The Interview | With Mark Mazower

Imperialism and the birth of the UN

By Anna Mundow
Globe Correspondent / November 1, 2009

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Mark Mazower’s groundbreaking books include “Hitler’s Empire: How the Nazis Ruled Europe,’’ “Salonica, City of Ghosts: Christians, Muslims and Jews, 1430-1950’’ and “Dark Continent: Europe’s Twentieth Century.’’ By contrast, “No Enchanted Palace: The End of Empire and the Ideological Origins of the United Nations’’ is a slim yet provocative volume that reveals the UN’s origins in colonial imperialism, its early development and the role of influential figures such as South African Premier Jan Smuts and theorists of interwar internationalism such as Alfred Zimmern.

Mazower, who is a professor of history and world order studies at Columbia University, spoke while on sabbatical in London.

Q. What is the connection between this book and your previous work?

A.Well, “Dark Continent’’ examined that moment of ideological choice when the Nazis developed their vision of what the world might become and forced their opponents to [consider their own vision]. I’ve always been interested in that “conversation’’ with the Nazis about how the world should be organized and my interest in the UN emerges out of that. Of course, since 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq, there have been repeated discussions about the uses of the UN. This book is a first stab at answering the question - for myself really - of what the UN is or could be. To do that, you must examine its origins.

Q. Does the UN - like many of its member states - have its own founding myth?

A. Clearly it has a whopping great founding myth. So much of the debate about reform of the UN cites its originating ideals yet there is very little analysis that sets these in their historical context.

Q. What is that myth?

A. That in 1945 a new age was declared of human rights and international law in which international matters would be adjudicated not on the basis of power but rather on the basis of rights and of the values enshrined in the UN Charter.

Q. And the more accurate version?

A. Ideals were involved, but an organization like the UN emerged chiefly as a result of an agreement among the great powers led at that time by Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin. They concluded that the founding of a world organization was in the interests of their respective states. One should ask why they concluded this and then set those reasons alongside the idealism.

Q. Are you also describing a UN that moves from colonialism to nationalism?

A. In many ways, yes. It’s similar to the form of the League of Nations with a few modifications. And the league was an expression of empire as articulated by a group of British imperial theorists - mostly from places like South Africa - who acknowledged the presence of nationalism on one hand and the desirability of internationalism on the other. The British Commonwealth was their attempt to combine nationalism and internationalism, and the League of Nations was for them another version of commonwealth.

Q. Was their view of nationalism naive?

A. Not entirely. Men like Smuts and Zimmern believed that people need to form communities and asked how those communities could be prevented from going to war. They believed ultimately that war would be prevented by a change in consciousness, in the human spirit. In the meantime you need an organization, but their attitude to that organization was always ambivalent.

Q. Don’t we hear similar sentiments today?

A. Certainly. We have humanitarian interventionists who are rather reminiscent of Zimmern and Smuts and who believe in the emancipation of the human spirit, if necessary through the agency of the United States this time, not the British Empire. I wanted to show that there’s a history to this way of thinking, a history that might give you pause. It’s a form of moralizing that conceals its connection to power. I specialize in modern Greece and when you see the world from the perspective of a small country where people are constantly intervening you develop a different attitude.

Q. You write of postwar Europe: “What the . . . Nazis had called for in the 1930s, the Allies now promoted . . . ’’ Explain.

A. I describe the early 1940s and this conversation between the Nazis and their opponents about how the world should be. Nationalism is at the heart of this, of course. The more theoretically minded Nazis declared that they too had a vision of peace in Europe. What would bring peace was the eradication of minorities. Among their opponents, the debate became should the UN reproduce the league’s minority rights regime? The resounding answer was no. Why? Because it obliges you to protect dissenting groups who stir up trouble. Who were the biggest minority in pre-war Europe? The Germans. And look what happened. So the general view of the UN’s founders was that minority rights be shelved in favor of ethnically homogenous states. This might be a solution to Europe’s - and the world’s - problems. The Jews, for example, could have a state of their own, and Jewish groups were at the heart of this debate.

Q. How significant for the UN was the founding of Israel?

A. You can look at it two ways. You can say that this was the moment in which the UN ratified a colonial settler state in the Middle East. Or you could say this was the moment in which the UN made it clear that it believed in national self-determination outside Europe. At the time, however, the role of the UN in South and North Africa would have been seen as more significant. It showed that the UN - originally conceived in the mold of imperial internationalism - soon helped bring empires down. This book ends there, but the UN would continue to change, leaving the intentions of its founders far behind.

Anna Mundow, a freelance journalist living in Central Massachusetts, is a correspondent for the Irish Times. She can be reached by e-mail at ama1668@hotmail .com.

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