Tag Archives: Historiography

Giving to a Part the Strength of the Whole

The American High Commission 1871

American High Commission Negotiating a Treaty in Washington, with Hamilton Fish sitting in the middle.

“Though he did not get his way on Santo Domingo, Fish would shape the Monroe Doctrine more than any other American in the 1870s. A forgotten figure today, Fish was the longest-serving secretary of state in the nineteenth century. . . His foreign policy vision rested upon the pillars of rapprochement with Great Britain and ‘informal imperialism’ in America’s growing sphere of influence.” -Jay Sexton, 2011


In 1871, President Grant sent an investigative commission to Santo Domgino (what is now the Dominican Republic) to explore the possibility of annexing the country. The commission came two years after Grant proposed the idea to Congress as part of the post-Civil War Reconstruction effort, arguing that that annexing Santo Domingo could create a new state for freed slaves to inhabit, an idea that the assistant secretary of the commission, Frederick Douglass, also supported.

Grant and Douglass, in their respective memoirs, make similar defenses of their mutual support. In the end of his 1885 memoir, Grant writes that after the Civil War, African Americans “now should be considered as having as good a right to remain here as any other class of our citizens. It was looking to a settlement of this question that led me to urge the annexation of Santo Domingo” (761), and adds that at the time, the Dominican president Buenaventura Baez favored and even requested annexation.

Grant goes on to write that freed slaves “would go there in great numbers, so as to have independent states governed by their own race. They would still be States of the Union, and under the protection of the General Government; but the citizens would be almost wholly” of the same race. This passage is immediately followed by a long description of the development of the Western Frontier during Grant’s military and political tenure, and there is no textual transition between these two moments. To Grant, the Frontier and Santo Domingo were part and parcel.

Frederick Douglass echoes this sentiment almost point for point in his 1892 memoir. He emphasizes a similar claim that Baez wanted annexation and adds, “there was no more dishonor to Santo Domingo in making her a State of the American Union, than in making Kansas, Nebraska, or any other territory such a state. It was giving to a part the strength of the whole” (Douglass 409). Like Grant, Douglass believed that the creation of states specifically for freed African Americans would be a cause of Reconstruction, granting land and governance to a vulnerable population eager to leave the ruins of the hostile South.

Despite an initial treaty between Grant and Baez failing to pass through Congress, Grant organized an entourage for the commission. In addition to Douglass, there was the Radical Republican Senator B.F. Wade; the historian, diplomat, and co-founder of Cornell University A. D. White; the physician Samuel Howe; and a diplomat to Colombia, Allan A. Burton. Grant cherry-picked these scholars and activists largely for their Republican leanings.

Allan Nevins, in his 1937 900-page biography of Grant’s Secretary of State, Hamilton Fish, provides one of the most detailed assessments of the commission. Nevins writes that in addition to the above five main members, there were “geologists, mineralogists, and other scientists, [and] ten newspaper correspondents” onboard (497). He goes on to describe B. F. Wade as “a Manifest Destiny man” and write that Howe was “carried away by humanitarian zeal for the Caribbean” (498). Fish himself was a quiet imperialist who influenced decisions behind the scenes, favoring annexation as an extension of the early nineteenth century Monroe Doctrine to protect (meaning control) the Western Hemisphere.

All five members returned to the US favoring annexation. On page 35 of the report, they conclude that “the annexation of Santo Domgino to the United States would be hardly less beneficial to the [Haitian] than to the Dominican people. . . This would end the exhausting border warfare” between the two republics sharing the island, by essentially forcing a regime change in Santo Domingo. Douglass and and Burton then go on to offer their “full and complete concurrence with the statements made.” So it was that in 1871, five abolitionists all agreed that annexing and colonizing a Caribbean republic would bring peace and stability, law and order.

There is, however, another chain of events that preceded the commission. Nevins notes that “two Yankee rovers and speculators, William L. Cazneau and Joseph Warren Fabens” who had “been in Texas just before its annexation and had seen the handsome fortunes made there by land speculators” had, before the Civil War, attempted to form economic treaties with Santo Domingo (252). When the first treaties failed, Cazneau “purchased a plantation near Santo Domingo City” and was joined by Fabens in 1859 (253). They wrote directly to Hamilton Fish encouraging annexation, but the Civil War interrupted their plans. A decade later, when the issue came up again under Grant, their investments in Santo Domingo had grown. Though they were not direct members of the commission, they were in contact with a geologist onboard named William Gabb, who worked alongside Wade, the “Manifest Destiny man.”

