Mark Mazower is Ira D. Wallach Professor of History at Columbia University in New York. Widely recognised as one of the finest historians of his generation, Professor Mazower studied at Oxford and Johns Hopkins, completing his D. Phil in Oxford in 1988. He has taught at Princeton, Sussex, and London University. His chief works include No Enchanted Palace: The End of Empire and the Ideological Origins of the United Nations (2009); Hitler’s Empire: Nazi Rule in Occupied Europe (2008); Salonica, City of Ghosts: Christians, Muslims, and Jews, 1430-1950 (2004); Dark Continent: Europe’s Twentieth Century (1998); and Inside Hitler’s Greece: The Experience of Occupation, 1941-44 (1993), several of which have won major prizes. His most recent book is Governing the World: The History of an Idea (2012). He is a specialist of Greece, the Balkans, and more generally of the history of Europe in the twentieth century. Prof. Mazower will deliver the Sixth [Indian Economic and Social History Review] IESHR Annual Lecture in New Delhi on December 11, 2012. Here, he responds to questions from Sanjay Subrahmanyam, Professor of History at UCLA.
Even though you have ranged far and wide over the years, Greece and the Balkans are at the heart of a lot of what you have written. How does a Londoner like you come to have such a strong affinity with that part of the world? Was it because of family? Or just travel?
I have to confess that I don’t really know. I think that it was at first because it felt very different from London, and then turned out -- a bit like London -- to have a history that spoke to me. I travelled south in Europe first in my gap year – I took a train through Italy, then over to Greece and Yugoslavia, and the Mediterranean landscape made an immediate impression on me. It touches me still: I find it stunningly beautiful every time I am there. I then went more to Greece because I studied classics and made some good friends there, and then started learning modern Greek in Thessaloniki one summer, mainly because the alternative, which I really wanted to do then, namely to learn Romanian in Cluj, was over-booked. (I’ve still to get round to Romanian.) I think the differences from England were really what attracted me; England and the Mediterranean as complements ….
So who were some of the historians who influenced you early on? Or were their other intellectuals from the neighbouring disciplines – literature, sociology, anthropology – who were equally important as influences, either as teachers, or as friends and conversation partners, or just as authors?
I didn’t really get round to studying history until I had to teach it. It wasn’t my undergraduate degree, nor my masters (International Affairs). In that sense, the way I approach things was probably shaped initially by non-historians – my anthropologist supervisor at Oxford, John Campbell, also one of my English masters at school who taught me to read poems and novels closely, some of my undergraduate tutors in philosophy and ancient Greek, and maybe above all a very rich training in music for many years as a child – I played the French horn, and learned to conduct and to compose. My first teaching job was at Princeton, which was to land among the gods – my colleagues, though I did not dare regard them that way, included Arno Mayer, Natalie Zemon Davis, Anthony Grafton, and James MacPherson. Carl Schorske was nearby and befriended me, and conversations with him taught me much; Felix Gilbert was still in residence at the Institute for Advanced Study. And probably even more important were the people I started out with, especially Stephen Kotkin and Gyan Prakash, who still teach there, and Peter Mandler, now at Cambridge. Princeton was my great education in history. Later there was Sussex – with people such as Rod Kedward, a masterly historian – and a great tradition of its own. And later still, Birkbeck College in London.
So you were trained in classics, philosophy, international affairs and even music before you settled down to become a modern historian, apparently in your mid 20s. Was there a time when some other line of work than history was on the cards for you?
In the Thatcher years, when I graduated, it seemed crazy to count on a career in academia and everyone I knew, or so it seemed, regarded themselves as destined for the City or the bar, banking or law. But banking always remained a purely theoretical safety net for me. What a relief that academia worked out! Unlike some of my friends, I had never especially imagined myself as a historian as a child, but I was always interested in digging around in the past.
With your book Dark Continent: Europe’s 20th Century (1998), you emerged as someone who could comfortably straddle the worlds of specialized research and popular history. You have continued to do this in your work since then. Do you ever find a tension between the rigours of research and reaching out to a wider, more popular, audience? Is there a need to compromise in some way?
The main tension is obviously between readability and argument. Stories carry a reader along when told well. Can one construct an argument to do the same thing? That is the real challenge. One among many reasons for admiring Eric Hobsbawm is that unlike many historians he was never willing to sacrifice the analysis for the narrative, and took a dim view of those who did. I guess I do too. So one looks for micro-stories that illustrate the bigger points, and ways of making abstractions come alive. I’ve never knowingly tried to shortcut the argument just to keep the reader with me. And introductions and conclusions become very important as ways of bringing people in, and getting the message across, and novels can provide models there: Georges Perec, for instance, was hugely helpful to me in thinking through the opening of Hitler’s Empire. Perhaps because I’ve had a small training in economics, I’ve never been shy of numbers but it is often hard to make statistics gripping. Being in the midst of a major economic crisis helps of course.
Approaching the point from the other side, I hate much of the jargon that has crept into disciplines like political science and international relations especially in the USA. Previous generations did it much more elegantly. The challenge of conveying what one wants to say so that it can be understood, say, by smart people outside the academy should, I think, be a welcome challenge to almost anyone.
With the possible exception of your books on The Balkans (2000) and Salonica (2004), you have pretty much stayed with the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (especially the period after 1815). Is there a reason for this? Do you think such a specialization by period is more or less inevitable, given the nature of historical research?
It is more that one thing tends to lead to another. My books flowed from one another as research questions in my own mind, and they all concerned the great arc of the past two centuries. But of course working on Greece offers other possibilities and the idea does appeal to me, if I can find the right format, of taking the old nationalist canard of the continuity of Hellenic civilization seriously and trying to tell a story that spans millennia and not just decades. Greece is among the few places one could try this out on – the evidentiary base is so rich across the entire span.
