairly clear about not being English, and they will not tolerate being defined as such, but even now that there are strong nationalist movements and even separatists in these two countries, these movements are still in the minority. To date, I cannot think of one example of secession decided by a genuinely democratic vote. I'm not saying that it's impossible, but I am saying that while there has been a lot of talk about self-determination, it has never happened in reality. When we talk about the self-determination of peoples, we should be aware of the fact that we are not talking about a strong movement from below. Naturally, once separation has occurred in reality, for whatever historical reason, it is easy to get a majority in favor, often even a large majority. Once multinational states divide and break up, then and only then are the territorial communities obliged to find new connections and to choose new loyalties.
Yugoslavia is a perfect example. It was a multinational state, and in my opinion, there was no good reason to believe that it would splinter as a result of the political pressure of its nations, no more than there was reason to believe that the Soviet Union would have exploded under the internal pressure of its nationalities. Not even in the case of the Hapsburg Empire was there a real danger of complete fragmentation, at least not until the outbreak of the war itself. The most that could be said is that there were irredentist pressures to split away to another nation in a couple of the empire's nations. For example, among the Italian and Romanian minorities, encouraged by the geographical proximity of the states to which their nationality belonged. The truth is that when empires disappear, for whatever reason, the nationalities are obliged to find alternative solutions, almost to find a justification for what has happened.
How is history invented for nationalistic reasons, to create consensus around a regime? How is it possible for a military defeat in the fourteenth century to be turned into a founding myth of new Serbian nationalism six centuries later?
National myths are another area where you must distinguish between what comes up from below and what is imposed from above. National myths do not arise spontaneously from people's actual experiences. They are something which people acquire from someone else: from books, from historians, from films, and now from people who make television. They are not generally part of the historical memory or a living tradition, with the exception of some special cases in which what was eventually to become a national myth was a product of religion. There is the case of the Jews, in whom the idea of expulsion from the land of Israel and the certain return to it is part of the religious practice and literature. Within certain limitations, this is also true of the Serbs, because the loss of the Serbian state in the Middles Ages became part of Orthodox religious services and nearly all the Serbian princes became symbols of the Orthodox faith. A special case. But here again, it is not a question of the people constantly remembering: they remember because someone is constantly reminding them.
The extreme example, an excellent illustration of this process, is the case of Israel. There can be no doubt that the historical myth of the expulsion from Palestine and the dream of the Jews' return was not perceived as a political program until the end of the nineteenth century. Indeed, it established itself independently of the historical fortunes of the Jewish people. For centuries, the return to Israel was not considered a practical objective, as Jews believed that they would not return to Jerusalem until the Messiah came and, of course, they believed and still believe that the Messiah has not yet come. Indeed, it was only in 1967 that, for the first time, there was a tendency within the Jewish religion to accept the State of Israel, on the grounds that the victories in the Six-Day War were so miraculous as to suggest we were actually entering the period in which the Messiah would come. It was the chance events of history which made it possible for the orthodox faith to accept something which it had completely rejected up to that time.
In fact, traditionally Zionism had always been fiercely opposed by orthodox Jewish religion. In any case, Israel exists today, and Israel, like Zionism, has no historical foundation. Quite the contrary, it is something which goes against the entire history of the Jewish people, from the Roman Empire down to the end of the nineteenth century. The only history that Israel can use to justify itself is history that is at least two thousand years old. Everything else that has happened in the meantime is glossed over, as it does not justify the foundation of Israel and the wars which that state has fought. The fact that the Temple had been located in Jerusalem was transformed into a modern political fact, in order to argue that Jerusalem had always been the center of the Jewish religion, and therefore the capital of the Jewish people (besides, it makes little sense to talk about capitals in a period previous to the Roman Empire, but that is another question). In any case, it has been used by the Jews to justify not only the foundation of their state, but the establishment of Jerusalem as their capital.
