Daily Archives: 3 October 2009

Ottoman Effects on European Nationalism

In the September 2009 issue of Journal of World History Sean Foley discusses various aspects of Muslims and Social Change in the Atlantic Basin (Project MUSE subscription required). Here’s a bit of the most interesting section to me, The Emergence of European Nationalism (pp. 385-391):

Ottoman power also drove important political change in Europe during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, contributing to the rise of nation-states and new national identities in two key ways. First, the Ottoman Empire’s presence in European politics allowed leaders from England to the Balkans to use alliances with Istanbul to counter the policies of larger and more powerful Christian European rivals. Second, Muslim mariners attacked European coastal areas and seized more than a million Europeans. These attacks decimated coastal regions, undermined the authority of some governments, redefined national identities, and compelled some governments to extend unprecedented rights and guarantees to their subjects—rights that became cornerstones of the Euro-Atlantic legal tradition today.

One saw this two-track process unfold across Europe from the sixteenth century until the mid eighteenth century. While one might question Stephen Fischer-Galati’s contention that the Ottoman threat guaranteed the survival of the Protestant Reformation, there is no doubt that the simultaneous challenges of the Ottoman Empire and of the Protestant Reformation taxed the resources and complicated the strategic calculations of Catholic leaders. On multiple occasions—including periods when Ottoman armies appeared to threaten Europe—Protestant states in Germany refused to contribute soldiers to participate in military operations against the Ottoman armies or discuss funding wars against the Ottomans with Catholic Habsburg officials before all internal religious issues had been resolved. For all of their power and wealth, Catholic leaders—Charles V of Spain and Ferdinand I of Austria—had little choice but to negotiate directly with smaller German states and respect their religious views, no matter how objectionable they appeared to be to Catholic audiences. This was a major blow to states that saw themselves as absolute monarchies beholden to no one except God.

Nor were Catholic resources stretched only in Germany. In its many protracted conflicts with the Netherlands, France, and England, Spain always had to allow for the fact of military alliances with the Ottoman Empire, which could strike Spanish possessions far removed from Western Europe. Dutch Calvinists used Ottoman markets to circumvent a Spanish embargo on Dutch trade with Iberia—an embargo meant to punish Holland for seeking independence from the Spanish crown. Thanks in part to Ottoman markets and military assistance, the Dutch won their independence in 1609. Protestant England and Catholic France also used Ottoman power as a vehicle to assert their national identity and interests against Spain’s power in Europe. In one instance, Spain was compelled to release France’s king, Francis I, shortly after Spanish armies seized him and defeated the French army at Pavia in 1525: the Ottoman Empire had signaled its desire for the immediate release of the French king. Subsequently, Francis admitted to a Venetian diplomat that he saw the Ottoman Empire as the only force capable of “guaranteeing the combined existence of the states of Europe” against Spanish power.

Importantly, the Ottoman ability to strike at Spanish possessions far removed from Eastern Europe reflected its large army and formidable formal and informal naval power. Fulfilling the prediction of the fourteenth-century Arab historian Ibn Khaldun that North African mariners would “attack the Christians and conquer the lands of the European Christians,” Moroccans, Tunisians, and Algerians seized Christians and wreaked havoc on Europe’s maritime commerce and coastal communities from the eastern Mediterranean Sea to Iceland. Cornwall, Devon, and other English communities lost a fifth of their shipping and thousands of sailors in the first third of the seventeenth century alone. Yet, the impact of Muslim mariners on Italy was far greater. Robert David notes in Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters, that large stretches of Italy’s once populous coastline were uninhabitable—“continually infested with Turks” throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Fishing and farming (even ten to twenty miles inland) remained dangerous pursuits well into the eighteenth century along much of the Italian coast, especially in Sicily and other areas close to North Africa….

Equally important, European captives, Muslim attacks, and the publicity tied to them sparked new national consciousnesses, national missions, and ultimately social change in England and later France. In both, this process cemented the principle that only non-Europeans should be enslaved, and as such they glorified “free” labor and efforts to combat Muslim slavery….

The Islamic element of English national consciousness evidenced in Henry V grew still stronger in the seventeenth century, as Muslim maritime attacks challenged the cornerstone of the island nation’s national mythology: the ocean was the source of English economic, military, and political vitality. As Linda Colley observes in Captives, the Stuart kings’ failure to stop Muslim attacks and enslavement of Englishmen was an important factor that robbed them of legitimacy and helped “to provoke the civil wars that tore England and its adjacent countries apart after 1642.” Subsequent governments sought to avoid the Stuarts’ fate by strengthening the English navy, paying Muslim mariners not to attack English ships, and publicly emphasizing the government’s full commitment to preventing the enslavement of Englishmen on the high seas. By the eighteenth century, this national mission and the government’s commitment to it had become institutionalized, as evidenced in the words of James Thomson’s poem “Rule, Britannia”: “Rule, Britannia, rule the waves; Britons never will be slaves.”