An even more obscure text, Melvin Knight’s 1928 The Americans in Santo Domingo, is more explicit. Knight writes that “Fabens and Cazneau were all stockholders in the National Bank of Santo Domingo” along with an unknown list of other stakeholders, which was “never published in full, but it was publicly charged in the newspapers, without provoking libel suits, that high officials of the Dominican Government were included” (Knight 8). The 1871 commission, then, followed the gradual investment in Dominican land by American capitalists, who had direct contact with the scientists onboard the commission, who concurred with Grant’s entourage that annexing Santo Domingo would be simultaneously an extension of Manifest Destiny, a defense of the Monroe Doctrine, and a major contribution to Reconstruction.

But it was clear by 1870 that Grant’s plan would not pass Congress, and the report became a way to justify itself by offering scientific and geopolitical evaluations of a neighboring republic. An ideological split within the Republican party between radicals and moderates led to Grant rapidly losing allies, though Fish remained a staunch, pro-expansionist supporter. This division would stall much of the real progress made in Reconstruction, and would contribute to the abandonment of Reconstruction altogether in 1877 as a compromise between moderate Republicans and southern Democrats.

Though the commission was an act of empire-building, it should also be understood, from Douglass’s perspective, in the context of Reconstruction. At the time, the South was occupied by Union soldiers tasked with keeping the peace, which meant protecting freed slaves from reactionary Confederate violence. Douglass supported the expansion that he otherwise opposed in previous and later iterations (Mexico and Haiti respectively) because he, and many others, had essentially greeted Union soldiers as liberators. He fully supported Grant’s coalition of Radical Republicans, who applied a uniquely American capacity to sustain contradiction to Reconstruction: the South became a frontier, and empire became a force of liberation. Douglass was swept up in the possibilities that fused imperialism with abolitionism.

A handful of Americans stood to benefit from the annexation and occupation of a foreign territory, for neither the first nor the last time. But the commission also demonstrates the similarities between three narratives in American history: the colonization of the western frontier, the power of financiers, and the Monroe Doctrine. All three became entangled in the Reconstruction Era, and frontier logic, as boiled down to Manifest Destiny, became a diagnostic tool as much as the Monroe Doctrine, an immaterial policy with material consequences.


Douglass, Frederick. Life and Times of Frederick Douglass. Crowell-Collier Publishing Company, 1962.

Grant, Ulysses S. The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant. Harvard University Press, 2017.

Knight, Melvin M. The Americans in Santo Domingo. Vanguard Press, 1928.

Nevins, Allan. Hamilton Fish. Dodd, Mead & Company, 1937.

Sexton, Jay. The Monroe Doctrine. Hill and Wang, 2011.

1917: The July Scandals

Eastern Front 1917

Russian soldiers held captive by the German military in Poland, July, 1917. Courtesy of the Imperial War Museum.

By summer in 1917, the Provisional Government and Petrograd Soviet were stuck in gridlock in the capitol, and Russia continued to lose ground and soldiers’ lives in the Great War. Meanwhile, Bolshevik influence had grown in response to the stagnant leadership of Alexander Kerensky. On July 16, demonstrations against that stagnation began as striking workers and mutinying soldiers took to the streets of Petrograd (again), and Bolshevik involvement and scapegoating led to the arrest of Leon Trotsky and the exile of Vladimir Lenin (again). These protests, known as the July Days, were largely a response to the failed July Offensive, or the Kerensky Offensive, earlier that month, which was a setback for the Russian military (again).

The July Days are often called a turning point in the Russian Revolution, a moment when it became clear that the inertia of the Provisional Government meant bloodshed abroad and hunger at home. However, the July Days occurred amidst the political chaos of the summer of 1917, between the scandal of Kerensky’s rise to power and his decision to recommit to the War, the Bolshevik attempt to organize Soviets while maintaining party loyalty amid party in-fighting, and a coup in August against the Provisional Government known as the Kornilov Affair. The July Days were part of an ongoing political inertia that tended toward reinstating old forms of violence.

