on 26 September 2007
If you are interested in the history of Greece, of the Balkans, or of the Ottoman Empire, this beautifully written book is not to be missed. I disagree with the reviewer Yorgos who wrote that Mazower adopts the "stubborn and annoying British habit of calling the city "Salonica."" Mazower's book is about the history of the city from the the Ottoman conquest to the end of the 20th century, which is more than five centuries. During this period the city was called "Selanik" by the Ottomans, "Solun" by the Slavs, "Salonico" by the Sephardic Jews and "Saloniki" by Greeks. The ancient name "Thessalonike" (modern pronunciation: "Thessaloníki") was restored after the Greek conquest (1912) and it is still used today. "Salonica" is simply a shorter form of the Latin name, which was "Thessalonica".
With the exception of this point, I applaud Yorgos's review and I refer any potential buyers or readers to his very helpful text.
We think of the ethnic nation-state as ancient but it is not. It is a political novelty. Before the 19th Century, few of Europe's inhabitants lived under nation-states; fewer still thought themselves as members of a nation. If they defined themselves at all, it was by religion and faith, not ethnicity. From the 19th Century onwards, a new form of political affiliation arose: ethnic nationalism. This ideology was a stunning success. The Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires, relatively tolerant of ethnic diversity, fell before its onslaught. The human price paid to transform these empires into enclaves of pure ethnicity was huge.
Mazower tells this story as it relates to the experiences of one southern Balkan city, Salonica (Thessaloniki). As far as official Greek historiography is concerned, the city has always been Greek. The long Ottoman era (1430 to 1912) depicted as an oppressive interregnum, ignoring the real picture, whereby Jews, Christians and Muslims achieved a remarkable degree of co-existence. The city's Jewish and Muslim residents, expelled or exterminated, were written out of the story. The Christians became Greeks. But the dead and departed residents once defined the city every bit as much as its modern day Greek residents do. And the ancestors of those who remained once thought of themselves differently. The city has had a succession of identities. The modern city is built on the bones of the dead (literally in the case of the city's university, built as it is on the old Jewish cemetery).
These are the ghosts Mazower brings back from the dead in this book. Mazower reconstructs, in pain-staking prose, the spheres of piety, commerce and culture that bound together members of the three monotheistic faiths. It did not mean that members of the each faith necessarily `liked' one another. It is just that, despite the awareness of difference, the city still thrived. Difference did not rule out coexistence. There was no clash of civilisations. When the `Rosenberg Commando', a cohort of Nazi apparatchiks tasked with looting the city's Jewish treasures during the Nazi occupation, could not find, to their surprise, any historical evidence of a ghetto, they were quietly informed by a local scholar that this was because there was no ghetto. This of course is totally at variance with the Jewish experience in medieval Christian Europe.
Mazower does not idealise the past. Relations among the faiths were often strained, sometimes disfigured with violence and discord. However, Mazower shows that the existence of divisions based on faith alone did not make mass expulsion or extermination inevitable. What made these divisions insurmountable was the rise of ethnic nationalism, which assigned political allegiance on the basis of ethnicity and demanded unconditional loyalty on this basis. This is a complex process and the book does not explore this at length but it outlines the consequences with absolute clarity: the end of a city of tolerance.
Two hammer blows did away with this: the first was the expulsion of the city's Muslim population as part of the concomitant population `transfers' between Greece and Turkey in the early 1920. This was a process of deliberate social engineering on the part of two newly created nation-states. You were now Greek or Turk, regardless of whether you accepted it or not and you were moved, regardless of whether you wanted to or not, to a land where you `belonged', even if you had never set eyes on the place. The first generation of `Greek' Anatolian refugees from the expulsions of the early 1920's often spoke better Turkish than Greek and needed to time to understand why they should stop calling themselves `Eastern Christians.'
The second was the near-destruction of the city's Jewish community (95 per cent deported and mostly murdered) during the Nazi occupation, who first put down roots in the 16th Century, seeking Ottoman protection from Christian persecution in Spain. This completed the process of transformation. From then onwards, the city was defined as Greek, with Muslims and Jews out of the picture. Although anti-Semitism did not feature prominently in inter-war Greek politics or society, the political imperatives of consolidating a modern nation-state in the aftermath of WWII meant history was razed, much in the way the old minarets, cemeteries and cypress trees were razed to make way for new, modern city.
Whether any of this has any resonance or relevance for contemporary debates on multiculturalism Mazower wisely doesn't say. History does not necessarily provide clear policy solutions to contemporary social and political dilemmas and neither should it. As he writes in his concluding chapter: `The myth of eternal Hellenism flattened out the past of the Greeks themselves and made it less interesting.' What Mazower has done is to offer us different ways of thinking about the past, and to realise the span of human possibility is perhaps much wider than is sometimes conceived.
The author claims that this book was 20 years in the making, and you have to believe him. It is a powerful masterpiece. For a week of my life it has transported me to the Salonica of 1430 to 1949. I can close my eyes and pretend I was there.
As a Greek of Orthodox Christian Vlach provenance I can also attest to the fact that the author's account of my very narrow ethnic group is fair, accurate and sympathetic. My great grandfather moved from the mountains of Pindos and maintained a restaurant in Salonica, though to this day many Vlachs remain nomads and move with their flocks. I do indeed have an uncle Themistocles, just like the author surmises I might, what with Vlachs going out of their way to be truly Hellenized. And my dad learned Greek properly in school, but spoke a Romance-language dialect, Vlach, at home, just like the author describes.
