Histories of the Big and Small: An Interview with Mark Mazower

Mark Mazower, Columbia University

As the discipline of history continues to expand beyond the powerful few, historians face the challenges that come with trying to uncover and illuminate the experiences of the powerless. The great upheavals of the twentieth century affected millions of people around the globe, but history’s traditional tools seem insufficient in the face of so many tangled stories. Addressing this problem requires a re-examination of the role of place, people, and power in the telling of history.

In What You Did Not Tell: A Russian Past and the Journey Home (New York: Other Press, 2017), Mark Mazower, Professor of History at Columbia University, delves into the history of his own family, exploring his father’s and grandfather’s paths through the turbulent twentieth century. In the course of this exploration, Mazower touches on questions of identity and place, expanding on similar themes developed in his work on the history of Greece, Europe, and the world in the twentieth century.

Here, Mark Mazower discusses the experience of telling a personal narrative in a historical context, the struggles and opportunities presented by writing history with a focus on nations and people outside of the immediate center of power, and the importance of revisiting early twentieth-century political discussions in our current moment.

Natalie Behrends (New York University)

NATALIE BEHRENDS: What place do you think that personal or semi-personal narratives have in the writing of history? What You Did Not Tell is obviously a very personal story, but the rest of your work not so much. Do you feel the personal narratives expressed in What You Did Not Tell have affected your other, less explicitly personal work?

MARK MAZOWER: That’s an interesting question. You know, I was taught at school to avoid the first-person singular, and in a sense we all teach people to do that, and I think with some reason. But as soon as you start reflecting on what you write, you start to see your own personal story in what you write whether it’s evident to other people or not. And whether you like it or not, it’s stronger than you are. Hopefully, what you write in the serious history is more than just an expression of your personal life circumstances, otherwise everybody could be a historian. But it’s there. Now, the book that I wrote about my father’s family, I didn’t see that in the same way as what I do for my day job. The impulse for that was really quite different. The impulse for the books that I write professionally is to be part of a public conversation, and to be part of an intellectual and an academic conversation, and they’re written for that audience, and to appeal to that audience, or different bits of that audience. But this was really just written for my family in the first instance. Yes, there was a hope that if it was written well enough it might interest other people. But it remains a slight mystery to me that anybody else should really be interested in it—a delightful mystery. Having said that, it’s a personal narrative of somebody who happens to be a historian, and that probably gives it a certain quality.

BEHRENDS: Something that struck me about the book is the way that identities—Jewishness, Englishness, Bundism, family ties—seem extremely flexible, extremely mutable. You describe Max Mazower’s transition from Russian Bundist to English businessman, and you have this juxtaposition with your father’s half-brother shedding his identity as a Jewish émigré. What part did these questions of identity play when you were constructing the story, and did your understanding of them change as you were writing the book?

MAZOWER: I certainly felt by the end of the book that our professional way of handling these concepts is unbelievably clunky. Once you try to apply them to all the subtleties of your own family, they start seeming really ill-shapen. But I think even more than most books, this was not a book that was written to answer some abstract questions. It was written with some pretty primal impulses in mind. One was to explain to my children the family that they’d come from on my father’s side, and the reason for doing that was that in many ways—let’s bring moral judgement into it—I thought this was a rather admirable family, and I thought my father was an admirable man. And, more than that, I thought he was fundamentally a contented man. That gets you into more interesting terrain, because it takes you out of the contemporary obsession with families as the product and expression and continuation of traumas, and overcoming suffering, into a much older literature about the sources of human happiness. That’s a literature that has a very venerable history. It concerned the Greeks and the Romans, for instance, a great deal. For weird reasons, it doesn’t seem to concern the literary public today in the same way, but it interested me. In order to answer that question–why he was happy, if indeed he was happy–you need to understand the family dynamics. Because, as in most families, he popped out the product of all kinds of pressures and reactions and counter-reactions to all the other people he was rubbing up against as a kid, so that to tell his story was to tell the story of his siblings and to tell the story of his parents, which was both a historical and a personal, psychological story. Now, retrospectively you could try to fit all that into an argument about identity, but that would be after the fact. As it happens, they were obsessed with labels and had to be for the reason we are: we live in an age obsessed with labels. But you’re coming at it from this other angle, you see. I don’t know if that makes any sense.

BEHRENDS: So you see this project as part of an older literary tradition than perhaps the rest of your work?

