Erik Sjoberg. The Making of the Greek Genocide: Contested Memories of the Ottoman Greek Catastrophe. New York: Berghahn Books, Incorporated, 2016. 266 pp. $110.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-78533-325-5.
Reviewed by Hervé Georgelin (National University of Athens)
Published on H-Nationalism (March, 2018)
Commissioned by Cristian Cercel (Ruhr University Bochum)
Erik Sjöberg's book is certainly a most stimulating read. The historian concentrates not on what happened in Ottoman Asia Minor from 1913 to 1922/4 but on how these events have been perceived, elaborated, and reformulated since the massive influx of the Greek Orthodox population in contemporary Greece. The existence of events is not denied, but the research on which this book is based belongs to the vast field of intellectual and cultural history with emphasis on the relativity, plasticity, or fluidity of representation of former experiences. The tone is deliberately postmodern: human realities are almost mere byproducts of language, language use, and possibly inescapable misuse. One of the author’s main contributions is that the emergence of a universal—he calls it cosmopolitan—memory field has significantly transformed the popular but also the learned elaboration of this past, anywhere on the planet. The Americanization of the Shoah—the way it is appropriated, institutionalized, remembered, commemorated, studied, and finally elaborated by Hollywood—influences even the perception of the Oriental past of contemporary Greece! Moreover, contemporary political issues such as the independence of the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia or the waves of (mostly Muslim) migrants and refugees in Greece, which until recently was exclusively a country of emigration, has influenced greatly the labeling and interpretation of the seemingly unrelated decade 1912-1922/4. Sjöberg’s book is a must-read for history students inclined to embrace historical knowledge as a definite credo. With much agility, Sjöberg convinces his readership of the liveliness and hence the instability of the way a body politic, at all levels, relates to its past. One can call this postmodern; it is also Heraclitan.
Sjöberg’s book is organized in six chapters. He first finds it necessary to focus on the background in Anatolia, or Asia Minor. Then he surveys the role played by the elimination of the Greek East in the definition of Greek identity. The process was uneasy since conciliation if not friendship with Turkey was an undisputed priority for Greece after 1924, and in even a more marked manner after both countries joined NATO. Then Sjöberg addresses the way activists, in spite of the main official political line, tried to achieve state recognition of the historical period 1912-1922 as a genocide committed against Ottoman Greek Orthodox. In the fourth chapter, Sjöberg concentrates on the comparative dimension of the question. How far can the malheur des autres, as the French historian of genocides Yves Ternon would put it, help in assessing correctly one’s topic or successfully promoting one’s cause? In the fifth chapter, Sjöberg brings into the picture the role of Greeks abroad, especially the diaspora in the United States, where the elimination of European Jews had become an unescapable yardstick of all human evils. Finally, Sjöberg seizes on the emergence of a three-pronged approach to the dark decade combining the Greek, the Armenian, and the Assyrian experiences in order to interpret the Greek disappearance from today’s Turkish Anatolia.
One of the most striking characteristics of Sjöberg’s work is the high level of detailed knowledge displayed by the author about inner Greek political and intellectual debates or even merciless disputes (disagreements frequently remind observers of the former civil war in Greece), to which very few foreigners have comparable access. Names cited in his main text are, of course, accompanied by precise references to interviews, newspaper articles, learned books, or public statements in the notes at the end of each chapter. I deem it most probable that Sjöberg can map the intellectual and ideological changes better than many Greek academics. All agents of this “history in retrospect”—that is, the elaboration of a meta-discourse on past events or former testimonies, since survivors are all gone—are contextualized in the political or academic Greek setting. Sjöberg himself is knowledgeable about the development of international genocide studies too, which influences the variation of discursive treatment of the dark decade in today’s Anatolia, at the beginning of the twentieth century. This makes Sjöberg’s contribution particularly erudite and agile. I especially appreciated the reference made to Raphael Lemkin’s empirical knowledge of various mass killings, about which he may have been informed in more detail than about the destruction of European Jews, while coining the legal but also anthropological concept of “genocide,” which is at the core of any discussion on any occurrence even slightly similar to the Shoah.
From time to time though, readers may be slightly estranged by the fact that whatever happened in Asia Minor from 1912 to 1922/4 appears to be secondary, almost irrelevant, to all controversies and as a result possibly to Sjöberg’s meticulous survey, as if any reference to some reality were a mere arbitrary decision or an opportunistic, deliberate illusion. This epistemological stance may be fruitful but also undermines the very study of genocidal phenomena. Fortunately, Sjöberg’s first chapter counterbalances the temptation of utmost relativism that may pervade his readership.
. Yves Ternon, “Le malheur de l’Autre,” in Devoir de mémoire, droit à l’oubli?, ed. Thomas Ferencz (Brussels: Complexe, 2002), 139-48.
. Dominik Schaller is to my knowledge the first researcher to underline the historicity of the very coinage of the new legal-anthropological term, as early as 2002. See Dominik J. Schaller: “Josef Guttmann – Ein Pionier der Völkermordforschung,” in The Armenian Genocide and the Shoah, ed. Hans-Lukas Kieser and Dominik J. Schaller (Zurich: Chronos, 2002). Lemkin even referred to the Armenian case in a TV program on CBS, in 1949: https://vimeo.com/125514772.
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Hervé Georgelin. Review of Sjoberg, Erik, The Making of the Greek Genocide: Contested Memories of the Ottoman Greek Catastrophe.
H-Nationalism, H-Net Reviews.
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