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Salonica: National vs. Personal Histories

From Salonica, City of Ghosts: Christians, Muslims and Jews, 1430-1950, by Mark Mazower (Vintage, 2006), pp. 10-11:

I found Joseph Nehama’s magisterial Histoire des Israélites de Salonique, and began to see what an extraordinary story it had been. The arrival of the Iberian Jews after their expulsion from Spain, Salonica’s emergence as a renowned centre of rabbinical learning, the disruption caused by the most famous False Messiah of the seventeenth century, Sabbetai Zevi, and the persistent faith of his followers, who followed him even after his conversion to Islam, formed part of a fascinating and little-known history unparalleled in Europe. Enjoying the favour of the sultans, the Jews, as the Ottoman traveller Eviiya Chelebi noted, called the city “our Salonica”—a place where, in addition to Turkish, Greek and Bulgarian, most of the inhabitants “know the Jewish tongue because day and night they are in contact with, and conduct business with Jews.”

Yet as I supplemented my knowledge of the Greek metropolis with books and articles on its Jewish past, and tried to reconcile what I knew of the home of Saint Dimitrios—”the Orthodox city”—with the Sefardic “Mother of Israel,” it seemed to me that these two histories—the Greek and the Jewish—did not so much complement one another as pass each other by. I had noticed how seldom standard Greek accounts of the city referred to the Jews. An official tome from 1962 which had been published to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of its capture from the Turks contained almost no mention of them at all; the subject had been regarded as taboo by the politicians masterminding the celebrations. This reticence reflected what the author Elias Petropoulos excoriated as “the ideology of the barbarian neo-Greek bourgeoisie,” for whom the city “has always been Greek.” But at the same time, most Jewish scholars were just as exclusive as their Greek counterparts: their imagined city was as empty of Christians as the other was of Jews.

As for the Muslims, who had ruled Salonica from 1430 to 1912, they were more or less absent from both. Centuries of European antipathy to the Ottomans had left their mark. Their presence on the wrong side of the Dardanelles had for so long been seen as an accident, misfortune or tragedy that in an act of belated historical wishful thinking they had been expunged from the record of European history. Turkish scholars and writers, and professional Ottomanists, had not done much to rectify things. It suited everyone, it seemed, to ignore the fact that there had once existed in this corner of Europe an Ottoman and an Islamic city atop the Greek and Jewish ones.

How striking then it is that memoirs often describe the place very differently from such scholarly or official accounts and depict a society of almost kaleidoscopic interaction. Leon Sciaky’s evocative Farewell to Salonica,the autobiography of a Jewish boy growing up under Abdul Hamid, begins with the sound of the muezzin’s cry at dusk. In Sciaky’s city, Albanian householders protected their Bulgarian grocer from the fury of the Ottoman gendarmerie, while well-to-do Muslim parents employed Christian wet-nurses for their children and Greek gardeners for their fruit trees. Outside the Yalman family home the well was used by “the Turks, Greeks, Bulgarians, Jews, Serbs, Vlachs, and Albanians of the neighbourhood.” And in Nikos Kokantzis’s moving novella Gioconda, a Greek teenage boy falls in love with the Jewish girl next door in the midst of the Nazi occupation; at the moment of deportation, her parents trust his with their most precious belongings.

Have scholars, then, simply been blinkered by nationalism and the narrowed sympathies of ethnic politics? If they have the fault is not theirs alone. The basic problem—common to historians and their public alike—has been the attribution of sharply opposing, even contradictory, meanings to the same key events. Both have seen history as a zero-sum game, in which opportunities for some came through the sufferings of others, and one group’s loss was another’s gain: 1430—when the Byzantine city fell to Sultan Murad II—was a catastrophe for the Christians but a triumph for the Turks. Nearly five centuries later, the Greek-victory in 1912 reversed the equation. The Jews, having settled there at the invitation of the Ottoman sultans, identified their interests with those of the empire, something the Greeks found hard to forgive.

It follows that the real challenge is not merely to tell the story of this remarkable place as one of cultural and religious co-existence—in the early twenty-first century such long-forgotten stories are eagerly awaited and sought out—but to see the experiences of Christians, Jews and Muslims within the terms of a single encompassing historical narrative. National histories generally have clearly defined heroes and villains, but what would a history look like where these roles were blurred and confused? Can one shape an account of this city’s past which manages to reconcile the continuities in its shape and fabric with the radical discontinuities—the deportations, evictions, forced resettlements and genocide—which it has also experienced? Nearly a century ago, a local historian attempted this: at a rime when Salonica’s ultimate fate was uncertain, the city struck him as a “museum of idioms, of disparate cultures and religions.” Since then what he called its “hybrid spirit” has been severely battered by two world wars and everything they brought with them. I think it is worth trying again.

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