Trotsky, in his memoir, describes the events leading up to the July Days, writing that “a declaration that I had submitted concerning Kerensky’s preparation for an offensive at the front was read by the Bolshevik faction at the congress of the Soviets. We had pointed out that the offensive was an adventure that threatened the very existence of the army” (Trotsky).  The Bolsheviks’ opposition to the war would be vindicated after the Kerensky Offensive proved unsuccessful. Between July 1 and July 19, several Russian military units initially made advances toward  the western Ukrainian city Lviv, but German and Austo-Hungarian forces gradually repelled them, prompting a retreat beyond the previous Russian line. By the end of the offensive, the Russians “fell back more than a hundred kilometers” (Storey 127).

The Kerensky Offensive damaged the military’s already waning morale, and was a political disaster for Kerensky, precipitating more mutiny and disorder in the army. Russian soldiers and citizens alike turned against Kerensky during the Offensive, sparking the days-long demonstrations in July. The Bolsheviks were hesitant to support the protests, but quickly endorsed them when they began. The All-Russian Congress of Soviets had made clear in their demands that they wanted “democratization of the army” and “the earliest conclusion of a general peace without annexation, indemnity, and on the basis of self-determination,” which became an increasingly popular set of demands after the Kerensky Offensive. Furthermore, Bolshevik membership rose “from 80,000 in April to 200,000” by August (Treadgold & Ellison 102), but in the wake of the July Days, other scandals damaged the Bolsheviks as well.

The demonstrations were unsuccessful, in part because Russian military units pulled from the front were sent to quell the protests, and fired upon violent demonstrators, resulting in civilian casualties in the hundreds (again). Around this time, the Provisional Government accused Lenin of being a German spy, and the accusation was based on fairly compelling evidence. In April, Lenin had arrived in Russia with several other politically exiled Russians on a sealed train from Switzerland. The trip was funded by the German government as a military tactic, hoping that Lenin’s revolutionary leadership and anti-war agenda would convince the post-Tsar government to withdraw. The Kerensky government announced it would investigate Lenin’s German funding, and the crowds turned. Loyalists raided the leftist magazine Pravda‘s headquarters, and Lenin went into hiding when “it was revealed that he was receiving financial support from the German government” (Keegan 339). In the raid on Pravda and other Bolshevik strongholds, authorities “attempted to arrest the leaders–but caught only Anatole Lunacharsky, the mildest of them, and Trotsky” (Treadgold & Ellison 101). The Bolsheviks now had damaged reputations and no leadership in the capital.

The Kerensky government was weakened by its failed military offensive, and Kerensky’s opposition was weakened by political scandals involving Lenin’s connection to an enemy regime. By August, the unstable Provisional Government would face a coup from within its own military led by General Lavr Kornilov, and Kerensky would have to free Bolshevik political prisoners, including Trotsky, in order to sustain his almost vanished good standing with the Petrograd Soviet. But in July, 1917, the situation in Petrograd seemed frustratingly repetitive, with a heavy-handed leader responding to protests with arrests and military force, and a bloody setback on the Eastern Front. Where Russia would find itself next was not the question. The real question was whether or not Russia would go anywhere at all.


Keegan, John. The First world War. Vintage Books, 2000.

Storey, William Kelleher. The First World War. Rowman & Littlefield, 2014.

Treadgold, Donald W., Herbert J. Ellison. Twentieth Century Russia. Westview Press, 2000.

 

Before Wounded Knee

wounded-knee-massacre

Photograph of civilians collecting the dead at Wounded Knee.

The Wounded Knee Massacre of December 29, 1890 is widely considered the end of military hostilities between the U.S. government and Native American Indian tribes. The Standing Rock protest today, however, is building up in similar ways to the Wounded Knee Massacre, and although there are key differences, it seems that the relationship between the U.S. government and American indigenous peoples has remained largely the same since 1890.

In 1888, a Paiute man named Wovoka began a religious movement centering around the Ghost Dance. Wovoka’s movement asserted that the Messiah would return as a Native American Indian and the continent would be freed from pioneering and settler oppression, and the Ghost Dance would usher in the Messiah’s return. The movement quickly swept across Native American communities, reaching the Dakotas by summer of 1890.