This argument is more or less the same as the one used by the Serbs in Kosovo. In this way, a current political situation is justified by something that has nothing to do with the present, but was true six centuries or two thousand years ago. It is used to replace everything else that has happened in the intervening period. Thus a sufficiently heroic and militant history is created, which is suited to Israel in 1945 or Serbia today. The best example is what has become a kind of ritual or historical ceremony centered on the Masada rock. Masada, according to nationalistic archeologists, is the place where nine hundred Jews resisted the Romans right to the end and the moment of their collective suicide. This event has been made into a national ritual which every young Israeli takes part in, in a place where foreign tourists are taken. This process has been carried through on the whole by hiding those aspects of the story that did not suit the nationalist objective. Israel is only an example, albeit an excellent one, because Israeli archeology, which was highly politicized right from the beginning, has neglected nearly all the other aspects of local archeology to concentrate on justifying the foundations of a national and patriotic ideology.
The same thing was true in Greece. When it became independent, Athens was not in any way its capital. In reality, it had never been the capital of Greece; it had been a very important city in classical antiquity. However, it was chosen as the capital by those who, as occurred in Israel, needed to return to a glorious past with little connection to historical reality. Moreover, 50 percent of the population of Athens was then Albanian. It became what it had to become when the new Bavarian king reconstructed it in a neoclassical style, so that it could start to look like something which they pretended it had always been: the capital of a united Greece. The past, in other words, was redesigned, a little like haute couture, to put a particular political objective in smart clothing, so that the elites, the educated minorities which govern, could impose their version of history and literature on the rest of the people.
At the time of independence, the average Greek was not thinking at all about the idea of modern Greece as the heir to ancient Greece, Athens, and Pericles. Greeks did not take part in the fighting to restore classical antiquity, but more probably because they felt they were fighting in defense of the Orthodox religion against the Turks, and for the Byzantine Empire against those who had defeated it. Byzantium and the Orthodox religion were the real living traditions in Greece. Naturally, when a new state is created with a new education system, the people sooner or later learn, and to some extent, are influenced by these historical reconstructions. In the case of Greece, they even attempted to create a new literary language closer to the classical one.
There is another powerful element, which is valid everywhere, and not only in the establishment of new states. It is the need for the "permanent" and the "fundamental" which takes on a great psychological importance not only for individuals, but also for communities, particularly in the latter half of the twentieth century, an era of change and constant insecurity. Even in areas where it is not possible to live in isolation, such as the United States where wave after wave of new arrivals come to settle, we can see the emergence of a need to have priority, to be able to say, "We are here, this is our land, the others came later, and we are the ones who have always been here." It is a kind of secular version of eternity.
This reminds me of the singular example of the political movements of American Indians. Scholars of prehistory generally agree that the human race reached America by crossing the Pacific from Northeast Asia to Alaska, and then gradually colonizing the continent. This occurred relatively late on, around one hundred thousand years ago. For the activists in the Native American movement, this is for some reason a completely unacceptable theory, because it makes them too young. Thus it is possible to have publicists who say, "We don't care about what prehistory says, we have always been here, we were here before anyone else in the world." The very absurdity of this claim suggests to me that it must exercise a very powerful and sincere emotional pull. This is particularly true of people who, for other reasons, can no longer be certain either of being unique or of always remaining where they are, because they are subject to a continuous intermingling and movement around the globe.
For some reason, it is considered an advantage from the point of view of social psychology to be able to boast a long history. This is why nationalism, in spite of being a young phenomenon, invariably claims to be very ancient. This is because a venerable old age satisfies the need for permanence and rights of precedence over others. It is therefore an extremely complex phenomenon, which we can only explain through approximations, and there are no single convincing interpretations.
Table of Contents
|Chapter 1: War and Peace||7|
|Chapter 2: The Decline of the Western Empire||31|
|Chapter 3: The Global Village||61|
|Chapter 4: What's Left of the Left?||95|
|Chapter 5: Homo Globatus||117|
|Chapter 6: 12 October 1999||141|
|Conclusion: Hopes for the Future||157|