May 27, 2011

So what comes after the empire?

Tekin Alp (1883–1961) was an interesting figure of this era. He was one of the founders of Turkish nationalism and he gave a new meaning to the word "Turk", a national meaning. Starting as a supporter of Ottomanism as many other people of Thessaloniki, he then moved on to support Turkish nationalism and Pan-Turkism and after 1923 and the founding of the modern state of Turkey he became an advocate of Kemalism. As Mazower notes however, this strong advocate of Turkish nationalism was born to a Jewish family in Serres and attended the school of Alliance Israélite Universelle in Salonika. Before he changed his name he was called Moiz Cohen and he wanted to become a Rabbi. Tekin Alp is an example of how Jews chose to define their political identities in an era when the future was vague, when the model of the empire seemed to crumble and an osmosis of ideas and processes was taking place in the Balkans.

Different visions of what could replace (or reshape) the weak and shrinking empire were emerging in Salonika. The nationalism of the newly created states of the Balkan had turned its gaze on the city and each country hoped to include it in its borders. The Jews of Salonika, caught up in the turmoil, were advocating various ideas. Many were seeing the idea of Ottomanism (an empire based on a constitution that would secure equality for all the different communities) as a better solution than the prospect of living in a Bulgarian or Greek state characterized by a nationalistic agenda that left little place for them. Others (fewer) were also favouring Zionism and a great number of workers were united under a socialistic vision for a multi-ethnic socialist empire. In fact, as Mazower points out, this internationalist vision of the workers became one of the main political expressions of the Jewish community of Salonika in the beginnings of the 20th century.

Reading about this era of uncertainty and turmoil I was mostly impressed by all these competing ideas and visions for what could come after the empire. I tried to imagine myself in a city where the people did not know if in a few days they will be living in a Bulgarian state, a Serbian or a Greek or if something different will emerge. Today, more or less, we live with this certainty of the Greek state and the borders. I am not arguing that it is not a time of uncertainties and a vague future, however, in terms of political identities, nation-states seem to be strongly rooted in Europe and the world.

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