Followers of Wovoka such as Arnold Short Bull, brought the Ghost Dance to the Lakota Pine Ridge Indian Reservation during a drought and amid numerous treaty violations, which included reduced food rations for the reservation and white settlement on land designated for Lakota use. The Ghost Dance accompanied federally sanctioned violence, starvation, and a small environmental disaster. The U.S. government was suspicious of the Ghost Dance as early as May of 1890, and continued to treat it as a militaristic threat rather than a religious movement. On October 30, an agent for the Pine Ridge office of the Bureau of Indian Affairs wrote a letter to the BIA commissioner indicating that, in his view after observing the Ghost Dance,

“. . . the only remedy for this matter is the use of the military, and until this is done, you need not expect any progress from these people; on the other hand, you will be made to realize that they are tearing down more in a day than the government can build up in a month” (Royer 65).

Here, the BIA acted as an observation tool for the U.S. government, keeping track of Native American Indians forced onto reservations with little water and food. A religious spectacle became a mode of unity, an expression of organization, which the government deemed, without question, a threat. Earlier, BIA commissioner R. V. Belt wrote in a letter dated October 17, 1890, that the Pine Ridge Agency should inform those

“. . . engaged in encouraging the Ghost Dance and other like demoralizing conduct, and inciting and fomenting dissatisfaction and discontent among the peaceably disposed Indians that [the Secretary of the Interior John Noble] is greatly displeased with their conduct” (Belt 75).

Belt went on to describe the Ghost Dance as “bad advice and evil,” and that the Secretary of the Interior will “exert whatever influence he may have over any of the Indians to turn their backs upon the medicine men who are seeking to divert the Indians from the ways of civilization” (75-76). There was a connection of correspondence linking BIA agents at Pine Ridge to the White House expressing anxiety about the Ghost Dance. These agents wanted “peaceably disposed Indians” who did not express discontent.

But all evidence suggests that they had every reason to express discontent. They were surviving a genocide, forced onto difficult land after military engagements against them, after numerous other massacres and battles. It seems that BIA agents and the U.S. government associated Native American discontent with militaristic hostility, conflating the two, because to the U.S., the moment a tribe became vocal, the moment its members made themselves visible, they challenged the established systematic erasure of an indigenous population and the colonial narrative of European settlement on an otherwise unpeopled land rich with untapped resources.

The Ghost Dance as a religious practice did not emphasize military struggle or armed combat. On October 31, Short Bull gave a sermon to his followers, referring mostly to the coming of the Messiah and mentioning combat only once, when he said,

“You must not be afraid of anything. The guns are the only things we are afraid of, but they belong to our Father in Heaven. He will see they do no harm. Whatever white men tell you, do not listen to them. My relations, this is all” (Sitting Bull 65).

Anxieties over Native Americans not listening to those attempting to defeat, control, indoctrinate, and relocate them culminated in the military’s arrival in November at Pine Ridge, to keep the peace. Following Royer’s suggestions, the military became a remedy to stop the Ghost Dancers from breaking down what the U.S. government had built up. Cavalry divisions arrived at Pine Ridge, forcing surrender and disarmament. On December 29, in the process of disarming a few Ghost Dancers, a rifle went off, and soldiers panicked after being informed that an armed insurrection would take place. Fueled by fear and rumors, soldiers fired at the Ghost Dancers, and a massacre ensued. There were casualties on all sides as some Ghost Dancers attempted to defend themselves. Estimates vary, but up to 300 Lakota were killed, most of them unarmed, many of them children.

The logic leading up to the massacre might be difficult to track, but was built on a number of assumptions. First, that Native Americans practicing a large, organized demonstration was the equivalent of cultural and military dissent, or in other words, a problem. Second, that the only way to “solve” the problem was through the use of military force. Third, that expressing dissatisfaction with an understandably bad situation was unacceptable.

One of the defining features of the 21st century is the blurring of police and military forces. In a post-9/11 surveillance state in which citizens and combatants are considered difficult to distinguish from one another, the police and military begin to serve similar functions. While this fact has become more obvious in recent years, and while there have been many instances in the U.S. in which the state treated its citizens as combatants, this has always been the case for Native Americans. Since the founding of the United States, Native Americans have always been designated a threat to westward expansion simply by their presence, their visibility, their voice. Historically, soldiers keeping peace and soldiers engaged in combat have served the same purpose for the U.S. when engaging its indigenous population.