MAZOWER: The question was an old question, it was a question that Aristotle would ask, that the Greeks would ask: what makes a happy man? And then the historian’s question is, how does living through this century of unbelievable turbulence create the possibility for contentment? Happiness is a very strong term, and perhaps contentment is a better term because it suggests a kind of equilibrium, and not everybody in his family could achieve that, or wanted to achieve that. But I think he did. And I think that the elements were in place by the time he was twenty or twenty-five. In a way, it was a story about his pre-history as well, really, not even so much about him, certainly not about him after that age.

BEHRENDS: You mentioned that we also live in an age that’s obsessed with labels. Do you feel that your father and grandfather lived in a different age than we do now?

MAZOWER: Well, in some ways they lived in an age of possibility, and political possibility –  that was a big subtheme through this –  and so to be a political actor and to be a citizen was something in their reach. That’s an open question today. In fact, I think we mostly feel on the other side of that. So absolutely, theirs was an age in which it was possible to feel optimistic about the role of the state, an age in which you could be shocked by things that no longer shock us, which is not even to mention the obvious differences –  in communications, in the technological aspects of existence. But then it was also pretty useful to be reminded that it wasn’t so different in some interesting ways: how fast you could communicate with people. Not as fast as today, but a lot faster than you’d think. I think in the important ways, in the political ways, in ways of constructing forms of social mobility, it was pretty different, yes. And I suppose the reason that I wanted to write this was that I had grown up at the very tail end of that, and it was not foreign to me, but that anybody born in the new century would have great difficulty figuring out what it had all been about.

BEHRENDS: That reminds me of something you wrote in your 1997 Daedalus article on minorities and the League of Nations, that thinking on minority rights had to start from scratch in the 1990s. With the refugee crisis, migration crises, the way the world has changed since 1997, do you still think that’s true?

MAZOWER: I think that it’s true in the sense that after the wars in Yugoslavia erupted and the world woke up to the problem of minority rights, they had completely lost touch with the discourse. But the fact is that there had been this very searching earlier debate and actually one of the places it started was in the Bund. So the book became a way of saying, look back into some of those early internal Marxist debates, and how the combination of the theorizing and the practical experience around the First World War produced people in the twenties and thirties who had massive insights into these questions, against the backdrop of the League and its minority concerns. And then everybody sort of forgot about it after the Second World War. Well, it’s worth taking another look, I think.

BEHRENDS: In Governing the World (New York: Penguin Random House, 2013), you talked about a similar historical moment but through a very different lens, the history of an idea versus the history of a family. Do you think that the books have anything to say to each other? Does What You Did Not Tell challenge or expand on anything from Governing the World?

MAZOWER: I think the thing I felt I had been very interested for a long time were the issues that were raised in the Governing the World book, and that’s partially a result of my own personal professional story, which is that very early on, before I really had much experience teaching history, I spent some years teaching International Relations. And so how you reconcile the two, and the two sets of concerns, has interested me since then. That set of questions–taking international institutions and taking the international seriously–had concerned me for a really long time and yet although it was fascinating, it can also start to feel very disembodied, and  very de-territorialized. And I think it’s an issue for even the most interesting work that’s being done now in international history, that you can sort of flit from conference to conference and international body to international body, and you never land anywhere. And how this actually plays out on the ground, and how much of what actually plays out on the ground was actually the product of all this other stuff up there in the clouds, is never really resolved. The Governing the World book left me with the feeling that I wanted to do something that was rooted in place, and allowed you to think historically about place. That was the way that the book about my family reacted and came out of the other one.

BEHRENDS: That sense of place is something that I got a very strong sense of in What You Did Not Tell: your descriptions of your family house, different cities, even of places like Vilna. This is also a theme in some of your other works Salonica, the Danube island of Ada Kaleh. What role do you think place has in these broad international histories?

MAZOWER: I started off and I continue to be basically a historian of modern Greece. I really do think that you can’t understand modern Europe seriously–and no doubt the rest of the world, but I’ll speak for Europe–unless you know about a particular place in some detail. Unless you speak the language, unless you’ve been there, unless you’ve walked it a bit. Unless you have the aspiration to do that. Because place matters to people. And there are things that you can know about a place that, you know, life is too short to know about ten places, but you can know in some depth about one. This was one of the reasons I’ve always returned to writing about Greece when I can, because of that. On the other hand, in writing about Greece one has to constantly ask oneself—who the hell cares about Greece, most of the time? Outside the country, almost nobody. If you’re teaching in a history department they want to know about European history and not about modern Greece, and as a result when you specialise in a very small country you get used to teaching general surveys  at a much larger level. And actually, then to think about those larger issues and have in your mind the perspective of the small place turns out to be really helpful. I think when you do international history and you come at it having come out of the experience of writing about Greece, or writing about Egypt, or writing about Hungary, it’s a completely different thing from when you come at it from having written the history of the United States or Germany, right? There is no possibility of your mistaking the part for the whole.