Do you think of yourself as a “British historian” especially now that you have taught in the U.S. for a good number of years? Is there actually something like a British way of doing history even now, as distinct from an American or French way?
In the U.K. there is a closer relationship than in the U.S. between universities and the wider culture and that translates into a kind of openness and interest in writing style and the way one tells history. In the U.S., the university world is so vast and relatively wealthy (compared with elsewhere) that one can easily wander within it and forget about readers beyond. Also, British higher education was far less professionalised than its American equivalent. I think that had good as well as bad consequences, and encouraged risk-taking. But I love the vibrancy of American intellectual life and the seriousness with which ideas are still taken. And the wideness of horizons has no equivalent anywhere: English academia seems parochial by comparison. I know much less about French history, but it seems – with obvious notable exceptions – introverted and provincial by comparison with the Anglophone world. Clearly there has been a big generational shift for the better, and there is an idealist and philosophical richness in France that I find deeply compelling.
How do you see your intellectual relationship with an earlier generation of British Marxist scholarship, such as Eric Hobsbawm – whom you’ve already mentioned -- or E.P. Thompson? Are these natural points of reference for you? Do you see your own work as belonging to any sort of “school”, or are all those things in the past?
I was not especially political as a student, and certainly never felt the temptation of either Communism or Marxism. Probably that was due to my own family background: Ashkenazi Jewish from Russia and Poland, with relatives still living in the then USSR. My father’s father had been active in the Bund. So if you were to look for a category it might be post-Bundist, but more by way of general outlook than anything specific: about the Bund itself, I had for many years only the sketchiest of ideas. I knew Eric Hobsbawm, through Birkbeck College and the journal Past and Present, and as a result of his and Marlene’s tremendous hospitality, and learned a lot from him and from his books — his range, and willingness to try new things, his refusal of dogmatism, his way of talking about economics so that it mattered. Also, very important, a lack of sentimentalism. There was, incidentally, no Hobsbawm school: I think schools only emerge where someone wants disciples and that was not Eric’s way and something else one admired in him. More generally, I feel a great indebtedness to his generation — Schorske, Francis Carsten and Claudio Pavone have also meant much to me, and Fritz Stern too as I have come to know him at Columbia — and find much to admire in them, things they have in common, and of course great differences as well. It was a generation that at its best combined great breadth of vision with personal modesty, or at least reticence. Today I think that on the whole people are less personally reticent and at the same time narrowed in their views. It is possible the current crisis in Europe will change that.
Besides books and learned essays, you write extensively in the newspapers and places like the London Review of Books or The Nation. Do you think of yourself as a “public intellectual” in some manner? Does that term even make much sense in the context of the U.S., where the academy is often despised by others in the public sphere and where the word “professorial” can be an insult?
History for me is both a craft, whose techniques have to be taken seriously and refined among the members of the guild, and a way of participating in a larger conversation that society has with itself about its values and anxieties and dreams for the future. It needs ideally to be both of those things. So I don’t see teaching, seminars, editing – the stuff we do behind closed doors, and that has little public appeal – as being in some way separable from writing book reviews, books, chatting on the radio or – when one can’t avoid it – television. So I don’t like the term “public intellectual” – but it expresses very well that sense one has in the U.S. in particular that one can easily spend an entire life in the ivory tower and never poke one’s head out. Not to mention that it now encompasses anyone who is an “opinion-former”, or better, who publicly expresses an opinion, a category which includes plenty of highly paid idiots and hacks.
Obviously books like No Enchanted Palace (2009) on the United Nations and most recently Governing the World (2012) have taken you out of Europe to an extent. Have you engaged much over the years with the historiography on and from South Asia? Are there any particular influences that you could name?
I started off being educated in South Asian history by my friend Gyan Prakash, discovering Subaltern Studies and enjoying the way Gramsci and E.P.Thompson were combined with Marx and deployed in the cause of an anti- or post-colonial social history. I did not really realize that for a long time one was supposed to choose between the Subalterns and anything coming out of Cambridge in the U.K., because I found Eric Stokes, Chris Bayly and plenty of others to be fascinating and instructive as well. And I also found some odd gaps. Why was so little written about the Partition itself? Why the neglect of diplomatic history? Later I came to appreciate the reasons for this and to see too that these things were changing, as they are now. In my recent reading on the history of the U.N., Nehru and early independent foreign policy more generally, struck me as completely fascinating. The literature remains strongly idolatrous, it is true, where Nehru is concerned. Much remains to be explained. How and why Nehru turned to the U.N. to elevate India as a new Great Power strikes me as a fascinating and important question for anyone interested in India’s current emergence as a major international player.
You and some of your colleagues in Columbia such as Samuel Moyn have been writing of late on such fraught ideas as “world government” and “universal human rights”. Would you see yourself as a friendly sceptic in regard to these notions?
I see myself more as a cautious and occasionally sceptical would-be believer. In human rights, that is. I don’t know anyone who really believes in world government. Better cooperation on the really important things would be nice. Now that the Europeans and the Americans have built the machinery of international organisation, perhaps the Chinese and the Indians will turn it to good use. But I am not very optimistic.
How would you see your work in relation to fields such as “world history” and “global history”, which are popular in the U.S. but less so elsewhere in the world? Do you see yourself as a “world historian” or a “global historian”?
Not in particular. Just a congenital trespasser.
Though you’re still in mid-career, you have already published eight books and edited a handful of others. Where do you go from here? Do you know what your projects will be ten years from now? Or do you take things one step at a time?
It is time to slow down, I think. And with Greece facing the worst crisis in its history since the 1940s, I feel a strong pull back to the history of the country I know best. For a small country, it has a lot of history.