Conquering Peace: Exploring European History with Stella Ghervas

One century after the assassination of Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo plunged the Continent into war, Europe in 2014 offers observers few chances to catch their breath. The recent annexation of the Crimea by the Kremlin, followed by suspension of that country from the G8 and from the Council of Europe, brought relations with Russia to a new low point. With European leaders calling for more sanctions against Moscow and the Kremlin having declared a ban on European agricultural imports, Russia’s post-Soviet trajectory seems to have taken a decidedly anti-Western turn.

As pundits race to search for historical parallels–the Crimean War, the Sudetenland Crisis, even the rise of the Ottoman Empire–it’s especially important for professional historians with an understanding of peace and the European political system, to share their findings with the public. The tortuous ways by which a warren of quarrelsome princedoms, duchies, and empires became a European Union by the late 20th century–a haven of peace and cooperation in a world too often scarred by conflict–demands explanation. It is also essential for the Europeans themselves to better understand how peace was accomplished, if they wish to better perceive the risks and opportunities that lie ahead with the Ukrainian crisis.

That’s why we at the Global History Forum were delighted to sit down with Stella Ghervas, an expert of European history who is currently a visiting scholar at Harvard University’s Center for European Studies. Ghervas, who organized a major conference on the Congress of Vienna at Harvard in last April (and who is giving several papers on the topic this autumn), graciously took the time out to discuss how she came to write a book on post-Napoleonic Europe, as well as her current book project on the history of peace and peacemaking over the longue durée. Speaking with her this spring, the Global History Forum managed to cover several topics, from her personal journey to history, to her forthcoming projects.

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Excavating “The Last Empire”: Discussing Soviet History and Global History with Serhii Plokhii

Why did the Soviet Union collapse?

Since the USSR formally ceased to exist on December 26, scores of books have been written on the Soviet dissolution, an event that resulted in the creation of fifteen new states across Eurasia and that current Russian President Vladimir Putin famously called “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the twentieth century. In his new book, The Last Empire: The Final Days of the Soviet Union, Harvard professor Serhii Plokhii offers a definitive account of the end of the Soviet state.

Serhii Plokhii's latest book, "The Last Empire"
Serhii Plokhii’s latest book, “The Last Empire: The Final Days of the Soviet Union”

Based on research in archives in Russia, Ukraine, and the United States interviews with high-level officials, The Last Empire explores the decisions taken in Moscow, Washington, and various Soviet republics between 1989 and 1992 that led to the dissolution of the Soviet experiment. Standing at the center of his story are tensions between Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachëv and élites in the Ukrainian SSR. Already weakened by pressure from Russian President Boris Yeltsin and an abortive coup, Gorbachëv and his visions for a revitalized Soviet confederation were doomed by the decisive results of a December 1991 Ukrainian referendum in favor of independence.

The account of The Last Empire, published by Basic Books this May, might surprise to American readers, many of whom are led to believe that it was decisive action by U.S. President Ronald Reagan and his successor, George H.W. Bush, that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. But as Plokhii shows through exhaustive research–and interviews with important figures like Brent Scowcroft–the Soviet collapse arose far more due to internal Union dynamics than American foreign policy.

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Global History Forum: Discussing “Starvation and the State: Famine, Slavery, and Power in Sudan, 1883-1956” with Steven Serels

For most audiences today, the word “Sudan” evokes images at once terrorizing and timeless. Older readers may recall the images of emaciated bodies that television crews relayed from western and eastern Sudan during the great famines of the mid-1980s. Anyone reading today, however, will remember the outrage – but also lack of meaningful reaction – that the Sudanese government’s terror in the western region of Darfur evoked during the early 2000s. (Those wars, which then-Secretary of State Colin Powell called genocide, still continue.) According to these images, Sudan remains at once black, Arab, Muslim, poor, hungry; but also – crucially – in the present. Appalled by the horrors of famine and genocide, it is easy to forget to probe the past – a colonial past – to inquire after the structural roots of hunger and famine not as an accident but as an accomplishment of modern state-making. Moral outrage and a human rights-inflected imagination may be important, but it’s solid empirical history that furnishes an understanding of the roots of crises like those that plague – or define – Sudanese stateness.

That’s why the Global History Forum was delighted to sit down recently with Steven Serels, a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard University’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies and Weatherhead Initiative on Global History. Steven, whose first book, Starvation and the State: Famine, Slavery, and Power in Sudan, 1883-1956, was just published by Palgrave MacMillan in December 2013, graciously met with GHF to discuss his work, his future agenda, and – at the center of it all – Sudan and the broader region and even world order that the country fits into.

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