I’m not a proponent of the notion that history repeats itself; I find it too simple. However, the events surrounding the Standing Rock protest are eerily similar to those that led up to the Wounded Knee Massacre: Native American Indians express discontent over treaty violations, land abuse, and environmental disasters, and as a reaction, a militarized police force steps in. Tensions have already resulted in violence against protestors and the arrest of journalists for covering the events. Contexts may be different, but the logical framework the U.S. uses to understand and address the protest remains almost identical to how the U.S. addressed and understood the Ghost Dance. Whether or not there will be another massacre remains to be seen.

Coleman, William S. E. Voices of Wounded Knee. University of Nebraska Press (2000).

Wounded Knee Massacre,” Encyclopedia of the Great Plains, 2011. Accessed October 30, 2016.

Acknowledging Wrongs of the Past

Maru

SS Komagata Maru, 1914. City of Vancouver Archives

Yesterday, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that in May, he would make an official apology in the House of Commons for what is commonly known as the Komagata Maru Incident. In 1914, a ship (the Komagata Maru) of Indian passengers sailed from Japan to Vancouver, where the Canadian government refused to let almost all the passengers enter Canada. Most of the passengers were Sikhs, though there were a handful of Muslims and Hindus aboard, and Trudeau intends to address his apology to the Sikh community as a whole.

At first glance, this may seem like a strange transnational incident. 1914 saw the beginning of World War One, which in part contributed to Canada’s restrictions, but most of its limited immigration policies were grounded in xenophobia similar to that in the U.S. at the turn of the century, and Canada passed laws restricting immigration form Asia just as the U.S. did.

The passengers aboard the Komagata Maru argued that they had a right to enter Canada because they were British subjects. India was still a British colony, and both countries would supply troops to Great Britain in the First World War. Nevertheless, national fears of Asian immigrants persisted in 1914. The Komagata Maru sat in port in Vancouver for months before finally leaving.

Over a century later, a different Prime Minister of a different political party hopes to make amends. Formal apologies on behalf of governments to historically persecuted groups are not unheard of. In 2008, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd made a similar formal apology to the indigenous population of Australia, but Trudeau’s comments come at a unique political moment.

Trudeau will apology for Canada’s suppression of immigrants, and he intends to do so after his party, the Liberals, ran partly on a platform of allowing Syrian refugees into Canada, while political parties in Europe and the U.S. discuss either similar or opposite measures. Many politicians have advocated restricting and even halting immigration, and have used xenophobic rhetoric almost identical to that used by the Canadian government in 1914.

Trudeau’s apology is, of course, a highly political statement. It is not simply a matter of saying sorry, but of acknowledging what is now considered a broken logic, and with that acknowledgment comes a subtle declaration that such logic no longer has a place in his government. It admits not just past wrongdoing, but decries the possibility of future wrongdoing. The apology is a policy statement, an act of historical legislation that does not wipe away but makes an example of one of Canada’s worst actions, and in doing so, Trudeau invites others to listen, to introspect, and to follow suit.

-jk

After Gallipoli

ANZAC Soldiers on the Gallipoli Peninsula

ANZAC Soldiers on the Gallipoli Peninsula

Today marks an important moment in the First World War: the final evacuation of British and ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corpse) troops from the Gallipoli Peninsula, ending a disastrous months-long Allied campaign to gain control of a narrow a sea route to Russia, the Dardanelles, and to push troops through Anatolia (Turkey) to the Ottoman capitol Constantinople and knock the Ottoman Empire out of the war.

Allied Strategy for the Gallipoli Campaign. Keagan, John, The First World War.

Allied Strategy for the Gallipoli Campaign. Keegan, John, The First World War.

First Lord of the Admirality Winston Churchill schemed the invasion. Allied ships would sail through the Dardanelles accompanied by minesweepers and land thousands of troops onto the Gallipoli Peninsula, where they would secure the area and push on to Constantinople. The initial landing was on April 25, 1915, involving many soldiers from Australia, New Zealand, and Ireland.