BEHRENDS: So it’s about drawing out a broad story from a very specific place?

MAZOWER: Well, it makes you aware of powerlessness, for one thing. And that’s a pretty important consideration to bear in mind when you’re telling larger stories. And it makes you aware of the arbitrariness of categories. Historians of Greece have been wrestling forever with the idea of whether there really ever was any class system in Greece whereas by and large the German or American historian started with the assumption that there were, and then let it run. You could never make that assumption in a country where the social composition was so different from the start, where there was never much in the way of manufacturing. The result of this is that you would interrogate categories from the start. In those ways writing the history of small, insignificant countries is much better discipline than starting out writing the history of big ones.

BEHRENDS: It’s a question of tools.

MAZOWER: Yes, and there are people who do this brilliantly, I mean, Holly Case at Cornell, she’s just a brilliant example of how you make the small country predicament your subject, actually.

BEHRENDS: What are you reading currently?

MAZOWER: I just finished the memoir The Hare With the Amber Eyes, by Edmund De Waal, which I enjoyed a lot. He’s a very interesting writer, I think. You know, everybody writing this kind of book wrestles with the question of contextualization. You have the family and you have the context. Do you use the family to illuminate the context, or do you contextualize the family story? And I’ve given a lot of thought to this, and I gave a lot of thought to it in that book, and wanted very much not to do whole swathes of background context. De Waal approaches it in a very interesting way as well–from a very different social perspective, because his characters are elite, at the heart of things and when your characters are at the heart of things, then it allows you to contextualize fairly smoothly. So you’re on the building on the Ring in Vienna that’s owned by the family and you see the parade walking past–you don’t have to pretend you’re at the center of Vienna, the whole chapter is at the center of Vienna, you see what I mean? The character in the first part of the book who’s a friend and patron of Proust, he just is, so you’re right there in the middle of it. But he does it very adroitly.

BEHRENDS: Do you feel that it presented a particular challenge for you to draw out the story of people who weren’t at the center of things?

MAZOWER: It requires you to think about the context problem in a different way. I didn’t want it to suddenly look as though the people I was writing about were at the center of things. This was all about not being at the center, about life in a suburb, about life in exile, about trying to fit in, it was all about that. It was all about second and third and fourth-tier individuals, if you’re going to think about it from an intellectual point, who nevertheless have their own kind of fascination. It was also a lot more than I realized it would be about serendipity. Who would have thought that X knew Y knew Z in that godforsaken little bit of north London? Conveying the sheer fascination and delight of uncovering these networks was important, because they allow you to think, well, what other networks might there be? I’ve been quite interested since then in the idea of mapping émigré communities. You might follow the Menshevik emigration to London, Paris, and New York, you might follow the Bundist emigration. Well, where actually did they live? And who was round the block from whom? And then you would start to understand a lot about the present, because a lot of these networks survived in extraordinary ways up until now, without anybody realizing that that’s what they were.

BEHRENDS: Why do you think networks like this have gone unexplored for so long?

MAZOWER: Well, they are the detritus, the aftermath of great events and not necessarily the originators of them. So you have to be interested in fallout. There are lots of good reasons to be interested in this, above all because it might allow you to make connections between things that you never thought might be connected. To give you an example from the book: a family called the Broidos. Who would have thought that the first serious historian of pop music [Vera Broido’s son] was connected to the first serious study of millenarianism [her husband], and was connected not only to Menshevism but also to Raoul Hausmann [her lover], and Dada and the Surrealists? Once you see the connections in this network, actually it makes a weird kind of sense. And lots of things that you never thought were of interest to historians turn out to be kind of interesting, like the intellectual origins of the history of rock music, about which I’ve never seen anybody write. It was following that network that raised that as a subject.

BEHRENDS: The stories that you’ve told seem to lead in very spidery directions.

MAZOWER: They do.

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