I consider myself conversant with Greek history (it is mandatory back home, and you are taught each period three times) but I learned tons from this book. Incidentally, every fact that I can adjudicate on checks 100%. I picked up the book with some reservations, because I'd been told the author is too harsh on us Greeks, but quite to the contrary I found him to be, if anything, a bit too lenient on us, always giving us the benefit of the doubt and trying to see things from our angle.
Overall, this book was a masterpiece. It's most evidently a labour of love.
The ending is extremely sad, of course. It had me crying. And, of course, it's shameful. But that's history for you.
I think I might read it again.
on 8 July 2010
In this book Mazower traces the development of the city of Salonica aka Thessaloniki aka Selanik from its foundation in antiquity to the modern day. On the way we pass through the Byzantine era, see the Ottoman Empire rise and fall and witness the emergence of the modern Greek state. Mazower's focus, as you might guess from the title, is on the changing populations within the city. He adopts the Ottoman division into Christian, Muslim and Jew as a basic paradigm for this story, but is sensitive to the fact that these were never static or homogenous communities.
As interesting as this history is it is also complicated. Mazower seems determined to capture every nuance which is laudable but ultimately exhausting. By the time we arrived at the 20th Century horror of the German occupation my fascination had worn thin and i have to confess i was longing for the book to end; but that may have also been related to the piecemeal way in which i ended up reading it.
What i learned from "Salonica, City of Ghosts" was how long-established communities and apparently deep-rooted identities can be swept aside in just a short time. The Ottoman world we see in photographs of the city in the early 20th Century is almost entirely obliterated now. The Ma'mun - a Jewish sect who embraced Islam and played such an important role in the city - have not only disappeared from Salonica but also vanished as a distinct group. The Christians - many of whose ancestors only immigrated from Turkey in the 1920s - are now solidly and proudly Greeks. And the Jews are almost all gone: transported and murdered by the Nazis.
on 23 February 2006
This is a great book that perfectly describes the history of a great city which (unfortunately) is largely unknown. The drawback for Salonika (Thessaloniki) is that it lives under the shadow of Athens and thus most non-Greeks do not know anything about it. However it is a city with a continuous urban history of over 2300years. It has always been a big city while Athens was a small insignificant village from 200 BC to 1828 AD. The revealing aspect of mr Mazower`s book is that it describes in exact terms the complexity and multinational facets that have shaped the history of Salonica. The book`s facts are so accurate that most Greeks have never even imagined them. This is probably why this book has not gained any publicity whatsoever in Greece. The truth hurts and in this case Mazower demolishes ethno centered nationalistic and racist mythologies. All in all a great read and an accurate historical diatribe. Wow!!!
on 5 June 2012
Having used Mazower's "Dark Continent" with university students;having read his magisterial tome on Hitler's empire; then moved to his excellent early book on Greece under Nazi occupation..arriving at "Salonica" seemed like a destined journey where this reader could expect enlightenment,stimulating ideas,detailed information and unexpected links with many other historical topics. I was not disappointed. A supremely readable book,with its erudition carried lightly,dealing through its focus on a city that was part of the great Ottoman empire with the demise of that empire; the hellenisation of the multi-racial city after 1912; the forced population movements of Muslims out of the city;and of "greeks" from asian Turkey in in the 1920s;the weak new democracy succumbing to military rule before Nazi(and Italian) war time occupation and the destruction of its distinctive Jewish population as part of the "Final Solution".A wise and thought provoking book about a unique city recreated by a superb historian.
on 2 June 2006
This book achieves the difficult feat of combining incredible research and a feel for the human stories and incidents that make history come alive. Unlike other history books I've read recently (eg Stalin: In the Court of the Red Tsar), Mazower is a gifted writer who never lets the history overwhelm the story. His use of particular anecdotes to illustrate the history of this unique city brings the story alive.
As a Greek, everything I read in this very honest book rings true. I hope the book gains the wider readership it so richly deserves both in Greece and elsewhere.
on 7 February 2013
This is an impressively detailed and highly readable account of different facets of 500 years of Christian, Muslim and Jewish co-existence in a city finding itself at an ethnic crossroads. The tragedy that occurred in the twentieth century was that for many reasons, of which more than a few were external, community differences could not be settled, and secular and state decisions overshadowed the traditional influence of religious leaders. After the period of forced repatriation of Turks and Greeks to their ethnic homes in the early 1920's until 1944, pretty well only the Christians remained. It had been the then victorious Greeks who in 1913 carried out the first serious census of the city of some 150,000 inhabitants. The population proved to be divided more or less equally between the three faiths, although a slight majority of 40% Jews. At the beginning of the century there even existed a movement among Jews to colonize Macedonia in preference to Palestine. It was not to last. Fifteen years after that census was made, the city had swollen to 236,000. Greeks now made up 75%, their numbers having grown by some 137,000 due to expulsions from Turkey. In 1943 the Nazis finished the job in weeks. The Jews had never been ostracized; they had got on well under the Turks, and even found security under the Metaxas dictatorship just before the Second World War. A tragic episode for multiculturism.
on 28 June 2013
Excellent book. Essential reading for us Greeks as an alternative view to the history of the city and eventually the history of Greece.
on 1 July 2009
This is a historical tale of the multicultural multiethnic city, as was later Beirut, Sarajevo..
A must for the enlightened reader who wants to understand what it is like and what it feels like to cohabitate peacefully and cordially among "not-alikes" and how bad politics, xenophobia, extremism and bigotry can change all that and lead to tragedy for all.