The Allies were unprepared for the harsh environment on Gallipoli and the ferocity of Ottoman Turkish soldiers, led by the now famous commander Mustafa Kemal, who directed his troops in successfully defending the Peninsula. The Allied troops became entrenched on Gallipoli for a grueling eight months. Kemal proved his military prowess; Churchill’s plan, on the other hand, proved to be a quagmire. On this day one hundred years ago, the Gallipoli Campaign came to a close. The Ottomans had defeated the British Empire for the time being.

That victory was arguably the last great moment in Ottoman history, and the first in a long time. Earlier in 1915, Ottoman troops committed acts of genocide against Armenian civilians. The Ottoman Empire had been in decline for decades amid encroaching Russian and European empires, and would later suffer British and French diplomats carving it into colonial mandates after the end of World War One. Winston Churchill was involved in that process; he even said that he created the country of Jordan “with the stroke of a pen one Sunday afternoon.” When the War finally ended in 1918, the British and French saw the defeated Ottoman Empire as property to divide among them: Britain took Palestine, Jordan, and Iraq, while France seized Lebanon and Syria, divided artificially. Those artificial borders continue to create problems today in these countries, pitting groups together or dividing cultures along superficial lines.

The Ottoman Empire had practiced its own form of imperialism, and ruled over its Arab territories from its imperial center in Anatolia, just as the British Empire ruled India and South Africa from England. Just as the British and French are guilty of reprehensible war crimes to maintain imperial power, the Ottomans were guilty of the same, such as the Armenian Genocide. Despite the emphasis on self-determination that dominated discussions at the Treaty of Versailles, Arab, Kurdish, Armenian, and other groups were simply shifted from Ottoman rule to British and French rule with as much regard as plunder shifted between pirates.

The Allies also wanted to divide Anatolia, but the Young Turks, led by Mustafa Kemal, fought a war for Independence from 1919 to 1922, and formed a stable, secular, but complex democracy. The Greek minority in Anatolia fought its own smaller rebellion, leading to the eventual forced migration of thousands of Greeks from Anatolia and Turks from Greece in 1923. Kemal had nevertheless defended his homeland from the British, and would not allow the Allies to make property of it.

New nations were formed from the defeated Ottoman Empire, but Turkey may have been the only one to form itself on at least some of its citizens’ own terms. The rest were carved artificially by Churchill and his ilk, Similarly, many Irish soldiers returned to a British-controlled Ireland torn by rebellion in the 1916 Easter Uprising. April 25 is commemorated as Anzac Day in New Zealand and Australia. The Battle of Gallipoli brought British loyal subjects to the edge of the Ottoman imperial center; it was a devastating failure for the otherwise almost obnoxiously successful British, who continued to claim colony after colony across the globe. For the crumbling Ottoman Empire, it was one final act of defiance against the empires surrounding it. Two of the most complex figures of the twentieth century emerged from the battle with profoundly different scars: Mustafa Kemal won, and Winston Churchill lost. Both men went on to be war heroes and war criminal simultaneously, and their role in history will likely always be contentious. At least, both played crucial roles in the destruction and recreation of nations.

By January 9, 1916, about 265,000 Allied soldiers and 300,000 Ottoman soldiers died on Gallipoli. Many of the them were probably unconcerned with the survival or strengthening of empires. They were concerned, most likely, with fighting for something they were told, and genuinely believed, was bigger than them: nationhood. Many Irish joined the war thinking the British would reward them with independence. Australians and New Zealanders had an emerging sense of national identity separate from but loyal to the British. The Turks fought on their homeland against invading Europeans. Thousands died trying to make a nation of their world. Indeed, nations formed, but maybe those who fought created their own kind of temporarily autonomous nationhood of spaceless unity. Amid the destruction of empires, it may be tricky to honor that unity on both sides of Gallipoli equally, but we should strive to anyway. Nationhood is what we make of it, and despite what Churchill seems to have believed, sovereignty means more than a pen stroke.

-jk

John Keegan. The First world War. New York: Vintage Books, 2000.

Europe’s Refugee Crisis of 1492

Expulsion of Spanish Jews Universal History Archive

The Alhambra Decree. Credit: Universal History Archive/Getty Images

1492 marks an important moment in world history, not just because it’s the year Columbus landed in the Caribbean, along with smallpox, mercantilism, and other European diseases. It is also an important year in Spanish, Ottoman, and Jewish history. As European powers were slowly consolidating into modern nation-states, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain passed a decree, the Alhambra Decree of 1492, that required all Jews to be expelled from Spain, or else convert to Christianity. This pattern of expulsion began with the centuries-long Reconquista, ending with the 1491 fall of the Emirate of Granada. The Spanish monarchs wanted not just a larger nation-state, but a religiously pure one. Thus, they expelled any Jew who refused to convert. Many crossed the border into Portugal; a few years later, the Portuguese crown declared the same policy, but directed its efforts at forced conversion rather than expulsion. The Spanish Inquisition played a crucial role in these events, as well.

Thousands of Jewish and Muslim refugees were left without a home as a result. The next month, after hearing about the expulsion, the Ottoman Sultan Bayezid II, issued decrees of his own allowing any and all Jewish refugees to resettle in Ottoman territories. He sent the massive Ottoman navy to Spain, under the famous admiral Kemal Reis, to help Jews, as well as Muslims, flee religious persecution in the Iberian Peninsula, known as Al-Andalus to the Ottomans. The refugees settled throughout the Ottoman Empire, often in large urban centers such as Cairo, Jerusalem, and Damascus. Today, Sephardic Jewish communities still hold a presence in Turkey.

The Ottoman Empire was at its height in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. It enjoyed economic influence over its surrounding polities, had a strong military, and was known for its extreme religious tolerance. A diverse empire to begin with, encompassing Turks, Arabs, Greeks, Kurds, and Armenians, the Sultanate practiced tolerance for all religious traditions inside the empire, including Sunni and Shi’i Islam, Eastern Orthodox Christianity, long-standing Judaism, and at its edge Catholic and later Protestant Christianity. In many ways, the Ottoman Sultan was the leader of the free world at the time.

I’ve never believed history repeats itself. I don’t want history to repeat itself. It’s often hideous and unfair. But maybe the western world should take a lesson from the Ottoman Empire and open its borders to Syrian and Iraqi refugees fleeing many of the same places Europe’s refugees resettled in the 1490s. Maybe this is one of the few moments in history that should be repeated. European nations cannot reverse the policies of Assad and ISIS, just as the Ottoman Sultan could not reverse the equally barbarous policies of King Ferdinand (yes, ISIS and the Spanish Monarchy are equally evil). But Europe and the U.S., as much as the Ottomans, can commit to an act of compassion in the face of unmitigated brutality. After all, it’s clearly been done before.

-jk

Jewish History Sourcebook: The Expulsion from Spain, 1492 CE

Lapidus, Ira. A History of Islamic Societies. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Srebrenica and Why I Still Study Genocide

Photo of Srebrenica City, 2002, from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Photo of Srebrenica City, 2002, borrowed from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

I should begin with a brief clarification about why I post so often about war and genocide. It affects me deeply, and I often have trouble bringing myself to read about it any more. As a result of the professors I’ve worked with, I find myself compelled to study and write about violent conflict in history. I do not find any satisfaction in studying it, and I feel the need to mention this because I know from experience that some people do find satisfaction in reading about genocides, especially the Holocaust; too often, I’ve heard people refer to it as ‘fascinating’ or ‘intriguing.’ I suppose I cannot dispute the value of somebody’s motivation, but I do not believe one should explore the industrialized slaughter of civilians because it arouses fascination. It should disgust, it should repulse, but I do not think it should invite intrigue. My motive for studying it is not rooted in a sick fixation with the gruesome details, which often keep me up at night; I do not believe enjoyment should be my sole motive, however. I feel compelled to study it in part because I have no power to change it.

I admit that the more I delve into historical traumas, the more guilt I feel, and I don’t think there is necessarily a problem with that. A guiltless being is a soulless one, and a belief that one is free of guilt, that guilt will never inflict legal or psychological damage, might be a common trait of the perpetrators. I think there is merit in a little collective guilt. History’s ghosts haunt us, all of us, if we stop and listen. The thing about history is that it persists, it continues into the present, and the battles are still going on.

I can distance myself from the details enough to write about them, just enough to maybe offer a brief commentary. The exception, however, is the Srebrenica Genocide. Today marks twenty years after the start of the massacre, and I have wanted to write about it. Anniversaries can be convenient opportunities to engage moments in the past, though they are also quite arbitrary: historical traumas are not relevant every ten years, but continually.

Though I have tried to write about the Srebrenica Genocide, I find it almost impossible. What happened in Srebrenica affects me more than other genocides. When I read about the details, I feel chest pressure and panic, and have to turn away from the research.

The region of Bosnia-Herzegovina, where Srebrenica is located, was solidified in the former Yugoslavia during the Cold War under the dictatorship of Josip Broz Tito, who took power after World War Two. Prior to that, the region had a brief period of independence after being ruled by the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and before that the Ottoman Empire. By the twentieth century, Bosnia was religiously and ethnically diverse, and the two are often conflated: With Catholic Croats, Orthodox Serbs, and Muslim Bosniaks, the region had few moments of independence despite strong nationalist movements, such as Young Bosnia. Gavrilo Princip, one of Young Bosnia’s members, assassinated the Austrian Archduke Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo in 1914, sparking the First World War.

While Yugoslavia collapsed in the early 1990s alongside the Soviet Union, Bosnia declared its independence. Serbian nationalists attempting to solidify the region again under the new Republic of Srpska, rejected the declaration of independence, invaded the region, and began a campaign to cleanse it of its Muslim population. This event is similar to how the Irish War for Independence and Civil War broke out, devolving into sectarian violence between Catholic Republicans and Unionist Protestants after the Republicans declared a kind of independence; this event is also similar to what is currently going on in Iraq, where a right-wing Sunni organization has the apparently unquestioning loyalty of many of Iraq’s Sunnis who felt oppressed by a Shi’i-led, and US-backed, government. Ireland did not witness a genocide against the island’s Protestants, though sectarian violence continued well into the 1980s and beyond. In contrast, Iraq and Syria may be witnessing a genocide now, despite the almost universal condemnation of ISIS and its tactics.

That is precisely the situation Bosnia was in, starting in 1992. The United Nations, appalled at the Serb nationalists’ tactics, intervened in the war (at least in theory) and declared the town of Srebrenica one of several safe zones. UN peace-keeping soldiers were placed on the ground, world powers condemned the violence, but nobody wanted to intervene directly. Instead, the United Nations designed a system that effectively blocked any nation from direct confrontation with combatants.

This is where I find it difficult to go on reading, sometimes. In 1995, Serbian nationalists, under the presence and observation of the UN, took Muslim men and boys from Srebrenica at gunpoint, ushered them into the surrounding woods, and slaughtered them. They buried them in mas graves, often with the intention of preventing the bodies from ever being found, proof that they were aware that the world would look upon them as criminals, proof that they wanted to hide the evidence of their crimes. But there is something wholly corrupt about a system that prevents peace-keeping soldiers from intervening in the slaughter of 8,000 men and boys.

Some UN soldiers express guilt, shame, and even sought treatment for PTSD afterwards. I should also note that this is not the only crime against humanity committed during the Bosnian War. The perpetrators also implemented a campaign of systematic rape against women and girls, a crime that victims report ISIS has committed in recent months (trigger warning if you open the link). But I have not been able to bring myself to read about these crimes beyond broad overviews. I simply can’t, unless I choose to tolerate the inevitable anxiety I feel from researching it.

Historical trauma does not continue only in a communal sense. Russia recently rejected a UN resolution to classify the Srebrenica Genocide as genocide, and right-wing Serbian organizations threatened to disrupt commemoration events. Many Serbs deny that Muslim casualties were as high as reported, and several mass graves remain yet to be uncovered and documented. The trauma persists daily; many perpetrators still walk among the victims’ families, and collective denial of the genocide, which is strong in many circles, is an active assault on the Muslim community in Bosnia.

Maybe, in some ways, I feel like one of those UN soldiers, unable to intervene but forced to watch. I feel helpless when I read about these and other crimes, and guilt can be overwhelming. It should not be debilitating, though I often let it become too much to handle. There is more that I can be doing.  There is more that I should be doing. But I will continue to engage these traumas as best I can, even if I leave historical research behind academically. It will haunt me no matter what I do, and I can invite the ghosts in or close the door on them. I’d rather leave the door open, because I believe that history’s ghosts have something to say, and it’s our responsibility to listen. Will these blog posts make a difference? Probably not. But I’d rather not be silent when the past is so loud.